Witnessing in the Land of 700 Languages
DO YOU know of a country with a land area smaller than that of Spain, yet whose population of well under four million speak almost a quarter of the world’s languages? Can you name the country that occupies roughly half of the second-largest island in the world? The island is New Guinea, the country is Papua New Guinea, and the number of languages spoken by its inhabitants is over 700! How did this linguistic melting pot come about?
A Vast Melting Pot
Papua New Guinea is an island country situated just to the north of Australia and only a few degrees south of the equator. It is made up of some 600 tropical islands sprawled out over a distance of 1,000 miles (1,600 km). However, over four fifths of the total land area of Papua New Guinea is on the huge island of New Guinea, which the nation shares with Indonesia, to the west.
Papua New Guinea’s earliest inhabitants are said to have migrated from Asia through Indonesia. These were later joined by Melanesians and Polynesians. The people range in skin color from light brown to jet black and in stature from short and heavyset to tall and thin. Because of the rugged nature of much of the interior, with its thick forests and high mountains, the many tribes lived virtually isolated from one another and developed their own languages. Most of these Papuan languages have extremely complex grammar. Yes, Papua New Guinea is the land of some 700 languages, not dialects!
In 1975 Papua New Guinea became an independent nation within the British Commonwealth. It is a parliamentary democracy with the British monarch as head of state but with a local prime minister. Although English is the official language today, large numbers of those within the 700 linguistic groups speak either of two common languages, Hiri Motu or New Guinea Pidgin.
Another Language Added
Yet, believe it or not, some years ago one “language” was still missing in this land of 700 languages. Which one was that? It was the “pure language”—Bible truth about God and his Kingdom. (Zephaniah 3:9) This new tongue was not introduced into Papua New Guinea until the mid-1930’s.
It all started in 1935 when the Lightbearer, a small motorized sailing ship manned by a crew of Jehovah’s Witnesses, left Australia and eventually put into Port Moresby on the southeastern coast of Papua New Guinea. This was the first time that the populace heard the sound of the “pure language”—literally hearing the message of God’s Kingdom as it was broadcast by means of sound equipment on the deck of the Lightbearer.
However, it was not until 1951 that this “pure language” became better known and used. From that year on, Witnesses from Australia, Canada, the United States, Germany, England, and New Zealand volunteered to go to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, as it was then called. After witnessing to Europeans there, they soon found ways and means of talking to the native Papuans about God’s Kingdom. This involved going from house to house, which took extra effort because some houses were built on stilts above water or on land.
Of course, in order to teach the “pure language” to this multilingual population, the Witnesses from abroad had to learn at least one of the two common, or trade, languages. This did not solve all their problems because neither of these two languages was the mother tongue of the inhabitants but merely linguistic mixtures that enabled people speaking different languages to communicate. And even these two were not spoken by everyone on the islands. So witnessing often involved a laborious process of speaking to a person in one of the trade languages and then having him translate the message for the benefit of others present.
The Witnesses also resorted to using original teaching methods, such as drawing simple pictures on a blackboard or any other material available. In time, Bible literature and magazines became available in the trade languages of Hiri Motu and New Guinea Pidgin. The brochure Enjoy Life on Earth Forever! in these two languages has been particularly useful in teaching the islanders the “pure language.”
Royalty Hears the “Pure Language”
Jesus Christ said that his disciples would be ‘put on the stand before governors and kings for his sake, for a witness to them.’ (Mark 13:9) On August 9, 1984, some missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Manus Island were given the opportunity to witness to royalty, though under more pleasant circumstances. On that day Prince Charles, heir to the throne of Great Britain, visited the island.
In their decorated canoes, members of the Titan tribe escorted Prince Charles from his ship to the beach, just across the road from the missionary home. After he was greeted by a hundred dancers and was crowned as a “chieftain,” he attended a luncheon to which the Premier of Manus Island had invited the missionaries. When the Prince asked them what they were doing on the island, they gladly gave him a brief explanation of their work. They were delighted to have an opportunity to inform him that Jehovah God has Witnesses also on distant Manus Island.
Incidentally, the official who introduced the missionaries to Prince Charles has herself read the book You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. On occasion, she has also dropped by the missionary home for a chat over coffee and cake.
A New Language for a Politician
A New Guinea businessman was involved in politics and in the Lutheran Church. However, the local church he attended was so divided that the two opposing pastors formed two clans that fought each other for nearly a year with bows, arrows, spears, and war shields. The fighting left nine people dead and many injured. The man decided to leave the Lutheran Church but did not know where to look for truly united Christians. ‘Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, for they are false prophets,’ he thought.
He was still of this frame of mind when a local group of Jehovah’s Witnesses applied to hire his bus in order to attend a district convention. For business reasons, he accepted and actually drove the bus himself. He attended the Sunday program and was greatly impressed with the peace and quiet, the rapt attention of the audience—adults and children—who followed the speakers by consulting their Bibles. He was even more impressed during the lunch hour, when he saw the happy Witnesses patiently line up for their meal, the whites and the speakers awaiting their turn like the others and eating the same food. During the six-hour return trip, he heard the Witnesses happily singing Kingdom songs. ‘What a contrast with the warring Lutherans!’ he thought.
This man agreed to study the Bible with a local Witness, but secretly, so as not to offend his fellow Lutherans. However, he quickly acquired the spiritual strength to resign both from the church and from his political functions. He and his wife underwent “the change to a pure language” and began “to call upon the name of Jehovah, in order to serve him shoulder to shoulder” with His united witnesses.—Zephaniah 3:9.
Still Much Teaching to Be Done
What a marvelous work has been done by the missionaries and other Witnesses who have volunteered to come from other countries to teach the “pure language” in Papua New Guinea! From just two publishers in 1951, the number of Witness preachers and teachers has grown to over 1,800, most of whom are now from the local population.
These local Witnesses are a source of encouragement to those who have come from other lands to serve here. An English brother living on the island of Bougainville writes: “One of the most encouraging things that motivates us to continue serving Jehovah here is to see how our Papua New Guinean brothers continue to serve Jehovah faithfully, often under very difficult conditions. Many of them do not have homes of their own but have to live with relatives. Often they have to walk long distances in very hot weather or in heavy rain to come to meetings or go out in the field service. One of our local sisters lives out in the bush. In order to save time when she meets us for street witnessing, her husband ferries her, along with her small daughter and baby, across a river on a large inner tube.”
There is still much teaching work to be done among the local population. The interest is there. This is evident from the fact that 10,235 persons attended the Memorial of Christ’s death in 1987. But more help is needed to take care of all this interest in the “pure language.” As a foreign Witness, who came here to serve where the need was greater, expressed it: “It makes my heart sad to think of the many interested people in these way-out bush villages of Papua New Guinea. We just don’t have enough workers in the field here. There is certainly a great need in this part of the world. We know that Jehovah is aware of this and that he will make provisions to care for these truth-hungry people.”
What about you? Would you like to share in teaching the “pure language” in this land of 700 languages?
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PAPUA NEW GUINEA