A Village in Darkness

November 2014:  After many years of visiting remote, poverty-stricken and often conflict-affected communities in many countries all over Asia and the Pacific, and having experienced a number of close calls (one serious incident cost the lives of three of my international colleagues – and I know I’ll have to write about it here someday); my sub-conscious mind has perhaps gained extra sensitivity to the culture and general atmosphere in any village I am visiting.  I seem to quickly feel if there is an overall friendliness or animosity against my team, a feeling of sadness or glee with our presence, or an alarming threat to our being.  And that sort of “radar” has helped me to quickly win the trust and friendship of villagers and kept me or my team away from harm in many occasions.  But, on this particular village along the Fly River in Western Province of Papua New Guinea, the experience was quite different and my so-called radar got confused.

After leaving our dinghy at the riverbank, the rest of the team I was with went ahead with some guides to the village center, which was about a kilometer of a slightly uphill trek away from the river, as I followed slowly while taking photos of the surrounding scenery.  When I finally caught up with the team at the village center, I immediately sensed that something was not right.

Drimdamasuk Village, PNG

Quite a number of villagers were gathered under the houses tucked beneath coconut trees. But they were not there to welcome us.

Drimdamasuk Village, PNG

Village kids who usually create loud, excited commotion around us visiting strangers, seemed hesitant and tentatively stayed away from us.

Drimdamasuk Village, PNG

The women, often the most approachable among village adults, did not mind us and went ahead with their little chores while appearing to be absorbed in a discussion of a topic of greatest importance.

Drimdamasuk Village, PNG

And then, at the corner of my eye, I noticed a pair of feet and a shadow move by the window of a nearby house, protruding through the slats of the wall was a long machete. Having had a fatal incident involving machetes (in another country) — this almost sent my threat alarms ringing.

Drimdamasuk Village, PNG

But the emotion floating in the air was not of hostility. It was something else. Something not aggressive. It was something serious but sober. It was sadness.

After a while, the village chief who was presiding the gathering, left the meeting, approached us and apologized.  He explained that this was not a good time.  A village elder has been seriously ill for many months now.  They have tried traditional medicine and, when it did not work, tried the doctors in nearby cities but, still, the elder’s condition did not improve.  And now they were discussing as a whole tribe what could have caused the illness — sorcery and witchcraft among those being seriously considered — and how to find the cure and maybe how to retaliate to those who cast the spell.  In this part of the globe, sorcery and cannibalism still make the news occasionally.  We expressed our sympathy to the chief, solemnly apologized for the bad timing, and then asked permission to see the rest of the village before heading home.

Drimdamasuk Village PNG

Sensing from the village chief that it was fine to talk to us, the village kids finally approached, walked with us around the rest of the village, and then escorted us back to the riverbank where we bade goodbye to them. As we pushed our dinghy away from the bank, I threw them a last glance and wondered how these kids would deal with serious community issues in the future when they become among the leaders of the village.