Story and Photos by Tim Neufeld
On September 7th 2020, we were able to re-enter Papua New Guinea; almost six months after we had departed on what should have been a week-long trip! After completing a 14-day quarantine, we returned to our home in Goroka. I was able to get my medical certificate renewed two days after we got out of quarantine, and got right back to flying with lots of challenging but rewarding days, frequent trips for the Aerial Health Patrols, training into new airstrips, and exposure to some new parts of the country that I can now fly into.
One of the new airstrips that I went to was Tamo. Tamo is in the East Sepik Province of PNG, somewhere inland between Madang and Wewak if you are looking on a map. MAF doesn’t fly here all that often, but a few times a year we will get a request for a flight, usually from Pioneers Bible Translators. A week after I was approved to land at this airstrip, a call came through on our booking line. One of the Pioneers’ staff members had died, a single woman who grew up in Tamo as the daughter of Bible translators, and came back to PNG as an adult to serve as logistics coordinator for Pioneers. When this news got to the pilots, we thought surely there was a miscommunication.
Bethany would have been the person to call to arrange a flight, that was her job. But as more information came, it became clear that no, it was Bethany herself who had died. A tropical disease had taken her life, and her body, in typical PNG custom, was to be returned to where she was from, the village where she grew up.
I was assigned the flight: two trips into Tamo, one with Bethany’s friends and colleagues, and again with the casket. For me, this was a huge responsibility. Bethany’s parents and brother were in America, and would not be able to attend this burial. We have never met them, and we might not ever meet them, but for that day, the story of their years of work in the Sepik, their decision to be in Papua New Guinea, their family growing and living and laughing and crying in this country, and our story both intersected.
A burial in PNG is something that could not be more different from what we know in North America. For several days, there will be a “haus krai” (house cry), a public display of mourning.
When I landed in Tamo with Bethany’s casket, hundreds of people were waiting for the plane, their bodies painted in the mud of mourning. As soon as the doors were opened there was an intense wailing and weeping. Most of the people would have known Bethany. The older folks would have remembered her as a girl. A choir of around 50 kids sang a song as her body was carried off the plane. Though it was difficult to hear the words, one line was “Welcome Home, Bethany.”