This Central Asian proverb speaks to the power of the tongue, specifically how seemingly private speech can all too quickly spread like wildfire. It agrees with the warnings of scripture regarding the dangers of the tongue. “So also the tongue is a small member, but it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!” (James 3:5).
I can’t tell you how many times locals have prefaced a sentence with the disclaimers “Just between me and you,” or “Let no one else know this.” Yet in spite of these common agreements of confidentiality, word almost always spreads anyway. This represents a major problem in our local culture, one which constantly undermines trust and breaks relationships. Gossip is very deeply rooted, one of those parts of the culture so ingrained that local believers despair of ever driving it out. We trust that it can be driven out, however, and a redeemed tongue will be one of the astonishing markers of the redeemed community.
On the other hand, this proverb could be turned on its head and applied in a counterintuitive way to sharing the gospel -“good gossip” as it’s been called. If the Central Asian loose tongue could be harnessed for the sake of evangelism, now that would be a mighty force to be reckoned with.
The problem with every culture is that it is in fact a spectrum of subcultures. Sure, there are broad trends that group these countless subcultures under valid, larger headings. But city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family, culture varies. Not only does it vary, but it also changes over time. This leaves the missionary (or any Christian really) who hopes to do good contextualization in a difficult spot. How do we get an accurate picture of said culture and then how do we choose a missionary posture within it so that we can reach the most?
“Learn from the locals,” might be the given response to the question of how to get an accurate picture of a particular culture. But again, the problem is, which locals? Darius* is a young college-educated city kid from a tolerant middle class family. Harry* grew up in a village, worked as a shepherd boy, and now lives in a neighborhood full of his violent fellow tribesmen and Salafis. Mr. Talent’s* father is a powerful retired general. They live very well-off in a more liberal part of town. Ask these three local men separately what their culture says on a given topic and you are likely to get three very different answers. Does this mean we reject any data from them as invalid? Not at all. But neither do we treat it as carved-in-stone cultural law. Instead, we can take note of it and place it on the cultural spectrum. “Some locals do things this way.”
By carefully placing the some there, we save ourselves from being thrown later when another local contradicts our original cultural informant. We also in this way prepare our minds for the flexibility needed to engage an actual living culture, with its many shifts, variations, and complexities. Yes, we learn from the locals, but we do so by treating their cultural advice as one true part of the picture – a picture that will take a long time to fill out. Their feedback is valid and important, but not sufficient for getting a final picture of the broader culture. It’s worth noting here that locals are just like us and tend to project their own personal subculture as authoritative over the rest of their culture. We need to be aware of this, as often they are not, even as none of used to be aware of our own propensity to do this. In time, self-awareness and cross-cultural friendships will chip away at this.
Learn from the locals, yes, but make sure to learn from all the locals, including those that contradict each other. Together they represent a snapshot of this living, morphing societal system of values, customs, and behaviors that we call the culture.
So then, how should we choose to live within this spectrum of subcultures? Much here depends on one’s particular goal. But for missionaries like us who desire to see healthy churches planted that will reach their own people, we want to find a lifestyle that is accessible for as many locals as possible. This means we will avoid the poles, intentionally not living like the most traditional and not living like the most liberal. Even though in Islamic societies, the latter is usually more comfortable for us. And even though others might assume that going full conservative is the really radical and effective thing to do. Instead, we aim for somewhere in the middle, the kind of place where we can have friends from among the social-media-shaped youth as well as the Salafi-leaning Islamic families.
This means our wives might sometimes get teased by their single university friends for not showing more skin, but they will still be able to befriend the girl in the hijab, even though their hair is not covered, because their clothing still communicates the reputation of an honorable and modest woman. In a society where female appearance is extremely important, dressing for the respectable middle gives them access to almost the entire spectrum of local women.
This may also mean valid lifestyle differences among missionaries. My family eats pork – when we can get it smuggled in that is. Other families choose not to. Both of us have chosen to eat or not eat because we believe that will help us with gospel access to the greatest number of locals.
The key is to attempt to make these lifestyle choices intentionally, rather than an easy default to what we prefer or even a default to what one local friend says. The longer we live in a given culture, the more we will be able to make these contextualization choices in an informed way. Newer missionaries can get worried about their living situations being too Western or too local, but they should relax. If they are studying the language and culture and making local friends, they’ll be in a great spot to find their own posture a couple years in.
We want the gospel to be the stumbling block, not our lifestyle choices. That means we need to understand the culture in all its messy diversity. Embracing the idea of the culture as a spectrum can help with this. That understanding of the culture can then lead to clarity regarding any unnecessary stumbling blocks that need to be removed, and what kind of proactive lifestyle needs to be embraced for access to the most.
No one gets this perfect, but the beauty of a culture’s messy diversity means that even your cultural faux pas might be taken as a positive by at least some locals – even if they’re the rebels. And there is some measure of relief in that. God’s sovereignty often turns our blunders into our breakthroughs. Perhaps those cultural rebels will be exactly the ones you are supposed to reach.
This past week Darius* invited me to an overnight in the mountains. The particular area we were headed to is known for its walnuts, its natural beauty, as well as its proximity to a dangerous border. Turns out the valley of the property where we were staying was in fact alarmingly close to this border, situated in a little knob or bulge of our host country’s frontier territory. On three sides we could look up the slopes and see border fences and guard towers of the infamous regime next door. Thankfully, we never saw any movement and it’s likely that any border guards that were stationed up there were already quite used to the valley and cabins being full of picnickers and their chai-fueled shenanigans.
Our group was a mix of believers and unbelievers, all pretty young, eager to escape the summer heat of the city and to spend the night in a wooded mountain valley. My wife and kids decided not to come this time, so I was flying solo. We anticipated an evening filled with good picnic food, games, and conversation late into the night. We did not, however, anticipate the local wildlife to be such a large part of the excitement.
