By Jack Crabtree
Our hearts are breaking. Death is an all too real part of life here in Wantakia. It doesn’t sneak around out of sight in a nursing home, or peacefully take you in a sterile hospital bed with a monitor’s monotone knell, nor is it beautified by a mortician’s makeup or ensconced in an urn on the mantle.
No. Death’s ugly reality stares you straight in the face and mocks you. It touches everyone, and above all else it must be explained.
When the elderly pass, most in our village accept that it was simply their time to go. However, when a young man dies, a suitable cause for his death is sought and must be obtained.
Several months ago, Jeremy and I hiked to a neighboring village to check on a man who we were told was gravely ill. After questioning him, we thought he had advanced tuberculosis and called for a medEvac. The chopper came and carried him to the hospital in the nearest city, where doctors began administering the lengthy regimen required for treating tuberculosis.
A few days ago, the weeklong funeral for this young Wantakian man was concluded. While in town, the doctors' medicine had initially worked to improve his condition, but after a week in town he began taking “alternative medicine” that was sold on the street instead of the medicine from the hospital.
This new medicine (which consisted of special, powerful crushed leaves, berries, and twigs mixed with water) was promised to cure him much more quickly than the six-month timeline the doctors had quoted him. Weeks later, his body succumbed to tuberculosis.
Our western minds immediately process this news in this way, “Since he didn’t take his medicine, he died.” But for our people, this logic does not fit within their worldview. A young man does not simply die from disease alone. Someone most likely poisoned him or performed sorcery against him. Some sort of spiritual cause must be attributed to the death of a young person, if their death is to “make sense”.
His body was flown to a nearby airstrip, where his family and friends met and carried the coffin back to our village and placed it under a large tarp erected as the “house cry”. The village gathered and wailed until night fell. We sat up with the village under the tarp all Friday night until dawn broke the next morning.
At this point, the man’s closest relatives gathered around the coffin and held a ritual seance of sorts asking the dead man’s spirit to show them who had conducted sorcery and poisoned him. If poison was involved, the man’s spirit would lead them directly to the house of the guilty man, who would then be summarily killed or arrested and fined. After this ritual was repeated and failed to produce any clear results, they buried him.
Yesterday, we were told that the people now believe a new type of magic was used to kill this man. They believe that men from a neighboring language group have obtained a special leaf that turns them invisible and gives them the power to enter someone’s body and kill them from the inside. This new, powerful magic, they say, must have been the cause of this man’s death. He was simply too young for sickness alone to be the cause. Now, the people are afraid to walk the trails alone. Fear of the spiritual realm holds them in its grip.
This morning death mocked us again, when we learned that a toddler died yesterday of a most likely treatable illness. Our village aid-worker left for town several months ago, so the mother took her baby to a nearby village, where the aid-worker told her she needed to go to a better aid post in a village father away.
This woman’s husband has been working in town for some time, so this crisis was hers alone to bear. Instead of immediately hiking to the distant aid post, she came back to our village. Her child passed away that afternoon. She never came to tell us her boy was sick. Horrifically, the surrounding family has scolded her for not taking her child to the distant aid post sooner. Someone must always be blamed; they wanted to blame her.
As Lael, Nora, Rynn, and I sat with this grieving mother in her house surrounded by her family members, I struggled to place my anger. Who was I angry at? Who was to blame? This fallen creation we inhabit? Our Enemy? As Thomas’ poem goes, I wanted to “rage against the dying of the light” of this poor child, but I know that sentiment is precisely backward.
Light has never existed out here. Instead I cry out for the hastening of the coming of the light of life. One day, secure in the truth of their heavenly adoption, Wantakians will cheerfully bask in the dawning of the true light as they behold Him face to face. One day heaven will come to earth; every wrong will be made right; death will have lost its sting.
For now, death on Pinji Mountain stings, and I hate it. Like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, I hate it. “Even so, come, Lord Jesus,” carries more weight than it ever has before. The context speaks of His second coming, but here on this mountain, I pine for His first.