Inay Umbahi

Inay Umbahi cutoutInay Umbahi has died.

A beautiful, quiet lady with her gentle spirit and dignified demeanour, she can still fill my heart with warmth just by looking at her photo.

One of the traditional gems of the Banwaon people … Sadly, one by one they pass away … Another generation, another time, a culture changing as “civilization” intrudes.

Every time we leave the village for an extended period of time we wonder who will be missing when we come back.

One of my favourite things in the Banwaon church meetings was surreptitiously watching Inay Umbahi sitting on the split palm floor, always up the front, sometimes cuddling a small grandchild on her lap, her face alert and intent as she chewed red betelnut and focused on the words of the Bible teachers.

The tangle of beloved beads hanging from her neck … the old-style earrings with little pompoms or bells … the fascinating intricate tattooed design on her arms, hands and legs.

I’m so sad she won’t be there when we go back. We don’t know what caused her death, just that she died.

What colossal changes Inay Umbahi must have seen in her lifetime –

from nomadic, jungle dwelling, fear-filled, spirit-worshipping, animal sacrificing lifestyle –

to hearing the Gospel and accepting freedom in Christ, settled in a village surrounded by family.

We pay tribute to this lovely woman of God.

She will be missed, but because missionaries before us came to the Banwaon and shared the Gospel, Inay Umbahi had a chance to hear and accept the message of Life …

And so we will see her again.

Inay Umbahi backPhotos: Janet Banks

The night that we received the text message saying Inay Umbahi had died, I couldn’t sleep.

This is what I wrote that night …

Vignette at mtg houseInay Umbahi is dead.  It’s 1am in the morning in Australia and I can’t sleep.  My mind constantly shifts to our precious friends in the village who even as I write will be gathering together at Inay Umbahi’s house for the all-night vigil.  It’s 11pm there.  We got the text from Yilna today, and Albert called to tell me.  No details yet, just “some sad and difficult things we are facing right now – Inay Umbahi is dead.”

I’m thinking of Kaking and Daga and Umbahi – their beautiful Mum gone.  I’m thinking of their spouses, Inay Tim, Kaging and Umbahi’s indolent husband.  And the grandchildren who may or may not grasp what has happened, but will know that the lap they’ve sat on for comfort so many times, the gentle smile and helping hand are no longer there.

Inay Umbahi was one of the “beautiful ladies” of the Banwaon.  Gentle, dignified.  Covered in traditional tattoos that I came to regard as beautiful, their fading dark patterns criss-crossing her legs and forearms and the backs of her hands.  Her mouth blackened by betelnut and teeth worn down, yet she had a lovely smile that never failed to warm my heart.

One of a dying generation – how much change she must have seen in her lifetime!  From the nomadic, animistic, fear-filled days of her youth and probably into her 30s or 40s before the Gospel came.  She was one who chose to accept the offer to listen to the Gospel message.  She was one who chose to respond by trusting that Jesus’ death was enough to pay for her sin, and put her in right standing with God.  And in so doing, she was one who chose life.

My heart is heavy for our friends in the village. In my mind’s eye I can see them coming to Inay Umbahi’s house, in dribs and drabs as the night goes on.  Most bringing what they can to contribute to the all night vigil.  A small bag of sugar.  Some coffee.  A can of fish.  A kilo of rice.  The women will busy themselves cooking.  Food, the great comforter.  Regardless of culture.  Their version of bringing a casserole.

The children will be playing around outside in the dark, watching the men sawing and hammering and building the coffin.  I’m glad they’ll have plenty of planks thanks to the bandsaw.  The night will deepen and people will huddle in jackets and blankets feeling the chill of the jungle night.  Flickering lanterns and candles will illuminate the wooden walls of the house where Inay Umbahi will be lying wrapped in her own blanket but feeling no cold.

And the stories will begin.  Stories as they remember Inay Umbahi.  Little tidbits from her life.  Random sharing.  It’s what they do.  Part of grieving well. No-one taught them “this is something that’s cleansing and healing to do to start the grieving process”. It’s just what they do.

So many of them are Christians now. So they’ll offer heartfelt encouragement from the Lord and the Bible.  “We’re so thankful she’s in heaven with the Lord right now!  Diya ta langgit.”  “She’s seeing Apu hi Disi and Timpu’s wife and …. and … and … the many others who have gone before her.” The emptiness of loss is present, but the sting of death is gone.

The night will deepen and then the surprising part always happens.  As the stories go on, the humour comes out.  The Banwaon have a marvellous sense of humour, and I wonder if this is just something they’ve started since they became Christians, or I wonder if it is a carry-over from their past when they tried to trick the spirits with strange things like crying at weddings.  Maybe if they cry at a wedding, then they try to trick the spirits by laughing at a funeral?

Seeming so strange to us, it is liberating for them.  The village comedians wind up in fine form and as the hours pass, the laughter will grow and even the close family, sitting by Inay Umbahi’s body in the house, will share a laugh and smile.  They are cocooned in the love of their neighbours, friends and relatives.

I think about the true joy so many of the Banwaon have because of the freedom they have in Christ.  Hope of life in eternity.  In so many ways they are far more in touch with the supernatural and eternal than we are in our temporally focused western culture.  Heaven is a certain reality for them, not a mystical “perhaps”.

The dawn will come, and the difficult decision will be made – it’s time.  Move the body into the coffin.  One last glimpse of the precious earth-suit left behind when the spirit soared away.  This will be when the tears will flow, sobs and for some, the wailing.  The younger ones might punch a wall or kick a tree in angst.  Venting grief.

The walk with the coffin to the place that has been set aside down the hillside for graves.  A hole dug by other young hands, all keen to do their part to help.  The Bible teachers will pray, and remind the people of the hope there is in Christ.  They know so many of the translated scriptures now, they’ll probably quote some from memory.

Then home to sleep after the long night, and before facing the new day.

I’ll miss Inay Umbahi.  I used to love watching her in the batbats (church meetings).  Her movements were always precise and slow and measured.  Her face was a study of concentration as she took in the teaching.  She was there every week.

And thinking of her now, in Heaven with Christ because the first missionaries came and did the hard yards, sticking it out to learn language and culture and show love and care, to teach the Gospel clearly starting in Genesis and working through …. it makes all our years of serving God in the Banwaon worth every minute.

So I turn my light out, and hope for sleep.  But my heart is still thousands of miles away in a dark jungle house where lights flicker and the smoky smells of wood fires and cooking rice fill the air.  And I pray for Kaking and Daga and Umbahi.