Now we’re teaching back in the UK, Language and Culture Acquisition is the first course our students take on the Masters in Field Linguistics programme I head up. Here’s a video sharing one student’s experience of the course.
Having taught Kossac Hebrew, and been taught by him how to make digital music tracks (cf. our joint project at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNZgFZoIt64), I enjoyed this little story about him!
One day Kossac, James and the rest of the team of the Kamano-Kafe translators were sitting at the table with Rich, their translation advisor, brainstorming. They needed some good readers to help with their audio recording of the recently translated New Testament. It was the goal of the team to provide a clear recording of every translated book to accompany the written version, to help their traditionally oral community understand God’s Word as clearly as possible. So far the recordings had been a resounding success, loaded onto hand-held, solar-powered “Audibibles” which were durable enough for the village setting. But, finding enough fluent readers wasn’t always easy.
“Remember that one man who helped us before on the Acts Video? The one who delivers day old chicks? What about him?”
“Yeah,” Kossac mused, “But he’s really busy. He’s constantly driving across the country to the chicken plant to pick up the…
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In linguistics, the study of ‘speech acts’ looks at how utterances make a difference to the world: they do something, and people typically talk about blessings and curses, promises, and marriage ceremonies. These fifteen years in PNG have been full of conversation and communication, but here I want to pick up on five that really made a difference. The first one doesn’t really fit with the rest, but it’s too important to miss out!
1. ‘The conversation’
Madang. May 2000. A boy and a girl, far from home, have been working together and watching each other for the past eight months. They have just returned from several weeks in rural Papua New Guinea. Palm trees rustle in the wind and the Pacific Ocean crashes on the rocks a few metres away. The air is heady with the scent of frangipani. Probably not the most rational time or place to discuss one’s deepest feelings and make life decisions – but a pretty romantic environment to discover we liked each other… and I’m very glad we did!
2. ‘Thank you’
Ukarumpa. 13 years later. The same man (though now not so young) has just sat down after finishing a presentation about the new direction for the Training Centre, rebranded as the ‘Pacific Institute of Languages, Arts and Translation’, and the plan to offer accredited training for Papua New Guinean translators. A respected elderly Papua New Guinean colleague approaches, bends over and clings tightly to the younger man. Sobbing, he just keeps repeating ‘thank you’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was rather ill-at-ease in this situation! But it had a profound effect on me. Papa Ainde, whom I had spent many weeks training and working alongside over the years, died a few months later, but his words stuck with me. ‘If only this was available before, my life would have been different. When I was younger we were treated like guinea pigs. It’s too late for me, but thank you for what you are doing for the next generation’.
Of course, his appreciation flattered my ego, and I knew in reality he had benefitted from much excellent training over his career, on which the most recent developments had been based. But for me, it affirmed the importance of thinking seriously about serving Papua New Guineans with the training they need, for the Bible translation work they want to do. It affirmed the strategy I’d been promoting, for a comprehensive, structured training program, rather than one-off courses that depended on the availability and passion of the trainers.
What were some of the speech acts that led to this moment?
3. ‘What if…?’
Ukarumpa, early 2009. A conference room with leaders from our organisation, making plans for a strategy to continue engaging with Bible translation in PNG. After much debate about doing this or that with our current structures and projects, one brave speaker suggested, ‘What if we actually said we would try to address the remaining 300 languages in Papua New Guinea that do not yet have any Scripture in their language?’ After a few moments silence, the idea was written up on the board with the others, and a chain of events was set in motion that changed the direction of our organisation for the next few years. Such an idea had been talked about for ten years, but it had never got so far as a strategic discussion of what might need to be done to make it possible.
In the following weeks, the same speaker shared with me his vision: to reach these languages, Papua New Guineans needed to be empowered to do the work, and the best way to do that would be to set up a proper training program specifically geared to the skills that would be needed, a ‘PNG Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Translation’ (PILLAT). But where would the funding and administration come from for such a venture? Again, it was only a few weeks later that the Chief Financial Officer of our organisation approached me with a suggestion to ‘dream big’. Imagine what funding would be needed to resource all the training needed for Papua New Guineans in a year, and write a project proposal to see if God will provide for it. Amazingly, he did.
