Clashing Civilizations

June 1st, 2012

Often my most creative writing thoughts come at an inopportune time for recording said thoughts.  One such time is just before drifting to sleep.  Like now, but this time I gave in, got out of bed, and pulled out ye old laptop to jot down a few sundry thoughts.  I’m not sleepy anyways.

I’m still in Moi-land: a veritable rainforest if ever there was one.  Laying in bed underneath a mosquito net listening to the interminable rain drumming away on a tin roof above.  Think it’s rained every day since being here: usually starting in the evening or at night.  Then each morning wakes bright, sunny, and fresh (and blazing hot).

It’s so hot here, in fact, that sometimes I sweat prodigious quantities.  Like this past Tuesday when I went on a “picnic” down to the river with five other Moi guys (none of whom spoke more than 3 words of English, and one of whom, incidentally, killed another guy once). 

From the time I left the house to go on the “picnic,” until I returned, was seven hours.  Here’s a picture of my sweaty self after the first hour of hiking.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so sweaty before, but out in the rainforest there is simply no wind to evaporate the moisture:

Sweaty after Hike

Notice the flash had to be used, even though this photo was taken midmorning on a bright sunny day?  That’s because the jungle was so dense the light was murky.  I used sign language to instruct my obliging photographer to hold the button on the camera down until the “lightning” erupted.

To me, the hike down to the river (and back up) was grueling, even though it wasn’t a long hike, only about an hour each way.  Recently I re-read the incredible book, You’ll Die in Singapore, where the author, a WWII POW escapee, hiked for months through this same type of jungle while at the same time evading Japaneese patrols, fighting malaria, and living off local roots.  I can’t even imagine!

So the Moi guys cut out a walking stick for me shortly after we started.  This helped considerably as I attempted to keep up with them on the treacherously slick and steep terrain.  The trail varied between a 45 degree muddy angle and a 80 degree muddy angle.

Later, upon returning alive, I was given a compliment (through a translator) that they considered me a strong hiker and were impressed at how I kept up.  This cheered me some, until I was also told Supiah can get down to the river in fifteen minutes flat, four times speedier than we slowpoked it!  So my “fast” and “strong” rating was relative, and on the generous side.  They also said I was at a disadvantage in wearing shoes, unlike them, who go barefoot.

Some of the scenery enroute was stunning (if one could get enough sweat out of the eyes and enough air in the lungs to enjoy it):

Waterfall

Down at the rushing and frigid mountain river we spent a luxurious several hours splashing, swimming, jumping in, cooking food, eating food, and getting cooked by the sun and eaten by leaches.  It was a grand time.

The latter experience (the leaches one) was new for me.  With trepidation I pointed out my first leach to a nearby native colleague.  Unconcernedly, he reached down, picked up a sharp rock from the beach, and scraped the offending member from my leg, leaving a bleeding hole where the slurping head had been moments before.  Thanks, bro, for passing on that timely stone-age technique which, to this point, had hitherto been lost from my modern basemap of knowledge. 

Another serendipitous experience was watching the killing of several smallish bats (8-10” wingspread).  One Moi snuck under an overhang where he expected some of the dozing creatures might be lurking, whilst two others stood outside with sticks at the ready.  Sure enough: here come the bats, and *whap* went the sticks.  They got two, which were later roasted in the fire, and (to my wondering eyes) popped in the mouth whole (sans the wings) straight from the coals, the delicacy munched on with little fanfare, but much gusto. 

They could probably win on the “Fear Factor” show.  Though the chicken and rice grub they rustled up for lunch was far more appetizing than the bats, and indeed, an impressive concoction, considering it was made over an open fire. 

Chicken and Rice

The Cathay Pacific cutlery in the photo above is my own, compliments of an airline flight.  I was pretty sure they would just throw away that spoon, so discretely tucked it away into my carry-on.  It’s heavy duty plastic and I deemed it wasteful to dispose of after only one use.  I also saved a spare biscuit and butter pad, but later the butter pad squashed open and the biscuit crumbled to bits, and after mixing with the butter, created a sticky, messy meringue inside my pack. 

Wednesday evening after the hike I was totally shot, and retired to bed early.  Alas, no sleep for me, but a feverish night of tossing and turning instead… the incessant sound of rain smacking tin making my head feel like nails being hammered through the skull.  Or something like that.

The next day I could hardly drag myself from bed, feeling a sense of malaise in general and achy, nauseous, and feverish in the particulars.  Couldn’t eat breakfast.  Couldn’t eat lunch.  It was a miserable Wednesday, but that afternoon the fever broke and I slept soundly through the next night.

Thursday I was back to normal and worked on getting a temporary solar panel system setup for the new church building – also ran around playing “ball tag” in the rain with the kids.  I noted with incredulity how my body could have such violent swings of dispositions from one day to the next.

