Kolumbi’s Mirror (From April of 2008)
“Mother, mother,” the old woman said over and over, motioning with her hand into the mirror that was hanging on the wall of our little house. “Mother, I can see you,” the voice of the matriarch trailed off as she gazed at herself with a nearly toothless smile, not realizing her aged face had taken on the appearance of her deceased mom.
Kolumbi had responded to my wife, Susan’s, invitation to come into the house we had recently built in a small village in the Hewa mountains of central Papua New Guinea, and once she had climbed the stairway and was standing in our living room she caught her reflection in our mirror. She was captivated by the image, not realizing it was her own.
Susan covered her mouth to hide her surprise. She watched as Kolumbi called out to a different era.
“Mother, so much has changed since you died.”
Susan looked away, suddenly feeling guilt for eavesdropping on a personal conversation, but then stifled a laugh as she realized the old woman had never seen herself in a mirror. Susan found herself wanting to take a peek to see what the woman saw.
“A lot of people have died since we put you in the grave,” Kolumbi continued, undaunted by Susan’s presence. “There was your daughter, Wofiya, (Yanis’ mom) and Ankale, oh and recently your great grandson Elele.” She raised her hand to her fading hairline, dropping her eyes, and then continued with a faraway tone, “So many have died.”
Susan wanted to say something to make sure her friend knew she wasn’t speaking to a departed spirit, but was also concerned she may offend the old woman.
Kolumbi noticed Susan was standing close. “Mother,” she said in a revived tone, “Susan and Jonathan came to live with us. They built this house in our village and now I can see you.”
Oh no, Susan thought. I hope I’m not feeding some sort of ancestral cult belief!
Then Kolumbi turned to Susan. “Come talk to my mother,” she said, jerking on her hand. “She will want to see you. Tell her about your family.”
Suddenly Susan knew she was in too deep. “Uh . . .”
“Tell her about your family,” she insisted, raising straight from her usually hunched position to look up into Susan’s eyes.
Susan stumbled forward in shock and found herself facing the mirror. She was searching for the right words to say when Kolumbi’s voice cut her off.
“Oh, look,” she said, her eyebrows raised in surprise. She turned to Susan. “Your sister is here too!”
Susan’s jaw dropped. “What?” She turned to look back into the mirror and there she saw the image of the white haired woman and herself. She must think my reflection is my sister!
Susan wanted to speak kindly to Kolumbi out of respect, and didn’t know how to start. Does she think my sister is also dead and now living behind the wall of this room? I can’t let her believe that or terrible rumors will spread through the villages!
But then, the old woman quickly turned and descended the stairway at a remarkable speed. She exited the house without closing the door.
Susan laughed out loud. “Now what am I supposed to do?”
But then, only a few minutes later, Susan heard the very excited voice of the old woman as she was returning with her oldest living daughter. “Come quick, come quick!” she was saying, out of breath with excitement. “Come see my mother. She’s in Susan’s house!”
By then I heard the commotion from where I was translating the New Testament in my cubby hole under the house. “What’s going on?” I called to Susan.
“You better get up here quick,” she answered down the stairway. “Kolumbi thinks her mother lives in our mirror and now she’s bringing Fisa.”
“What?” I laughed, jumping from my seat. I ran up the steps before the mother and daughter made it through the door.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “That would only feed the Cargo Cult teachings of the witch doctor.”
“What should we do?”
I turned to see the two grey haired women arrive to the top of the stairway and elbowed us aside. They were looking into the mirror, chattering with excitement.
“Do we really have to say something?” Susan asked. “They’re so happy.”
I laughed as my wife’s heart of compassion made the easy answer the hard one. “Fisa,” I said to the daughter. “It’s just a mirror. Your grandmother is not here. It’s just your mother’s reflection.”
She appeared to be ignoring me but then I remembered both old women were nearly deaf.
“That’s just your reflection!” I yelled, hoping I didn’t sound angry. “It’s not your grandmother.” Then I remembered back to how Kolumbi’s grandson, Yanis, first told me the Hewa word for reflection was the very same word they used for a person’s shadow, and this was also the same term used to speak of the soul, or in this case, the spirit of the dead woman. It wouldn’t help to explaining the soul/reflection was actually not a soul/reflection, but simply a soul/reflection. By using the Hewa terms I would only confirm what she already thought!
Then I had an idea. I ran to the bathroom drawer where Susan kept her little makeup mirror. I arrived back to the happy women and tapped Fisa on the shoulder. “Here, look at this,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen yourself in the mirror I gave to Yanis a while ago?”
Fisa looked into the little mirror and caught her reflection and then turned to look at the larger mirror on my wall. She nodded but then continued to talk. I couldn’t tell from what I heard if she was talking to her mother or her supposed grandmother in the mirror, so I stood with jaw dropped, having no idea what I should do next. If I couldn’t convince them, they might perpetuate the idea that Hewa ancestors lived in our house. This could potentially excite the witch doctor as he would be convinced of his previous hope that we missionaries were actually long-lost ancestors who had returned to our descendants in order to teach them how to obtain instant wealth through ancestor worship.
But then it was over. For no apparent reason the conversation was suddenly finished and mother and daughter descended the steps and left the house, once again leaving the door wide open. I looked at Susan in disbelief. “Will the surprises never stop? Will we ever get to the place where we are no longer shocked by the things that happen?”
“You better go tell someone about this before the whole village arrives to speak to their deceased loved ones!”
When I found Yanis and told him the story, he laughed. “Don’t worry about her,” he said. “We all know she’s so old she has lost her reasoning.”
“But what about the others?” I persisted. “When she tells people she saw her mother in my house won’t people think I have a connection with their dead ancestors? Maybe they will think that’s how I got my clothes and cooking pots and tools?”
“You worry too much,” he answered with another laugh. “That’s how the men used to talk but not anymore. We gave up the ancestral myths when you taught us God’s story. I’ll talk to grandma, but don’t worry because we know better now.”
Please pray for the Hewa and the other tribal groups of Papua New Guinea who are still holding to their ancestral cargo cult expectations. When we first arrived to Hewa in 2000, we learned that many people thought we would one day tell them a secret prayer or song or chant that would open the door for them to gain instant wealth from God, and today there are still groups that are tenaciously holding onto this way of thinking.
We praise the Lord for Yanis (pictured with family) and others who have responded to the truth of the Gospel, but are concerned for the others who think the secret to material wealth is something we still need to reveal to them. Please pray the Hewa will long to have a friendship relationship with their Creator and that true faith in Jesus will spread all over these mountains.