Shortly after our arrival we were all put on guard by the discovery of a very large snakeskin poking out from under our cabin. This was a stark reminder that we were indeed up in the mountains where snakes and scorpions just might make an uninvited appearance. The early Islamic historians wrote of the nasty scorpions of these valleys and how many invading Arab soldiers had been killed by them in their jihad invasion of these lands. I have yet to see one of these “two-claws” as locals call them, but one of our group’s fathers had been stung by a scorpion who mistook his shoe for a nice little cave, so we decided to move our shoes inside.
Our dinner of boiled chicken and rice had just been set out on the floor dinner mat. Even on a casual picnic overnight like this the spread was laid out like a feast. Our crew of hungry picnickers all came inside, remarking favorably on the delicious chicken and onion aroma, when suddenly someone spotted a rather large furry spider, just chilling on the wall above the couch.
I recognized it immediately. It was only the second of its kind I have seen here, and about the size of half my palm. Full-grown, these monsters can grow to the size of a small cat. And they are venomous, hairy, Shelob-like stuff of nightmares. Thankfully, they are rare up in the mountains, preferring to hunt in the flat lowland deserts. The locals didn’t recognize it, but I did, and I urgently called them to arms. Several grabbed rubber toilet shoes (the traditional weapon of choice for squashing bugs or swatting disrespectful children) and we went after the arachnid intruder. He successfully darted behind the couch, which meant we had to tip it over, arms tense, ready to swat the big gangly thing in hopes of squishing it. The couch pulled up, the spider made a break for the door. However, he never made it. A quick lunge from one of the local guys with a pink sandal landed with a squishy thwack, and the spider was no more.
He was, however, still composed enough for some postmortem pictures, which I was sure to take, texting them to my wife. To which she responded, “Please don’t die. I can’t raise these hooligans by myself.”
The spider excitement all over, we sat down around the dinner mat. I thanked God for the food and we excitedly began to dish out the chicken and rice. The locals asked me if I was sure that the spider had indeed been dangerous, so I proceeded to google pictures of its giant full-grown relatives. My corner of the food mat leaned in in fascinated horror. Suddenly Darius jumped,
Now, Darius is a bit of a joker. So at first I thought he was pranking us. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw something brownish-gray, about the size of a small cat, skittering across the top of the sofa to our left. The whole group saw it at once and everyone screamed, jumping up from the dinner mat in terror as the beast darted down the couch and across the floor.
“It’s another one! A big one!!! Mud of the world be upon my head!!!” It seemed as if the mother of the spider we killed had come seeking vengeance.
My heart was in my throat as I tried to react to the fast-moving furry blob, which was about the size of a kitten. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t a spider the size of a small cat at all. It was a cat.
“It’s a cat!!!” Someone started screaming. At this point, the collective screaming just kept on coming.
The poor feline was now just as terrified as we were. Having darted toward the staircase it now doubled back, racing down the middle of the dinner mat. Drinks and soup went flying as it stepped in the rice, zig-zagged through the dishes, through our feet, and up and out the window.
Everyone stared at one another in shock – and then doubled over in laughing fits that lasted a long time. The spider cat had made quite the impression. For the next several hours, every time the blinds blew in, every time another mountain bug made its way into the lit cabin, we all jumped and sometimes screamed, expecting to see another dangerous mountain critter making its creepy appearance.
There were plenty of visitors the rest of the night, but nothing worse than a hornet, some grasshoppers, and a praying mantis – or as locals call it, the pilgrim locust.
The rest of the evening consisted of listening to music (Interestingly, young locals are developing a taste for Johnny Cash and sea shanties), playing card games, drinking chai, munching on sunflower seeds, and a 1 am game of football/soccer. Not as young as I used to be, I went to bed at 3 am, one of the earliest of the group. The window just above my head didn’t quite close, leaving a gap just big enough for a desert spider to crawl through, I noticed with some concern. Still, I drifted off pretty quickly, thankfully not dreaming of giant spiders.
If you ever find yourself in a mountainous valley of Central Asia, do keep an eye out for the critters. They are, I have learned, quite bold. And be sure to keep your toilet shoes handy.
Two weeks ago Manuel* sat next to me on the couch, weeping. This semi-secret believer’s brother-in-law had been disappeared by one of the powerful political parties. One week he was an important local official for this same party, the next he was publicly accused by Islamists of misconduct – and summarily disappeared. For two weeks his family had no information about where he was, or even if he was still alive.
I had met this brother-in-law only once. During a particularly stressful intercity move in the fever-heat of August, he had used his connections to get our moving truck through some rival party checkpoints on the road. In the process, he had grilled me rather directly on the nature of my work here, one of the few government officials to press me so hard on my identity that I could feel my face changing color. I answered truthfully regarding my official secular work, and yet also let him know about my personal faith and how, yes, I wouldn’t be here if Jesus hadn’t changed me and given me a heart to serve others. With the help of the alternating shades of my face, I’m pretty sure he figured things out. In spite of this, he helped us – something I was deeply grateful for. Now I learned that he was at least imprisoned, perhaps even dead.
During his visit, Manuel, a respectable local man about ten years my senior, leaned on my shoulder and wept. We read Psalm 23 together, I prayed for him, and I listened as he pleaded with me to do something if at all possible through my political connections, of which I have none. For many local believers the belief runs deep that all Westerners have significant political clout that they could use if they really wanted to. Convincing our local friends that we are merely private citizens of our passport countries and strictly apolitical by choice has proven remarkably difficult. Yes, our home governments might grudgingly intervene if something happened to us – I say grudgingly because they repeatedly warn us not to live in places like this. But we have no such clout as to persuade anyone to intervene on behalf of a local political official who has been abducted, even if we thought such political intervention wise.
