Missionaries Through the Back Door

"Weaving a Global Neighborhood with Rick Steves," by Tim Frakes.

Behind the camera in Papua New Guinea

By Rick Steves

Squinting through the rising dust and a commotion of thirty proud, topless dancing girls, there I was...on church business. Let me explain.

I spent a week in September 1997 in Papua New Guinea making a video for the Lutheran church. We had two goals: 1) to highlight the Lutheran program of matching church districts — like sister cities — between developed and developing countries, and 2) to help Christians understand that "Love one another" is a command, loud and clear, to think and act globally.

My dad's concerns about headhunters and malaria didn't trouble me. But when we landed in Papua New Guinea and the flight crew bid us farewell not with the usual cheery chorus of "Bye now," but with "Be careful," "Good luck," and "Travel safely," it became clear, this would be an adventure.

On an Air Niugini prop jet we connected to Goroka, a small town wrapped around a jungle airstrip. Locals hanging from chicken wire fences stared as we left our plane. By the end of the day, I was settled into my Goroka guesthouse and comfortably immersed in PNG.

PNG's few tourists generally stick to the dusty capital of Port Moresby (200,000 people) and a few beach resorts. We spent most of our time in the bush where 80% of the country's population lives. Major towns are small and simple. The new stoplight, misplaced not quite at Goroka's main intersection, is a local attraction.

Goroka is a main town in the highlands, the part of PNG discovered by the outside world only in our generation. In an annual flexing of tribal muscles, countless clans send dancing groups to the Goroka cultural festival every September. The rugby field seethes with heavily greased and painted troupes. With wild boar tusks hanging from noses, pendulous earlobes swinging chains of tree kangaroo teeth, and the rustle of thrusting grass skirts, it's a spear-chuckers' moshpit. Each group, like hyperactive Benettons of tropical birds, danced around a leader's cardboard sign declaring the clan's village name. About 500 dancers performed more for each other than for the hundred local onlookers.

Having filmed the country's grandest "display of culture," we headed for the bush where locals were dressed in the actual national costume — secondhand western clothes. Middlemen buy used clothes in 100-pound bushels (mixed shirts — $10, and so on) and trade them in the bush.

Much of the traditional barter economy survives and there's little a tourist would want to spend money on other than the overpriced Western-style hotels. Souvenirs are limited to tribal masks, necklaces of teeth and shells, and tote bags called bilums. These colorfully woven bags — which hang from a strap around your forehead or over your shoulder — are the national luggage, used for carrying everything from coconuts to babies.

The local cuisine, hearty and simple, seems aimed at your stomach rather than your palate. In a forest of palm trees, we attended a village mumu, basically a PNG luau. Chicken, yams, carrots and bananas were wrapped in banana leaves and buried with hot rocks. When unearthed after a few hours, a wonderfully tasty and piping hot meal was divvied up on steamy banana leaves. Kai kai is eating. Kukurook is the onomonopoetic word for chicken, and kau kau is yam. We kai kai kukurook and kau kau at a mumu.

Dessert is betel nut, the PNG national drug. Locals rip off the husk of the acorn-sized nut and chew it up with a bite of pepper bean and a dip of powdered seashells. When mashed together, this mush turns bright red and causes you to salivate wildly.

Swallowing, which is the betel nut equivalent of inhaling, gives you a buzz like chewing tobacco. It's so common among men, women and children throughout southeast Asia that there are "no chewing zones" in airports, hospitals and some restaurants. Roads everywhere are speckled with red spittle and most locals are stained with "PNG lipstick." With coaxing from a young tattooed woman who looked like she was chewing red crayons, I tried it. My saliva gland became a drippy faucet as a puddle grew at my feet.

After a good rinse, we hiked deeper into the jungle. Crossing a rope bridge, we encountered three hunters. After playfully chasing me in a jungle version of Keystone Cops, they gave me an archery lesson. I purchased an assortment of three arrows: one tipped by a shard of bamboo, one with four needle-like prongs, and a third with mean-looking barbs. Taking 6 kina ($4), my loin-clothed teacher lightly fingered each tip: "Pig...pigeon...man."

