A generation ago, the young tribal people of Papua’s remote interior roamed the highlands with stone axes and spears.
Papua’s youth still hike the misty mountain trails—only now they carry solar-powered MP3 players.
They’re not plugged into Coldplay, though. They’re listening to voices in their own dialects—young people with messages about a killer that’s sweeping through their villages. That killer is HIV/AIDS.
The route to Tolikara is fraught with perils—streams that rush across the roadway, rickety bridges, mud-swamped grades, sheer drops and landslides. It takes five hours from the hub town of Wamena by road (if you can call it a road), to reach the remote region, home of the Dani tribespeople.
Every mile is an adventure. A band of opportunists with home-made daggers and machetes blocks the road with a makeshift barricade, demanding money to let our vehicle pass. After a brief discussion with the driver, a boy raises the barrier and lets us through.
Swirling mists engulf the road, sweeping across the mountain peaks and sinking into the vast, bottomless valleys. The mists seem to shroud Tolikara, as if protecting the isolated villages that for centuries lay undiscovered, hidden from the outside world.
Until the 1960s, the Dani tribespeople of Irian Jaya—now called Papua—were untouched by Western influences. They lived in the Stone Age, using stone axes and tools, and had no written language. The men were completely naked, except for manhood gourds, and the women wore only grass skirts.
When the first missionaries arrived in Tolikara, there were no churches, in fact, not even one known follower of Jesus. But as the Dani observed the missionaries’ lives, the first indigenous churches were born. “O Creator, greetings!” the Dani prayed. “We never knew you existed, but here we are!” Now there are 200 indigenous churches scattered throughout Tolikara, with a total membership of about 40,000.
Change has not just come to Tolikara—it has struck like a lightning bolt. And not all change has been positive. Transporting from the Stone Age into the Information Age, Tolikara is gripped by social challenges—including promiscuity fueled by exposure to cell phone pornography and other sexually explicit media.
AIDS has become widespread, and fear is rampant. Stories are told of people suspected of having AIDS being thrown into the river to drown.
Many have heard about a mysterious disease called AIDS but know nothing about it. They live in a dangerous void—a void filled by rumors and misinformation. Some believe AIDS can be transmitted by sneezing or by the wind; others say it’s “like a ghost,” it doesn’t really exist.
“The first time I heard about AIDS I was confused,” confesses 19-year-old Kayafar. “I knew it was dangerous, but that was all I knew.”
World Relief, a Baltimore-based development agency, trains young people like Kayafar to use its Choose Life curriculum, a guide that’s been successfully used to teach youth in other cultures about AIDS, as well as the advantages of abstinence and fidelity. To address unique challenges, Choose Life is being contextualized for the Papuan culture. The strategy includes using solar-powered MP3 players so lessons can be recorded by local youth in their own dialects—crucial in this oral society.
The young Dani educators take their role seriously. “We have a strategy,” explains Kayafar, “and it includes using skits and songs to capture interest.”
In Tolikara’s central community of Karubaga, 28-year-old church leader Pandimur Yikwa says AIDS dominates the churches and the communities they serve.
While the number of those living with HIV/AIDS in Tolikara is unknown, Yikwa reports the pandemic is spiraling. “Every day, people die of unknown causes,” he says. “We believe many are AIDS-related … gaunt, reduced to skin and bones, with sores all over their bodies.”
Now, Yikwa says, is the time for the churches to speak out and act to save lives and heal their communities before it is too late. “We could lose a whole generation,” he says. “The churches are not going to let that happen.”
Last year, World Relief launched Mobilizing for Life, its AIDS education program, alongside Tolikara’s churches.
It’s the churches’ role to warn about promiscuity and teach about healthy relationships, Yikwa believes. “Our people need to learn that it’s safe to touch people with AIDS, to eat a meal with them.”
According to local health officer Johnny Towolom, once people know the facts, many choose to change their behavior. “If one person is changed, it can change a whole community,” he says. “The missionaries planted the church here; now the church must build a movement to defeat AIDS.”
One of the greatest challenges is that communities are miles apart and often accessible only on foot. World Relief’s strategy is to equip local church volunteers, ensuring a trained task force is in place, even in the most isolated foothill villages.
Pastor Yikwadinas Yikwa’s congregation is a window into the indigenous churches World Relief works alongside in Tolikara. In the village of Kuari, Pastor Yikwa leads a church of 250 people. Its sister church has 800 members, and there are only 1,400 people in the community. Although church attendance is remarkably high, many of Kuari’s young people engage in risky sexual behaviors, and several church members have died of AIDS. “All our church members need to know what the Bible says … that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” Pastor Yikwa says.
In Wamena, Pastor John Nap used to believe AIDS was “a disease for sinners.” It didn’t concern him or his congregation, he reasoned. His world was shaken when six young people in the church were diagnosed with HIV. Two of them—both in their 20s—died of AIDS, and Pastor Nap conducted their funerals. It broke his heart.
“A lot of people are frightened,” shared the pastor, who now heads a local AIDS ministry. “People are saying, ‘Maybe God is the answer … maybe we need to change.’”
Julian Lukins works for World Relief and traveled to Tolikara to write this story. A version of this article appears in the May/June issue of RELEVANT.
photo credit: Kerstin Pless