However, we pray every week during our church plant’s service for the local government officials. We do this to obey scripture, and because incidents like the disappearance of Manuel’s brother-in-law are stark reminders of the sudden danger that stalks almost anyone in this society should they run afoul of the powers that be. So when we gather, we pray for the government and those who wield political power to act justly, to rule wisely, and to serve their people (Micah 6:8, Romans 13:1-7). We pray for this so that the local believers may live quiet, faithful lives and that peace and stability might be granted for the sake of gospel advance (1st Timothy 2:1-4). The local believers are still getting used to this kind of prayer, regularly taking digs at the corrupt governing elite even as we ask who is ready to pray for them. We empathize, but also remind them of how bad Nero was, and then remind ourselves of the same truths when later that day we see the insane political news coming out of the West.
Tonight Manuel visited me again, requesting ahead of time that we sing some worship songs together. When he arrived, he shared the welcome news that his brother-in-law had been released. He’s much skinnier than he was before, bearing evidence of having been beaten, but alive, and back home with his family. I reminded Manuel that God had answered our prayers, and we spent an encouraging time singing together, studying John 15, and praying.
During our conversation, Manuel shared how just before his previous visit he had come very close to doing something dangerous, but suddenly felt redirected to come to our house instead for comfort and counsel. I’m thankful he did, or else he may have been summarily arrested/abducted as well. It makes me wonder how many close calls like this come down to a barely conscious obedience to subtle nudges from the Spirit. And if those nudges and responses would happen if we were not regularly praying for wisdom, and yes, praying for the corrupt local authorities.
The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with. The only alphabet they’d ever known was prehistoric Ogham, a cumbersome set of lines based on the Roman alphabet, which they incised laboriously into the corners of standing stones to turn them into memorials. These rune-like inscriptions, which continued to appear in the early years of the Christian period, hardly suggested what would happen next, for within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. As we have seen already, they devised Irish grammars, and copied out the whole of their native oral literature. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they’d got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, never-before-spoken patterns of Latin, called Hisperica Famina, not unlike the dream-language of Finnegans Wake or even the languages J.R.R. Tolkien would one day make up for his hobbits and elves.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 144
It’s interesting to note this explosion of linguistic energy among the newly-literate Irish. Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to language. We can’t seem to help it, we just keep on inventing new languages, whether on purpose or not.
We need more honest songs like this exploring the difficulties of being in ministry (and doing so via the medium of good music). There’s some serious tension running throughout this song of “success” in ministry vs. faithfulness, appearance vs. reality. All of us are tempted to compromise in order to see more fruit. And those compromises – or even just the effort to resist them – can leave us feeling empty, frustrated, and jaded. Ministry sometimes just beats us up, highlighting our utter dependence on God for any of it to mean anything at all. I just saw the official music video for the first time (not the above lyric video), and it explores these themes visually, and does so in a creative-humorous-ironic way that I really enjoyed – a strong contrast between funny visuals and a very sobering message. Well done, Gable Price and Friends.
If you’ve been in ministry much, I wouldn’t be surprised if certain lyrics below hit home.
I broke my wrist
Punching through a wall in the parsonage
The congregation can't see me crying
I've got a swollen eye
From wrestlin' my demons every night
And uncle screwtape won't be my last one
I've got 2 spare tires
and far more county lines than exit signs
I'm on this road until my engine dies
I need you
If I'm being honest
I haven't been honest in a couple odd years now
I need you
If the land that I take is another step away from you I don't want it
I’ve got a heavy foot, and we’re pushing 95
I'm speeding down your road until the engine dies
I need you
Hold me deep inside the tension every day
Can anger be holy if you don't let it eat clean through you?
I'm a optimist
When I close my eyes and clench my fist
And if pains in the mindset, than so is denial
If I'm being honest
I haven't been honest in a couple odd years now
I need you
If the land that I take is another step away from you I don't want it
You gotta let it hurt
Our image is the only thing we're worth
His is the kingdom and yours is the church
Smile with your teeth
Your bruises make a lovely accessory
Have some guts kid, this is ministry
Have some guts kid, this is ministry
I need you
I need you
I need you
Every culture, in spite of the fall, retains elements of the image of God. For those with eyes to see, these positive elements of a culture quietly point to the wisdom, beauty, and goodness of God, a remnant witness which can’t help but spill out even in cultures that have been cut off from the truth for centuries. Everyone who has ever lived honestly in a foreign culture will find things they simply do better in that foreign culture than in his native one. Sometimes these are noble, serious things. Other times, well, they fall much more in the realm of practical common sense.
Take, for example, what our adopted Central Asian culture does with fruit. This culture is extremely serious about hospitality. “If your enemy comes to your door, you must host him,” is a local saying I’ve recently learned. House architecture, family roles and rhythms, and much of the language itself have been crafted around this ideal of generous and honorable hospitality. It’s not uncommon for long evenings to be spent hosting friends, relatives, or patrons for dinner, progressing through an abundant sequence of snacks, drinks, food, and dessert offerings.
However, no matter how lofty the cultural ideal, practical life needs cannot be ignored. At some point, the guests need to leave, the hosts need to clean up, and the family needs to sleep. This might happen at midnight or later, especially during the summer nights, but somehow an indirect signal needs to be sent to the guests that while it’s been a great time, we need to be wrapping things up. This is where the fruit comes in.
