Having had our own bout of sickness whilst we were out in Goroka, colds and fevers – nothing serious, it’s been interesting to dig into the Kovol thinking on the subject.
I’ve been working through a batch of 7 different interviews asking Kovol friends questions like “why do we get sick?”, “what’s the vocabulary for blindness?”, “how does someone become crazy?”, “what should you do if a venomous snake bites you?” and “what should you do to look after your brother if he’s really sick?” among other questions.
The answers to these interview questions (there were 70 in total) and 34 recordings Natalie gave me where she managed to catch people talking about the subject give us a lot of Kovol text to wade through to piece together what they believe about sickness. I guess I can start by going ahead and answering the example questions I wrote earlier.
Why do we get sick?
When we misbehave, like when we talk down to someone or hit someone, or steal something, that bad behaviour or thinking will cause us to get sick. “We broke one of God’s little rules, and he sent a fever on the whole village” is one recent example.
What’s the vocabulary for blindness?
The phrase blind “musom tuhum” means anything from slightly fuzzy vision up to complete blindness. Eyes can be said to be closed to mean truly blind and there’s a phrase for eyes that are covered with cataracts so that they just see white.
How does someone become crazy?
Through some specific misdeed of theirs. One local man is said to have not participated properly in the feast to honour his uncle when he died and that’s the reason he went crazy. There’s hope for him though; if he confesses his bad thinking he can get better.
What should you do if a venomous snake bites you?
There are 2 kinds of venomous snakes in Kovol and if they bite you you’ll get really sick. If you’re bitten you should put tobacco leaf on the bite to draw out the venom and pray. Bad people that have sins are the ones that die from snake bites so you should confess your sins to God.
What should you do if your brother is really sick?
You should look after him by being available to hear him confess his misdeeds and bad thoughts. If he doesn’t get better you can get bush medicine for him, and if that doesn’t work, white man medicine. If that doesn’t work he should confess his sins to the village leaders. If he’s still sick and it looks like he’s going to die you should kill and butcher a pig. The sick brother and the entire community should eat the meat and declare that the sickness is now finished and he’ll get better.
As you can tell we’re getting into some deep areas of worldview and culture, which is stretching for my language ability. The outlook on sickness and its causes is very different to what we’re used to isn’t it? Some of the answers were inconsistent like when I asked if “when a sickness is going around the village what do you do so you don’t get it?” Some answered “nothing. If I don’t have sins I won’t get sick”, others “if we as a community agree that the reason behind the sickness is dealt with, it won’t come to anyone else” and others “I’d take my family to the bush — can’t get sick if I’m not there”.
The reasons for sickness are thought to be spiritual and that fits together seamlessly with “modern” thinking. When I asked “do you get sick if you tread in poop?” the answer was “yeah, we get worms”. People know how parasites and medicines work, and the spiritual dimension fits in too. The clearest example I can think of that is that one of our friends had a brother who was killed by his own spike trap long ago. He set the trap, he knew where it was and so it was unthinkable he’d just accidentally fall in. A Spirit shot him and he fell in.
All of this culture study is to prepare us for Bible teaching. We aim to teach our Bible lessons with a solid understanding of the Kovol worldview so we can predict areas that will be hard to understand, things that will be misinterpreted if we don’t carefully signal them and also areas of belief we can challenge them as being contrary to God’s word.
In the meantime, there’s still sickness around and we’ve been seeing several of our friends coming to us with different things. Gerdine and I were called to hike to another village yesterday to check on an elderly lady who had “swollen legs, a big sick for a long time”. She looked stronger than the description had led me to believe, but she was still coughing away a nasty cough and we’re not sure what it is or how we can help. She saw worms in her poop on Sunday though and some symptoms she had could be to do with a serious worm infection and we were able to have her grandkids hike back with us so we could sell them some worm medicine. We’ll see how she does, but after this we’re afraid all we can probably tell them is “she needs to go to the hospital in town”
This afternoon is our designated medical time. I see some people from a village 2 hours hike away who have made the journey to come and have us take a look at some of their sicknesses. We feel completely inadequate, but we want to try and show love and care, and there are times we can help. It’s just so hard to know on a case by case basis if the next one is one of the times we can or should help or not!