4. ‘2020 Vision’
Ukarumpa. March 2011. Another two years have passed, and the idea for PILAT has continued to grow (now with wider ‘Pacific’ scope, the addition of ‘Arts’, and linguistics and literacy subsumed under ‘Languages’). It’s time to share the idea with a wider set of colleagues. In a couple of conference presentations I shared what I called a ‘2020 vision’ – a vision that by 2020 we would be offering effective, accredited training for Papua New Guineans to work at all levels of Bible translation: from drafters to advisors, consultants and trainers. The main thing that was lacking was someone with experience in educational administration to take us the next step of the journey.
During one of those presentations, God did something, prodding the Principal of Ukarumpa International School to move from that role and take the lead in developing PILAT. Max’s willingness to follow that prompt was the turning point from vision to reality, as he began to set up staff and structures to bring everything together.
5. ‘Let’s look for the Hithpael Infinitive…’
Ukarumpa. November 2014. It’s the last week of the ‘Hebrew 2’ course for Papua New Guinean translators, and Pastor Korry Reuben is teaching the lesson on the Hithpael stem (a kind of reflexive verb in Hebrew, like ‘he cut himself’). Two years previously, Korry knew no Hebrew, but after acing the two PILAT Hebrew courses he took then, and taking a one-week course in principles of adult learning, he has been invited back to teach the next intake. As I watch how Korry has developed my meagre lesson plan, and guides the students to find different hithpael examples (using the Hebrew capabilities of their translation software), I realise this is a speech act that says something.
It says, this is possible.
I see a Papua New Guinean, trained at PILAT, going beyond what he himself was taught, and teaching that to others. And even in the most esoteric area of Hebrew verbal morphology! Listening to Korry and others like him, I know that a sustainable Bible translation movement in PNG does not need to be just a dream, and I can leave with hope for the future.
The End of an Era: 6 houses and the life within them
The different places in which I’ve lived each hold different memories. The events that happened there; the people who visited; the draughty window or unlightable oven (fondly remembered in retrospect). As my wife and I walk around the campus that has been home to us for the best part of fifteen years, we reminisce about the houses: “Remember when I had malaria, and you visited me there?”; “Remember our first date when you lived there?” All too soon these visual reminders will be gone, so this week I’ll share photos of six of those homes and some of the memories they evoke.
1. ‘The Naz’
‘The Naz’ was short for ‘the Nazarene hostel’ at Ukarumpa—an unused school boarding house where all the single men were temporarily housed when I first arrived in PNG. There were between four and ten of us, depending on the time of year: Americans; Australians; Dutch; and the odd Brit. Two of us, actually. With a piano and table tennis table in the basement, it was a great place for music and parties, when not playing computer games or trying to include Tulip Meat (PNG’s version of Spam) in every single meal. It’s also where I first cooked a meal for Kate as we began to develop a relationship, but without the Spam that time.
2. The Bennett’s house in Yamai.
Outside the Naz during that first year, I lived in Yamai village in Madang province, carrying out linguistic research. The house belonged to the translator I was working with, and it was fairly luxurious compared to the rest of the village, with tin roof, gas stove and kerosene fridge. The Pacific Ocean was less than 30 metres away through the trees and I fell asleep to the sound of the waves at night. The sea dominated the environment: the plants outside are growing in upturned giant clam shells, and I remember sitting on the steps eating fried tropical fish, thinking guiltily of aquarium owners back in the UK. I also remember frantically calling for the doctor on the two-way radio after I stepped on a poisonous fish and could feel the toxin spreading up my leg. My friends had offered to urinate on it as the simple solution, but I was looking for something more… sanitised? In the end, plunging my foot in very hot water killed the pain and the poison.
I spent some time living here alone, and with the Bennetts, but the highlight was when Kate came to visit us, after her stint in the Sepik. Working alongside her in this very different environment was what finally convinced me that she was the one I wanted to spend my life with! (Although she reckons that it was just because she did my laundry for me…)
3. Oetzels’ house
Returning married and with baby Simeon, our first home together in Ukarumpa was rented from the Oetzel family, Bible translators in Milne Bay province. Situated on a little ridge, it had beautiful views of the surrounding valley – and was also freezing as the wind whistled through! Amazing friends has sent us the TV series ‘ER’ before we arrived, so, cold and jetlagged in the middle of the night, we huddled together with a sleepless baby for a bit of escapism. Here Simeon first learned to walk: I remember the surprise when we first heard his footsteps pattering down the hallway. Life has never been the same since!