When the women of the household start to sense that it’s time to draw the visit to a close, a final round of food will be brought out and set before the guests. This will usually consist of a platter full of fresh fruit and cucumbers, with a small plate and fruit knife handed to each guest. Right now, being summer, it’s often gorgeous slices of sweet watermelon. Locals don’t begin rushing out the door at this point, but everyone intuits what the fruit means. In the next 15-30 minutes, the kitchen is shutting down and it will be time for a barrage of highly verbal goodbye pleasantries to be exchanged all around.
Once we foreigners started noticing the importance of the serving of the fruit in the traditional culture, we started asking our language tutors and friends about it. Some denied that serving fruit played this role of wrapping up a visit. Others thought about it, then the realization dawned on them for the first time that yes, this was a very real correlation. Still others laughed and told us that our observations were spot on – that was exactly what was going on. Much like Americans getting their keys out of their pockets when they are feeling ready to leave, apparently the fruit serving functions among some locals somewhat subconsciously, while with others it is an explicit and recognized thing. More progressive families are of course mixing things up, serving fruit early on in a visit, which tends to alarm new missionaries here who have recently learned about the “fruit principle.” Alas, culture, like language, is never static, but a continuously morphing thing.
What we have come to appreciate about all of this is the existence in this culture of a simple, polite, indirect signal that serves to conclude a visit. Why don’t we have one of these in Western culture? I’ve heard of American families who, sensing this lack of a signal, have employed their own, such as disappearing and reappearing, having donned their pajamas – a signal only the most out of touch guest would ever miss. Others have allegedly feigned falling asleep. Of course there’s also the risky move of looking conspicuously at your watch or a clock, or exaggerated yawning. Some Christian hosts might ask, “How can we pray for you?” – not a bad way to bless someone and indirectly conclude the visit at the same time.
When we are back in our passport countries we find that that the absence of the fruit leaves a nagging hole of ambiguity as an evening visit gets later. We end up longing for this aspect of our adopted culture and the hospitable open secret that it represents. There are certainly things about my parents’ Western culture that I prefer over my adopted Central Asian one. Greater freedom to ignore texts and phone calls, for example. The tyranny of an immediate answer or reply in order to avoid offense is a frustrating thing. But when it comes to hospitably and clearly wrapping up a visit? I’ll take the fruit signal any day as the superior system.
The next time you are hosting or visiting and the evening is getting later, pay attention to what signals might be being sent. The need to understand a visit is concluding is of course universal, in spite of its cultural variations. Does fruit emerge? Pajamas? A conspicuous lull in the conversation?
My sense is that if Westerners could develop our own equivalent “fruit signal,” we just might be making hosting a little easier for everyone.
When God sends it, he doesn’t ask whose son you are.
Local Oral Tradition
This is a proverb locals use when commenting on a case of unexpected or undeserved blessing. “Your landlord is a stingy man. What did he do to get good renters like you? Well, I guess when God sends it, he doesn’t ask whose son you are.”
The point of this proverb is that God often generously blesses those who are unjust – simply because he is God. His generosity is overflowing and his will is mysterious. It’s not as simple as the worldview of Job’s moralistic friends. God sends rain on the just and the unjust.
It’s curious that the proverb doesn’t say, “who you are” but “whose son you are.” This shows the importance that the place of kinship and father-lines in particular hold in this culture. “Whose son is that?” might be overheard when someone commits a very noble deed or an equally shameful one. The deeds of the son reflect on the father’s name and the father’s name is very important for knowing where to place the son in terms of social honor.
This proverb is therefore an admission of sorts that God doesn’t play by the rules of Central Asian culture. It’s a saying that highlights the limits of the human viewpoint. And that’s a good kind of proverb to have on hand.
I’ve seen it happen many times. A new believer is sharing their testimony and when speaking of a moment of breakthrough gospel understanding, they say things like,
“I had never heard that before.”
“That was the first time I heard the gospel.”
“No one had previously explained Jesus to me in that way.”
Meanwhile, their longtime believing friend is sitting nearby, with an incredulous look on their face or perhaps a perplexed smile, knowing that that moment was definitely not the first time they had had the gospel presented to them clearly. The new believer represents the first time they understood the gospel as the first time they heard the gospel. And this doesn’t seem to be an intentional revision of the historical record, but an honest representation of their experience. In some mysterious way, there seems to be a memory loss effect upon the mind of an unbeliever when they hear, but don’t comprehend, the good news. Things get blocked out. Then all of the sudden, they’re not any more.
Perhaps you’ve never seen this with unbelieving or newly believing friends, but have experienced a parallel with your own offspring. I know a similar dynamic takes place with our kids.
“Ohhh, why have you never said that before? That makes sense.”
How many parents have heard similar sentiments, knowing that that same truth has indeed been repeated dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times in the past? Such moments for the parent are an interesting mixture of perplexity and deep relief that said truth has finally reached its target.
This past week our church plant was studying the person of the Holy Spirit in John 14. In verse 17 it says, “… the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” While discussing what this verse means regarding the truth-revealing role of the Holy Spirit, we turned to 1st Corinthians 2:12-14.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
These passages are clear. Those who are not yet believers cannot understand the truths of God, because the Holy Spirit and his spiritual understanding have not yet been given to them. The presence of the Spirit in a person is the key that leads to true spiritual understanding and discernment. The natural person cannot understand spiritual things without this key.
I saw it this morning as I shared the gospel with two older men in a money-changing shop – furrowed brows indicating that the message of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus was not quite making sense to them. I’ve seen it for the last three Tuesday nights as a group of us gathered to field hard questions, including those of Darius’* cousin and another close photographer friend. These two former-Muslims/current agnostics are being treated to some excellent apologetics and biblical answers, especially from Alan*, with his scholarly mind and long experience of himself wrestling to find the truth (What a joy it is to see local believers taking a more prominent role in these kinds of conversations). Yet these unbelieving friends grind the gears of their unregenerate minds, seeming to move mere millimeters in terms of actually understanding and agreeing to what we are saying. They will likely not remember the spiritual answers they have been given at this point if they later become believers. And Alan will shake his head when some other guy later repeats the same point and they claim that it’s the first time they’ve heard it.
