Coming out for a break is a good time for reflection. We’ve been in the tribe for close to a year after spending 3 years in training, 2 years waiting to get to Papua New Guinea and 2 years in Papua New Guinea acclimatising, followed by a year of work to get ourselves set up in Kovol. 8 years of preparation to get to where we are now, learning a tribal language and culture with the aim of communicating God’s word into it with clarity.

During those 8 years we picked up certain expectations of what life in the tribe might be like. So here are 5 ways expectation and reality have differed.

1. It’s busier than we expected

You’d think moving into a close knit community who are relationship rather than time orientated would result in a slower pace of life. For the Kovol people it certainly does: sitting and talking for an entire day is a day well spent (and I’m not being sarcastic, it is time well spent for them!). The slower pace of life doesn’t transfer over to us though, we’re constantly aware that we’re on the clock.

We’re pushing to understand the Kovol language as quickly as possible and so we’re always thinking of getting our hours in: 7 for me, 2-4 for Gerdine every day, and we’re pushing that those work hours are productive and in the right proportion also –– not too much time at the computer, not too much time outside. There’s more language to get our teeth into than we have time for, and we’re constantly feeling “I’d love to study that, but there’s no time”! Throw in child care, maintaining a house in the jungle, organising the logistics of supplying ourselves with food (and in this our support team save us hours, upon hours!) and 1,000 people who all want to be our best friends.

We’re on the go sun up to evening and ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to go hang out with so and so who just hiked to come and see us.

I didn’t expect the pace to be so continually hectic. Maybe it’s being parents of small children and we’d experience the same whatever we chose to do with our lives. I expected to learn to be not so time-orientated, but we’ve doubled down on being time-orientated so we can make time for relationships and language learning.

2. Working in a team is hard, but not in the way we expected

Training prepares us really well to be ready for team conflict and difficulties. We knew going in that there would be friction, disagreement and clashes. We spent time preparing for it, and produced a team strategy statement where we went into the weeds of everything from doctrine, cultural differences between us and specifics of how we dispose of our rubbish (or trash :p cultural difference there).

Talking through so much has been helpful; we were well prepared. The unexpected factor has been tiredness.

Let’s start by saying we have an excellent team. Our co-workers are incredible people with gifts and talents that complement our own. We enjoy them and we enjoy working with them. We certainly don’t have a fractious team that is constantly at each other’s throats.

When everyone is fresh and we’ve set aside the whole day (or month) for team discussions and thinking through our strategy it’s easy to discuss things. We have 100% of our time, thoughts and emotional energy to work through things. When we disagree we’re able to take a step back and talk through the issues involved and move forward.
It’s been much harder when everyone is exhausted from months of hard work and stressed up to our eyeballs. Emotional energy is in limited supply and that’s a key difference.

Now if an issue comes up one or more of us can be too tired to take the needed step back to talk about the issue. We’re less able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and less able to discuss the issue at hand. An opinion from a team mate can be perceived as a personal attack and we can end up entrenching our own opinion. There’s no energy for attempting to understand the other person and an us vs. them dynamic where we feel attacked can come up, even when if we had the energy to see we’d find we actually agree!
Tempers are shorter than usual, we snap at each other and everyone goes away feeling tired and justified in their own opinions 🙂

There have been times we’ve had to just drop things because our team mate isn’t emotionally able to engage with an issue and I’m certain it’s happened in our direction too. I expected our team to have differing opinions on a decision and that sometimes the team would move in a direction not everyone was in agreement with and someone would say “I don’t agree, but we’re happy to go along with it for the team’s sake”. I didn’t expect that there would be times the team decided “We need to go this way because so and so is too tired to talk about it right now”. (It’s been me who’s been too tired on more than a few occasions!)

It’s been a test of our grace muscles.

3. There’s diversity even within our langauge

Papua New Guinea has over 840 different languages, it is the country with the most languages in all the world. We were always well aware that we’d be in a linguistically diverse country. What we didn’t expect was to find variations within the people group we went to!

The Kovol people number around 1,000 people and live on 3 or so mountain ridges in 7 different villages. Kovol territory isn’t a large area with 4 different language groups within 4 or so hour’s hike from where we are in the middle of Kovol.
We expected the Kovol language to be just that, the Kovol language.

