My friend Major Michael Dengi had mentioned back in April that he and Major Phil Maxwell were going to Kerema to dedicate some coffee shops, and that I should go along. “You’ll get good pictures, my friend,” Michael told me. Little did I realize …
On Friday morning, May 24th, about quarter to 5 I lugged my bag out to the truck in the eerie pre-dawn murkiness, then went back inside to swig down the last of my coffee and wait for Michael and Phil. Soon, folks began to gather and toss bags and other supplies into the back of the truck – and it was more than just Michael and Phil. There were a couple of Lieutenants who had been in Moresby for a leadership conference. They were going to hitch a ride with us out to Kerema. By the time all was said and done, we were an hour late departing the city, and there were 13 of us in the tiny 4-wheel drive truck!
We bounded down the “highway” toward Kerema, and for six hours I felt like I was in a physical battle, careening around the curves, smashing on the breaks constantly for the continual series of craters and mud bogs in the road. But we eventually arrived, and I’d never been so pleased to get out of a vehicle. (Kelly Collins, you remember kissing the ground upon our return from the sand dunes in Peru? This was worse!!!)
Friday afternoon we had a meeting with members of the local legislative council who want to partner with The Salvation Army to bring in a school and a clinic. We were able to change clothes and wander through town to visit the markets and have a look around. We had a nice supper, and then retired early – Saturday would be a big day! I was grateful for the hospitality of Majors Leo and Susan Naua. The meal was terrific, and I was given a room to myself, with a wooden platform bed that had a thin foam mattress with a mosquito net over it and a ceiling fan.
We arose early to have breakfast and then head down to the gulf to wait for the dingy to come take us across to the rivers to visit the four villages where we would dedicate coffee shops. These shops were small huts made from bamboo and palm, and meant as gathering places for villagers to meet for fellowship, negotiation, counsel.
The scenery was surreal for me … I couldn’t believe that I was actually living through a moment like that. The pictures can only provide a sliver of the experience. The people were so friendly and appreciative. As we walked the “road” (the dirt path that edges the river) from village to village, people would line both sides just to shake our hands and greet us with huge smiles!
At each village, we were given a fresh coconut to drink. We were greeted with leis and a warrior that sprung from behind a tree, and a woman splashed white powder on our necks and cheeks. There was usually a formal portal through which we passed that was decked out with fresh flowers and a hand lettered sign welcoming us. The villages were all lined on both sides to sing and shake our hands as we entered the village. Major Phil and I were each given a sleeping mat as a gift in one village.
We soon became unconcerned with a neat uniform. Between jumping into the river to push the boat through shallow water, climbing up muddy embankments, sweating, and tossing river water on our heads to cool off, it just became a non-issue! J
The highlight of the day for me was the fourth village, Hovoha. The day had been long and tiring. We were greeted so warmly, and again got a fresh coconut and flowers around our necks. The children were all decked out in fresh-made garlands around their heads, necks and arms. After the ceremony, they served us coffee, a smoked fish and a piece of cake. I took mine over to a cluster of children sitting on the ground. We couldn’t talk, but I goofed around while I ate, and they enjoyed laughing at (with) me. When it was time to go, the village followed us back to the river and watched as we pushed our boats down the shallow river.
Blame it on exhaustion, or the heat … as I pulled myself out of the water and over the side of the boat, I stood and waved wildly and shouted “BYYYYYYYEEEEEE!” as loudly as I could. At first, the children were too stunned to react. So I shouted it again and waved like a maniac! This time, there was laughter, and some of them shouted back.
I would pretend to settle in for the boat ride, then spring up and again shout and wave. The children began running down the path and from behind the jungle brush we would hear them laugh and shout, “Bye!” as loudly as they could. This went on for several minutes. My boat mates would just shake their heads and laugh, but we were all enjoying the children’s’ participation in this mayhem.
We came to a bend in the river, and lost sight of the children. But suddenly, up ahead, we saw them – sitting out on a low tree that was bent over the water. They waved and shouted and laughed at this crazy American, and I waved and shouted right back. This was the end of the road for the children, so as our boats rounded the last bend toward open water, I waited until we were out of view, and then bellowed again as loudly as my hoarse voice would let me. And from the great distance came back their laughter and their shouts of, “Bye!”
As the sun was setting over the gulf, we dropped off half the guys on a small island to “look for crabs”, and the rest of us cruised over to some fishing spots. We drowned some prawns and squid for a couple of hours. There was a tiny fish pulled in by one of us, but certainly nothing to brag about – it was barely bait! It started to rain so we pulled our lines in and headed to the island to pick up our friends. In the dark we were a bit concerned about finding them, but from a distance we saw a blazing bonfire, so we headed for it. Our friends, in spite of the rain, were in good spirits, having just sat on the beach and built a fire and chatted. There were no crabs.
Finally home, I got out of my uniform that was soaked and dirty, and found that the hem of my slacks carried about a half-kilo each of fine river sand! I was grubby and a little sunburned, but filled with awe and gratitude to God for an incredible experience.
Sunday we got back in the boat and headed to Meii Church. I was taking in the scenery and shooting some video and missed an incredible image that at least I still have in my mind’s eye. As we entered Meii, I was sitting backward in the boat, with my eye stuck to the viewfinder of the video camera. We rounded a bend, and I turned, dropping the camera to my lap, just in time to see a raft slipping into a small boat launch. Standing on the raft were about a dozen uniformed Salvationists on their way to the hall!
Worship with the Meii church members was wonderful, and after the service we had lunch and visited the beach just a short walk away. Then we loaded up the truck and headed back to Moresby. Quite an incredible journey overall. Look at the pictures (see the link on the Photos page), and most important, pray for these lovely folks.