So what’s the point? Why sow seed that just seems to get eaten by the birds, rich truths that seem to immediately get suppressed and later forgotten? Simply because this is the only way that spiritual understanding comes about – through the unrelenting sowing of God’s word. The Spirit only comes upon those who have heard the words of truth. He does not work without it or around it. He works through his word, period. And from our perspective we cannot see what is going on behind the scenes, which seed is the one that will take root and burst through the concrete. He sovereignly chooses to strike with life sooner, later, or not at all.
To borrow an analogy from Donald Whitney, we cannot control the lightning, but we can set up lightning rods. Lightning tends to strike metal rods, so we would be foolish to not set them out simply because the actual strike is beyond our control. On the contrary, if you want the lightning to strike, thenput out as many rods as you can.
It really is OK when our newly believing friends remember things inaccurately. God knows the true part that each and every conversation played and the mysterious ways that the spiritually-dead mind represses things. We can sit back and smile when we have played a part that is now forgotten or even distorted. What really matters is that spiritual truth is now understood by our friends, who are now themselves truly spiritual.
In fact, they are not all wrong when they claim to have never heard said truth before. They just never heard it spiritually.
Initially, we thought it was a very good idea. We would hike the third highest mountain in the country, and we would arrange the hike without any adult missionary involvement – just us three high school seniors. Having at that point quite a bit of experience with hiking in our adopted Melanesian country – and the money drama with the locals that always seemed to ensue – we decided we would plan a hike that would be fun, challenging, and culturally appropriate. The absence of an adult Western missionary would save us the trouble of landowners and villagers seeing us as potential cash cows – or so we thought.
Kosta, a local and a native of this particular area, would serve as our hike consultant and guide on the way. Kosta always had a bit of a sketchy demeanor about him, but my mom had had several good years of partnering with him in helping to sell his traditional woven baskets to Westerners, and by and large he had proven himself trustworthy. His crew of basket weavers and sellers even kept an eye out for my mom’s safety whenever she would go into the nearby crime-ridden town. Kosta’s tribal area had a mixed reputation. It was known for its tribal warfare and for the elderly who had died in recent decades with strange smiles frozen on their faces – an unfortunate result of having eaten human brains at cannibalistic feasts when they were children. But the area was also known for its rich natural beauty, including its 12,000 foot mountain.
My companions on this hike would be my close friends and classmates, Caleb* and Will*. These two had proven to be eager participants on many misadventures and were also like spiritual brothers to me, always ready to enter into serious spiritual conversation just as they were always ready for a good laugh. Caleb had grown up on the missionary base where the MK school was, where I had also lived since fifth grade. Will was a dorm kid, whose parents still lived out in a remote tribal area. He had moved into the dorms on the compound in high school and would go back and rejoin his family four times a year during the school breaks. He was also from rural Canada, and this combination of hardy backgrounds resulted in an unusual mixture. Will could tell you how to hunt crocodiles in the lowlands by thrusting your foot through the wet mud above a den in order to feel around with your foot for if the creature was in there (apparently the den is too narrow for the croc to open its jaws and bite off your foot). Will also liked to hike in a pair of bright red onesie long-johns, the old-fashioned kind designed for the winter so that it had a butt flap that unbuttoned. He wore a pair of faded jeans over the bottom of this outfit as well as hiking boots, but let the top of the red long johns function as his shirt. Will was the fastest hiker among the three of us and we would often see his bright red long-john top making its way up the next rise just as we reached the top of the previous ridge. His cool head and natural sense of direction meant he was good at scouting out the way.
We had agreed beforehand with Kosta regarding the price we would pay for his service as a guide – and that we would pay for one guide for each of the three villages. We had also received his confirmation that since his villages and clan were landowners of the mountain, we would not be accosted for extra landowner fees along the hike, a dilemma we had regular faced as random men would appear out the jungle claiming to be “papas of the ground” who deserved their compensation for our hiking privileges. As Westerners, this kind of opportunism drove us crazy, though looking back we also could have done a better job of understanding the cross-cultural misunderstandings going on over something as simple as a hike up a ridge. In the West, hiking is often considered a right of sorts. I’ve even read that in the UK the right to hike across others’ open land is enshrined in law. But I’m certain that Melanesian culture meant that legitimate honor/shame concerns were also mixed with simple greed when it came to this issue of paying to pass a certain portion of jungle trail.
However, we were not cash-laden tourists. We weren’t even adult missionaries. We were seventeen-year-old missionary kids from an hour down the road. We spoke the trade language and our guide was a local whose clan owned the mountain. Surely this time we would sidestep all that frustrating money stuff.
The day of the hike arrived and our party of four caught a ride out to Kosta’s village. After a half hour down the only paved road in the highlands we turned off onto a dirt road and wound our way another forty five minutes or so into the mountains. It was still mid-morning when we arrived and spirits were high. We were greeted by many residents of Kosta’s village, not an unusual development, but the greetings in the trade language soon turned into lively discussion in the tribal tongue – a discussion that lasted a very long time. My MK friends and I became impatient, eager to get on the trail. When the discussion was finally over, I asked Kosta what it was all about.
“We will have eleven men from our three villages come with us as guides,” said Kosta.
“Eleven!” I protested. “We agreed on paying three men from the three respective villages here, plus you.”
Kosta diverted his gaze and shifted his weight uncomfortably.
“We didn’t bring any extra money with us. So if there are twelve of you, you will all split the same amount and each get less. You need to tell them that,” I insisted.