4. Balilna village
Next we were off to an orientation course in Madang province, which included a stay in Balilna village. Our home was a fantastic guest house built by one of the elders in the church, our waspapa (mentor and guardian during our time in the community). Behind the house you can just see the eaves of the attached haus kuk (kitchen building with benches around the fire pit). A testimony of the concern our waspapa had for us was the gate he had built at the top of the stairs down from the veranda so that the toddling Simeon would be safe. Surrounded by beautiful plants and flowers, and with chickens roaming underneath (and waking us up in the morning!), we enjoyed our time experiencing more typical Papua New Guinean community life. We weren’t so keen on the night-time outings to the pit toilet, but I always carried a big stick to scare away any big spiders that also lived there!
5. The Fourplex
For the next eighteen months back in Ukarumpa, we lived downstairs in ‘the Fourplex’, rented from our organisation. Four verandas joined together at different levels, with children on each, was a fantastic environment for a growing Simeon to explore. They also provided perfect staging for setting up water slides in spare guttering and sending cars from one level to the next (all done for the children’s enjoyment, of course!) Inside, the open-plan lounge/kitchen/diner was a great space to turn into a ‘cinema’ and watch Starwars Episode 3 shortly after it was released; and a playdough modelling centre for Simeon’s ‘wiggle-worm’-themed 2nd birthday party. Kate’s memories focus more around the large orange cockroaches that appeared from time to time and enduring the peculiar smell of the kitchen cupboards that plagued her during morning sickness with Josh…
Finally, in 2008, we moved into our own house, at Lot E19 in Ukarumpa, and have lived there ever since. Seven years of happy memories here can’t be summarised in a paragraph or two, but here are a few.
The veranda is particularly beautiful in the afternoon sunlight, and we’ve had many tea parties with homemade scones and jam and good company. At other times, it has been full to bursting for Christmas lunch, sheltering from the midday sun; or for Bonfire Night, sheltering from the rain and watching the fire in the garden from a distance. The garden itself has its own memories: collecting orchids, attaching them to the mango trees and trying not to miss them when they flower; building a greenhouse for lowland orchids from an old desk; and learning how to take tree stumps and turn them into bonsais. The boys have enjoyed many hours jumping on the trampoline (especially in the rain, the more torrential the better…); playing in the tree house we built together; and enjoying the ‘water slide’ with friends (a length of plastic sheeting, soaked with the garden hose and lubricated with washing up liquid) . Our main room has smooth hardwood floors (the envy of visiting friends from England!) making them perfect for some of the boys’ favourite indoor activities: slippy-sock-dancing (put on furry socks, crank up the music, and let it all out) and teddy bowling (throw or slide all your soft toys at carefully arranged towers of bottles).
But most important are the memories of people we have spent time with here: PNG friends Leon and Ennis who share our lives and help us keep everything in order inside and out; the ‘guys’ who come for games’ nights every few weeks; and the families who have helped us not to miss our own families in England quite so much.
As we get ready to move on, we pass the house on to someone else and trust they too will build many happy memories here, and look forward to our own next chapter with a new home in the UK.
Have you ever looked carefully at a marble? It’s been a long time since I paid any attention to them, I realise, as they spill out of their bag and roll away across the smooth wooden floor. I gather them up, then pause. Marbles are, in fact, quite incredible. Who had a vision to create such an array of tiny visions trapped in glass? How did I not notice them before as they rattled through the boys’ plastic marble run? I linger, rolling them through my fingers, still marvelling at their small, simple beauty.
The last box is being packed tonight. Once the lid is sealed, that’s it. The boxes will be shipped back to England, and whatever is left has to fit into our four suitcases or get left behind. We’ve all reached saturation point: making decisions about every last item we own. I have sorted everything, from shoes, books…
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In this next step of the countdown, here are seven of the Papua New Guinean languages I’ve had the privilege of studying.
This should perhaps come with a ‘geek warning’ attached! But, it seems appropriate for a linguist, and I’ll try not to be too boring.
