Missing wantoks…

I’ve been in a funk this past week and I know it is related to news from New Guinea.  There was a landslide which took out two villages near Mendi (about 40 missing–buried) and then the ferry capsized off the coast of Lae–there were 250 students on board, and 104 are still missing (days later).  Several of those on the boat were from the Melanesian  Nazarene Bible college.  It is heart breaking…  and especially frustrating how little press it received.  (Given how much press the cruise liner off the shore of Italy received… where only 24 are still missing.  I guess it once again pays to be European).

There is a system in PNG called “wantoks”–which literally means “one talk”–that is, you speak the same native language. What is implied therein, is that you are from the same village, and are related, and your concerns belong to all your wantoks.  There is an obligation to tend to one another’s needs.  Sometimes this is good–no one is left out and no one goes without help.  But at times it is also a pain: relatives can just show up and demand things.  It is heavily intertwined with the lack of a notion of ‘personal property’ and the fact that language groups are so very small, isolated, and tight.  Anyway… I’m missing wantoks these days…

And the grief I’ve experienced over the news from PNG kinda exacerbates that feeling: to whom can I turn when I feel like this?  There isn’t anyone around who speaks my language… who has shared these experiences… who shares my grief.  It makes it very difficult to even talk about New Guinea at times.  I remember once when dad and I were riding his motorcycle, we came upon a bus accident.  I was about 10 years old.  Dad worked to triage folk, and we noticed one man who was bleeding out.  Dad said there was nothing to be done, so we tried to make him comfortable, and then went to help the other injured.  We heard a gurgling noise and saw someone pouring water down the man’s throat–literally drowning him.  The rationale: he’d lost a lot of fluid so this good Samaritan was filling him back up.  When we told this story in the US, it was met with disbelief that the ‘natives’ were so ignorant.  Sigh.

And I recall a time when a missionary family was driving the highlands highway (the only highway)–which was treacherous in and of itself with 20 some rivers to ford–to visit us on the north shore for vacation.  They never arrived at the appointed time, and we traveled to find them, only to discover a large landslide had covered part of the highway for several kilometers.  We spent 4 days digging people out, removing bodies and vehicles and debris, only to find out that the landslide had occurred before the missionaries got to that part of the road.  Because it was impassable, they merely turned around and went home, never thinking to notify us where they were, or that they were safe.  And their spin on the situation was that God had somehow intervened and saved them from being buried.

With whom can I share such tales?  Who can hear them without sensationalizing them, or using them for their own agenda?  In my grief, I am missing my wantoks.  And my wantoks are missing…


3 thoughts on “Missing wantoks…

  1. Bob says:

    This is an important post at a variety of levels. It reminds us that our memories are profoundly etched in our minds and hearts. It reminds us not to take for granted the life we share for it is so fragile. But perhaps most importantly, this is a reminder that life makes sense only when we think through the heart. Only the spaciousness of the heart can hold us when what we have experienced is beyond words. We are after all, all from the same village of life.

    Thank you for this brilliant reminder.

  2. Now the total missing from the ferry accident is up to 183: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17036895.

  3. Margaret Gillikin says:

    Can’t offer what you’re asking for or need at the deepest level, but my sense is that you’ve already invited some you trust to bear witness to the grief and loneliness that comes from missing your wantoks. I know it isn’t an adequate substitute. But perhaps knowing that there are folks in this world who love you and feel for your pain… even if we cannot comprehend or share it fully… maybe that can be a small note of comfort along the way. If I were in Chicago, I’d bake you a sweet potato. Hugs.


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