“I will, don’t worry,” said Kosta. And he proceeded to say something to the group in the tribal language. There was some sort of heated discussion that followed, and then some kind of agreement.
I noticed with concern as we finally made our way to the trail that seven local men were still with us, including Kosta. I shook my head, hoping that this would be the last of this sort of surprise we’d have to face.
It was now almost noon and the bright highlands sun had long since melted away the cool morning fog. It beat down on our heads as we made our way up a very difficult ridge. A couple hours later we reached the crest, sweaty and glad that we had seemingly made some progress. But our hearts sank as we looked across a broad valley and saw the mountain we were aiming for, on the far side of the valley, climbing steeply into the clouds. The broad valley in front of us was dotted with villages and gardens – and a road wound around the ridge we were on, arriving at the foot of the mountain.
“Um… Kosta,” I began. “Is that the mountain?”
He nodded an affirmative.
“Isn’t that a road we could have driven to get a lot closer to it?”
He nodded again.
“Are those your clan’s villages then?”
Here he shook his head. I looked at him in confusion.
“Those villages are the ones that have the primary claim of ownership over the mountain. Our villages only have a secondary claim. We didn’t want to split any of the guide money with them, so we decided to climb this ridge and sneak through their gardens. That way we’ll get to keep the guide money. Don’t worry! They’ll never see us.”
My friends and I looked at one another in alarm. Why hadn’t Kosta shared this crucial info with us beforehand? Our well-laid plans were clearly falling through. We were now unwitting participants in petty – and perhaps dangerous – tribal intrigues. And we had just climbed a different mountain unnecessarily, purely to enable Kosta’s and his kinfolks’ sneakery. Our attempts at a protest were too little, too late. The only choice was to continue, to pray, and to hope for the best. Still, the view of the mountain from here was at least a pretty one.
“Quick! Kosta said, “We can’t stand here and gawk. The other clan will see us. Follow us quietly! No talking.”
And with that we began our ill-advised attempt to sneak through the patchwork of coffee, banana, and sweet potato gardens that filled the valley to the left of the villages.
We made it most of the way across the valley before we suddenly came upon a woman in her garden. She eyed us suspiciously and started a series of aggressive sounding challenges in the tribal language. The men with us brushed her off, hurled some tribal speech back at her, and moved along.
“It’s only a woman,” they said to us.
“But won’t she tell the rest of the village about us?” we asked.
“Of course! But by that time we’ll be on our way. Let’s go!”
We made it to the initial ascent of the mountain without any further run-ins. Finally, we would begin the real ascent. By now it was mid-afternoon and as so often happens in that part of the world, the afternoon rain started. This made a steep ascent even trickier, as the packed clay trail turned slick and our clothes got soaked through. At this point, the three of us friends were fighting to stay optimistic about the whole thing. Still, it was not the best start to a hike that we hoped would be simple and fun.
Halfway up the mountain we decided to stop for the night. The late afternoon was fading fast and we had come upon a rock overhang that would provide some protection from the rain. A group of the local men with us scattered into the surrounding jungle and brought back firewood and kindling. It wasn’t long before they had a good fire going – quite the feat of jungle-craft considering how wet everything was.
We ate some supper, the rain tapered off, and everyone seemed to feel better. One of the local men, whom we dubbed “Moe the pirate” due to his beany cap, machete, and sharp features, took us on a short walk to a nearby spur of the mountain. The view was stunning, even in the twilight darkness. The moon and the mist played beautifully off one another as we stared off the alarmingly steep cliffs that ran around the spur, wondering just how far of a drop it might be.
There were times growing up in Melanesia when I was almost able to step outside of myself and look down with a third-person perspective, struck with gratitude or wonder by what a strange or beautiful setting I found myself in. I remember this being one of those moments. Will, Caleb, and I took some night photos together and the group wound our way back to the campsite. I don’t recall much about that night, and we must have slept soundly.
I awoke to the sound of a tribal call, echoing up the sides of the mountain. The highland locals have a particular way of yelling from one mountain top to another, leveraging the echoes and the space to send and receive message across remarkably far distances – a kind of Melanesian yodeling of sorts. Kosta was standing nearby, one foot perched on a rock. He was leaning in and listening hard.
“Kosta,” I said, “What are they saying.”
“They are saying that a group of rich European tourists have trespassed on their mountain… and that they are sending a war party after us.”
Kosta’s voice was surprisingly steady as he told me this.
“A what? A war party? What should we do?”
“Don’t worry,” Kosta said, “We’ve got plenty of time. We’ll reach the summit, then on the way down we’ll come to a place where the trail forks. We’ll take that fork off in a different direction though the jungle, and that will take us to the main road.”
“You sure that will work?” I asked.
“Don’t worry!” Kosta reassured me. “Everything will be fine.”
By now I was coming to have significant doubts about Kosta’s judgement, and his body language was betraying some uncertainty even on his part. But as with the previous day, there wasn’t much we could do other than press on, pray, and hope for the best.
Breakfast on a mountainside is never quite as good as dinner, but we made the best of it, brewing some tea mixed with milk powder and local sugar cane sugar. Before long we were on our way, greeted by a gorgeous morning.
This was the best part of the hike. The jungle around us was now breaking up and becoming patchy grassland. The sun was warm but not too hot. Our progress was obvious as we would mount one spur, look at the amazing view behind us, then descend in order to make our way up the next ascent. Caleb and I fell into good conversation as we walked, chuckling at Will’s red long-johns always one hill ahead of us, guiding the way.