1. Awad Bing
My initial role in Papua New Guinea (back in 2000) was to investigate the sounds of the Awad Bing language. The translation team had been struggling to write the difference between several similar-sounding pairs of words. For example, the word bir with just a slightly different pronunciation can either mean ‘squirrel fish’ or ‘ladder’. Months of research showed the main difference to be the pitch of the word, with one having a high pitch and the other a falling pitch, and we finally proposed spelling one bir and the other biir (after trying and rejecting accent marks).
‘Ladders’ and ‘squirrel fish’ are probably not too easily confused in context, but this pitch difference also separates ‘our hearts’ and ‘their hearts’, so the spelling system needed to be clear in order to correctly read a sentence like ‘God is turning their / our hearts back to himself’.
Next, I helped with the vowel system in the Notsi language. Again, there were difficult-to-analyse vowel differences between pairs of words with only one syllable: was the difference that between short and long vowels with the same vowel quality (as in some New Ireland languages), or vowels with the same length but different sounds (as in others)? Once again, this has an impact on the writing system and how easy it is to read the language.
Research this time suggested that Notsi had both length and sound difference, with five pairs of vowels having both a lax and tense version, with the tense version usually about 1.5 times longer than the lax one. This is quite different to the neighbouring languages I used for comparison, but we still recommended writing the differences with single or double letters (‘a’ vs. ‘aa’, for example) rather than using extra marks or special symbols, which can reduce reading fluency.
Gadsup is spoken by people in many of the villages around our campus, and by several of my Papua New Guinean colleagues. So it made sense to try to learn it over our fifteen years here. Unfortunately, it also has several characteristics that make it incredibly difficult to pick up! For one, it has a tonal system, so a word like oni can mean ‘stone’, ‘door’ or ‘ditch’ depending whether your voice goes up or down. The spelling system used for the New Testament marks each of these tones with accent marks, shows short and long consonants, uses an underline for two kinds of ‘a’ sound, a ‘c’ for a glottal stop, and ‘d’ for a sound that can be ‘d’,’r’ or ‘l’ depending on the context.
This means the book of ‘Luke’ is transliterated as ‘Ducku’, which can be confusing to new readers! Although I made less progress than I desired, I can at least have simple conversations walking along the road with friends.
4. Guhu Samane
Since meeting my friend and colleague Steven Ttopoqogo in 2004, I’ve tried to pick up bits of his language: Guhu Samane (literally, ‘villages many’), spoken in Morobe province. For many years this did not go beyond simple greetings and (because of my PhD research) the phrase ‘my heart is bitter’!. However, in 2013 I had the chance to work with two Guhu Samane men to collect texts and begin writing up a useable grammar of the language. As a result I discovered fascinating things, such as the markers on the end of verbs which tell you if the same person is carrying on to do the next action, or if it is someone else.
The following year, I met Momoro Kini, an elderly and respected Kalo speaker, when he came to a translators’ training course. As we worked together on translation I discovered his desire for a grammar of the Kalo language, so we also put together a basic grammar, based on some brilliant texts he provided , which we analysed together. Whereas Gadsup and Guhu-Samane are Papuan languages, Kalo is an Austronesian language, but I had never before studied an Austronesian language from the southern part of the country. One thing I found fascinating about Kalo is the use of an ergative marker, -na which needs to be added to the subject of a sentence, but only when there is an object as well. So, you say ‘the crocodile swam’, but ‘the crocodile-na ate the man’.
6. Kamano Kafe
Kamano-Kafe is another Papuan language, spoken by a large community near our campus. Back in 2005, I first worked with the Kamano translation team helping them to check their Old Testament translation matched with the original Hebrew Scriptures. More recently, I’ve been teaching ten of them Hebrew, so that they can make their own translation by using the source texts while they are drafting and checking themselves.
Although I don’t know much of the language, we’ve discovered together many places where it is easier to translate from Hebrew to Kamano rather than to English. For example, there is a natural Kamano word (ko) for the Hebrew term hinneh, which is usually translated rather poorly into English by words like ‘Behold!’ or ‘Look!’, if it is translated at all.
