Karla Watt shares her experience of being part of a language survey team in Papua New Guinea (PNG):
We had hiked 16 long hours over mountains, across log bridges, across countless rivers and through swampland to reach this point.
Drenched in sweat, our legs and skirts caked in mud, we sat on the moss-covered log at the edge of the garden, waiting. To sit was a welcome change from the hours of slogging through the knee-deep, leech-infested mucky waters of the sago swamp. But sitting made us easier targets. Oblivious to the repellent saturating our skins, sand flies rejoiced at their fortune as they feasted. We swatted absentmindedly at the unseen attackers and waited.
Finally, in the distance we heard it, the steady rhythmic thumping of a garamut drum. Our guides cocked their heads listening intently – the villagers were being called to meet us. Still we waited. Finally, Tom, our lead guide, appeared around the bend in the trail. ‘It is time,’ he said.
We shouldered our packs once more and crossed the last river before Baibai village. I noticed as we crossed every river that our guides fanned out in a circle around us. Wondering about this, I asked one of our guides, Amos, if there were any crocodiles in these rivers.
He said, ‘Yeah. Right over there under that tree.’
I replied, ‘That tree right there?’
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but don't worry; they don't come out during the day.’
The next afternoon while I was eating lunch, the villagers brought me the skull of a crocodile that they had killed in that very river the night before. Gulp!
That afternoon, however, as we reached the far shore, we heard the singing, faintly at first – praise songs rising into the air. Then, as we made our way down the trail, we could see the painted faces and swaying bodies of the Baibai villagers behind the grass decorations they had strung across the entrance to the village. As we passed beneath these, leis of bright tropical flowers and feathers were placed around our necks and hands were anxiously thrust out for us to shake.
One man danced around us with stalks of kunai grass, and the singing continued unabated as we were led through the village to the house where we would be staying. Only then did the crowd finally quiet down allowing us to speak and greet everyone. The leaders officially welcomed us offering a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord that SIL* had come.
We need God's word in our language so that we can understand it
In each of the three villages of the Momu Baibai language group, our welcome was much the same. The people rejoiced that the survey team had come to see if their language group could be the site of a new Bible translation project.
As we traveled throughout Momu Baibai territory on our twelve-day survey of the language, the team could definitely see the need for a translation and literacy project. The few men who could read, read Tok Pisin Bibles. Tok Pisin is a trade language used across much of PNG, but it was evident that they didn't fully understand the gospel message. One pastor even asked, ‘Is the resurrection for everyone or just for whiteskins?’
Church services held in Tok Pisin also did little to reach the women and children, who spoke only a few words of this trade language. But their hunger for God's word was evident. In each village, churches made from simple bush materials were packed with the people of Momu Baibai. Repeatedly they told the team, ‘We need God's word in our language so that we can understand it.’
Is the resurrection for everyone?
Language survey work is done by a team of two or three linguists who travel to a language area to determine whether a Bible translation is needed. If the language is dying out, the community is not willing to help with a translation or another translation has been done in a related language that the people are already using, there may be no need for a new Bible translation project. Surveyors ask many questions and collect as much information about the language as possible in order to make this decision.
At the end of our survey, the team highly recommended the Momu Baibai for a new translation project. But, there was just one problem – we didn’t have a translation team to send them.
He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’
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*SIL is Wycliffe’s primary partner organisation