Our Orientation To Papua New Guinea

Last week I shared a story about a young couple that had just started their missionary experience in East Africa.  I was very happy to hear how well their first six months went in their new country of residence.  They sounded like they got a good start to learning Swahili, making new friends, and beginning their time of ministry over there.

I also shared the fact that things did not go quite so well for us when our family went over in 2006.  One of the things that was taken for granted, both by ourselves and those with whom we would work, was that we would do well very quickly since we had already served as long-term missionaries in Papua New Guinea.

What we all neglected to realize was that there are huge differences between life in PNG and life in Africa.  In PNG, our family lived in a remote jungle village of about 200 people and learned a Papuan language slowly over the first couple of years.  Whereas in Africa, we were in a city of about 200,000 people and had to start communicating in Swahili within the first few days we were there.  That is why an orientation to the mission field is so important.

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I am very thankful then for the training that our family got in 1997 at the Pacific Orientation Course up on Nobnob Hill near the town of Madang, Papua New Guinea.  Following their advice, we landed in Madang (after 52 hours of travel) and were immediately whisked off to the training center on the hill.  They believed it was best to go straight to the training center so that we did not “learn any bad habits” by being in the country on our own first.

It was certainly a culture shock for us seeing as we left a frigid Canada behind that February and then came into PNG where it is almost always above 90 F year-round on the coast.  The funniest thing happened though when we first entered PNG at the Port Moresby airport.  Jill saw no reason to keep a winter coat, so she stuffed it under the seat ahead on the plane.  In the customs line, they called her name out (oh no!!) and said, “I think this is your coat, Ma’am.”  :)

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Once we got to the training center, we had more surprises to adjust to.  Back then, when emails and cell phones were just really beginning to take off, we were told that there would be no communication with family or friends except by letter.  (Really??)  The idea then was that if we were to get posted to a remote area that had no contact with the outside world (except by snail mail), then it was important to start practicing what that would be like while in our orientation course.

The other big challenge for some was that they didn’t even want us to bring any soft drink cans into the center.  (That was hard for Jill who liked Coke so much back then, but more in a minute.)  What was more important, was that they helped introduce us slowly week by week into more of the culture of PNG and the trade language Tok Pisin (a pidginized form of English).

Not only did we learn to speak with the local Papuans, we spent time with some of the families that lived around the center.  We were assigned to one family and we were to visit them once a week and begin developing a relationship with them and learn how the average Papuan lived.  We built fires to cook our food, hiked the jungle trails, and constantly worked at language learning.

The big “test” for all of us at this orientation course was to go live in a village with local people for five weeks.  We lived in thatched roof houses just like they did, built fires to cook on, and lived and worked right alongside of the people.  This was definitely a huge challenge, but after preparing for nine weeks at the center, we felt ready to live just like the Papuans.

Now back to Coke.  I knew what a big thing it was for Jill to have to give up Coke for the 3 1/2 months.  Right in the middle of our village living experience we were going to have our “midway visit and evaluation” by the center directors, which just happened to coincide with our wedding anniversary.

So I had prearranged with the directors to spring a surprise on Jill.  We had a very nice visit with them when they came to our village.  We showed them around.  They talked with the people to see how we were doing.  We had our interview with them.  And then we all relaxed when they said we were doing fine.  Then just before the main director got back in his car, he said to Jill that he had a surprise for her in the car, via my request.  She went over and lo and behold, he pulled out an ICE COLD COKE!!  (I got triple stars in her books for that anniversary surprise.)

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Well, if I haven’t been able to get the main point across yet through my stories, here it is: to be able to enter into a cross-cultural environment and have the most effective ministry possible among the people, you really need to have a good orientation period into the local language and culture.  That is not to say that someone cannot minister to people of another culture without any training.

But to really be effective in reaching the people, we need to learn to “live where they live and walk where they walk”.  And how much better it is if we are carefully trained and eased into that environment.  I pray this article will be of help and encouragement to new and aspiring young missionaries.

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