7. Tok Pisin
This year, I’ve turned my focus more to Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea, and probably the most commonly spoken language in the country. I was interested by verbs like blututim ‘to Bluetooth’ and teksim ‘to text’ that have come into the language since the advent of mobile phones. Delving into the language pushed me to consider how to spell some of these new borrowed words, and to decide when a word could actually be considered Tok Pisin, rather than just a once-off switch to English.
This research is now having a direct relevance to Bible translation as I’m able to give input to the revision of the Tok Pisin Bible (first published in 1989), where the questions about what is (and is not) standard Tok Pisin, are ever-present.
With some 830 distinct and amazing languages in Papua New Guinea, each reflecting the creativity, beauty and diversity of God’s gifts of language, I’ve only scratched the surface with those I have been able to study and learn bits of over these 15 years. Yet it has been a tremendous privilege to gain insights into these cultures and peoples, and to see the smiles and acceptance as I try to communicate with each new person I meet in a few stumbling words in their language.
Next time: 6 houses and the life within them.
Last Thursday was an exciting day: the launch of published selections of the revised Tok Pisin Bible, at the culmination of a two-day conference on the revision project. The original Buk Baibel was published in 1989, and since then has had a tremendous impact on the country of Papua New Guinea, both in written and audio form.
However, there were a few things with the translation that could perhaps be improved and updated. It was a good translation, but could be made better. For example, last August, I wrote about the problem of recognising the name of God, because the translation just uses the same word Bikpela (in the same formatting) whether it is referring to ‘Lord’ or to YHWH, the name of God in the Hebrew Bible. I argued that it would be more helpful to write BIKPELA in all capitals for the name of God, in a similar manner to LORD in most English translations.
Other updates were needed to reflect changes in the Tok Pisin language in the past 25 years and increased familiarity with biblical concepts. For example, the 1989 version of John 6.4 says “Long dispela taim bikpela de bilong ol Juda klostu i laik kamap, em Bikpela De Bilong Tingim De God I Larim Ol Israel I Stap Gut” (literally, something like, ‘At this time, an important day for the Jews was near, it was the Important-Day-To-Remember-The-Day-God-Let-The-People-Of-Israel-Experience-Goodness’). 25 years later, the revisers feel that the word Pasova is well enough known and understood that they can just say “Dispela samting i kamap klostu long taim bilong Pasova de bai kamap” (‘this thing happened close to the time when the Passover day happened’).
More prosaically, in 1989, Tok Pisin speakers had to use somewhat cumbersome phrases like bilong wanem ‘for what’ or long dispela as ‘for this reason’ to introduce the reason for something. In the intervening time, the word bikos ‘because’ has become standard Tok Pisin vocabulary, and now that is much more natural to put into the revision.
The revision process started in 2010, and today’s published trial is just Genesis 1-11, Ruth, Psalms 1-10, Jonah, Luke 1-2, 22-24 and Philippians, but it is a significant landmark. Now it’s time to see what the PNG church thinks.
And, yes, the biggest excitement for me is to see the word BIKPELA in capital letters throughout the Old Testament!
When you move to a different country and culture, it’s not surprising that you need to learn new skills in order to thrive. So, for the next stage of the countdown, here are some skills that I’ve learned in the past 15 years since moving to Papua New Guinea:
- Bleaching vegetables without destroying my clothes.
Bleach is much more significant in my life here in the tropics than ever in England. And the bottles even have our name on them! When I first arrived and lived in a remote village, it was the fundamental resource for a healthy life, whether cleaning cuts, washing dishes, or disinfecting food. As a result, all my clothes gradually (or not so gradually…) acquired a delightful pink-spotted effect from bleach water splashes. These days, in a less hostile environment, we use it less, but still need it for the vegetables.
I buy vegetables at the 6.30am market, then we soak everything in water with a dash of bleach to kill any bugs. The key thing I’ve learned is to put the carrots in very carefully: I’ve ruined many T-shirts by too much enthusiasm when adding the heavier veggies. But, now, I can boast three years without damaging a single piece of clothing with bleach! (In reality, this is only partly because my skill has improved, and mostly because now I normally let someone else bleach the vegetables…)
- “The Hammer”
I never really enjoyed sports growing up, so I’m amazed that the highlights of my week are now playing Floorball (indoor hockey) and Ultimate Frisbee, and working out at the gym. It’s a testimony to the supportive community here, who have welcomed me into these team sports – and encouraged my ability to run and defend, if not to throw long or get the ball in the net too often. So, what’s “the hammer”? It’s a throw only the ‘good’ ultimate players can make, where the disc is sent high into the air above the opponents’ heads, and then floats gently upside down into the hands of your team-mate. And I’ve made at least a few successfully!