Working on the solar panels also reminded me how, around here, you can’t do anything without an audience.  For instance, I was filling new batteries with acid, a process that took some time, but one that a host of folks seemed to find undyingly interesting. 

When getting ready to open each next bottle of battery acid, everyone would stand clear several paces.  When I cut the plastic tip off the first bottle with a knife, a number of warriors with weapons in hand jumped back even further (lest a drop land on them?).  Perhaps someone had warned them battery acid was harmful, but what about poor me who was opening the noxious things?

Here is a picture taken later in the afternoon after I got the system setup, at least in a temporary state.  Later the panels will be more permanently mounted on the roof, but at least now it’s charging the batteries through the charge controller and surge protector.  (that little boy on the left watched me for hours and told me he never got bored):

Solar Setup

The awkward gourds the men wear seem, as I mentioned before, the antithesis of clothing, yet I’m told if one ever accidentally "slips off” they become extremely embarrassed at the wardrobe malfunction and will quickly remedy the situation so as not to be seen naked long.  One more reminder how the concept of modesty is ubiquitous the world over.  Standards vary, but the concept remains.

On an unrelated philosophical note, one of the things that boggles my mind most is how small the world is for these people.  How can they know about the outside world if they can’t visit it (because flying is expensive), if they can’t read about it (because there are no books in their language), if they can’t see it (because there are no TVs), and they can’t understand when people tell them (because they have no basis for relating)? 

It seems to me such a slow paced life as theirs would be insanely boring: they have no books to read, no world news to gossip about, no TV to watch, no internet to surf, no boats to sail, no Facebook to check, and no vehicular transportation because there are exactly zero roads.  Not even any stores or restaurants.  In short, no external stimuli.  Therefore, watching me pour acid in batteries becomes the local afternoon matinee.

In my opinion, these people are bored stiff, but don’t yet know they are.

Moving on… Friday (today) we were provided with the excitement of a plane landing, bringing back the second missionary family who live here, along with a special visitor for the weekend: Mark, missions pastor from Shadow Mountain Community Church in San Diego (where David Jeremiah is Sr. Pastor). 

Oftentimes in my travels I’ve wished I could record certain conversations.  Those would include ones we had today with Mark.  Having been a missionary himself for 20+ years in Pakistan, and having travelled extensively around the globe (including Africa and South America, but particularly the Middle East) Mark has a fair number of stories himself.  Topics ranged the gamut of cross cultural comparisons between animistic spiritism, religious fanaticism, eastern Hinduism, and American materialism. 

This entire trip has been one big eye-opening cross-cultural experience for me.  Each new location providing fodder for a new angle of thought.  Take being here with the Moi for example: When else would I ever have the luxury of devoting three weeks time to mull over the sticky business of culture clashes between modern and stone-age civilizations (like the Moi)?  Yet here I am, doing just that: reading books on the subject and observing the effects firsthand.  The Moi are an extreme exception in the world today: they were completely isolated from all outside influence until just several years ago, one of the last people groups in the world to be untouched so late in history.

My reading this past week has been on Captain Cook and his voyages through the Pacific, learning about his explorations and how he interacted with the natives, often being their “first contact” with Europeans.

The following excerpt shows how Cook realized, even in his own time, some of the negative influences Europeans were creating among Polynesians:

Returning to New Zealand in 1773, and again in 1777, Cook found the Maori prone to thievery, deploying Western hatchets as weapons rather than tools, afflicted with venereal disease, and eager to prostitute their wives and daughters in exchange for spike nails.

“Such are the concequences of a commerce with Europeans,” Cook wrote, in one of the most despairing passages he ever penned. “We debauch their Morals already too prone to vice and we interduce among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew and which serves only to disturb that happy tranquility they and their fore Fathers had injoy’d. If any one  denies the truth of this assertion let him tell me what the Natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans.” (Horwitz, 136)

Were the natives really living in “happy tranquility” before Cook arrived?  Hard to say, but I have my own local context with the Moi to bounce this idea off of.  There are about 1,000 Moi spread across a couple hundred miles of jungle, many whom have yet to see a white man.  Rich said there are even Moi within a one days hike who have never bothered to come see the “white strangers,” which is really unfathomable as a one day hike is no big deal for them.

The mortality rate among Moi is about 80%: roughly 4 in 5 dying before the age of one.  Fortunately, that number is improving with the introduction of modern medicines.  But even still, I’m told an anecdotal life expectancy estimate among those who live to adulthood is probably somewhere in the 30’s.  No official records have yet been taken.  The oldest man in the area is in his early sixties, a real anomaly.  A friendly fellow, here’s a picture I took of him:

Older Moi Man

Most common causes of death are homicide and sickness (but not necessarily “white-men” sickness, but other common things like dysentery).  Regarding homicide, tribal life is violent.  There is a boy here I’ve met whose father was recently hacked to death by machete in front of his very eyes.  I also met a man who killed his first and third wives.  Now he’s a Christian and his life has markedly changed: he doesn’t even beat his one remaining wife, which is a common enough practice here (a neighbor was just beating up his wife yesterday, I noticed her lips were all cut up today).

