two nights (part two)

January 28, 2011

Ekies Wonda

The next morning, after little sleep, I set out again from Karubaga with the staff. My colleague Jon was even groggier than me. Without a candle, he had been kept awake by mice banging into his feet while chasing each other around on the floor where he lay.

We headed out to see—or, more accurately, to gaze from afar at—our many remote AIDS project areas in the highlands of Papua, Indonesia. We work in the 12 cluster regions for the GIDI church, spanning the entire district of Tolikara. Two of these areas are accessible by road, and one is accessible only by plane. The remaining nine have to be reached by foot. Our volunteers come in from these areas on a bimonthly basis to learn about HIV and how to prevent it. They then return to their villages to share messages with their neighbors, women’s groups and youth using solar-powered MP3 players.

We were accompanied by several of the volunteers, who had attended the training and were now heading back to their communities. I asked one of them – Yowenus Wonda, a short man with kind but glazed eyes – how long it would take him to get home. He looked at me serenely, and replied, “Oh, only two nights.” Wonda walks three full days – both to and from the city – to attend our two-day sessions. Every two months. As an unpaid volunteer. He gives his time, and sacrifices his body and his sleep, simply because he believes that positive change can happen in his village as a result.

Papua has an AIDS rate 15 times that of the national average in Indonesia. Many of the Dani people are afraid this will be the scourge that wipes them out completely. They have gone from living just 50 years ago as people did in the Stone Ages, to being at the center of the complexities that the AIDS epidemic brings.  

We squinted at the distant mountains, trying to make out villages against the bright sun. Martin Jingga, the jovial Secretary for the GIDI church, said that it used to take him 12 hours to walk to where he pointed, beyond two mountains, because he was “very fat.” Now, the slimmer version of him (which is still plump) takes six hours to walk. I wondered how long the same distance would take me. And I doubted that I would be willing to attempt it even once.

Ekies Wonda told me he too walks three days to get to the training, spending the nights wherever people will shelter him. The different seasons bring added complications to the journey. During the rainy season the rivers are at times raging and impassable. In the dry season the roads are too unbearably hot to walk on, and the spring water is dried up.

Perched on the edge of a cliff, I felt dwarfed by the peaks surrounding me. Distance and infrastructure are only two of the many challenges we face in our work in Papua. Stigma against people living with AIDS is extremely high; women are oppressed in unthinkable ways; politics are incredibly complicated; literacy is low; healthcare is almost non-existent; and people continue to die unnecessarily.

I felt insignificant, knowing how few solutions I had to offer. I took a deep breath as I surveyed the area. The tin roofs of the local GIDI churches dotted the landscape, with the rest of the population hidden from sight in their traditional rounded honai homes. I reminded myself that the challenges we face are the very reasons we choose to work, and must continue to work, in this remote area. We are the only organization working to fight AIDS in Tolikara—and for the many who are hearing HIV prevention messages, it can mean the difference between hope and fear, between life and death. Author Kenneth Cain wrote, “The larger the threat, the more profound the doubts, the deeper you have to dig to find faith and conquer your fears.” I believe that our work in Papua will take more creativity and more persistence than most places. I also believe it will be worth it.

We dropped the volunteers off in one of the green valleys to begin their long treks home. As they set off with their basic army-green packs, I thought about what I had carried with me for the night – and what I would need to survive three days of walking. They smiled broadly and waved goodbye. We drove off, and I turned to watch them fade into the distance. I knew that each one of their strong steps would bring them closer to reuniting with family and friends—loved ones who are now healthier and more protected. I felt humbled by their faith, and shamed by their commitment. And I looked forward to doing more.

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2 Responses to “two nights (part two)”

  1. Saranell Hartman Says:

    Wow- Jo. Great stories. Thank you for writing and opening our eyes to the need in such a remote part of the world. My dad has spent time in Papua with the Yali people. He filmed and produced an excellent documentary about their encounter with some missionaries. Our prayers are with you as do this important work. Hugs from Charlottesville!


  2. wow, your stories are incredible! and your writing is amazing! do you want to write my blog for me? haha! but seriously your blog is awesome. i pray God blesses you with new insights about Him as you continue to work to love His people.


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