One dark night some months ago, dozens of voices howled somewhere like coyotes crying at the moon. I went out to the veranda where we usually translated to try to find one of the national translators to explain it to me. I didn’t see anyone. A voice in the dark said something in Pidgin. It surprised me, and I missed most of the words, but I recognized the voice. It was Clement, our translator from Pou. He was sitting in the new, unlit building where I couldn’t see him. Guessing that he had asked me if I wanted something, I asked him about the howling.
“Someone’s sick,” he said. “They’re trying to drive it out.”
In this part of the world, people often assume that sickness is caused by an evil spirit. They also frequently believe that such evil comes about by sorcery, known here as sanguma. I wondered if they were trying to drive out an evil spirit.
As if someone heard my thought, a different voice spoke up. I had been focusing on Clement and hadn’t seen another translator sit down on the bench near my elbow. “Spirit nogut,” “It’s an evil spirit.”
I asked, “Em trai rausim dispela spirit nogut?”, “They’re trying to drive out the evil spirit?”
“It’s a custom of Pou,” Clement said.
Other translators had come down to the veranda floor. “We don’t have that custom,” Dominic said. He’s from a different village and language. “We don’t either,” another said from another language and village. The howling appeared to be a custom of just Pou.
Not much more than a week ago, a howling went up again at night. This time Debbie and our teammates Matthew Woods, Rachel Woods, and Ben Pehrson sat in the room with me. “I’ve heard that before,” I said. I went to a place to hear better. It sure sounded like the same howling as before. I went and got the others. “You might want to hear this,” I said. While we listened to it, I told them the story of hearing howling before, and that it is a Pou custom.
“But Pou’s not in that direction,” Ben said.
Well, that was true. I mumbled some things, but didn’t know what to make of it. I just knew it sounded the same as before.
A day or two later, we asked some Arops about it. (Our translation center is located in Arop territory.) They said when a person is sick, someone will start howling to drive out the evil spirit. Others will join in. They walk from their village to the next village some miles to the southwest, howling the whole way to drive the spirit away from their village. So the Arops have the same custom as their Pou neighbors, even though they speak a completely different language.
During our translation workshops, the translators become still when I say Jesus is the king, and he has authority over spirits.
Photo courtesy of Hugo Victor, PublicDomainPictures.net. Public Domain.