Yet this tiny language group has 3 dialects within it! There’s shared vocabulary between them, but one will call a dog ulil and the other iko. In one group a sweet potato is gras and in the other it’s anip. The third dialect is a weird mix of the two and some unique vocabulary, but they’re further away so we don’t know it so well, in our mind we think of 2 main dialects and the third as a blend of them.

Between the two main dialects an off the cuff estimate is that 20% of words are totally different, 60% are pronounced differently but are somewhat recognisable and 20% are the same.
It goes further though. Within our dialect which makes up 4 of the 7 villages each village has their own accent!

I didn’t expect such splintering of a minority language with so comparatively few speakers! It’s certainly an extra challenge trying to learn the language.

4. We reach our limits much quicker than expected

I thought I’d be more compassionate than I find myself being. My store of patience and compassion runs drier a lot quicker than expected though. My ability to learn language and engage with everything is also limited. We just get tired.

After our last break I was very surprised to find that a week into being back we felt like we needed a break. On all day trips out I’m amazed how quickly my energy and attention is spent. Language learning is tiring. I’ll often burn through my energy for it on the hike over to somewhere and then when I arrive and everyone is ready and keen to teach me their language I’m already spent.

Giving medical care most quickly reveals our limitations. We’ve given medicine to new born babies with pneumonia and our hearts go out to them. We lend out blankets to keep them warm. There are dozens of other children who could do with a blanket too, but we just have to close up our hearts –– we can’t provide for them all.
We provided life-saving treatment for a child with suspected HIV. We’re crying. We’re thinking about it all the tim. We’re wrestling with the inequalities in the world. We get exhausted.

2 weeks later when a child dies unexpectedly after the parents came for our help twice and we weren’t able to offer much, I find myself retreating into a rational detached state of mind because I don’t have the emotional energy to give. I’m not shedding the tears this kid deserves.

We always expected it to be hard. I guess we didn’t expect there to be an emotional/energy debt that continually needs to be paid and cuts into our budget. We reach our limits very quickly and God has to keep giving us the strength to keep going.

5. People are still excited to have us

We always knew people were asking for missionaries in PNG. Kovol was one such place, asking for ten years, and now here we are. They’ve not gotten over it yet! We still receive more food than we know what to do with. People want to show us how much they appreciate our being here and so they give us food; they give us big chunks of meat when they themselves only eat a sliver.

We don’t have to worry about anything being stolen. We can leave shoes outside, we can leave our doors unlocked – nothing has ever gone missing. (Well, apart from one piece of paper with Natalie’s language notes on it. That was a village crisis for about 2 months as they desperately tried to find it again!).
We’re so far free of land issues because we’re on community land, and it seems an unusual situation. We don’t have a land owner to deal with.

Every day our village makes sure that at least one or two people are around to teach us language. They take it in turns to go and work in their gardens for a few days so that there’s always someone ready to teach us, even if that means sitting around all8 day long and waiting for us because we’re catching up on some computer language filing.

One year into life there and there are no signs of our outstaying our welcome, people are as positive towards us now as when we first announced we’d be coming.

There’s a growing excitement for literacy and hearing God’s word in their language. It contributes to our tiredness I’m sure as we get a lot of attention, but it’s a real blessing to able to serve a community hungry for God’s word.


Colette Harding · 24/11/2020 at 9:48 pm

Thanks so much for your honesty and openness. Your blog updates are so helpful. Most of us ministering in different areas in the west would also agree we feel all those things but how many of us would admit it….? But your situation and that of all missionaries working on language acquisition has so many added pressures. Your blog should make us pray for you more realistically and should also put our own tiny stresses and strains into perspective and stop us feeling sorry for ourselves. Our most difficult area of serving is a men’s prison where my husband and I are volunteer chaplains. There are almost twice as many men inside this one prison as there are in the whole Kovol group! It is very tribal. the men cut themselves, fight and get high on various substances regularly. Those who profess conversion seem to take one step forward and two back. It is discouraging. Many can’t read, so the good books we want to give them to read during the extra covid-lockdown hours in their cells are meaningless to them. How we wish there was a hunger for the word of God and literacy among them like you have among the Kovol.
We pray your brief rest will refresh you enough to go back with renewed vigour and ‘power from on high’ to face all the demands of each normal day.

Diana Smyth · 31/12/2020 at 3:54 pm

Outstanding! Thank you for sharing your hearts and your challenges. Very helpful and insight-giving. We will be praying for you!

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