Life changes for Fergus couple lead to mission work.
When Jan Wells was a little girl, she used to watch TV programs about cannibals with painted faces who lived in Papua New Guinea. Today, as a missionary to that once strange land, she tells people, “Now here I am, living with you. What a treasure that is for me!” She notes that the people of Eastern New Guinea, where they work, haven’t been cannibals since the 1950s. “Western New Guinea is a little more backwards,” says her husband, Gene. “It wasn’t that long ago they were cannibals.” And it wasn’t that long ago that Jan and Gene were happily raising llamas on their Horseshoe Valley Farm near Fergus Falls. They sold them for pets, wool, or guard animals. But the market was limited, and the concept of llama meat, although tasty and healthy, did not fly in the United States. “The bottom had dropped out of the industry as far as prices,” Jan says. “We had changed our focus. We were thinking about retirement and what we wanted to do. We kind of wanted to do some kind of mission work, and if you’re going to be gone, you can’t have a lot of animals.” They decided to sell the herd, keep only 13 acres of the farm, and build a new house. “It was hard, and I think we disappointed a lot of people by not having the llamas around any more, but I think it was a good choice. Since then, we’ve gone on some marvelous mission trips,” Jan says. The Wells’ dream started coming into focus when they read an article about their friends Jerry and Darlys Hess, who worked as missionaries in Papua New Guinea. “I thought that would be interesting,” Jan says. “So I called Darlys one day and said, if you go back to Papua, we would be interested. It happened that they were going the next year, so in 2007 we packed up our bags and off we went. We’ve been really fortunate, because back in the 1970s, we had a foreign exchange student from Kenya. He was back in the states and was working for Northwest Airlines. So he was able to get us free tickets from Minneapolis to Tokyo, which amounted to thousands of dollars, and he was able to get them for both couples. Then from Tokyo we purchased tickets to Port Moresby in New Guinea. From Port Moresby we took this little plane and went up into the Goroka, and from there we headed up into the bush.” This entire trip can take some 23 hours. “It’s a long way, but it is so worth it.” They made the trip again in 2009, but found their travel plans upset in 2010. They hope to go again in 2012. The Wellses found Goroka to be a bustling place to which pastors came from the bush with a van or truck or whatever vehicle they could find, and took them to the mission compound. Gene says, “In Goroka, every business has a guard at the door. The pastors whom we deal with always want to be with us in town.” “People try to rob you,” Jan says, matter-of-factly. “You carry your wallet in your front pocket, or carry your purse or bilum (see below) in front of you. Every store and restaurant has a guard out front. But we can come and go, no questions asked.” Natives, however, routinely get their bags checked. “One time I was walking with one of the pastors’ wives, and there was a commotion down the street. She said to stop, so we did.” They watched a group chase, catch, and beat a thief, dispensing frontier justice until the police arrived. She notes that the hospital in Goroka is atrocious, but there is a very nice little hospital in the bush. Jan explains that the pastors they work with are Papua New Guinea natives. Some live in the bush and some in the mission compound. Many of them did their theological training in a special house in the compound. Jerry Hess’s son-in-law’s parents, who were missionaries in the 1950s, built the compound. “We have a very comfortable mission house to stay in. It’s pretty bare. There is no electricity, so in the evenings they would run a generator so we could run our computers and cameras, and have lights, but sometimes we would just have a lantern. There was no telephone and sort of running water. There’s a big tank up on the hill by one of the cabins where some of the pastors live. It’s rain water, and it works by gravity flow down to the mission house, so if it’s the dry season, there’s no water. We were lucky the two years we were there.” Minnesota summer is supposedly not the rainy season in New Guinea, but in 2009 it rained every day. The year round climate is mild. “I’d like to try it in the winter time,” she says. They hope to have proper electricity there within the next few years. Everybody has a cell phone, thanks to cell towers, which also make it possible to use computers. Some of the pastors have TVs, and when the generators are running, everybody runs to one of their houses to watch. Westerners can buy almost everything they need at grocery stores in Goroka or at roadside markets. Some items, such as a box of breakfast cereal from Australia, can cost up to $10. But the native people keep them supplied with fruit and vegetables. There is no meat or milk. “They’re very good about helping to feed us, “Jan says. Although they are Baptists, the Wellses work in New Guinea is non denominational. The churches at their compound are Pentacostal. Church services start when everybody arrives and can last three or four hours, as the preaching is translated from Pidgin to English. The congregation sits on planks. Music comes from a keyboard or guitar. Jan says, “We go on our own, and pretty much do what we want. The first year we did some maintenance, helping to repair a road. We taught the women how to quilt, and with some donated money, I was able to buy sewing machines for the pastors’ wives. We would do a