From the moment the smooth dirt rises to meet the souls of my shoes, my heart beats different. I know I’m the same person here, but the peace of home washes over me for the first time since I left my gravel driveway in the sticks. Mawan village, we are family now.
Mama is the first to greet me. She carries the shoulder strap of a handmade bilum, a woven bag made from plant reeds, and she stretches the straps over my head, placing the bag around my neck. Another woman approaches me with the same gesture, my neck now adorned with two gifts from my now family. The women position the bilums so that each one can be equally displayed across my body, their respective colors and patterns uniquely beautiful. The bilums fall upon me in such a way that each one lies across the curves of my chest and we all laugh at the comedy of my bilum bra.
For the next hour, Mama parades us around her village. I can’t tell if she is more proud to show us her village or to show her village us, but either way, she is beaming. At each stop we hug the women tightly while dodging spit from the Betel nut they constantly chew. Lips and smiles stained red from buai, the combination of ingredients they add to the bitter nut that creates blood-red juice they don’t dare swallow. Only the youth maintain relatively white teeth.
The longer we stay in Mawan, the larger the mob of children that engulfs us. They giggle when we smile, many shyly reach out to touch our skin. Many of the babies look on with panic, burying their heads in their mommas, wailing in fear at our sight. Without electricity, mail service, or Internet, there is no means by which many of these young children have ever seen a white person. We are the first. The brave ones run to us and weave their small brown fingers into our own. Others excite at the idea, joining in the hand holding. We soon run out of fingers.
We come to the center of the village – a school, an aid post and a trading store. As we approach the dirt-floor school, each of its four rooms reminiscent of a park shelter, I immediately feel sorry for the teacher as I realize the havoc we wreak on an otherwise orderly classroom. The children sit shoulder to shoulder along the ground, their stares, giggles and squeals now a cacophony of noise. We sneak away before I learn how the teachers discipline the disorderly.
We return to the bamboo hut that Mama calls home. The haus cook (house cook – kitchen) stands independently. Women and children have gathered in and around, their noses telling them what I was too overwhelmed to realize: lunch is ready. Mama escorts us to a small folding table with two plastic chairs. We are the first to be served. After our plates are loaded high with rice, sweet potato, chicken, and green leaves – all soaked in coconut milk – the others begin to fill their plates. They sit along the ground and makeshift benches; we are the only ones offered chairs. Mama won’t eat until we finish. She tells us that she cannot. Though we don’t understand the cultural honor she has bestowed upon us, we accept.
The newest addition to Mama’s section of the village is a lik lik haus (little house – the bathroom). Inside the small bamboo shelter, a deep hole centers the dark room. For us, they have fastened a toilet seat to four table legs and positioned it over the hole. Mama tells us that the lik lik haus has been fastened shut until this moment – they have been saving it for us. I am the one to christen it, an honor I awkwardly accept.
After lunch I am told that the young women will take the dishes down to the water to be washed. I insist on helping, and they finally oblige. Mama fills up a ratty, tattered sack with the soiled dishes and places the strap around my forehead, the weight of the bag hanging down my back. Even the youngest carry immense loads using this method – many mommas carrying their young in bilums hanging from their foreheads.
The path to the water is rugged yet defined. Three women and children already at the water look up and laugh at my arrival. They begin the chatter of Tok Pisin with Mama, I assume she explains why the large white skin is among them. Before we reach the water, Mama pulls leaves from a nearby plant, shredding them into thin grass strips. She wads them together and hands me the nature-made scrub brush.
She pats a rock indicating where I can sit. I squat and the rock’s rugged edges cause immediate discomfort. I remove the stone that Mama placed on the stack of dishes now in the water and immediately the plates begin to float downstream. Mama and I scurry to catch the floating valuables as I now realize the crucial role of the heavy stone.
I scrub. Next to me a momma washes clothes while a young naked boy splashes between the rocks, occasionally remembering my presence with a shy smile and thick giggle. The women chatter. I don’t know what they say but I know they spend their days here, joined together to wash dishes, clothes and selves.
On our way back from the water, a young boy, maybe six years old, scurries up a tall thin tree carrying a knife between his teeth. He begins severing the stems of Betel nut from the treetop. To my untrained eye, the tree is identical to a coconut tree. Two more boys stop to greet us, both with machetes in hand and slingshots looped around their foreheads. I realize that no age is too young to contribute to the survival and sustenance of the village.
As the hot fierce sun marks our imminent departure my emotions begin their fight. A day in the bush nearly over and I want more. My soul scattered throughout this jungle village, how will I ever leave?
But it is time. The young family escorting us back to town must catch the last return bus. The jungle mountain roads prove too treacherous for two white meris (white women), this precious family joyfully offers to be our escorts in and out of town. It is an hour journey each way, and they do it twice over. I don’t know how to show my gratitude but I am assured it is their privilege.
As we begin our goodbyes, I squeeze the women, wrapping my soft arms around their small frames and I feel their strength. My heart humbles at our differences. Like the varied colored threads of the bilum I now carry over my shoulder, we are uniquely different yet woven forever together. I wrestle with God that oceans divide us, the travel between us nearly impossible.
As we drive away my mind replays the beauty I traveled today. The village a life I would never have imagined for myself, and now I can’t imagine my life without it. I want its power to move me closer to the earth and farther from the world. I want my village family and biological family to share in the joy I now know from being one, a glimpse into our eternal home.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. Ephesians 2:19-20