We met several locals on their way down the mountain, having ascended from the other side. Though small in stature, these Melanesian highlanders were all remarkably tough. The women carried huge loads of firewood or garden produce on their backs, often hefting these burdens with the help of a large woven string bag, held to their body by its thick strap which lay across their foreheads. Most carried machetes as a practical tool for traveling jungle paths and doing garden work. All were barefoot. Decades of traversing trails had leathered and broadened their feet until they almost resembled those of hobbits – except that they weren’t very furry. These feet were so tough that local soccer teams would play barefoot and seriously bruise us with them even when they collided with our cleats and shin guards.
At last, around lunchtime, we reached the summit. The view was stunning. Those who have hiked mountains before know the endorphin rush that comes when you finally reach the top – and how much more delicious chocolate tastes at the summit of a mountain. We broke out some chocolate bars in celebration and the three of us friends began taking the sort of posing photos typical of high school boys feeling triumphant. I also snapped a classic shot of Moe the Pirate, smiling mischievously with a backdrop of distant peaks and clouds far below him.
It wasn’t long, however, until we noticed that Kosta and the rest of the guides seemed agitated, discussing something among themselves. Kosta soon made his way over to us where we were seated on the pile of rocks that made up the summit proper.
“I’ve spoken with the other guides, and we’d like you to pay us now, not later as we talked about before.”
I frowned. “Kosta, why do you guys keep changing the plan on us? Didn’t we agree on everything beforehand so that there would be fewer problems? Look at the mess you have gotten us in.”
“Also,” continued Kosta, “The boys didn’t bring enough food with them. They want some of your chocolate.”
We looked over at the crowd of guides who glanced our way hopefully. Sighing, we handed Kosta the guide money and the chocolate.
“This is all we have, other than money for some sweet potato lunch on the way home. I guess you’ll have to divide it seven ways.”
Kosta delivered the chocolate and the small amount of cash to the rest of the guys, who seemed somewhat disappointed. But the chocolate and the straightforwardness of the situation seemed to cheer them up. Now they were sure we really didn’t have any other money, so in one sense they didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I wandered over and did my best to offer them a sincere thanks for their help, and refrained from complaining about the sneakery and its likely consequences, and this seemed to go a long way.
We were a happy bunch as we began the descent. The guides kept assuring us that we’d make the needed turnoff in plenty of time to avoid the war party, and that combined with the beauty of the day and the joy of having achieved our goal kept us in good spirits.
Once again, Will managed to break out in front of the rest of the group. For about an hour and a half we continued like this. Suddenly we realized that for a while we hadn’t seen the red long-johns reappearing on the distant trail below us. As we reentered the thicker tree cover, we soon found the reason why.
Will stood at the junction of the trails, pale-faced and wide-eyed, staring at the war party’s advanced scout, a livid and screaming man with a bow and arrow, sporting blood-red teeth from chewing beetlenut, and a wild head of hair.
We were too late. We had been intercepted at the very junction where we’d hoped to make our escape.
“You!” He yelled at us. “You have committed a great crime! I have come to tell you to come down to the river where we will hold court. The rest of the war party is on the way to take you.”
At this point Caleb, Will, and myself started to get quite worried. Our group of guides started conversing with the wild scout excitedly in the tribal language. Ten minutes passed and the scout calmed down more and more. Kosta kept motioning to the escape trail as he talked and it looked the scout was seriously considering letting us go.
Then the rest of the war party arrived. It was about a dozen men, well-armed with machetes and bows and arrows, all just as livid as the wild scout had originally been. Some had wrapped jungle foliage around their heads as part of their combat attire. As they repeated the same angry demands, Kosta and our guides quickly became submissive and sheepish and motioned for us to forget any thoughts of escape and to do as we were told.
We made our way down to the river a much larger and much more sober party. Caleb came up next to me, whispering.
“I’m worried about what we should say in our defense. If they know we grew up here they might get even angrier with us, since that would mean we’d know the culture. Maybe we should just say we’re tourists so that we can plead ignorance?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I shook my head. “That wouldn’t be true, and it might be that claiming to be tourists would make things more dangerous.”
Caleb sighed nervously.
“We’ll just have to pray and tell the truth,” I continued, “After all, we did try to do right by everyone in this situation, so at least we have that.”
As we descended the final slope we offered up some desperate prayers on our way to the riverside court hearing.
Having arrived at the riverside, the “court” was arranged. The war party stood facing us, brandishing their weapons, with the river on their right. The three of us MKs stood facing them. Behind us and to our right, Kosta and his kinsmen stood huddled sheepishly at the edge of the trees.
The wild scout was appointed spokesman for the war party, which would presumably act as prosecution, judge, and jury.
“You have committed a great and shameful crime!” The scout-spokesman began. “You have come here and climbed our ancestors’ mountain deceitfully, trying to rob us of our rightful guide money. We own this land and you have violated our culture by trying to sneak around us. You are rich, European tourists! And we know that means! Whenever tourists come to climb our mountain they pay us our rightful share.”
Now the scout-spokesman transitioned to the agreed upon sentencing.
“Because you have done this, we have decided that we deserve compensation. So, we will take your money, your cameras, and your clothes!”
I was a bit taken aback by the final part of their demand. Our clothes? I looked at Will and at his bright red long-johns. What in all creation would the local villagers make of such an unusual garment? Would its buttoned butt-flap make it the prized possession of the village, presented to the chief, to be worn by him proudly as the only one like it in perhaps the entire country? I couldn’t help but crack a smile at this image.
A contingency plan was also quickly forming in my mind. If this war party didn’t listen to our defense and proceeded with their verdict, they might actually put us in a very powerful position. No one in these villages had likely ever seen three naked white boys – that would be shocking in and of itself. But missionaries were also held in high esteem in this culture. Missionaries who had died while serving the people of this land were even more highly revered. And my father was buried just an hour and a half up the the road. If we had to, we could march into the village, naked (or wearing banana leaves), calling down a world of shame on the this war party who had disgraced themselves by presumptuously robbing and shaming missionary kids – even those who had lost parents for the sake of these very people. Honor/shame cultures can, in a pinch, be flipped on their head in this way. It all comes down to who has been the more unjustly shamed and can get the crowd on their side. The rest of the villagers might even demand they beat up the war party for the sake of our honor.
