A last venture into the Stone Age

SUN JOURNAL

Indonesia: Their expulsion looming, missionaries use satellite technology to help bring Christianity into the nation's uncharted territories.

August 09, 1999|By Karen Mazurkewich | Karen Mazurkewich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WAMENA, Indonesia -- The aging Dani warriors break into a rhythmic chant. "Wuh, Wuh, Wuh" -- a mournful greeting for the steady procession of men entering the village. They have come for the funeral of Walik Mente Dabi, an elder from the village of Jivika.

Tradition dictates a pig feast, to be followed by cremation of the body. A son and elders sing the dead man's praises: "When we made war, he killed many people. Why did he die so soon? We want to still sing together."

The women stay inside the huts, but their wails resonate in the yard: "He built gardens, and he saved space for us there. When he killed pigs, he gave us meat."

These clans have lived undisturbed since the dawn of man. Until now. Civilization has reached the Stone Age people of Irian Jaya. Missionaries -- and even tourists -- have met the Jivika tribe, who live a half-hour drive from the frontier town of Wamena in Irian Jaya's interior.

Most men wear penis gourds; women don grass skirts. Body decoration consists of black pig grease and reddish clay smeared over the body. A few people wear T-shirts and pants -- the remnants of a government initiative to clothe the naked natives.

On the eve of the millennium, the last pocket of these primitive societies will be penetrated. Christian missionaries, who were the first people to encounter these tribes, are increasing their sorties to reach the last uncontacted tribes.

Unwelcome by Indonesia's Muslim majority, Christian evangelists are losing their work visas. In the 1970s, there were 90 Western missions in Irian Jaya; today there are only 20. As their numbers in the field dwindle, the missionaries have launched a final drive to bring Christianity to every corner of Indonesia by the end of 2000, before Indonesia closes its doors entirely to them.

Using satellite technology, Mission Aviation Fellowship is conducting an aerial survey of uncharted territory, pinpointing unknown villages so that preachers -- most of them Irians trained by Western missionaries -- can find their way in the field.

Perry Pust, a veteran pilot from Montana, points to an office diagram that highlights 14 unexplored areas. He believes cannibals might still live in four of these sectors.

The race to reach these tribes pits missionaries against developers and environmentalists. A proposed $50 million mega-project would couple hydropower dams, pulp factories and petrochemical plants along the Mamberamo River. The project would bring thousands of job-seekers and entrepreneurs. Missionaries believe they can serve as a cultural buffer to development.

"This area is full of minerals, we all know that," says Wally Wiley, the head of Mission Aviation. "So what happens to these people when something is found on their land? The ultimate goal is that we are giving these people the chance to know their creator, but further to that, we are giving them a decent life -- not a Western life, but the chance to let them stand on their own because the outside world is coming fast."

Not everyone believes the missionaries can provide solutions for Irians. Hartmut Heller, an activist with Friends of Peoples Close to Nature, argues that Christian evangelists are the real problem.

"The missionaries are one of the biggest intruders and the most dangerous intruders," he says. First comes the gospel, he says, followed by airstrips, eco-tourists and developers. "We discourage people from going to these uncontacted people," he said.

But romantic notions of noble savages ignore some harsh realities. Expedition leaders from Mission Aviation report horrible diseases such as elephantiasis, skin fungus, malaria, ulcerated sores and a strange affliction that bloats the lymph nodes.

"There is no medical care at all," says Pust. "These people just suffer and suffer."

Kevin Martin, 35, is the last white missionary to venture into contact with the last of the Stone Age tribes. He will move this month with his wife and their three children to the village of Kopkaga. His religious fervor is mixed with an anthropological curiosity: "There's the excitement of a brand-new tribe that's never seen white men and never been reached before."

Martin and his wife, Allyson, 34, have made six exploratory visits to the remote village. The tale he repeats with every trip is the biblical version of creation.

Martin hopes to avoid the mistakes made by earlier evangelists. As the son of a missionary, he grew up playing with Dani children and hearing stories of cultural mistrust and misunderstanding. When he was a little boy he heard local reports of two missionaries killed and eaten by Yani tribesmen. He believes that disrespect for the spiritual beliefs of local people cost the missionaries their lives.

"Our purpose is not to blow up their culture," says Allyson Martin. "What white men did wrong 30 years ago we don't want to repeat."

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