“Mwe’ao! Mwe’ao!” “The witches! The witches!” This cry often broke the silence of the nights at Haia, a village of the Pawaia people in Papua New Guinea. Everyone ensured that their doors were firmly shut to keep out the witches at night. Darkness only compounded the problems of their already dangerous, fear-ridden lives. Being animists they believed that a supernatural world paralleling the physical world controlled their lives. Mysterious things such as the rainbow or unexpected noises signalled death. Certain names must be avoided. Taboos must be observed in order to live long. Sorcery could harm or even kill. Some had knowledge of “poison” which was thought to have a deadly effect if left close to someone.
We cannot imagine the burden of fear carried by the Pawaia. A man placed leaves to clearly mark a trail in order to show the spirit of his child the way home. The child had been startled and its sudden cry was interpreted to mean that a spirit had stolen its spirit. The pressing need was to get the child’s spirit to return to its rightful owner. The mother started to sprinkle ashes behind her wherever she walked so that spirits would not be able to follow her child along the trails.
A man waved ginger root and shouted out spells. He had made a little pile of flowers and food and put some coins with them to persuade the spirit of his daughter to return. A bad spirit had stolen his daughter’s spirit by causing her grass skirt to catch fire and burn her from her ankles to her neck. Her spirit must now be persuaded to return before it was too late.
Wherever we went we were accompanied by men carrying bow and arrows. These were our bodyguards! One day Jack heard the sound of chopping. He followed the sound and came to where some men were working. They looked at him horrified. “How did you get here?” “I followed the sounds,” Jack replied. “Did you see any witches?” they asked. Jack replied that he hadn’t and added that he was not afraid of witches. By gently dropping ideas like this into their thinking their confidence in their old beliefs began to weaken and their readiness to listen to new ideas grew.
To repeatedly see such things was depressing for us. Isa being a nurse was able to help many sick people and so confidence slowly shifted from the local healers’ magic to Isa’s skills. Her medicine was considered good sorcery! Medicated soap was seen to give “new skin” and so soap was much sought after. It was fruitless to tell these people their ideas were wrong. They had no better explanations for the many sad events filling their lives. What they needed was visible proof of a better explanation for why things happened.
The Pawaia language had never been written so we had to search for ways to express ideas. We searched for the word “trust”. Someone suggested a word so we tried to narrow down its meaning. “When you perform peace ceremonies with enemies do you then begin to trust them?” “Of course! That’s the whole point,” they replied. It looked promising. Jack was called away. When he returned the men were in lively discussion. “We don’t need to fear witches and sorcery. We can trust God!” The new word was used naturally in a very clear context. We had another piece to fit into the puzzle of how to reduce the fear factor in their lives.
Some say, “Leave the Pawaia alone. They are happy as they are.” How very untrue! Their misery was very real and none of us would change places with them. They thank us repeatedly for going to teach about God. They love meeting for Bible conferences, some travelling several days through what was enemy territory to attend. “We could never do this before. We were enemies,” they say. It has been our privilege to teach God’s message in the Bible and see the results that has produced. The Pawaia now know at least some of the truth and the truth has made them free, as Jesus said it would.