God can produce beauty out of ashes.
This tiny baby is possibly the product of adultery—unwanted.
The husband of Marsasila’s mother commanded, “If it is a boy, okay….[as in, let it live]…but since it is a girl, go ahead and kill it or throw it out.”
Of course, none of this was little Marsasila’s fault.
As the noise and commotion of the argument grew, Litena, the wife of Evangelist Yowenus Wonda, snuck close and listened. According to witnesses, when the husband began to shout, “Bunuh...Bunuh…Sudah! [kill it, kill it already],” Litena interposed herself between the baby and her parents. When the father became more insistent, Litena grabbed for the child. After a short struggle and some back-and-forth tugging, the mother gave the little baby girl up into Litena’s arms. Litena tucked the baby away and walked back to her house. The mother and father of the baby then departed for a sago grub feast downriver, leaving their newly born infant with the evangelists.
The killing or abandonment of newborn babies still occurs in some places in this tribal region. We are trying to see it stopped completely and become only a relic of the past. But we are not in every place all the time. We are thankful for evangelists on the ground, like Yowenus and Yusuf and their wives, who are able to intervene.
See, newborns are not yet fully human to the Korowai. According to tradition, they come fresh from the world of the tario [laleo in the southern dialect], or demons. One anthropologist explains it this way: “Newborn babies, with the blood of their birth on them, therefore begin their lives as laleo ‘demon’, with all the associations of disgusting otherness of ‘demons’, rather than yanop ‘person’. They can be gradually and ritually turned into yanop in the course of the first weeks and months of their lives, that is, if the mother decides to keep the newborn baby.” The infant goes some length of time before even a name is given to it.
One local woman justified her own past abandonment of a baby such as Marsasila with these words: “Oh, we don’t kill the babies. We just leave them. They just die. We don’t kill them.” Repeat it enough times and maybe you will believe it, I suppose.
They just die. Sure.
If a woman becomes pregnant but feels that she cannot handle another infant because she already has a small child to care for, or, in order to obey her husband's preference, she will deliver the child and then leave that child to die.
Baby Marsasila was born in the village. But in the past, a tribal woman would often sit in a temporary shelter separate from her normal home and away from any village setting. She sat with a hole dug below her or else she squatted over a hole dug in a jungle clearing. The mother herself, or sometimes an attendant, often carried out the infanticide "by poking leaves into the newborn's throat with a stick while it still lay in the hole into which the mother had delivered it."
It seems an evidence of an inner wounded conscience that these women seem to make an intentional effort not to look at or touch these children prior to abandoning them. Anthropologist Rupert Stasch explains, “The physical layout of delivery meant that in the past when ___ women killed and buried a newborn rather than caring for it, they could do so without touching it.” Times are changing and Marsasila’s mother delivered in the village itself.
Yusuf Jikwa is the local mantri and evangelist stationed in Waina village. A mantri is a village healthcare worker. These mantris were often evangelists trained in basic medical care who were sent out by the Papuan churches to help in evangelization efforts to remote areas. These early missionary-trained mantris were often top-quality, though in recent years their number and quality has declined as the training is often not done by western-trained missionaries but, instead, by governmental or NGO bodies or national church structures. Yusuf is one of the old breed. Before his several years of service here in Waina village, he labored over 30-plus years among the lowland Asmat peoples.
Yusuf came back upriver to the village of Waina. He had been arranging rice for the community’s Christmas feast. Sadly, a week later, the canoe full of 18 sacks of rice flipped in swirling waters to the south and sunk to the bottom of the river. Such are the trials of jungle ministry in a remote region. Arriving in the village and seeing his own wife caring for the infant, and seeing that the baby still had no name, Yusuf gave her the name of Marsasila (Baul) Jikwa. Only a little formula was available, and so we arranged to have formula sent downriver and Baby Marsasila is now drinking greedily and doing well.
Although the presence of the Church has substantially decreased infanticide, we seek to completely eliminate this practice throughout the whole region.