Hey, these are real people

Jack and Isa Douglas recall life with with Stone Age villagers


“Hey, these are real people!” For Isa Douglas that was a revelation. Having grown up in Parton and worked as a hygiene-conscious Sister in West Cumberland Hospital she was now faced for the first time with Stone Age people of the jungles of Papua New Guinea. She had first to control the disgust she felt at the filth of the people in front of her, some of whom had mad smeared on their faces, most having seldom washed, wiping mucous from their noses into their hair. And then she realised that these were the people she had come to spend her life with. Newly married to Jack whom she met in Whitehaven at a house meeting where people met to pray for the work of missionaries she shared with him a concern “for people who had never heard the Christian message of salvation.” That concern drove them, directly after their wedding at the small church in Sandhills Lane, Whitehaven and reception at the Chase Hotel, to change clothes and travel to Pennsylvania for training with New Tribes Mission, stopping in London only to pick up Isa’s visa in her married name.

Having completed training at language school in Wisconsin where their son, David was born, they left as a family for Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1970. After making surveys into different isolated parts of PNG they decided to work with a group of people called Pawaia. This is a very isolated group of people who number about five or six thousand people. There are well over eight-hundred language groups in PNG and the language of the Pawaia at that stage was unwritten and had not been learned by outsiders. It was Jack’s task to construct an alphabet so that it would be possible to write in that language, and then, among other things, translate the New Testament. Shortly after their daughter, Sandra was born in a hospital in the main town of the highlands, Jack set off hiking to different villages and making lists of word to compare dialects. After deciding that the village of Haia would be the best place to locate, Jack made preparations for moving there with the family. Having given himself only three weeks before the family was due to join him, Jack recruited the local people to help him build a house much like theirs. The framework was made of poles, the floor of split palm wood and the roof of palm leaves.

Imagine the excitement for the Stone Age people living in the village of Haia when a helicopter landed bringing the first white lady and two fair-haired children ever to visit those parts. It was quite a day! After several days the excitement had subsided somewhat but other groups of Pawaia would come to see the spectacle that was now taking place at Haia. Jack took time to build some basic furniture such as table and beds and the family settled down to life with the Pawaia.
Blisters prove that Jack is human

The next priority was to clear an airstrip so that the expense of hiring a helicopter could be avoided. Jack was not afraid of a challenge but how do you undertake a task like that without any treefelling or earth moving equipment? Whilst the time and effort taken to clear an airstrip by hand would mean postponing the real task they hoped to accomplish this diversion served a very useful purpose. The local people, it was discovered later, had assumed that these strange white people who had come to live with them were supernatural people. The fact that the white man’s hands blistered and his back ached helped to prove to them that he was a man like them. They were happy to work with their new neighbour for about eighteen months and help him to move thousands of trees and tons of earth to create a level landing area for small aircraft.

Jack recalls the day when the first aeroplane landed so that the pilot could officially check that the airstrip was fit for use. People from miles around had come to see this event, all expecting there to be something in the aeroplane for them. Jack and Isa did eventually provide food in order to have a feast and distributed useful items of clothing and tools as a “thank-you” to the ones who had helped. It is exhausting even to attempt to find words to describe the size of their undertaking, from recording a new language to such a huge engineering project, but the most remarkable achievement of all was to dare to bring their young family and present themselves as man and woman to other men and women, some of them cannibals, across such huge chasms of culture. Their mission was to show their new friends that they are human like them, bringing with them no magical power, but only the love of God and a faith that could move mountains. It works both ways. As the Pawaia realised that we westerners are mere humans like themselves, we must also realise that those living in remote, undeveloped areas of the world are real people too.

We hope to continue with a series of articles of opening our own windows. As a sleet shower drove across their garden in Cleator and up the slopes of Dent, they clearly missed the warmth of PNG, and perhaps not just the climate. Clearly aware that civilisation imported by aeroplane can be a mixed blessing, they are willing to open our windows on a life full of unknowns and lots of surprises, very different from life in West Cumbria. This article is only a hastily prepared landing strip.

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