They materialized like smoke from the earth amidst the deep green undergrowth of the rain forest. Twenty men surrounded my guide and me. With skin darker than the soil beneath their bare feet, they glistened as the rays of the oppressive noon day sun reflected off the pig fat smeared over their nearly naked bodies. A lone member of the group began to chant, “Wa, wa,” but quickly grew silent beneath the glares of the rest of the men.
Without a word, my guide fell to his knees and prostrated himself on the ground. Thinking it wise to follow his lead I fell to my face as well. As I lay there, nose in the dust, a grub crawling up my face, my guide whispered, “let them take the lead. Just stay quiet.”
A tap on my shoulder was my cue to look up. An old man with hair that looked like he had stuck his finger in an electrical socket (which of course there were none) stood over me. He motioned for us to stand and proceeded to do a dance of sorts around us. He waved a smoke pot in the air and dipped his head up and down. His chants identified him as the shaman and his actions made it plain we were interlopers on his sacred ground.
The dance ceased and the shaman evaporated into the forest. Three women stepped into the clearing followed by several children. The women wore little more than the men and the children nothing at all. The oldest of the women ventured close enough to poke me in the stomach, threw her arms in the air, and rattled off a long sing-song speech to the rest of the group. When she finished, all laughed and slapped each other on the back.
Just as I was about to join in on the joke and laugh along with them, I was pushed to my knees again. No one was smiling anymore. One of the men, bird feathers on his head, stepped forward. He turned to the others, shouted something, and an argument broke out. Whatever their beef, it was obvious I was the object of discussion.
And then it happened. Though I tried but I couldn’t stop from crying. Here I was a woman, in the heart of Western New Guinea, fifty miles from where I should have been. As I struggled to keep my composure all I could think to do was pray. Remembering a few words from the 23rd Psalm I had learned in the Dani language, I spoke them out loud.
The phrase rose to the sky and fell on the group like healing rain. The same man who had been hushed earlier began to chant again; “Wa,Wa.” A few stared his way but said nothing. Slowly, one after another joined in the chant; “Wa. Wa.” The shaman reappeared but remained outside the circle. Silent. Head down. Angry. The group was now animated. They danced, bouncing up and down as their eerie chant echoed off the trees. “Wa, wa.”
Once again the group grew silent as a short fellow wearing an uncharacteristic yellow shirt stepped forward. He held in tow, a low slung wild pig on a leash. With the pig beside him he motioned for me to stand. “You know the Lord of the pigs?” he asked in broken English.
Lord of the Pigs! What did he mean?
My puzzled look prompted him to continue, “You say the Lord is the Pig Herder. Does he walk with you?” His eyes never left the tiny cross I wore around my neck as he spoke.
Ignoring my guide as he pleaded with me to not answer, I looked around at the group. And then I knew what he meant.
“Does he walk with you?” I repeated the question back to the man.
He grinned, exposing the three teeth in his mouth. “He does with most of us.” His eyes fell on the shaman as he answered.
The man with the bird feathers stepped forward, said something to my newfound friend, and stepped back.
“He says anyone who the Pig Herder walks with is welcome. That is why we sing, “Wa, wa. It means welcome. We do not know you; perhaps we do not even trust you. But we trust the one who walks with you. Walk with Him among us and you will be safe until you leave.”
I smiled, “The Lord is my Pig Herder. Whom shall I fear?”
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