- Eating in silence
Different cultures tolerate different lengths of silence in conversation, before starting to feel uneasy. In my home culture, mealtimes were certainly a time for talking, and getting a word in edgeways was difficult. However, most of the Papua New Guineans I work with tend to eat in silence: ‘you have only one mouth’, as one saying goes, so either eat or talk, not both. I remember the first time I shared a meal in our training centre dining hall, and realising half way through that the other hundred people in the room were completely silent, while I carried on chatting away to the uncomfortable person next to me. More recently, it was me being uncomfortable, biting my tongue and not speaking during the mealtimes. Now, however, it’s something I’m happy with, and even enjoy, being in someone’s presence and eating together, but not constantly feeling the need to come up with something to say.
- Playing and singing (at the same time)
I’ve been accompanying worship since I was 13, for the first ten years primarily on the clarinet or flute. When I got to PNG, I quickly realised that it was difficult to lead a group of instrumentalists and singers with something in your mouth! So I’ve been working on piano skills for the past few years – playing and attempting to sing at the same time – which feels like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time. It’s still rather rough round the edges, and there’d better be a good drummer, guitarist and vocalist to cover my mistakes – but I think it’s making progress!
- Making tortillas and crumpets
I’m not heading for Great British Bake Off success any time soon, but the limited range of bread products in the stores here has led me to experiment with other options. Both tortillas and crumpets are pretty time-consuming, but also rather fun to make as a family (even introducing them to my mum), and great-tasting when eaten fresh!
- Tropical gardening
The lack of spring was very unnerving when we moved to Papua New Guinea: the flush of life and colour after the bleakness of winter is so much a part of life in temperate climates, that moving to a country with near-constant day length, temperature and rainfall was very disorienting. It’s as if time never progresses. Learning how to make an attractive garden in this climate has been challenging, where year-round growth takes nutrients up out of the ground and punishing rainstorms leach them away, and there are no garden centres to buy your choice of plants. So, I’ve learned a lot about propagating different types of plants from cuttings; mulching the soil so the tropical sun doesn’t cook it and kill new roots; finding moss and aerial plants to help attach epiphytic orchids to the trees; and balancing the correct plants to the boggy ground or sun-baked dry spots. But now I realise I can’t remember at all how to deal with autumn or winter in England!
- Avoiding sunburn
Brits are not renowned for their ability to avoid turning bright red at the slightest glimpse of sunshine, and I was certainly no exception. Here, however, we are only a couple of degrees south of the equator and over 5000 feet above sea level. This means the UV rays can fry your skin in just a few minutes, even on an overcast day. These are the most dangerous – it feels like a nice not-too-hot day for working in the garden, when you forget the barely-veiled sun and its invisible rays, and end up in red agony before you know it. So, the key things I’ve learned: never go out without a hat, preferably an Australian one with a nice wide brim; don’t hang around outside between 10.00 and 3.00 for more than a couple of minutes; and carry an umbrella for sun protection.
- Inefficient lingering
My natural tendency before coming to PNG was certainly towards hard-working efficiency – to get projects done quickly and thoroughly, and on my own. This inevitably created some conflicts when moving to the supremely relational cultures of Melanesia. It helped when I developed Repetitive Strain Injury in 2007 and could no longer work for more than thirty minutes at a time on the computer, and when our organisation somewhat officially endorsed the value of ‘inefficient lingering’ in 2008 – the value that comes from talking and networking, and longer-than-strictly-necessary coffee breaks. Perhaps it renders me a little less employable in the British workplace, but it has certainly been a transformation to learn how to work here in collaboration with others, lingering to talk and understand, and let the task take care of itself on a bit of a slower timescale.
These are just a few of the skills I’ve learned. Stepping out of my home culture was certainly an opportunity for growth, sometimes in unexpected directions! If you found this interesting, think about what you have learned in the last fifteen years too.
