People of the Trees: Journey to the Korowai  - Part 1

People of the Trees: Journey to the Korowai - Part 1

Korowai regions — Interior Papua: Looking down, our gum boots are almost submerged in the flooded jungle floor as we trudge through kilometer after kilometer of deep bush. Mud, twisted trees, rust colored water, soft rain, humidity, the sounds of mosquitos circling our ears is the scene that feels like a prehistoric world, but this isn’t prehistory, this is now, here in the interior of Papua. Our expedition team is 15 souls. The two of us, 11 porters/guides of the Korowai river settlement, and two Dani tribesmen (Isaac and Nius) who are are our guides, interpreters and fellow evangelists. The porters are Korowai themselves, but they now live in a larger village near the riverside, instead of the traditional treehouses in the deep jungle. They are guiding us to the most remote Korowai settlements who are: unreached with the Gospel and living isolated in the interior. The Korowai porters on our team are all kind-hearted young men who sing cheerfully as we pass through the jungle. The quick bursts of “Uhoooooo-Way” from these young men sounds like a musical sonar echoing through jungle. They walk barefoot and move swiftly through the forest with great dexterity and fluid motion. Instead of always trudging through the waters on the jungle floor, they instead hop and long-step from tree limb to tree limb above the surface in flooded areas. They hold our hands to assist us like a mother would a small child as we wobble across rivers on tree limbs no bigger than a two by four. These young men are all from the Korowai river settlement and have all been exposed to the Christianity, but like many living in remote areas, they rarely hear the basic messages of salvation or historical perspective of Jesus. The first day, upon recognizing this, we shared the basics of the Gospel with our porter group. They all gathered around and intently listened as we explained creation and the fall of Adam, and then the purpose of why Jesus came to the earth to set right what the first man had done wrong. Recently, we have begun developing a pictorial photo album on our smartphone, and this was a great success when we used it. When we showed the porters the pictorials they all crowded around to see the pictures of Jesus healing the sick, Jesus hanging on the cross, Jesus risen and Jesus ascending into heaven. This use of technology is something we are keen to develop more in the future to further assist other missionaries when presenting the Gospel. They asked questions, pointed to certain pictures and engaged with curiosity and happiness. Sadly, the basics of salvation and having a personal relationship with God is not something many of the porter group had ever heard, and they asked us how they can receive God to live in their hearts. We prayed with the whole group that day to receive Jesus. It was a great moment, and one that would be repeated every day from that point on with other Korowai settlements we would visit.

Brothers of the Jungle: In the late afternoon of the second day of jungle marching, we saw from a distance a clearing and the form of a tall tree house jutting 30-feet off the ground. Then we saw, 100-yards away, two other treehouses. We knew then we had arrived at our first remote Korowai settlement. As we walked closer, the guides all began to bark out noises that sounded like musical screams. It seemed like a courtesy to let the people of the settlement know we were approaching. In the distance, we saw a nude, gray-haired Korowai man walking swiftly toward the other two tree houses. One of our porters, Jonas, who was raised near this settlement approached and began to speak in Korowai to the man we had seen who was now in a sago hut below the towering tree houses. A voice from inside, sounding high pitched and crackling spoke to us, then Jonas said, “They welcome us.” When our team entered the cooking hut, we received a nice greeting from two elderly men, one of which we had spotted earlier, and another who was sitting near the fire cooking breadfruit. They offered the cooked fruit and the porters showed us how to peel open the edible parts. The men were old, hands blackened from soot of the fire, both gray haired, but both flashing incredibly happy smiles and examining us with thoughtful and kind eyes. They wore no clothing, except a small wood lassoed belt. The two of them were brothers, and they told us they had never left the deep jungle, even after their wives died and children moved away. They never even ventured far enough to the riverside where many Korowai had now settled. That day the two elderly men brought us to one of their treehouses to show us their home. It was sparse. Only sago bark laid down as a mat and a small fire pit in the floor that had a unique skullbone-like chandelier above it. This dangling tanglement of blackened skulls had no meaning, we were told, other than decoration and a way for them to remember what they ate. As we sat cross-legged in the treehouse with the two elderly brothers, we asked about their beliefs. Like many other Korowai, the thought of God and a creator were not something they ascribed to their daily lives. There are traditional spiritual beliefs known amongst Korowai, but they are not given any precedence or importance. We only encountered, on our expedition, a few people with vague beliefs in “Black Spirits” and other ancestral traditions, but nothing of daily worship or deep wonderment to contact God. We began to share the Gospel with these two elderly men as they sat on either side of the treehouse and they smiled at how we described the garden of eden much like the jungle they lived in. They understood the concept of simple living in a garden-like area and picking fruit from a tree. This message of creation and Adam and Eve is often times considered outdated in modern society but is quickly understood amongst people like the Korowai. We shared for a long time and took them through the life of Jesus and why He came to take away the sins of the world. At hearing about the forgiveness of sins, they both began to explain that they would also like their sins to go away, as they had killed many people in past tribal wars. This isn’t something we expected to hear from frail grandfatherly looking men, but it made sense. The Korowai have had intense tribal conflicts in the past and is one of the many reasons they build tree houses so high (for a better defense against attackers). These men were part of that war culture and killed others in conflict. The interesting thing is: no matter how remote a person lives or how different the culture—everyone instinctively knows sin. These brothers were no different and felt the conviction of the deaths they were responsible for. They asked us how to get the forgiveness that the Son of God offered and a new clean heart. When we told them accepting God was not hard and that it could happen in one moment, right here, in this very tree house, they were overjoyed and showed it by lightly tapping their heads with a closed fist, while flashing a big smile to show their amazement. Only believe and confess your sins and accept Him in. We prayed with them and explained that God hears and sees all people at all times and would never leave or forsake those who believed in Him. They smiled brightly and prayed to accepted Jesus. It was a great day! …Read more from the Korowai Gospel Expedition next month…