Telefomin is the western-most MAF base in Papua New Guinea, about 1 h 20 flight time from Mt Hagen. Because of its remoteness, there is still no road connecting it to the outside world. This is where Bridget Ingham, a new pilot to MAF PNG, spent her Tok Pisin and cultural orientation week. Joyce and Vero, two of the haus meris who are working for the MAF families, took Bridget under their wings with the highlight being an overnight hike to another village.
Why is the white lady carrying a big bag?
We had an early start amid low cloud and drizzle. However, as the day went on and the cloud hung around, we were thankful for the cooler temperatures!
Making our way out of town we were asked again and again, 'Bilong wanem dispela waitmeri i karim bikpela bek?’ (Why is the white lady carrying a big bag?) Joyce and Vero replied, ‘Em meri bilong wokabaut’ (she’s a woman who walks). Even so, I was glad once we were out of town and by ourselves.
The trail dropped down into a steep gully where we crossed over a precarious bridge. While the base was solid, the handrails were not much more than decoration! I was living up to my ‘meri bilong wokabaut’ reputation!
After that, the road got progressively muddier and our progress was slow. We wound around the base of the mountains, from time to time catching glimpses back towards Telefomin.
After 7 hours of walking, we arrived at the village where we would be staying overnight. We were warmly greeted by the pastor and his wife and gave them some food (rice, oil, salt, tinned fish - all items that are hard to come by in this area) to say thank you.
The rest of the afternoon/evening we spent relaxing - a short walk around the village, telling stories, a quick wash, dinner, bed.
Visiting the local school and aid post
This day’s schedule only involved an hour of walking, so we had time to visit a local school and aid post (where the community health worker is stationed. They are the first port of call for any health needs in the village - kind of like a bush GP).
The teachers at the school welcomed me warmly and shared some of the hardships they were facing, including the need to transport some much-needed textbooks from Telefomin. They were planning for a group of older students to walk there and back the next day, but with the plane coming that afternoon to pick us up I said I would ask if the books could be brought on that. I made it clear that I couldn’t promise anything, but I would at least ask!
They also asked if I would be willing to share something inspirational with the students. So I told them the story about how God put the dream to be a pilot in my heart when I was 11 years old, and now here I was as a pilot with MAF. I said to them, if you work hard at school and trust God, He can make anything possible.
An unfinished bridge and commotion in the water
From there, we walked to the river to look at the bridge that the community had been building. Word had got out that a 'wait meri' (white lady) was walking around, so there was quite an entourage with us by this point! Unfortunately, the bridge wasn’t quite finished, so we weren’t able to use it, but I expressed my appreciation all the same.
After that, there was a bit of a commotion in the water - a woman from the other side had jumped in and swam across with two bananas in her hand, which she gave to me. Again, I was blown away by this act of gratitude.
Can MAF help?
From there we visited the aid post and met the community health worker, then made our way back to the village, where I made contact with the MAF base. It sounded hopeful that the books could be put on the flight, and MAF was willing to pay for the cost of the freight.
A crowd wanting to buy Bibles
We had a quick lunch, said goodbye to our hosts, and walked down another path to a shallow crossing point on the river, close to the airstrip.
Not long after we arrived at the airstrip, a crowd of people started to gather. They had heard that we had Bibles for sale (one of MAF’s ministries) and had come to buy them for themselves.
Precious freight in the airplane
After a while, we heard the familiar sound of the plane. Not only was it coming to pick us up, but it also had 180 kg of school textbooks on board - not just for the school we had visited, but another one as well. It was very satisfying to be able to help them out, and save them a 14 hr round-trip walk to carry them!
Skin colour doesn’t matter
Later on, I found out a couple of heartwarming stories. The first was how Vero and Joyce had stayed up until 1 am, talking with the pastor and his wife and encouraging them. The pastor’s wife, in particular, had been very worried about hosting me because she didn’t know what to do! Joyce pointed out to her that we are all doing God’s work and skin colour doesn’t matter.
A dream from God
The second was that one of the community leaders had had a dream on Sunday night that a wait man came to the village and went to the pastor’s house to stay. In the dream God’s message was when you look at him, you are looking at Me, and whatever you give to him, you give to Me. The next day, he saw us walking down the hill and watched us go to the pastor’s house. He saw it as God’s blessing upon the village.
I should also point out that it had been several years since the last white person passed through that village, and none had stayed at the pastor’s house before.
When we arrived back at Telefomin after our amazing, encouraging time in the bush, there was some bad news. The house where I was staying had been broken into and some items were stolen. Thankfully, all the irreplaceable items had been left behind (computer, journal, cards in my wallet). Vero and Joyce were devastated. As I walked around the house checking things, the feeling of violation grew and grew and so I accepted the offer of one of the other families to stay at their house for my final two nights in town.
The next morning, I decided to talk with Vero and Joyce about how we were feeling. They had sought counsel from their pastor, who said that there was a spiritual aspect to this - the devil knew about the impact we were having on our hike and incited someone to come and do this. ‘Sapos mi painim dispela stilman, mi pulim yau bilong en!’ said Joyce (if I find the thief I’ll pull his ear). ‘Mi paitim em!’ said Vero (I’ll hit him). I replied, ‘Mi no krosim dispela stilman. God inap mekim sampela gutpela samting kamap long dispela samting nogut.’ (I’m not angry with the thief. God is able to make something good come from this bad thing.)
We went to one of the other MAF families to make a poster with pictures of some of the missing items (in particular my watch) and took it to some key places around town - the school, district office, market.
After lunch, I said to Vero and Joyce that I would like to remember the good times we had and asked if they would be willing to tell the stories again while I recorded them on my phone. They agreed, and three hours later I was in possession of wonderful treasures - stories I had not heard before (like the man’s dream). I said to them, if everything had been happy, we would go our separate ways and that would be that. But because this trial had come, it has made our faith stronger, too.
A week after I got back to Mt Hagen, I received a phone call from one of the MAF ladies to say that the watch and a few other items had been returned! Although they are a little worse for wear, it is an answer to prayer, and I am thankful. It turned out to be a 14-year-old boy who lived locally. I pray that this episode and our response to him will lead him to true repentance and saving faith in Jesus.
I was supposed to be in Telefomin
This is evidenced by the spiritual attack of someone stealing things from the house while I was away (the first time a MAF house in Telefomin has been robbed, in all the years we have had a base there)
Humbling oneself is huge in PNG culture
People commented over and over again in amazement at my willingness to carry timber, sit on the ground/floor, eat the same food, etc. I’m not sure if that’s me conforming to NZ’s egalitarian culture or behaving like I would on a camping trip (which is what it felt like). Sharing food, sitting with people, talking with them, sleeping in their house are all aspects of being part of their family. It doesn’t take much on our part to be an encouragement to people.
God is working in people’s hearts
Whenever they prayed, Vero and Joyce personally knew who it was they were talking to.
The story about the man who had the dream may sound fantastical and certainly made me a little uncomfortable to think that people might have seen me as the embodiment of God come to visit them, but we need to remember that Papua New Guineans are more attuned to the spirit world than Westerners are. God knows this, and He is able to guide them in His truth.
My speaking in Tok Pisin improved immensely
This is a result of using it all day, every day. At times I even found myself thinking in Tok Pisin. Now the challenge will be to keep it up!