It was now our chance to speak. I glanced at Kosta and our guides. They were going to keep their mouths shut, hoping to hold onto the pay they had already received. No help was coming from those guys. I looked at Caleb and Will, and their eyes told me they wanted me to make the defense. Each of us were feeling shaky with fear, and Caleb looked quite pale. I took a deep breath, sent up another desperate prayer, and started speaking in the local language.
“Respected men of this area. You say that we are rich European tourists who have robbed you of your rightful guide money. If this were true, then your anger would be just. But I am sorry, we are not rich, we are not European, and we are not tourists!”
Here a murmur went up among the war party and they exchanged glances.
“No, we are not these things. We are simple children of missionaries who have grown up and live an hour and a half from here. Our parents sacrificed greatly to come to this country to serve your people. For years we have heard of your beautiful mountain. We have desired to come and see it with our own eyes and now we have. It is even more beautiful than we had heard. You have an amazing land.”
Noises of approval and nods came from the war party.
“We came, we climbed your mountain, and we plan to tell all our friends what an amazing place this is. However, you must know, we agreed with these gentlemen (and here I motioned to Kosta and co.) to hire one guide from each village that had a claim to the mountain. When we arrived, they did not allow this to happen. But we three are innocent in this situation. Please let us keep our clothes and our cameras. The only money we have is for some sweet potato for lunch. If you would accept our apology for all of this, we would be very thankful and we will give a good report about you to others where we live. That is all I have to say.”
Kosta and the other guides were looking very uncomfortable at this point, and a lively exchange followed in the tribal language. Finally, an agreement was reached.
“We have agreed,” said the scout-spokesman, “that you are telling the truth and that you are not tourists. We will let you keep your clothes, your cameras, and your money.”
The three of us shot hopeful looks at one another.
“But!” he continued, “Our clan expects us to come back to them with lots of money. They are eagerly awaiting this. So we will let you go, but you must sneak around our villages again and escape. We will tell them that we could not find you!”
Our smiles quickly turned to frowns. Would there be no end to this foolish sneaking about? Another conversation was happening among the war party. Soon the spokesman turned back to us.
“Actually, we changed our mind about one thing. The boys would like to buy some smokes. We’ll take your lunch money after all.”
We handed over the little change we had left and everyone shook hands. Broad smiles came out all around, some white and brightly contrasted against the locals’ dark skin and black beards. Other smiles were blood-red, the tell-tale sign of beetle-nut chewers.
I decided to take a risk with all this newfound goodwill. “Friends! Can I take your picture?” After a brief discussion they all agreed and I snapped a photo of an armed, but smiling, war party – with the very camera they had just threatened to steal.
After this, the war party led us on a winding path through their gardens. I found myself becoming friends with the scout-spokesman. I decided to try to reason with him about his clan’s conduct.
“Do you want more tourists to come to your area?” I asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“What do you think will happen if you rob the tourists that try to climb your mountain like this? Do you think they will spread a good reputation about your people? Do you think you would get more guide money?”
“No, they would tell other people not to come here.”
“Exactly. It’s wrong to treat visitors like that.”
“Yes, it is wrong.”
“It was bad what you tried to do!”
“It was bad what we tried to do.”
“Don’t ever do that to visitors again.”
“We won’t do it again.”
I shook my head at the whole situation and the strange earnestness of these hot-headed tribesmen.
Soon we parted ways as the war party went off to spread their fiction about their failure to find us. We climbed a slope that we thought would lead back to Kosta’s village. Unfortunately, our guides got a little lost and we crested a small ridge in full view of one of the war party’s villages.
“There they are!” we heard the villagers shout as they started scrambling down below us.
“Run!” Yelled Kosta as we turned to flee down the slope to our right. We could see a large flatbed truck coming down the main road in the direction we needed to go. We ran and slid down the slope so that we could catch it in time.
“Get in the truck!” Kosta yelled as we ran up beside it.
“What about you?” I yelled back.
“Everything will calm down once you are out of the area. Now go! I’ll come to see you soon! Oh, and don’t tell your mom about this!”
We threw our bags into the truck and hopped in, yelling farewell to Kosta and his clansmen. There was no way I was not going to tell my mom about this. Let the honor/shame implications for Kosta’s reputation and basket business fall where they may. The truck rumbled down the road, and after some more misadventures involving a baby pig and a rainstorm, we made it safely home.
A couple weeks later Kosta came to visit me and my mom. The two of us sat together on our porch swing, drinking iced tea.
“You told your mom, didn’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I admitted.
We swung some more in silence. I could tell Kosta was feeling deeply embarrassed.
“You know, even with all the problems, we still had a great time,” I said. Kosta looked down.
“But I have one question,” I continued. “When we were having court down by the river, and that discussion happened between your group group and the war party, what was being said?”
“Well,” Kosta answered. “They were saying that they liked you – and the one in red – because you were not afraid. But they said that Caleb was afraid, so they should beat him.”
I sat up and stared at Kosta, his hand on his forehead in the traditional sign of feeling embarrassment or shame. Then I started to laugh. How in the world did Will and I not appear afraid? And poor Caleb! Kosta looked confused. What the war party had wanted to do – beat the one who showed fear – appeared perfectly logical to him.
“Kosta, promise me you will not tell Caleb!”
Kosta looked up from under his hand, and shot me a mischievous grin.