Papua New Guinea is home to thousands of distinct tribes speaking 830 living languages. It is one of the most diverse places on the globe in terms of peoples, geography, ecology, and linguistics. Many of the 830 languages have never been written down, have never had an alphabet.
My friend John Relyea gave his life learning, analyzing, and describing one of those languages–Aruamu–and translating the Bible into it. His wife Marsha gave twenty-three years of her life working with John as his partner in learning and translating and in literacy training.
John died of a sudden heart attack in January of 2005, just after completing his life’s work and sending it to the printers. In fact, April of that year was to be the celebration of the arrival of the Aruamu Bible. After returning to the United States for John’s funeral, Marsha went back for the combined celebration and memorial service.
John and Marsha worked with Pioneer Bible Translators. A few years before John’s death, I remember talking to a friend about their work. I was asked, “Will they be translating Shakespeare and other great literature?”
I had two thoughts: “I don’t see any English majors risking malaria and other dangers to bring Shakespeare to the tribes,” and “It is certain no one will do that until they have an alphabet and literacy.” Then I also realized, “They may have a great oral literature–but the rest of the world will never have access to it until their language is written down.”
Yale historian Lamin Sanneh argues that missionaries have done more than anyone else to preserve indigenous languages and cultures. I remember John telling me about the adventure of learning the ways of the Aruamu people.
But don’t missionaries change native cultures? Not nearly as much as western corporations and entertainment do. Modern missionaries are trained to respect indigenous cultures, traditions, and ways. Do they sometimes encounter aspects of those cultures that need changing? Of course.
About two years ago I met another Bible translator working with a different tribe in Papua New Guinea, who told of a man who said, “I wish you had brought us the Bible sooner.” He described how as a boy of about eight years he witness his mother being strangled to death by the village elders.
Why? The boy’s father knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of his wife going to another man. One taboo of the traditional religion they then practiced involved an idol. If any woman looked at the idol, she had violated the taboo and death was the penalty. The dying husband asked his friends to place the idol in a location where his wife would see it–and then catch her in the act–as soon as he was buried. The friends carried out the man’s wishes, and a little boy saw his mother cruelly taken from him.
Many traditional ways are beautiful and meaningful. Some are deadly. If you have the opportunity to enjoy a visit to an island paradise and enjoy the hospitality of the island people, thank a missionary that you are not on the menu.