By Lena Allen
Director, Kunai Health Centre
Culture and customs vary among the different peoples of the world. As Americans, we fall in love and marry. We have children and hope to live happily ever after. But among the Kamea in Papua New Guinea, even the very definition of “family” can be different.
Adorned with a flower petal, one of our beautiful Kamea children!
In my regular rounds of going to market and attending to people’s health needs, I have become close to several ladies and their children. Luci and her youngest children, Atama and Pepita, are good examples. Atama is about 7 years old, outgoing, always ready to shake my hand. But Pepita, who is maybe 5 years old, is shy, wanting to be picked up and hugged while hiding her face in my shoulder. She will smile from a distance and walk quietly over to me, climb into my lap and cuddle against me. In my mind I can see them grown and married, caring for their own children.
While on furlough I heard the sad news that their father, Sovi, had been killed. He had been beaten and they buried him very quickly due his body’s condition. I could only imagine what would happen to his family now. Here among the Kamea and in much of Papua New Guinea, the children belong to their father. When the father dies, the children remain with the father’s family. This can become even more complicated if the father had not paid the “bride price” for the children’s mother. But for Atama and Pepita, they not only lost their father, but this month they lost their mother too. They were taken from their mother and now live with their father’s family. It was something that Luci was expecting, as this is their custom.
Their new family is in the next village, and I can see the girls often. Their father’s sister now cares for them. Sarah (Sovi’s sister) had two boys with her husband. But when he decided to move to town to find work, Sarah had an inappropriate relationship with her husband’s brother and word got back to her husband. He came and took the children to town with him. So her own two children don’t live with her, and the two that she has are not her own.
A broken arm healed well!
At Baptist Bible Translator’s Institute in Texas we were taught to consider the relationships and terms given to each member of the family. With our Kamea children, all of the mother’s sisters are called ‘mother.” All of the father’s brothers are called “fathers.” Conversely, mother’s brothers are “uncle” and father’s sisters are “auntie.” This should give a clue to the fact that if something happens to the child’s “real” father, he usually has another one that he calls “father” that will care for him.
How sorry I used to feel here for children or teens that told me they were “orphans”. Often visitors from America would ask about opening an orphanage. Over time, I learned that an orphan here is one whose father has died, like Atama and Pepita. However, in truth there are no real orphans here; there are usually family members who will take in a child. While considering this subject, it occurred to me that I know of few families nearby that have just the father, mother, and natural born children ONLY. Every family seems to be a “blended family,” taking care of extended family members along with their own children.
Consider the family of our national pastor, James Naudi. He has a son from his first wife (who died a few months after their son was born). He remarried, but they have had no children of their own; last year they adopted a baby girl. They just wanted a baby and a family gave them one. They also have his wife Kelisa’s young brother living with them as well as James’ brother’s daughter. Thus, they comprise a family of six.
I thought about the family of Margaret, our clinic worker. Her husband lives in town after taking another wife. Margaret has three boys plus another adopted boy. This boy’s parents both are alive, but they just gave him to Elijah and Margaret. Now Margaret looks after all four boys without her husband. Last year she decided it would be nice to have a little girl to train to help in the house, so she adopted one. Both of this little girl’s parents are still living, too.
Sometimes a mother dies in childbearing. Breaking with the old custom of deserting that child to die, now those babies have hope; our baby formula program has changed the outlook of the people. The infant can now be given to the grandmother or a sister of the husband. This new “mother” can come and get formula for the baby. This program has saved the lives of many babies.
Though we might find the Kamea different than Americans in their definition of family, we must continually return our thinking to what the Biblical standard says. What does the Bible say is right? Is the American way right, or the Kamea way? There are some absolutes such as one husband and one wife, but what about who raises those children? As Bible-believing Christians, we take our responsibility seriously and believe that each child is a gift from God. But what if you had 10 children already and could not raise enough food in your garden to feed them all? What if five of your children had already died? For me, I am finding it is enough to say that we are different.
Pray for us that we will have wisdom as we work to teach Biblical truths about the family while discerning what is simply different but not wrong. The most important thing for any of our Kamea children is that they come to know Christ at a young age. Pray that we can keep this most important task high in our priorities and prayer life.