Nemola Ropasi lived in the village of Usa, in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, when I first met him. We were about the same age. He was a leader in his village, belonged to the Nemola clan, and was an enthusiastic supporter of our language work in his village.
My wife and I had lived in the East Kewa village of Muli for five years and I was known as “Muli Kalo”. We had decided to pursue language studies and translation work in West Kewa so that my dissertation research would be different from what we had already done in East Kewa.
I first visited the village of Usa in 1967. A church had been established by the Lutheran missionary working out of Wabi, about eight miles south of Usa. The missionary there, Rev. Norman Imbrock, invited us to the area and introduced me to the church leaders, including Ropasi.
Ropasi and his one wife had five of their own children and an adopted one. Their house was about 25 yards or so from ours so we saw them often. During our residency in Usa in 1967-1968, my wife Joice developed primers and began literacy classes. We had adapted the orthography from the one we had already used in East Kewa. Ropasi, then almost 40, was one of our first students. Even while we were studying and away in Australia he continued to attend classes taught by his nephew Kirapeasi. He never learned to read well but was enthusiastic and encouraged other men (at the time women were not allowed) to attend the literacy classes, even traditional enemies from a fairly distant village.
I would often have Ropasi comment on the Scriptures that my assistants and I had translated. He loved to do this and even when he was very sick he was attentive and helpful. Once, when listening to chapter five in the book of Galations, he stopped me. I had been reading Paul’s description of what the Galation people used to be like: immoral, filthy, indecent, idol worshippers, sorcerers, jealous, angry, ambitions, having orgies, getting drunk and so on. “Karl, wait!” he said. “Didn’t you tell me that Paul lived many years ago and that the Bible is very old?” “Yes,” I said, wondering what he was getting at. “Then, how did Paul know what we were like?”
The words and expressions we had used to describe the sin of the Galations struck Ropasi as the very things that plagued the Kewa people in his village. Of course I went on to tell the rest of the story—how the Spirit of God now works in believers to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. These are abstract concepts and have to be spelled out. People who love have their stomachs full of happiness; joyful people say good things with their throats and are happy; patient people live “slowly”, that is, they don’t get excited quickly and without reason; kind people do good things and have a type of sadness that is helpful; and so on. Ropasi loved to hear the Scriptures read—the words made his “liver stand up” and he would be excited and motivated.
Another little story will show the kind of man Ropasi was. We had a rich visitor that came to our village, accompanied by a leader of our mission. The man was altruistic, benevolent and wanted to be friendly. He asked me if he could meet the village “chief” so I had the men call out for Ropasi. Our visitor, call him Rex, said to me “Ask him what he would like if he could have anything that he wanted.” I translated the sentence into Kewa and Ropasi thought for a minute, then replied: “Tell him that I have a question for him.” This I did but I don’t think Rex was ready for the question. “Ask him,” Ropasi said, “what he thinks of me. I don’t have a shirt, only a bark belt, net apron and leaves—what does he think of me?” I translated somewhat hesitatingly, not sure where we were going. Rex was perplexed. “Tell him that I don’t care about his clothing—I want to know what he is like inside.” Ropasi listened then quietly replied, “That is what I want to know about you too—what are you like inside?” End of conversation but not the end of the story. My mission friend and leader told me that the question Ropasi asked was influential in a decision Rex made later to follow God’s path.
I prized the wisdom and words of Ropasi and I wish I could say that we were friends for many more years. Unfortunately, in 1972 Ropasi contracted hepatitis and became very ill. A church building dedication was on and he took part, although he probably should not have. Soon afterward he developed a fever and went into a coma, so we had him brought to our house for the night. He was delirious and scared our young daughter so much that we had her and my wife sleep in the literacy house. I stayed up with him most of the night with some other men. Others wandered around outside the house, silently in the hope that Ropasi would recover.
The next day I rode my motorcycle to the closest hospital at Kagua, 15 miles away and persuaded the authorities to send a vehicle for Ropasi. But Ropasi was not doing well. Two days later I went to the hospital and found Ropasi in a chair outside the hospital, in the sun. He was not responsive although the medical staff thought he would pull through.
Two days later we heard a vehicle approaching the village. It was the medical vehicle from Kagua and Ropasi was laid out in the back of it. He was not expected to live and they were returning him to the village for proper mourning and eventual burial.
The village was in an uproar—no one seemed to know what to do. The Christians wanted to pray for Ropasi, those with more traditional views wanted to counteract the sorcery with upipi, a concoction that many believed would help him. I was called to the scene—a small grass-roofed house in the village where dozens of people were congregated. Inside there was an argument—why wouldn’t the Christians let him have the upipi? The Christians did not believe it was right but were not adamant about it. The argument continued and suddenly Ropasi sat up and quite coherently said, “I am not sick because of sorcery (as many of them believed) but because you are not following God. I don’t want upipi,” and with that Ropasi slipped back into a coma.
I went home quite devastated that such a Christian leader was dying. I had prayed—we all had prayed—but it was clear to me that he was near death.
In less than an hour the wailing began and we knew that Ropasi had died. Male members of the clan ran about working spells and trying to placate his spirit, now believed to be hovering somewhere around the death site. Many of the Christians disappeared, so they wouldn’t be blamed that Ropasi did not drink the upipi.
The next few days are a blur on my mind. Ropasi was laid out on a burial platform in the center of the village. Hundreds of people gathered to mourn, with his widow and closest relatives nearest the corpse, swatting away the flies and crying intermittently.
Ropasi was buried near the village in a cemetery. His bones were not exhumed later, nor his skull, as would have been traditional. Gloom settled in and a man in the village who periodically had crazy spells told me that he had a dream. “There was a hole up in the sky and Ropasi was climbing on a rope trying to get into heaven. He got right to the top and couldn’t get in because the hole was too small. If a good man like him couldn’t get in, what hope is there for the rest of us?”
This seemed, at that point, to be the pervasive message and many traditional acts of mourning reappeared—attempts to communicate with Ropasi’s spirit, spells to ward off more danger and sorcery, and so on.
We were exhausted and about that time we heard that one of our helicopters would be passing our way. We asked if it could stop on the return trip so that Joice and our daughter could fly back to our Center. Permission was granted and the next day the pilot landed near our village. As Joice boarded the helicopter I heard her say, “Get me out of here and I am never coming back!”
Of course she eventually did and life in the village returned to some degree of “normalcy.” Not entirely—Ropasi’s wife became mentally instable and the crazy man continued with weird actions, like beating on a drum in the middle of the night.
Despite Christian leaders, a strong local church, and the Word of God in the language of the people, the knowledge of the spirits of the dead—the power of the ancestral dead—became more in focus than the hope of the resurrection. It took the church some years to recover.
Forty years later I can think about the episode more clearly but it is still a mystery to me. I don’t have to know why Ropasi died and why the people reverted to their traditional beliefs so I end up with a story but not a solution.