Trevor Johnson and Paul Snider have been laboring among the Northern Korowai, just north of Papua’s Asmat region, since 2007 and 2012 respectively. They are trusted associates of HeartCry. You can read their testimonies on the HeartCry Missionary Society website (www.heartcrymissionary.com).
The Furthest Place from anywhere
The island of New Guinea resembles a left-facing dead bird. Its carcass lies sprawled across the South Pacific, just north of Australia. Formerly known as Irian Jaya, Papua is the left half of this envisioned fowl – the eastern end of Indonesia. While Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, its easternmost portion is home to some of the most remote and neglected tribal peoples remaining on earth. Our two families – the Johnsons and the Sniders – serve one such group: the Northern Korowai people.
National Geographic calls the inhabitants of our region “the Treehouse People.” Their jungle huts sit perched at elevations of between six and twelve meters (20-40 feet) off the ground. Four thousand semi-nomadic, never-dying tribal souls live spread out over these several hundred square kilometers of dense lowland jungle. The Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot who lands here calls our area “the most remote area in an already remote land” and “about the furthest place from anywhere.” His float plane sets down with a splash on our narrow river – a river often too dangerous for a float plane due to wide fluctuations in depth (which makes medical evacuation for emergencies precarious during the dry season). Roads, electricity, and land airstrips have yet to find their way into this broad region. Governmental presence has only recently begun to be felt. Two years ago, this tribe was counted in the Indonesian census for the very first time.
Two dozen villages and many treehouse clusters dot this vast green expanse, and two dialects of about 2,000 speakers each divide this area roughly in half between north and south. A faithful Dutch translator labors in the southern dialect of the Korowai and is making excellent linguistic progress. We live further upriver, in the centrally located village of Danowage, among the northern-dialect speakers (the Korowai Batu or “Rock Korowai”). We are currently partnering with seventeen indigenous Christian evangelists from the highland Dani tribe. We desire to saturate this whole region with a solid Gospel witness.
Our Ministry Team
Our team which ministers to the Northern Korowai consists of two American families: Trevor and Teresa Johnson (and their children Noah, Alethea, and Perpetua) and Paul and Patricia Snider (and their children Lane and Marianne). We also work closely with a Dani couple, HeartCry missionaries and evangelists Jimi and Perin. They have proven particularly fruitful in helping people to understand the Gospel, especially among the women and youth in this region. There is also a broader team of over a dozen other Dani Christian evangelists of varying capabilities serving the various preaching posts throughout this region. However, at the moment, we are a bit undermanned. Five of the seventeen have been hospitalized within the past several months due to illnesses contracted or injuries sustained while serving this region. For example: Pastor Bimber has a broken shoulder; Brother Ainus was mauled by a wild pig; and others have malaria, tuberculosis, etc.
The Gospel was planted in the mountains of Papua a generation ago among the highland Dani tribe. While many problems still face the Dani tribe and church, many faithful believers still remain, gripped by a tremendous missionary zeal to carry the Gospel to others no matter the cost. Rather than bypass these indigenous believers that God has raised up, we hope to equip and facilitate an indigenous movement in order to help fully reach the Korowai. We want to see highland Papuan Christians reaching lowland Papuan animists. Zealous Dani highland churches have already sent over two dozen evangelists and airstrip workers here to the lowlands to aid these efforts. Some have gone out with no financial support and have even arrived at mission posts with merely their machete and a net bag full of seeds and basic supplies to plant their gardens. They are a shocking redefinition of what it means to be a “tent-making” missionary. These Dani evangelists are frequently stricken with malaria; and they endure much hardship, hunger, and threats in the service of Jesus Christ. Some have even buried children here. But a readiness to suffer and a zeal to reach their distant Melanesian kinsmen with the Gospel compels them onward.
Those To Whom We Minister
The Korowai are a remote, animistic, and sometimes polygynous lowland jungle tribe. They practice semi-nomadic cultivation of sago trees, bananas, and pandanus for food. Tribal women, with babies swinging from their net bags, dam up small streams and then use shovel-like spathes of the sago tree to bale these streams in search for minnows left on the muddy bottom. Some villagers still use a local plant to stun the fish for easy capture, but the younger men have all but forgotten this skill. They hunt pig and cassowary and consider the sago grub worm (the larva from a local beetle) a delicacy. They periodically gather socially for grub feasts.
The Korowai fear demons and death-dealing witches. They rub pig-fat on the door frames of their treehouses and fashion charms to appease dark forces. Some Korowai still clutch their heads if you photograph them since they believe that the top of the head is where the soul escapes upon death. They believe there is a separate world that exists on the underside of this world made up of demonic Tario (Laleo in the southern dialect), who desire communion with Yanop (people). This term has also come to be used as an adjective to describe non-native things that come in from the outside world. Thus, I have been called Tario-Alin (a white Tario), my clock is a Tario-Tup-Kun (a demonic or foreign sun circle), and bread is Tario-O (demonic or foreign sago). Chief among the Tario, if even considered one of their class, is Saip (sometimes Saif-Abul, the Shiver-Man), whom most now identify as Satan.
