Kilifas Trip

Kilifas Trip

Kilifas trip report.


In this report I would like to try and give an impression of my 7 week stay in Vanimo and Kilifas, Sandaun Province in Papua New Guinea (2011).

We were there intermittently with SIL from 1977 thru to 1989. Personal and family circumstances forced a sudden abortion of the program in 1989. I had (in 1988/89) been in the middle of writing up the Fas-grammar and wanted to use it to compose a TG-based field model, like I had done for Phonology. (I am still grateful to Bruce Hooley asking me to do so and teach it at SPSIL in Melbourne.) Anyway, it did not get finished and I had always felt  a need to round off the description of the language to some more satisfactory degree. My internalized knowledge of the language had never been great, so 22 years later, there would be no  way of doing this without getting back to Kilifas for a while.

That opportunity came when I was 67 and had been semi-retired for a couple of years. The government pension could be used to pay for the trip. The trip was planned for 8 weeks, from June 21 to August 18 2011.  The cheapest way to travel seemed to be via Jakarta and Jayapura (from Amsterdam). Return fare about  € 1400. Meanwhile we had gotten to know a couple in our small town, who had worked in Irian Jaya (Papua) and now had a daughter living in Jayapura. They all were a great help in getting me to the border.

Border crossing

One can fly to Sentani (near Jayapura) and then travel per taxi to the border (± 3 hours). At the border you traverse some 50 feet by foot and continue on the other side by PMV or Taxibus (± 1 hour)

It was as well that I had gotten my PNG visa from Bruxelles,  for the Jayapura PNG Consulate did not (at that time) issue visas anymore. Instead they issued a negative travel advice for trips to the border. Separatist activities, would be the reason, I presume. Only a couple of days before my arrival 4 Indonesians had been killed on the border road and on my return to Jayapura, there had been a shoot-out three hours before we passed the very spot. Police and military were rounding up suspects before our eyes. I understand that a number of tourists got consequently stuck in Jayapura. Too bad, Vanimo could do with some tourism. At the border, they first wanted to send me back to JP to get a rubberstamp over there somewhere. It took rupiah 300.000 (€ 25) to persuade them otherwise.

Vanimo residence

On the other side, thanks to  Bob Brown,  I had been able to contact father Tommy of the Catholic diocese. He had offered me a simple place to stay at their Lote mission, just outside Vanimo on the border side of the lagoon.  I was looked after by Fr. Frances as if I was his (two year older) son. There were no cooking facilities, so I had my meals with the 18 seminar students or with fr Frances at his place. A nice lot and an interesting experience.

An e-mail sent to the CBC-guesthouse caretaker had had no response.  Apparently they run a reasonably priced (k 56 – 64) self-catering facility. There are other self-catering bungalows, but I have not been able to check them out.

To Kilifas

Kilifas used to be a 2 or 3 day walk from the coastal town of Vanimo. Things had changed quite a bit that way.

I had heard from Bob Brown and others that Kilifas was now on the (Malay) timber company road, but had no idea how to arrange transport there. So, I looked around Vanimo and was finally told about a settlement just outside of Vanimo where Kilifas people would stay if they had to be in town for some reason (hospital visit, for instance). It’s near the better known settlement that is called Dassi. There I met a man from our village, Aike, and had a foretaste of the emotions that my return would trigger. Tears and my fumbled words in Fas. The next day, his daughter walked me along the beach to Vanimo and found her husband who runs a 4 WD Toyota land cruiser to and from the village. What happened on the road would happen over and over again when there would also be non-Fas-speakers about. In the presence of these outsiders I was to speak Fas with them, apparently taking enormous pride in my being able to do so (to a certain extent), providing a running translation for the benefit of the outsiders.. Anyway, they took me to Kilifas. I could always sit up front and never paid a penny, also on later trips back to Vanimo and other places. Joy and tears when meeting old friends and their children and grandchildren. The timber logging had brought them money, so I was spoiled with loads of biscuits, rice, noodles, corned beef, cordial, loafs of bread … money even.


I did not achieve much in terms of my major objective, rounding off  (to some satisfactory degree) my analysis of the language. The men would be away at work at the Malay base stations, 7 days a week, and the women off to their gardens or “washing sago”. I worked with Mene, who had been Dorothy’s language teacher. She is still good, but not reliably available and with not enough background to tune in to the morphological and phonological distinctions. The last 7 days I was able to work with Raymond Putai, who would also be employed as interpreter by government agencies. He was good to work with, but we only had limited time.

