In spite of our time at “jungle camp,” culture shock continued in Ukarumpa. We had to adjust to meeting people with every kind of accent, from Swiss to Korean, hearing broad banana leaves clapping in the wind one minute and the sighing of pine trees the next, shopping in the open market and remembering to always carry an umbrella for protection against sun as well as rain.
The first morning I approached the market I heard a loud voice and my heart skipped a beat or two. As I got closer I was able to make out words like "Bikpela God" and realized someone was preaching. Everyone listened attentively and bowing their heads in prayer when he finished, then rang a bell declaring the market open. I said a quick prayer myself, before milling among the people, being careful not to step over any food or touch anything before I bought it, two of the taboos we had learned. I was extremely grateful for the Pidgin classes, which enabled me at least to ask, “Em wannem samting?” (What is this?) and “Em i hamas?” (How much?) It was obvious, however, that the people spoke pidgin at a more rapid rate and with a different inflection than the Dutch teacher who taught us the grammar.
As the days stretched into weeks, activities like going to market became routine. I managed to engage in a bit of intelligible Pidgin conversation and gradually began to relax. I discovered many of the people came to the market from faraway villages, often waking at 4:00 a.m. to get to Ukarumpa in time. Then they travel the 7 km. by PMV (public motor vehicle), which could be anything from a jeep to a dump truck, to the nearest town, Kainantu, where they would continue to sell their produce. Kainantu is a conglomeration of tin buildings and clapboard houses, its streets crowded, especially on fortnight Fridays (payday) with Bouai chewing men, chickens, kids and the odd pig or two shepherded by wary women.
The women carry their vegetables, fruits and even babies in bilums, (brightly coloured string bags they weave themselves), placing the long woven strap on their foreheads, the heavy bag resting on their backs. It's common to see a woman carrying 30 kilograms or more, often with a small child on her shoulders or hip as well.
The men carry artifacts. Their basketry is beautiful, as is their carving on bamboo. There are always bows and arrows to be had, as well as black-stained pukpuks (carved crocodiles) with cowrie shell eyes. One day I was able to buy a well used Kundu - a tall hour-glass shaped drum carved out of wood with a snake or animal skin bound with vines on one end. I’d seen the Kundu used often at the Sing-sings – a raucous festival-like event where people gather from miles around in full regalia of feathers and paint to dance the stories and rituals of their lives.
As my language skills increased, so did my appreciation for the highlands people. Though they were at first reserved and unsure, I was able to establish relationships. The women are remarkable for their strength, not only of body but also of spirit, bearing hardships with both stamina and an unquenchable hope. These qualities have stood them in good stead in a society that is unpredictable, often violent, in a country where the infant mortality rate is more than 50% and adult life expectancy is relatively short. Their lives are hard but their souls are not embittered.
In that one year in Papua New Guinea, we were privileged to see and be part of a process that is having a positive impact. We met children and adults who are learning to read and write in their own language, because of S.I.L.’s efforts. We spoke with young people who have hope of going on to study in English and perhaps even attend one of the country’s few high schools. We saw healthy children and knew the medical assistance was making a life and death difference. In a world full of tragedy and heartbreaking despair, our year in Papua New Guinea was a year of realizing there is hope, a hope kept alive by people who truly believe “greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”