Something resembling a belief in reincarnation exists (though we are still learning). The dead are reborn in the world of the Tario, and the Tario are reborn on this side of the world. These two worlds are meant to stay apart. There is a belief that whenever the outside world of the Tario and the Korowai world of the Yanop mix, surely the end of the world is at hand.
The A’huwah (or xaxua or A’ua) are witches who are also greatly feared, who can live among us. They supposedly shoot their victims with invisible arrows and eat their victims’ guts while they remain unconcious. They then replace their innards with leaves (sometimes ash), slowly causing death. Sometimes sick people come to our porch during afternoon clinic complaining, “I have been shot by a hidden arrow from Satan.” People attribute many illnesses to witchcraft and often accuse the weak and defenseless (usually young boys) of witchcraft when there are sicknesses.
Anthropologist Rupert Stasch, who focused his work among the southern dialect in the mid-to-late 1990’s, documented over 200 witch executions in the recent past. The father of my son Noah's soccer companion, Pilemon, was murdered, dismembered, and eaten as a witch when Pilemon was still a young child. Yamis is a young boy who is cared for by HeartCry missionaries Jimi and Perin. Two years ago, he was also accused of witchcraft. Evangelist Ainus (now recovering on the coast after being mauled by a feral pig) untied and carried Yamis back to Danowage after the community in Ujung Batu could not decide whether to strangle him or drown him. Yadison, a mentally challenged boy from Waina, was tied up in the middle of his village in 2009 until evangelist Yowenus shielded him with his body and brought the boy into his own home. Now Yadison attends every session of Bible teaching and tries to soak up as much as he can despite his mental limits.
One part of the evangelization process done by the highland indigenous Papuan evangelists has been the gathering of people from scattered tree houses into villages to facilitate teaching and preaching. These new village houses are built close to the ground on stilts and do not follow the traditional “treehouse” pattern. These new “village-dwelling Korowai” often struggle with this dual existence of static village living and semi-nomadic jungle circulation. The gathering of the Korowai into villages brings them into closer proximity with one another and often increases conflict for a time, until they get used to each other’s presence.
A normal way of relating to one another among the Korowai is through threats of violence or vociferous demands. One anthropologist describes this as “brinkmanship” (think of the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War either threatening or appeasing one another as tensions ebbed and flowed). If a husband dies in America, people will visit and offer gifts and condolences to the widow. In contrast, a Korowai widow will be met with harsh demands for foodstuffs and gifts by the extended family.
Finally, the Korowai are sometimes polygynous. Men barter for young girls as future wives. These young girls then go and live in the home of their future husband until menstruation begins and the marriage can be consummated. Many young mothers and their babies die at childbirth due to poor nutrition or the young age of the girl during her first pregnancy. Women often go out into the jungle to give birth, and it is reported that they do so over a hole dug in the ground for such a purpose. Some abandon their babies in the jungle and push leaves down their throats with a stick in order to keep them quiet.
We long to see a church of Korowai believers led by Korowai shepherds. We pray for indigenous pastors and evangelists who themselves know the Gospel and who can teach the Gospel to others. Our methodology is based on II Timothy 2:2: “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” Our goal remains discipling tribals who can then make tribal disciples (reaching the lost to reach the lost). We read and discuss bible stories to six or eight young tribal men throughout the week. Several profess faith and show lives consistent with the Gospel.
It is exciting to see that a few men are going out to their families’ clan areas to proclaim the Gospel there as well. Brother Simson claims that he does not have a single member of his family who has not heard the Gospel clearly and believed. Brother Salomo states that what he most desires in life is to become an evangelist. Brothers Amsal, Daud, and Musa have trekked a day’s hike to voluntarily deliver food to the sick in the treehouses, praying for them afterwards. Brothers Barnabas, Wahyu, Simson, and Salomo regularly lead church services in various places. Every week we continue to proclaim the Gospel to these disciples using simple pictures. During the weekends, these six or eight tribal believers then take those lessons out to other villages and treehouses. On Monday morning, they begin their journey back to Danowage to spend another week learning another round of stories for further distribution.
“And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (John 10:16)
We have seen people profess Jesus and repent of sins. We have seen some lives changed; but not as many as we would hope. We have seen some of the sick be healed and some who were close to death recover; but not as many as we would like. We have seen other missionaries recruited into missions; but the needs are still many.
I remain confident that the Good Shepherd has His elect sheep scattered throughout this remote region. He will call them invariably through His Word. Victory is assured. Each human soul is exceedingly precious. We are immensely privileged to serve God in this needy area. Despite many trials, we thank God every day that we may serve Him here.
We know from Ecclesiastes that “he who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.” We have, therefore, resolved: “In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good.” (Ecclesiastes 11:4-6). We are planting despite frequent unfavorable weather and stubborn soil. We remain confident that the Master of the Harvest will grant fruit to our labors.