Language situation.

I was surprised to notice how quickly my TokPisin (TP) returned. At one occasion I overheard workers I had been chatting with, comment to each other that I spoke TokPisin like they do. This conflicted sharply with my ability to speak Fas. I just fumbled about and had to start learning it all over again. Fluency in TokPisin may well be one of the reasons why the vernacular never really took hold. I remember being able to deliver a prepared speech/sermon but hardly able to understand what they were saying. When we were in Kilifas, people would speak TP to us, could not really be bothered with the language. In church the (local) elders would speak TP and had what they said translated by someone else. That always struck me as very odd and unnatural.

This situation has changed considerably. If I happened to start a conversation in TokPisin, they would now immediately reverse to Fas. There are people here that have been all over the place, lived in Port Moresby and other larger towns. They all seem to  have a pride in their own language. In church, too, Fas is used a lot more. Young preacher may still change to TP now and then, throw in an English expression here and there, but then usually also follow up with the same message in TokPles (the vernacular). This is quite an accomplishment as they get taught in TP and English at the Bible schools, conferences and seminars they attend. Whether there is a real desire for a Bible in their own language, I am not sure of. Mene told me once that she would like to be able to read the Bible in her own language and they love to look at my papers to see how the language is written.

A second reason why (I think) I never really internalized the language, is because I am not really made out to live in village circumstances and integrate in the community with the accompanying immersion in the language. I like my privacy, am not terribly social, like my comforts, don’t like sago and hatwara (sago jelly). Canned fish (as any fish) makes me throw up. The mosquitoes drive me nuts. I guess, myself, like many fellow missionaries didn’t come because of our ability to adjust, but because we felt called by the Almighty. This often results in insufficient integration and shorter and shorter village stays. I remember the great anticipation we had and the relief we felt when we could fly back to the comforts of the SIL headquarters at Ukarumpa.  At such moments the very awkwardness of this un-integrated, fenced in, white island in a black sea,  was forgotten for a while.

It was good to see the people again. It was something I just had to do, a kind of closure, I guess, but not something that I enjoyed. If I had been able to integrate as well for a longer period when we first came, I think I would have done a lot better at acquiring the language. It’s easier without a family, but how long could you last…?

The population has grown, if not exploded. A census has just been rounded off and I would not be surprised if the figures had doubled since the last census that I have figures for: 1629 for the entire Fas-speaking area (in 1979)

A third possible reason why language learning was not a success may have been the language learning method. Back in Holland I was introduced to a method called  TPR and a strong emphasis on the priority of listening and learning to understand. I used this method successfully in teaching Dutch and English as a second language. The way we learned in the seventies, focused on speaking. I remember having to elicit a greeting, and then having to go to people’s houses  repeating it. I tried out a different approach this time, like I had Mene give me all kinds of orders, “put up your hand”, “go to the corner”, “eat a banana” etc. I also recorded small stories and the conversations we had, tried to get a transcript done and listened to them over and over again.  The small voice recorders available today are a great tool for this.

Fas, then, has probably over 3000 speakers and may well be the largest in Sandaun province. The people have become increasingly proud of their own speech. They group the villages Sumumini, WaraMayu, Kilifas and Fugmuy as one language unit (dialect if you like). I would think that there are also differences between the village to the North (Mori, Savamuy and Mumuru) and East (Fas 2, Tamina 1 and 2, Nebeki, Fugeri, Yau, Aiamina)

There is a debate going on about the name of the language. “Fas” is not what the people would have chosen. When we were there 25 years ago, I had been unable to elicit a language name from them. Now, with a lot more interaction with speakers of other languages, the idea of using the word for “no” as the language name has arisen. This is not uncommon in the area,  although the names used in phylic descriptions all seem to be based on place names. Fiona Blake while working on an honors degree in Mori  (prompted by the villagers) decided to call the language Momu (the Fas-word for “no”). Doing so would cause quite an upheaval in language ethnologies and make language descriptions harder to trace, but I have come to feel that it should be done any way. Both in Mori and Kilifas (at either end of the language range) people feel that that should be the name of their language. There is a problem, though, that Europeans would also face if their languages were called by the word for “no”, in that the word may be the same in related languages. This is the case for Fas and Baibai. An unconfirmed inquiry into the Baibai situation, seems to suggest that Babai speakers have an alternative word for “no”, “arkwaye”. If this could be confirmed I would feel the road is definitely free to initiate a change of names. Maybe keep Fas as the family name. I would hope Murry Hornsberger, working on the Kwomtari-language, could check this out. It may have to be done for other regional languages as well.   There are differences between the dialects, but they have no trouble understanding each other. Villages like Fugeri might be more central and thereby more suitable for a language project (like bible translation) that should serve the entire group, but there are other considerations favoring Sumumini or Kilifas.


