As I continued working through our culture study I came to “birth and dying”. I needed to dig into questions like “What happens when a person dies?”, “Is there a road to getting to heaven?”, “Are the dead conscious?” and “Does anyone ever return from the place of the dead?”.

Some of this has come up before of course. I’ve written a summary for “funeral and burial practices” and there’s naturally some overlap. This week’s task though was getting the audio recordings of answers to those questions. It’s easy to guess and assume what people think, so our culture study method makes us elicit and record information from 3 separately people before we can write a summary on what they think, preventing us from just working on memory.

Vanilla drying season in Kovol

The Kovol people say that when a person dies they bury a body. The person’s spirit/emotions/core goes somewhere. They say that they don’t see this, they can’t see a spirit going, but they know it’s gone and they’ve heard from the Bible about “good place” which is with God and “bad place” which is fire. People who have lived moral lives, obeying God’s laws and have been kind to other people, such as giving them tobacco and betel-nut freely will go to the good place; but people who have not followed God’s laws, or have killed people and have been bad will go to the bad place.

That’s what they’ve heard, so that’s what they think. They can’t see the spirit going so they haven’t seen it themselves and can only go on what they’ve heard.
I asked each of my interviewees “And you, where will you go?” and everyone responded with “I don’t know”. When they die they will stand before God in a court, and if they pass the court they go to heaven. One guy gave an illustration of a water bottle that needs to be filled. You fill the bottle with good works and keep filling until it’s full.
“Will lots of people go to the bad It seems then that Jesus died to make earning your way to heaven by doing good things a possibility, and seeing as it’s dependent on your own good works no one is sure if they have done enough good or not, but they hope and a few go to the good place, or lots of people go to the good place and a few people to the bad place?” I asked
“Lots will go to the bad place and lots will go to the good place” was the response.

“Are the dead conscious?” I asked, “Yes”, was the response, “people experience rest and lack of sickness and death in the good place and pain in the bad place”. They also responded by saying that the dead get new bodies. One guy likened it to a snake shedding its skin: he’d leave his body behind and his new body would be suitable for the afterlife. Oh, his skin colour would also change and his new body would have white skin.

There’s a Lutheran influence in our area and so in a follow up question I asked. “I’ve heard people say here that Jesus made a way for us when he died, Andy because of that we can go to heaven. What would happen if Jesus hadn’t died?”
The response was “Well, there wouldn’t be a road for us…”, “Does that mean everyone would go to the bad place?” I asked, “…We don’t know. We just say the things we have heard.”

It seems then that Jesus died to make earning your way to heaven by doing good things a possibility, and seeing as it’s dependent on your own good works no one is sure whether they have done enough good or not, but they hope so.

Supply day

That’s not quite the gospel truth which we’re hoping people will latch on to and rejoice in. It’s a good confirmation that the teaching we will be bringing is necessary. It’s easy to have doubts when this “unreached tribe” has had contact with Lutherans for 40-50 years and Jesus’ name is known, Bible stories are known, creeds can be recited and prayers are made. All the trappings are there, but the essential core understanding of justification by faith is absent.
I think the Lutheran work in our area seemed to be quite good and they laid a good foundation. The evangelists and teachers needed to cover an enormous area and things weren’t passed on to the next generation in our neck of the woods, and the teaching was never done in the Kovol language. We’re building on top of work already done.

An illustration I’ve started using with guys here is that they seem to have all the pieces, like if they had all the pieces of a house ready there at the construction site, but they aren’t really sure on how to put all the pieces together. The teaching we’ll give will help them put the pieces they’ve already got into the correct place, and to identify the pieces that don’t belong and should be discarded.

Our Guinea pig gave birth!

I had a visitor from another village yesterday. He said he had talk for me, and preceded his talk with a “sorry” offering. He gave us a toasted bandicoot (with all its fingers, toes and head still attached), some roots, tobacco and betel nut. The sorry was for the story he was about to bring. He’d heard that I had been asking about Kovol mythology and so he wanted to give me his version of the story of the creation of man. The thing is that the story is an old Kovol story, and these stories are thought to be bad. People fear that telling these stories will result in God punishing them for lying, so before he told his story he apologised.
The story was about how a man was born in “hulum sindee” and that was the start of the hobol (Kovol) people. The content wasn’t new, apart from a variation in the man’s name so it works as another source for the creation of man myth I’ve been hearing.

I’ve been able to reassure people when they are telling these stories that we missionaries too have myths, legends and stories from our own culture that we know aren’t true, but we still tell them. In our Kovol friend’s case, they have heard these stories from parents and grandparents and they aren’t sure if they fit together with the Bible stories they’ve heard or not. Do these stories need to be abandoned, or is there a place for them alongside or in between the Bible stories?
They’ve heard the law “You shall have no other gods before me”. Does that mean that even talking about the old ways is sinful?

Lots of questions, but I’m glad people are feeling comfortable to tell them. These stories are the backdrop that our Bible lessons will be painted on. Even if people say “We don’t follow those stories any more” the themes and assumptions underlying them can still influence the way they think. We’ll need to have the underlying ideas in mind as we teach so we can focus on the areas where God’s word contradicts them.

That still seems such a long way off. We’re inching closer, nearing the end of our culture and language study now. I’m hoping I test at speaking level 9 in July and will be free to start preparing a literacy program and thinking about preparing the Bible lessons. A lot of work still to do, but we’re inching closer one week at a time!

Morning reading time


Lois S. · 31/05/2024 at 11:04 pm

So exciting to hear the progress in understanding where people are coming from, and what the myths and ideas are that shape them!

Mandy · 01/06/2024 at 3:12 am

I think you’ve got a better foundation/explanations than we got in ‘our’ village back in the day. It’s nice the ‘pieces are all put together in the puzzle’ so the Kovol people will be able to see what the Bible teaches Praying on.

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