Coming next, 7 languages it’s been a privilege to study.
Today marks a milestone: for the first time we ate guacamole made from avocados grown in our own garden.
Usually we buy avocados from the local market at 6.30 in the morning, make them into guacamole – with local onions, lemons and tomatoes, also from the market – and throw away the skin and stones. Over the years several of those stones have germinated into baby avocado plants around our compost heap, and we let one of them grow into a full sized tree.
For the past three years, I’ve watched this one tree get larger and larger, and discussed with Enis, the local man who helps us keep the garden in order, whether it will be this year that we finally get fruit. So towards the end of last year I was very surprised when it did actually burst into blossom all over!
It was only several weeks later as Enis and I talked together beside the tree that he let me into the secret. He had slashed the trunk of the tree all over with his bushknife, which apparently stresses it so much it puts out flowers!
For a couple of months now I’ve watched the flowers turn to tiny green globules and gradually grow into full-size avocados – worrying about the number of them being eaten by insects and birds, and also never sure if the avocados it produces would actually be edible or just stringy mush – it’s impossible to tell from outside.
Finally today I cut into one – nothing quite like the sight of that beautiful smooth green interior! Or the taste of freshly made guacamole.
Looking back at 15 years in PNG, one of the most significant highlights has to be the fantastic people with whom I’ve had the privilege of working, so I’ll focus on them in this next step of the countdown. Clearly there are too many to mention by name in a list of nine, but here are some of those who truly inspired me as we worked together as colleagues, and left their mark on the way I live my own life.
1. Douglas Bennett
When I first arrived in Papua New Guinea, it was to work with Douglas Bennett, an Australian translator working on the Rai Coast of Madang Province, whose project had reached a bit of an impasse because of the complicated sound system of the language (Awad Bing) and the organisational requirements. My role was to help get through that impasse. We spent a lot of time working closely together, both in the village and back at the Ukarumpa centre. What I learned from Douglas was the importance of two things: integrity; and care for your colleagues. Don’t make up stories that sound better than reality just to please your funders. Treat everyone with respect. Be prepared to stand up for those you care about, and for what you believe in, even if it makes you unpopular. It was a very important foundation for working here. And I’m particularly glad that his care for Kate brought her to stay with us in the village, the start of a romance still going strong fifteen years later!
2. Jim and Anne Henderson
When we returned to PNG in 2004, I began to be involved in training Papua New Guineans, as well as working on my own projects. At the time, most of the courses I was helping with were being run by Jim and Anne, who had completed a New Testament translation in Milne Bay, and were willing to mentor me. Jim and Anne inspired me with their blend of both passion and patience. Certainly their passion for their preferred method of teaching Hebrew had a great effect on me – as it is still the guiding principle for all my teaching. But they were also passionate about other things, from being substitute grandparents to my children, to writing Visual Basic macros. But that passion was coupled with patience and perseverance – a belief that people could learn even the complexities of biblical Hebrew and computer programming, and the willingness to sit with you while you tried and to help you for as long as necessary until you ‘got it’. I don’t have the same patience, but I try to follow the same spirit.
3. Steven Ttopoqogo
At around the same time, I first met Steven Ttopoqogo, representing the third generation of Ttopoqogos working on translating the Bible into Guhu Samane. When the Hendersons left, Steven and I took over the Translators Training Course together, he as Principal and I as Academic Coordinator. Our relationship since then has been one of walking together in cross-cultural brotherhood. We’ve worked through many issues together, and I remember well the time he explained that now he ‘knew’ me and so could say what he really thought, rather than just saying what I wanted to hear. And that was after several years together! I’ve learned from Steven the real meaning of grace and forgiveness in difficult situations, seeing the wisdom with which he relates to both expat and Papua New Guinean colleagues. There are many challenges to living and leading here, and I’ve learned from Steven to listen and reflect, rather than just jumping in with emotions and conclusions.
