Thinking like an Animist

Want to know how some Papua New Guineans would cure infertility? Lets just say I’m sure it is nothing like anything you’ve heard before!


As we spent the week working on learning language and culture with our various friends and language helpers, we learned so much about various aspects of some PNG culture! Jacob will tell you a bit of what we learned:

In the village this week Katie and I learned some fascinating tidbits of the information.  One man, while conversing with us became very excited to delve into a story concerning an interesting, animistic mindset.  This man (Rex) began to tell us that if Katie and I were to ever find out that we were unable to have children by natural means, this did not have to dissolve our hopes of having our own progeny.  Rex began to tell us that there are ways to become pregnant besides sleeping with a woman.  He explained that another way one could become pregnant would be to sit down with a certain man who had specific powers and talk with him about the buai tree.  After talking with this man he would scale this particular tree and take some of its fruit.  Then he would bring it down and the woman would have to chew the fruit and then spit it out.  Immediately the woman would be with child.


As we heard this story we were fascinated but also taken aback at the mindset that these people possess.  We know that this process could never impregnate a woman, but some of the people in PNG are convinced that this is simply an alternative way to conceive a child.  This is the mindset which besets many of the people left in areas of the world where the gospel has not yet reached.  While this is a specific story that we heard, I would like to share a story we heard from one of our mentors here which will better illustrate the animistic mindset:

Bill (our mentor) told us how in one tribe there was a man who was seen rubbing a bunch of leaves on a coconut tree that was producing a lot of fruit.  The man then took these leaves back to his house and proceeded to rub the leaves on his wife’s breasts.  Later the missionaries asked this man why he had done this.  The tribal man explained that his wife was not able to produce milk for their newborn baby, so he went to this tree that was producing much fruit.  He figured if he rubbed this productive tree with leaves he could then transfer the power this tree had to his wife.

Now those of us who are in the west would never think this way.  In fact, to most of us the actions of this man seem very silly.  Those of us who have even a trivial background in science know that the actions taken by this tribal person could never help his wife produce milk.  But to this man his actions made absolute sense.  Instead of reasoning with western style logic, the tribal animist reasons by using parallel experiences.  For instance, if a tree is producing much fruit, then all one has to do is transfer the power from that tree to his wife in order for his wife to produce much milk.  Or if cutting the forehead of someone to release blood helps to relieve the pain of a headache, then when a motor stops working, it must help to bleed some oil out of it.  These conclusions do not make sense to many of us but to the tribal animist these conclusions flow naturally.  This is the kind of worldview that missionaries with New Tribes are walking into.  What we have been learning since coming here is that we cannot simply confront the animist with science or western logic in order to help them see the truth.  This is because they will not accept this kind of reasoning, and even if they did they would simply be removing their trust from animism and placing it in science and reason, but God would still not be the one they are trusting in.  Rather, the Word of God must be presented to these people, and we must allow the Word of God to change these people: their hearts and their minds.  By our own power we cannot change an entire worldview, but through the work of the Holy Spirit, lives can be changed.  We have heard story after story of how God’s talk has changed the lives and mindsets of tribal animists.  It was not necessarily the missionaries but God’s talk that effected the change.  We pray that we will always remember this as we head into our tribal future.

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It’s me Katie again 🙂  One important thing we have come to vividly understand is that these people live in CONSTANT and OPPRESSIVE fear of the spirits. They are afraid of “Sanguma” or a spirit that kills you without you knowing.  Sanguma could be anywhere, in a bush, someone can send sanguma on you, if kids are bad they can bring sanguma on themselves, etc.  And they believe this from a very young age.  Parents, in order to control their children, will threaten sanguma on their kids if they eat some food from the garden, if they scream, or if they are misbehaving.  From an early age, this fear is instilled deep in the people and as they grow up, it becomes part of their life in a deeper way.


As a missionary giving them the freeing word of God, you have the opportunity to present to them a release from the fear: an all-powerful God who made them and loves them and wants the best for them.  He is not seeking to destroy them, rather to give them life! I was reading in Hebrews this week and this verse (Hebrews 2:14) took on SUCH a new meaning after seeing the intense fear in this culture:

(About Jesus) ” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” SO crazy right?! God wrote about this exact issue!

We in America have been able to control a lot in our lives.  We have quick access to incredible health care, we know the reasons behind specific functions of the world around us…we just have an attitude of “knowing.” As Christians, I think it is important to remember that, although we know a lot and have been blessed with incredible understanding of the magnificent world around us, it is God who brings WISDOM and FREEDOM from fear.  Hearing the stories of PNG tribal people who hear this news for the first time and are literally jumping for joy makes me realize what it really means to be released from the ‘slavery of fear’ the author speaks of in Hebrews.

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I switched my typical order of highlights then lessons learned this week because we have been learning SO much this week! So let me give you some HIGHLIGHTS from this week:

– We have girls and guys bible study each Tuesday and Thursday night (respectively). It has become such a time of encouragement and community, we just love all the amazing people who have devoted their lives to reach the people of PNG.

Baby Copeland sleeping through girls bible study where we had Taco night!
Baby Copeland sleeping through girls bible study where we had Taco night!

– Participating in daily life while learning language and culture has been so amazing.  Having friends in the village just take you in and bring you along as they do life has been so great. This week I got to see a few moms getting water from their village well nearby.  I also got to see what bath time looks like haha!


Evelyn and the kids getting water
Evelyn and the kids getting water


-Jacob has been making awesome progress in language with his language helper Ramos! Here they are practicing telling stories together.

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-Jacob and I go together to see a wonderful couple Terri and Rosewita with their son Benson.  This week we learned their kinship terms (which are fascinating- you cannot call any of your in-laws or old people by name, out of respect.  You can call them “old man” or “bald man” instead lol!)

Terri & Rosewita's house
Terri & Rosewita’s house
Their tiny puppy
Their tiny puppy

Prayer requests:

-That God would continue to reveal more of His heart for the unreached people of this world to Jacob and I

– Confidence as we are attempting to speak more frequently in Tok Pisin

-For friendships to deepen with our language helpers!


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