Not Dead Yet

Part 2 of The Trip to Onei.


Part 1: Captain Write-Off

The village of Onei has confused language surveyors for decades, partly because two languages are spoken there, not one.

Some hours after Sebby and I landed at Onei, and we had a tour of the village, I set some photos of various Papua New Guinean people on a table, as well as some orange arrows cut out of paper. They were part of an exercise to find out who uses what language to talk to who. Photos always draw a crowd in this country, and this time a couple dozen people surrounded me.

Language use between groups of people

Arrows show language use between groups of people within the language.

I started the exercise with some Bobe speakers and quickly discovered that the children do not know the language. Even the elderly of the community speak Pidgin with the children instead of Bobe. This means the language is in danger of dying out. I did the same exercise with Pin speakers, and found they have same problem. The elders are aware of it and are desperate to find ways to save the language.

Then I recorded more than 100 words in each language.

Rain came down all the next morning. A village chief lit a coconut shell to drive away the rain. He told me it was a custom of his ancestors. Sebby was worried about getting out of the village. He had arranged a truck to take us out, a four-wheel drive Toyota Land Cruiser, but the owner worried about getting through the mountains with all the rain coming down.

Rain in Onei.

Looking out toward the ocean, we saw nothing but clouds and rain.

The delay worked out for us. Sebby learned that my work had caused some disturbance in the community. I agreed to speak with them. A couple of the elders and some of the younger men sat down with me. One of the elders asked me, “What’s the purpose of your work?”

It was a good question and I was more than happy to answer it. In short, I said, “My organization believes the Bible is God’s word. We are interested in translating the Bible for all languages that need it. Now, all the reports I’ve read say that the Bobe language has died.”

Several shook their heads in disbelief. The language clearly was not dead yet.

“Sebby told me that Bobe speakers lived in Sumo. I thought we were going to Sumo, but Sebby surprised me by saying we were going to Onei. Our survey department had asked me before about the language situation in Onei, but I didn’t know much, so I agreed to go. I also found Pin here, so I got information about Pin, too. I was interested in Bobe because I wanted to see if it’s close to Sumo’s language. If it is, we might be able to adapt Sebby’s translation work for them.”

This answer satisfied them.

The rains cleared out finally in the afternoon, but the truck wasn’t going anywhere. It waited quiet and forlorn on the beach next to a house, like an ignored dog. Sebby made new arrangements for a boat to take us around the mountains surrounding Onei to the next village to the east.

After going a few miles, the captain pointed the boat straight at the beach. The teens in the boat grinned and told me, “Hold on!” The captain rammed the boat up onto the sand, just like Captain Write-Off did the day before on Onei’s beach. I nearly fell off the bench when the boat hit the sand and the teens laughed.

Sebby immediately asked if any truck could take us to Sumo, but found none. We set off on foot.

Part III: A “Man of the Jungle,” of Sorts

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