4. Pekka and Maiju Laihia
As I took over more and more training responsibilities, Pekka and Maiju Laihia came to join the team, as training centre manager and training office manager, respectively. When working with them, they used to say I was the head and they were the legs. I guess that could partly be true in the sense that I liked talking about things, whereas they tended to do things. Pekka explained it like this one day: see the banana on the table. Some people might like to get together and look at the banana and decide just how they are going to eat it. Which end will they peel from? Who will do the peeling? How will it be divided? Meanwhile the banana itself goes rotten. There are other people who just eat the banana. Pekka is someone who eats the banana, and it was great fun surfing in his wake as he transformed the training centre. I learned that though talking and analysing has its place, sometimes it’s a good idea to just get on and do something. Working with Maiju was more gentle and we had a great division of labour whereby I wrote the emails and she did the maths. The two of them brought sparkle to the workplace, and working with them was always ei synkkä, ei hapan, ei kitkera, ei kaamosmesennus (not gloomy, not sour, not bitter, not that-kind-of-winter-depression-that-you-can-only-really-get-if-you-are-a-Finn-living-in-the-arctic-circle)
5. René van den Berg
Another role I’ve held throughout the years has been as a linguistic specialist, writing academic papers on the languages of PNG. In that role, René van den Berg has been an inspiring mentor. Being near him is a chance to watch a master at work – building relationships, learning languages, always interested in people and making them feel at ease. He’s even able to make people actually want to write that linguistic paper or dictionary they never got around to yet! Ten years ago, we were the only two men to take a course entitled ‘Learning to Care’. It’s that ability to be a caring academic that particularly inspires me – a rare mix of social and linguistic skills. I’d love to also have his ability to think clearly, challenging and stimulating people onwards in their thinking, whilst at the same time listening and gently encouraging them.
6. Tande Tumbo
As I continued to teach Hebrew courses, I saw the need for a Papua New Guinean to come back and help me teach the next year’s intake. That’s when I really got to know Tande, who had been one of the students on a previous course. He has an infectious enthusiasm and always has a twinkle in his eye – great qualities for a preacher and teacher. Tande is a living embodiment of the principle we call ‘one hand up, one hand down’ – always be learning from someone else, and always be passing on to others what you have learned. Frequently I spend the daylight hours explaining the complexities of Hebrew roots and suffixes, then, after class has finished, Tande is up until midnight recontextualising it with the students, explaining again in Tok Pisin with appropriate cultural metaphors. I hope I emulate some of his blend of humour and commitment in my teaching.
7. Korry Reuben
I suspect it is not unusual for teachers to be inspired by their students. Korry Reuben is another one who inspires me, and has now become a teaching colleague. Korry is a Kamano Kafe translator who has been through all the Biblical Studies courses we run, and has now helped me teach the past two Hebrew courses. We’ve met each Monday lunchtime for the past two years, reading Hebrew together. He inspires me with his dedication and his ability – he always wanted to learn biblical languages, and has committed himself to doing just that, with great success. He also inspires me with confidence, that someone who has learnt their Hebrew from me is now able to competently train others.
8. Rudy Yawiro
There’s a saying that, when put in a situation that is out of their depth, some people sink and some people swim. But then there are also the people who not only take like a duck to water but also start designing lifejackets and teaching everyone else how to swim. That’s what I keep seeing in Rudy, and being inspired by. As our organisation’s curator and web publishing expert, she dived in and quickly became the national expert and trainer of everyone else. Again, despite no teaching background, she agreed to help with one of our courses, and quickly moved on to training other teachers in adult learning principles. I hope I’ll be able to approach my new roles in the UK with as much undaunted gusto as she does!
9. Max Sahl
Finally, Max has been my most recent boss, having moved from Principal at the High School to take on the Principal role at the Pacific Institute of Languages, Arts and Translation (PILAT), my training institution dream that that has been becoming reality over the past few years. Max has inspired me as a supportive, positive supervisor, who has a vision and will do what’s necessary to make it happen. From Max I’ve also learned that there are some issues that cannot best be addressed by email. My personal tendency is to process everything in writing, especially when an issue arises over email in the first place. But Max has encouraged me to get off the computer and actually talk face-to-face with people when there are problems, and it’s been a good experience. Working with him has also meant I’ve needed to learn about the crazy things that Australians do with a rugby ball, and the State of Origin in particular, but I guess we can’t have everything…
So to each of you inspiring people, and all the others who wouldn’t fit in the nice countdown but have also helped me grow and develop – thank you for the last fifteen years!
Next time: 8 new skills I never expected to develop.