three-day retreat. The women would be at our door at seven in the morning. Some of them had walked from five to seven miles or more, carrying their sewing machines in a bilum, which is a bag that goes around their forehead and hangs down their backs. The husbands walk also, but they don’t carry anything.” Jan explains that the bilum is an important item in New Guinea, both for practical purposes and to sell to tourists. “Every spare moment the women are sitting there with their needles, which they have made out of wire of some sort.” They start with yarn which Jan has brought them. “They break the yarn into strands two feet long and do some kind of twisting with it and make it into one strand again. They roll it on their leg. I’ve tried to do it, and they laugh and tell me my legs are too fat!” The result is an extremely sturdy twine. The bilums are made in various colorful patterns, in a technique that resembles crochet but on close inspection does not prove to be conventional crochet. “Everybody carries a bilum. It’s doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, you all have bilums, and you carry whatever you need.” Most of the time, they carry them over their shoulder, but for heavy work, the handle goes around their foreheads. “The women are strong. Oh my goodness, the stuff they carry! It’s tough work; it’s a tough life,” Jan says. The men make remarkably sturdy baskets, for their own use and to sell. “It’s neat that in the morning, as soon as you get up, you’ve got these guys at the door with their baskets to sell. It’s so fun to wheel and deal with them.” The men also sell their baskets on the streets of Goroka. Jan says, “You could sit or stand on them. They are extremely well made.” Jan says, “The second year we were there, we built a church. Everybody came out of the bush to help. There were men, kids and ladies hauling sand up from the river, almost a half mile. They would line the bilums with bamboo or cloth and fill them with wet sand. They would dump it in a pile, then go back to the river and up again.” Gene says, “Every bit of material for that church was carried up that trail, and it’s not a real nice trail, either. There are two places where you have to walk across on logs.” Papua New Guinea exists mainly on subsistence farming. Jan says, “They all have gardens up in the mountains. You’ll see the women leaving early in the morning to go up to the mountain, because they do most of the work.” She adds, “Some of the guys go, too.” There is not a lot of tourism. “There is some in Goroka, and I suppose some tourists get out into the bush, but we’re 40 miles out in the country.” One year, the Wellses decided to introduce chicken farming. Jan says, “We fixed up a little shack on the mountain and made a chicken house. Then we bought baby chicks and a heat lamp. One man was really interested in taking care of the chickens, and he slept in the chicken house because he didn’t want that light to go out, and he didn’t want those baby chicks to get cold and die. They are people who don’t plan ahead and think, well, we raised these chickens, and now if we can get them to lay eggs, we’ll have more chickens and we’ve got a business going. But they ate all the chickens or sold them. So it didn’t work as we had planned it, and I’m not sure if we can get that going again.” Papuans are literate. The children attend school, but there might be an 18 year old in fifth grade. “They go for as long as they can afford it, and then two or three years down the road, they go to school again. Schools are pretty basic—a one-room building with boards for seats and another two boards up above for a desk.” English is routinely taught in school, as is Christianity. Once they finish elementary school, students can go to high school in Goroka, some 40 miles away. Their work entailed some touching moments. “The first year we were there,” Jan says, “We met Judy, a pastor’s wife, and her darling little boy named Jeffery. He was about four months old. I just fell in love with Jeffery. I always tried to get some snuggle time with him. One day she came to me as we were quilting. She said, ‘Jan, Korea (her husband) and I have talked, and we decided we would like you to have Jeffery.’ I just got all choked up, and I started to cry, and I didn’t know what to say. I knew that would never, ever happen.” She told Judy and Korea that Jeffery needed to live with them. “She had only known me for two weeks, but she knew that I was a Christian, and she knew that I was from the United States and I loved Jeffery, and she wanted a better life for their child. So I had to pass on that gift, which was difficult.” Sese and Eileen were another family who became close. Gene says, “Sese is my best friend. He’s a wonderful guy.” Jan says, “He fell in love with Gene, so the two of them are like brothers. Sese would pat his chest and say, ‘You don’t know how much love have in my heart for you.’ When it’s time to leave, it’s awful. They cry and sob and wail. Sese and his daughter came to the airport to Goroka the first time we left, and Sese was down on his knees hugging Gene’s legs and crying because we were leaving.” Gene adds, “The second time we were there, they started two days before, just crying and sobbing and holding onto us.” Jan says, “They are friendly, warm, caring people. I’ve never felt threatened when we were there. But the windows in the mission house all have bars. It’s safe to a point, but it’s like here: you’ve still got those scoundrels out there. Then she adds, “Oh, I can’t wait to get back. It’s a place where you want to go.” To see more photos of the Wells trip, click on Galleries and then on New Guinea.