One thing that both intrigued and worried me was as to how I would cope with being back in the village as an agnostic non-believer. I had hoped it would give me a more objective sense of the situation. From my perspective what I can see is the following.

There are quite a number of missions vying for a place under the sun / a piece of the cake. In Vanimo I counted a least, the Catholics, Christian Brethren (CBC), United church, Rivival church and SDA’s, but I know there are more. In the Fas region we have RC, SDA, Rivival and CBC in Sumumini, SDA and CBC in WaraMayu,  CBC only in Kilifas and Fugemuy. New Apostolics in Mori and probably Savemuy. The rest (like Fas, Utai, Fugeri) I would guess is RC or untouched. There is a charismatic wind in the air, even the Catholics are organizing meetings without mass and lots of singing and guitars. I was surprised to find that the church in Kilifas now had guitars, gospel songs with their arousing repetitions, sharing time and a worship moment. People would clap and in Pentecostal style raise their hands and respond in affirmation (Yes, Sisas). Dancing in the Spirit took place and there is prayer for healing. I even thought I heard some utterances in tongues (but that was probably unrecognized Fas). Women more freely take part, give testimonies and share dreams they had. Quite remarkable for a Brethren born church. Does that reflect changes in the Brethren movement in New Zealand as well?

As I had left my books on church history accidently behind, I had nothing to read. So I decided to do some bible reading and started with Mark. The situation described in the synoptic gospels is so much closer to the situation here in places like Kilifas than it would be to our Western societies. Evil spirits are nothing strange. At one stage a village pig was shot. They shot it in its side, which didn’t kill it so it ran into the bush. There it was chased and killed with spears and arrows. When I asked the gunman why he hadn’t shot it through the head, he said that it would have caused a bad spirit to leave the pig and wander around. The story felt very similar to the story of Jesus sending the bad spirits of the possessed man into the herd of swine, killing them all. It is a world that most evangelicals feel uncomfortable with and even Western pentecostals rather speak of deliverance from bonds rather than casting out demons.    I can’t see a “spiritual” culture like the one in PNG transfer directly to the rationalistic outlook on life that most of us westerners  now exhibit. “Jesus” is possibly the best answer for now and the best precaution against falling into apathy and drunkenness.   I heard about mega-churches in Moresby and there is definitely a market for revival type expressions of faith. There is also a lot of mixing of traditional and Christian stories. (I heard the story of a Fas ancestor meeting with Herod in Israel !)

 I would just hope that with the missionary presence the people’s older customs and ceremonies will not simply disappear, but somehow be respected and integrated in this new religion. The Catholics tend to better at this than the Evangelical missions.


On returning as many people as could fit in the land cruiser came with me back to Vanimo. They had wanted to take me to the border, but I still had to get a visa in Vanimo to be allowed back into Indonesia. So, I was dropped at the catholic Lote mission and handed notes of 10 – to 100 kina. It was heart rendering having to say goodbye.

The timber logging effect.

There are two logging base camps in the area run by a couple of dozen Malaysians. The managers tend to be Chineese Malaysians. To get to the Ironwood trees they have had to build roads. These roads tend to be paved with gravel from the rivers, have to be continuously maintained and require a 4-W vehicle. There are two “base camps”, camp 124 and camp 56. The numbers probably refer to distances, like 56 K to Amanab and 124 K from Vanimo(?).

It is, consequently, easy now to get to a number of these villages, a 3 hour journey from Vanimo to Kilifas. The road has reached Fas and Utai (almost). Fugeri, Tamina etc. are not yet connected.  But Mori and Savamuy have been on the Aitape-Vanimo road for a while.  A road to (or at least towards) Amanab just recently opened and branches away from the road just outside of Kilifas.  Kilifas has a school with 3  – 5 teachers and grades  3 to 8.  Other villages also have schools. The Kilifas headmaster (Ricky) travels to Vanimo every couple of weeks and the people in Kilifas and Fugmuy have about 5 Toyota land cruisers between them that are used to travel to and fro to Vanimo and the logging camps where the men work. The more regularly employed men (and women) actually live at these camps. Company cars also traverse these roads almost on a daily bases. An Aid post is nearing completion in Kilifas, so a “dokta” or at least a qualified nurse will soon be available to see to the people’s medical needs. Sumumini is the closest Fas speaking village on the road (from Vanimo). They seem to be doing quite well there in setting up all kinds of projects (Palm oil, cattle etc.) with the money they got for the rights to their kwila trees. The Chinese Malay managers appear keen to appease the villagers as some of the contracts have not yet been signed. Village people frequent Moresby to consult with an Australian lawyer about these contracts. Meanwhile the company has assisted in supplying materials for timber houses with iron roofs, setting up medical facilities, repairing school buildings etc. It regularly leads to quarrels between these managers and the village people who want more and more. And from my perspective, the money they receive does not square with the profits the logging companies make. The money also caused a problem with drunkenness. And then there is the worry about what it does to our pristine jungles.


