An important man died. Just before I went to bed, I heard the sound of wailing or a lamenting song. It was coming from the direction of the river. I had never heard that sound before, and I didn’t know what it was. It sent a sad shiver through me, but since Jevon was already asleep, I didn’t ask him about it.
We got the news the next morning. The old witchdoctor upriver, who had TB for the third time, had finally passed away. He was an important man, the second most important leader on this river. Because of his death, we heard from one source, nobody would be allowed to work for 7 days. No one at all. The men could not cut gardens. The women could not work on their beads. It was to be a time of grieving for all the people.
But was it just out of grief and respect for the deceased that no one was supposed to work? Apparently there was something else behind it. One source said that if a person worked during the specified time period, someone else would die. Another source said that if a person worked during this time, it would cause that person to be lazy in the future. The stories did not match up, but we were certain that there was something more than just grief or respect behind it all.
A few mornings later, we were eating breakfast at a rather latish hour, thinking that the guy who was going to help Jevon with construction and the woman who was going to help me with language would not be showing up. Much to our surprise, they walked out of the jungle and appeared at our door. We went to greet them, and a few awkward moments ticked slowly by, while we tried to figure out the purpose of their coming. We stood there wondering if they were wanting to work or not. If they were ALLOWED to work or not. When they said that yes, they had come to work, we scrambled to finish our breakfast and get ready to work with them. But we had some new questions in our minds.
Later, we were sitting down drinking water and relaxing in the living room, and our coworker Palmira was with us, too. The man who was helping us said that four days had already passed, so it was okay to work now. Palmira was curious about the mis-match stories we were getting from everybody, and asked him about it. “Why does one person say 7 days, and another says 4?”
“No, Palmira,” he said, “You don’t understand our culture. The people over there on the other river say it is 10 days, but they aren’t in charge here. The man in charge upriver says 7 days, so some people aren’t working for 7 days. The old man in another community says 5. Floriano (the oldest man in our friend’s own community) told us we could wait 4 days. So we didn’t work for 4 days.”
“That is why,” he continued, “I say to my people, ‘God’s Word is not like that. In our culture one person says one thing and another says another. But God’s Word is not like that. It is already written down. It cannot be changed.’ ”
I think he nailed a crucial point right on the head with those comments: the difference between the oral traditions of men and the written Word of God.
We can’t just make it up as we go and change it to fit our situation or the situation of our own community. We sure try to, don’t we? (I am talking about my own culture now; I am talking about you and me!) We try to wiggle around it and explain it away and make it sound better to ourselves. But it is there, just the same, written in black and white, testifying against us that we are making up our own way…and we are wrong. Ouch.