Independent from Australia only since 1975, Papua New Guinea is a diverse country — about the size of Arizona — with 800 tribal languages. A new national language, one of the youngest on Earth, was developed after WWII. Pidgin has 1,500 words mixing indigenous, German and English sounds. It's fun to learn — but easy to start sounding like Tonto. "No savvy" actually means "I don't understand." "Prostitute" is "tukinamary" (two dollar woman). "Lukim yu behin" (like "look 'em you behind") is "See you later."

If you leave your heart in PNG, it'll be in the village-studded bush — where this land's rich community life thrives.

Wantoks bind these communities. Wantok literally means "one who speaks my language." But in practice it means "one who looks out for me." Because of the strength of the wantok system, there are no orphans and no concerns about old-age security. And while the Il Nino drought in neighboring Irian Jaya (ruled by Indonesia) starved thousands, it left PNG parched but not as hungry. Land ownership is widely dispersed. People share. There's no clawing to get ahead. "Upwardly mobile" need be no more than a kid scooting up a palm tree for a coconut.

People know each other intimately. In the morning a villager can step out of his house and identify who walked by during the night by the footprints in the sand.

There's a oneness with nature as well as each other. Their architecture, borrowed directly from nature, looks like camouflage: poles for studs, woven walls, thatched roofs, and dirt floors. The core of a typical village has a school, church, clinic, and sports field. Surrounding that are the homes — often elevated on stilts to escape some of the heat and bugs — and lush, carefully-tended fields.

PNG's GNP works out to roughly $3 a day. It has about the same total wealth as Haiti but no squalor. While a wander through Haiti is a downer, PNG is an upper.

While it's easy to romanticize life in PNG, a closer look shows a paradise with problems: the downside of wantok is paybacks and revenge. If a man is arrested, wantoks may mug or kill the policeman who arrested their companion. Village leaders, called "Big men," wield huge amounts of authority. By finessing a pyramid of IOU's through gift-giving, they insure their positions as power brokers of the community.

Originally, "rascals" were innocuous street ruffians. With the beginnings of urbanization, rascals have become criminals. Travelers hear frightening stories of the European tour bus that was robbed — its occupants, stripped of everything, hiked back to Goroka clothed only in leaves. Or the cruise ship met by locals in canoes — "Oh look, dear, the natives are coming to welcome us..." — who attacked the ship.

Gandhi-like elders munch a shish kebab of fat grubs, one chewy morsel at a time. Marriages are still arranged. High bride prices cause men to believe marriage is ownership. And one tribe still requires the groom to sleep with the mother-in-law-to-be before the wedding night. Papua New Guinea appalls many tourists. But educated locals can defend these customs to any American open-minded enough to listen.

Ninety percent of PNG is Christian. The village pastor thumps the hollowed-out tree trunk, calling the community to worship. The thatched bush church is filled with the heartfelt but exotic drone of hymns...like oboes and string basses, the men and women make a mesmerizing wall of sound. A pastor explained that the seed of Christianity came from the Middle East, but its fruits here are purely local.

These days church workers from the rich world don't come to force Amazing Grace. Modern missionaries understand why Papua New Guineans wouldn't trade passports. Regardless of material wealth, life in PNG seems fueled by a sense of abundance, while life in rich countries seems chased by a fear of scarcity. Missionaries don't try to "fix" PNG. They work with locals to find out what they need, then help it happen.

The ongoing debate rages between missionaries and anthropologists: development versus isolation. Anthropologists find PNG a fascinating tidepool of cultural diversity which shouldn't be touched. Church workers see modernization as inevitable and know it can be either constructive or destructive.

I spent a day with Dr. Mamy from Madagascar. Running a bush hospital, he's serving in a new "south/south" missionary program which matches skilled people and developing societies within the southern hemisphere. Witnessing the hurts and happiness as Dr. Mamy made his rounds — treating tropical skin ulcers, training midwives, and chatting with patients dropping by a live chicken of thanks — it's clear we're part of one big family.

The children who skipped rocks into the Pacific with me, the woman who ripped the tusk from my betel nut with her red teeth, and the old man who taught me to notch the arrow are my brothers and sisters.

Lutheran churches throughout the US use this 30-minute "Weaving a Global Neighborhood" video in their adult education hours. For your own copy, contact the ELCA.