These incidents raise another interesting point: law and order out here.  Which is basically nil (they need Joe!).  Back in the States, if you killed two of your three wives, you’d probably get sentenced to life imprisonment, or worse.  But here, though you may get killed in retaliation, you may not either, depending. 

Back to Cook and lighter subjects: I was surprised at the writing style found in the journals of sailors on his voyages: Cook himself, but also Banks, Clerke, and others.  Well written prose, elegantly composed on par far above the ability of many moderns today.  They have inspired me to attempt waxing eloquent in this post (or at least using big words). 

For one small instance, Charles Clerke worded his report of Cooks untimely death in Hawaii in the following manner:

“The unhappy catastrophe which befell us I do think appears by no means the effect of premeditated intention [on the part of the natives], but an unfortunate string of circumstances tending to the same unlucky point, one action irritating another till they terminated in the fatal manner.” (Horwitz, 411)

I don’t believe there’s anyone I’ve worked with in the professional realm who would have put together a sentence in the preceding fashion.

Heck, I’m so ignorant I didn’t even know Cook met his untimely death by natives in Hawaii.  His end came through a lugubrious interchange on the shores of Kealakekua Bay – a clash of civilizations gone awry if ever there was one.

So it’s still raining outside… been pouring buckets the entire last three hours I’ve written this.  Isn’t it weird how it took me three hours to write something that will probably take less than three minutes for someone to read?

We caught our tenth rat, a small one shown below… #11 got it’s tail caught in a steel-type trap, then consequently gave a merry chase while dragging the trap behind him with human foes attempting to hasten his demise while brandishing such weaponry as a broom and wifflebat.  Finally, the rat freed his tail and escaped to Lamu, probably.

Rat Trap

I’ve ran out of things to say and it’s now past midnight so I’ll stop and publish this tomorrow when (if) we have internet. 

7 Responses to “Clashing Civilizations”

  1. Jack Middleton Says:

    Hey Nic,

    Been reading all of your blog as you have been submitting it.

    Great writing by the way and really interesting!

    The photography is exceptional as well.

    Got any timed plans on arrival back in Kansas?

  2. Danny R Says:

    Hey Nick! Actually it took me about 7 min to read! Of course some of that time was spent studying the ghordish accessories. (bring me one home). You were most eloquent when you described your rat in the trap, perhaps you even waxed elequent. :). Have a good week, praying for your safe return.

  3. Amanda Says:

    Ditto Jack on statement #2!!
    I always think of things: comments, questions, etc. while I’m reading, but by the time I get to the end, I can’t remember what they all were. lol, sometimes I wish I could comment as I read, within the text… almost conversation style. (as if I don’t already say enough. :) )

    And yes, I love all the pictures you post! Though um, recently, I’ve not really paid attention… just kind of quickly-scrolled-past a lot of them.

    I’m sorry the rain kept you awake, but I can’t say I’m gonna complain about the update. :)

  4. Trudianne Dalton Says:

    I’m Mark Dalton’s daughter, my mom told me to look up your blog. so neat reading about your perspective of the tribe! i spent four months last semester in the Elseng Tribe there in Papua. It is such a different world yet so loved by its Creator and you see His finger prints over it all. blessings as you continue to serve Him:)

  5. Tammy Sammons Says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog and I loved all the descriptions! I’ve been a friend of Mark Dalton for quite a few years and YES he has some great stories! Thank you for giving your time in service. I’m sure it is very much an encouragement to the workers there! Blessings!

  6. Krista Says:

    Oh, Nick, I laughed reading this blog! You are a GREAT writer and write about the very things I would want to know about the places you stay, etc. For instance, the picture of you sweating to death (yuck!) is actually a really nice touch to show us just HOW hot it is there. Seeing it is definitely better than just reading it, that’s for sure. (I’m terribly afraid that the older gentleman’s gourd forgot to do its job adequately, btw.) LOL

    All these books you’ve been reading on your travels…. are you getting them from the internet? I know there’s no way you can be toting these books with you. LOL

    Looking forward to seeing you–however briefly–when you return and will be praying for your travels. That is cool that you met the missions pastor from Shadow Community! (See, it’s still a small world!)

    Now I’m off to read your most recent blog.

  7. Ryan Alberts Says:

    Nick,

    Awesome stuff! Keep writing! Enjoy reading about your perspective and some of the highlights of the books you have been reading! Blessings to you brother!

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