I thought that I heard singing in the distance, but I couldn’t be sure, so I walked towards the sound.
I was at Ukarumpa, a “gathered colony,” (to use missiologist Donald McGavran’s term) where several hundred missionaries lived in a fenced-in compound in Papua New Guinea.
Soon I came to a gated entrance—or exit, as the case might be, but now abandoned, chained and padlocked. A guard was stationed there, so I asked him the occasion for the “songs.” “Nogut yu kolim singsing, o bai ol i belhot,” he explained in Tok Pisin. (“Don’t call it a dance, or they will be angry.”} Ol i save krai i stap.” (“They are in mourning.”) I knew then that a funeral dirge was in session and learned later that the father of an employee had died. I decided to visit the village later.
After several hours I was back on my way to the village, only a 15 to 20 minute walk from the house where we are staying. The gate had now been unlocked for visitors like me, who wished to exit the compound, cross the Ba’e River on a bridge built in 1978, now a precarious exercise over rotting timbers and steel beams.
The village was much as I remembered it: houses in various states of disrepair, some with grass roofs, others with “iron” roofs, sometimes only partly covered. Some car bodies were near the “workshop,” owned by the main businessman in the village. Pigs and refuse provided a familiar smell. Although it was coffee season, there were no large mounds of rotting coffee bean husks that could add to the aroma. Several fences existed around some of the houses, obviously not to keep the pigs out.
I could hear the wailing more loudly as I walked towards the source and I did not like what I heard. It reminded me of countless similar death wails that we had endured while living for 15 years in the Southern Highlands. People would smear mud and clay on their bodies; men would pluck out their hair and beards and swat their bodies with a stinging nettle. Some women would even lop off finger joints to show their extreme sorrow. “Yes,” I mused, “And I will never forget the time when…” My mind trailed off to the first village where we once worked and a woman wanted me to repair her mangled finger after she had failed to lop off a joint properly. As I was preparing the bandages and ointments I heard another woman reprimanding her: “You didn’t do it right,” she said. “You put it on a piece of wood, hit it [with a stone axe] on the one side, then turn it over and do it again. Then stick the finger between your teeth and it will snap right off.”
The wailing was close and loud now, awakening me from my hideous finger loping thoughts. I followed the noise to a long temporary shack, shaped like a Quonset hut, but made out of bamboo and with a large blue tarp over it. Inside and at the front was the body of the deceased, with mourners around it, with other onlookers and participants sitting along the sides of the hut. Near the entrance to the mourner’s hut there were stalks of bananas tied to trees as well as sugar cane stacked up. It looked like the people were preparing for a party.
I went inside the tent-like structure, shook hands with a few men and watched silently. A large group of mourners, covered in mud, some men with bows and arrows, were rocking back and forth as they wailed and cried. Periodically some would leave and others would take their places.
After a while, a woman who recognized me came over to shake my hand. “Is Samonke here?” I enquired, naming an old friend who once worked for us. “He is outside, come with me.” She took me to a near-by small temporary and yet unfinished dwelling that an old man was creating. “Samonke,” she said, “Pren bilong yu i stap.” (“Samonke, a friend of yours is here.”) Samonke recognized me at once and gave me a long and hard bear hug. What hair he had left was white, as was his week-old growth of beard. His teeth were stained red and brown from chewing betel nut, but he had the same warm smile that I remembered.
We chatted for some time and then I gave him some money for the family of the deceased. “Em i gutpela,” he said, “olsem Pasta i bin makim mi long bungim ol moni long pati bilong famili.” (“That’s good, because the Pastor has appointed me to look after the money for the party for the family.”) The party, of course, was the funeral feast that would follow the burial. Samonke was preparing a temporary shelter where some of the food would be cooked.
Samonke told me what a wonderful Christian the deceased had been, but now the “man antap i bin singaut long em.” (“The man upstairs had called him home,” to mix some metaphors.) We compared some further notes about our families and I departed. Samonke promised to come and visit me.
I shook hands with a few more men and then spotted the local pastor, one whom I knew well. We visited casually and then I asked about the deceased. O, em i bin i stap Kristen, tasol i stap bekslait planti yia. Nau tasol em i tanim bel gen.” (“Oh, he has been a Christian, but he has been backslidden for several years. Just recently he repented again.”) “Same man,” I wondered, but then pastors probably have a more realistic view of one’s spiritual nature than money collectors.
I left the wailing scene with many memories, but one thing is certain: I still don’t like dirges and I never will. There are too many frantic people crying incessantly, refusing to be comforted because many of them do not know the God of peace and comfort. In a day or two there will be a “party,” a time of eating and hoping—for some people—that the spirit of the deceased will not cause any future mischief. They will treat his body with care, trusting that his spirit will stay calm. Over in the compound we are more certain—no one has ever seen a malevolent spirit on our side of the fence.