Light and darkness are generally synonymous with good and evil. But in the Bikaru tribe of Papua New Guinea (PNG) it has an interesting twist. At night the people hang lights under their huts built on stilts, believing this will ward off evil spirits wanting to kill them. Some in the small tribe have become believers in Jesus and turned off their lights. Nights have become darker as light has entered the hearts of a terrified people.
It’s been two years since Gerhard and Brigitte Stamm, missionaries for 28 years with Liebenzell Mission, have visited the small people group of approximately 120, considered a dying tribe as numbers dwindle due to unusual superstitious beliefs. Reaching this tribe requires an expedition involving a flight, a canoe trip, and walking into an extremely remote area.
As Michael DuPuis pilots the MAF Caravan heading toward the starting point at April River in the Sepik region, Gerhard’s excitement is tangible, his smile and exuberance infectious. He tells the story behind the white pith helmet he wears, adorned with a plume of black and red feathers, a humorous gift from a friend that is now his trademark attire. Mostly he talks of his excitement to go back to see the Bikaru people.
“Without MAF we couldn’t do this,” Gerhard says. “In this Sepik area, there’s nothing else. We need MAF for the remote airstrips.”
The Stamms worked for a time at April River and the village of Niksek where Gerhard says his ‘heart got stuck’. Once, he stood with an old missionary looking up at the mountains to the southwest and asked if people lived there. The missionary said no – only pigs and muruk (the PNG ostrich-like bird).
“Years later,” Gerhard remembers, “I met two strange guys and they looked really unique. From that same spot I asked them, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘We are coming from these mountains,’ they said. David Attenborough made a documentary about their attempt to find the elusive Bikaru people but the expedition failed. Even the old colonial patrol officers didn’t manage to find them. The men invited me. It took us two days. So I met these people and they were so close to Stone Age. It was a thrill for me because it was always my dream to meet some people quite close to their origins.”
That was 12 years ago. Samuel, Gerhard’s translator, had become a Christian through a New Tribes Mission ministry years before. One of the ‘Stone Age’ men, Daniel, came to the Lord near the end of that first visit and remains strong in Christ.
By Canoe and Walking
Joining the Stamms on the journey was Peter Mathias, Bible School teacher and colleague, and Annika Schmalzhaf, daughter of a previous PNG missionary. The trip’s scheduled departure was delayed for lack of a working canoe engine, though the team eventually set out using an engine with a damaged propeller. The incessant rain for two days prior to departure caused the Niksek and Setifa rivers to swell. A high water level is preferred over an engine propeller stuck in mud, or hitting tree trunks and boulders. But the high water level also meant hiking across a mountain rather than following an easier path next to the river through a gorge. After engine breakdowns and repairs, wading across rivers, and the final trek to the village, the team arrived the same day they set out, grateful and wet.
The Bikaru were once a strong warrior tribe with traditional enemies living down river and elsewhere. “The warriors are still there,” Gerhard says. “They can tell you how many they’ve killed.”
On a visit six years ago, an older woman came to Brigitte saying she couldn’t sleep at night. She could see the faces of the people she had killed. Women fought with bow and arrows mostly, and later with axes. She couldn’t find peace and Brigitte led her to Christ. A few days later, Simo, an elderly man came to Gerhard. It was the woman’s husband, although he didn’t know this at the time. He told Gerhard he was a bad man, describing how he had killed many people, raped girls, mistreated women, and had killed people through witchcraft. Gerhard wasn’t impressed.
“I said, ‘Are you trying to show off? What do you want?’ He also saw the faces of the people he had killed. He said, ‘I want to come to Jesus. According to what you’ve said, he accepts me too.’ I said, ‘The door is open.’ We used an interpreter to make it clear. You should have seen him when we prayed together, how he walked out at this time. He was almost flying out, like a butterfly. This old man. You could see a burden was off him.”
The elderly couple wanted to be baptized, so the local Christians from April River obliged and gave them new names: Gerhard and Brigitte.
Freedom from fear of the dark
On the previous visit to Bikaru, Gerhard had seen many discouraging and negative signs in the tribe. The young people had been drawn into the gold rush and influence from outside: immorality, pornography, alcohol, and drugs. They were not interested in coming to church, but the old people remained strong.
“This time, the situation in the village was much better than at the previous visit,” Gerhard said. “The people came, young and old, to attend the many gatherings and all were very attentive.”
The team had decided to bring Christmas to the people. After all, it was coming up on December, and these people understood more deeply than most cultures in the West about the darkness and evil that Christ came to destroy. Fear of demons and evil spirits is a terrifying reality for them but Gerhard taught them that the Son of God came into the world to destroy the works of the devil. “Fear not, for the Savior is born unto you today” – a perfect and appropriate message for the Bikaru people. For such people Jesus came into the world: to bring freedom from fear and the terror of the dark.
“My old friend Daniel, like many of the old men and women, told me that he belonged to Jesus, that he clings to Him, and is not leaving Him. ‘I’ll see Him soon,’ he told me. ‘I am not afraid and I listen to His words every day on my solar powered audio Bible.’ These are moving moments, making up for all the hardships of the journey,” Gerhard described.
“What a privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to bring people God’s offer of peace,” Gerhard says.
Story and Photos by LuAnne Cadd, MAF’s Roving Communication Officer