by Steve & Gerdine Stanley
Steve and Gerdine Stanley arrived in Papua New Guinea in January 2016.1 Since February 2019 they’ve been in full-time ministry to reach the Kovol tribe.
‘We don’t know why this happened, can you look on your computer for us and find out why this happened?’ asked one of the older men in our remote village in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. We’d been living among the Kovol people and learning their language for six months when tragedy struck. A teen in a village a two-hour hike from us had fallen from a tree, spearing his windpipe on a tree stump on the way down. He died two days later and our community was in shock. The boy’s family were enraged and our village was stunned because there’s no such thing as a tragic accident out here. Any and all unnatural deaths are believed to be the result of malicious activity against the person by sanguma (sorcery). Our community believe that our computers are an omniscient source of knowledge and that, by listening to them, we can discern spiritual reality and open the road to prosperity and life for them. ‘I’m sorry, that’s not how computers work,’ I replied, but I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ll be saying that.
The Kovol tribe live deep in the rainforest mountains of Papua New Guinea’s Adelbert range. They make a living by foraging and farming the steep, thickly jungled mountains. The nearest road is a gruelling 12-hour hike away, from where you can catch a bus out to town. In total, it’s a three-day journey for them and the Kovol people don’t receive many visitors.
In Papua New Guinea there is a status and honour associated with Christianity. Although the Kovol people would claim to be Christians, when life gets hard we get an insight into what people are really trusting in. They’re trusting in their ability to be in harmony with each other, and the spirits, in such a way that they can avoid tragedy and so that material goods will appear for them. There’s a Christian veneer but under the surface, animism’s roots go deep.
Forty years ago, a Christian group sent teachers who taught in the national language for a year or two, baptised everyone and moved on. There was no follow-up teaching. The older men who heard the teaching never heard God’s truth in their own language and, since then, an entire generation of Kovol people have grown up with a few grass-roofed church buildings present, but no one teaching God’s Word.
The Kovol people use their own unique language for all their day-to-day needs but they have no written material of any kind, not even an alphabet yet. Illiteracy severely limits the Kovol people’s access not only to God’s Word, but also to government advice on health and hygiene, potential work in town and knowledge of the wider world. Literacy is a path for the Kovol people to have access to both temporal and eternal wellbeing. We commonly hear our Kovol friends saying things like, ‘We live like animals out here, we’re in darkness.’
Bringing God’s Word to the Kovol
We were challenged by the plight of unreached people groups, cut off from hearing the gospel because they live so remotely and cannot hear it in their own language. This led us to Papua New Guinea, a country of over 840 different languages and hundreds of communities who don’t have mature churches operating within them, or any access to God’s Word in their mother tongue. Upon completing our study of the national language, we had to figure out which of the dozens of tribes we should go to. New Tribes Mission started work in a neighbouring tribe ten years ago, and the Kovol people have been regularly asking for missionaries ever since.
In January 2020, our family moved into a remote, tribal location that is accessible only by helicopter or an intense two-day hike. The men on our team spent four months working with chainsaws in the jungle to prepare wood for the houses and then build them. Now our team of three families live among the Kovol people with the goal of learning their culture and language to a high enough standard that we can translate and teach God’s Word.
Being able to read the Scriptures for themselves will allow God’s truth to reach deeply into people’s hearts to bring true peace with God.
The Kovol people’s response to a missionary team moving in has been overwhelming: they are delighted and hundreds of people want to be as involved as they can be in teaching us the Kovol language. We’re not short on language helpers; in fact, often we’re stressed and pushed trying to keep up!
In our first six months with the tribe, I think every person in our team came a step or two away from a burnout. We’d have people sitting outside our front doors all day long just waiting for us to come out so they could sit and teach us the language. The lack of privacy, sunup to sundown, seven days a week, was draining so we’ve been working to set better boundaries.
We want to establish a mature church among the Kovol people, who are currently in spiritual darkness. They have no access to the truth in their own language because no one else knows it. It’s early days and we’re busy settling our families in, getting to know who’s who and slowly picking up basic vocabulary. We expect to be in full-time culture and language study for the next few years. Then, when we are fluent enough, we will start working on a literacy programme, preparing Bible lessons and translating Scripture. Being able to read the Scriptures for themselves will allow God’s truth to reach deeply into people’s hearts to bring true peace with God.
Steve starts at 7.30am each morning by planning out which areas of the language he wants to target and listens to recordings of language gathered previously. An hour later, he goes out to be involved with whatever the Kovol people are doing that day, with the things he planned in his back pocket for when he settles into conversation. Meanwhile Gerdine takes care of our son, Oscar, and spends time with the local women as much as an energetic toddler allows. After a half-hour lunch break Steve works on processing and filing the new language he’s gathered before heading out the door again to practise language drills and speaking with people. Gerdine starts on full-time study as Oscar goes to bed. Steve looks after Oscar when he wakes to allow Gerdine to carry on. On a good day Steve can get seven hours of concentrated language time in, and Gerdine three.
After a ten-year wait, the Kovol people have welcomed us missionaries into their lives. Every day, dozens of people eagerly wait to talk with us, cook and teach us their ways. There are many times when we just want to hide from curious eyes and enjoy some privacy. We’re reliant on God’s strength to keep pushing ourselves to engage day after day.
An incredible challenge lies before us! There are no shortcuts to planting a mature Kovol church. God’s Word needs to engage people’s hearts and be truly understood, and that means bringing God’s Word in the Kovol language. These last six months have been intense and stressful, and we’ve only just begun the marathon! Yet we push on in faith, knowing that, even though the Kovol people are so different from us, we all have the same need for God’s Word, which has the power to truly transform lives and bring eternal life.
- for the Stanley family, for Steve, Gerdine, Oscar and two baby girls on the way
- for their work to continue, despite the uncertainties of Covid
- for the translation and literacy work
- for the Kovol people, to hear and be blessed by the truth of the Word.