In Vanimo mobile phones are popular, the necessary top-up-cards run up to 10 k but won’t get you very far calling abroad. So I just called Dorothy and got her to call me back.  Internet is also available, both on phones and computers (with a plug-in module). The company bosses at camp 56 use a satellite phone, but find it often hard to pick up the required satellite signal. They also have an internet setup and what they call a “direct line”. It’s very expensive, apparently, but can be used with no cost if you get called. So, we sent Dorothy an email asking her to call us on a 006-12-digit number. That worked really well. I had thought of bringing an internet set-up or satellite-phone, but was worried about the size of the gadgets and especially their need for electric power.

I brought a portable/foldable solar panel (about € 450 US)  that would charge an 8Amp 12V Lithium battery in about 4-5 hours of full sunshine. That should have kept my net book and various other 5-6 volt gadgets going, ….. if only there had been enough sun. We had day after day of rain and I got really frustrated at how few hours of time I got on de computer. Most of my documents were on the hard disk or usb sticks. I went back to Vanimo to get a 12 volt car battery at Eela Motors. That turned out to be a disappointment. I had been in a rush to pick it up (a company car was waiting) and didn’t check it out. I was sold a dry cell battery, but when I got to the village I realized that I had been given an unfilled and uncharged acid battery. Pretty useless. Anyway they filled it with acid at the 124 base camp and got it charged. It never lived up to its promise.

The company folk were really helpful, they would take me anywhere and I had some really nice Malaysian meals with them.  In the village, I cooked on an outside wood fire. Mene did the cooking for me at first but it turned out to be more convenient to do it myself.  It took me an hour or so to get it started the first few days, then got hold of a can of diesel, which made life a lot easier. Not till later did I realize that bits of  rubber car tubes are now used  to quickly start a fire. I had wondered why so many discarded car tubes were lying around.

What I should have brought more off is cans of salted peanuts and aa(a)-batteries to keep my voice recorders and Led-light going. I have an aa(a)-battery charger but it’s hardly worth wasting the little solar power on it. They last a month or so for 3 hours of  LED-light a night.  (LED-lights are called ”Solar Lights” here.) Furthermore, of course, I should have brought books. The carpenters brought in a week old paper. We were fighting over who would read it first and having to compete with those wanting the paper for their smokes.  I didn’t read anything about the situation in Libye, Syria etc. I should have brought a short-wave radio, the only way to receive some outside news. In town you can receive FM stations, so short wave with no broadcasts in TokPisin is not very popular here.


During my stay I often thought that it was going to  mean a closure, a more satisfactory conclusion of this period of my life. It probably is going to be that, unless I can be of help to anyone (any team) that would move in to work with the villagers.

I promised the people that I would ask SIL and NTM to look into sending a team to work with them.   There definitely is a greater appreciation of their own language.  The central villages of  2-Fas and Fugeri would probably be more ideal in terms of language centrality, but not necessarily in terms of interest in language work.

Sumumini would be closest to Vanimo (1 ½ – 2 hours) and Fugmuy is the nicest/cleanest village with many new timber houses. The road from the main road to Fugmuy, however, is perilous and badly maintained. Kilifas is on a (5 minute) walking distance from the “high way” and has a gravel road leading to it. It’s nicely situated on the river and the people already pointed out an idyllic riverside spot for a team if they would come. It has a lively church, an elementary school and an aid post.  It would be my (biased?) choice, I guess.

The Catholics here appear to be more inclusive (following Matt:  “Who is not against me, is for me”) and the Evangelicals elsewhere more schismatic (following Mark and Luke   “who is not for me, is against me”).  But the Catholics have little time for the vernaculars.


I would like to thank each one of you for your help with advice and practical assistance.