Finding Onya

I wrote some thoughts about bucket lists a while back. Andrew, the man who has spent most of his life translating the Bible into the Ketengban language, told me in a recent email, “Onya is a place I always had on my ’bucket list’ but could never get there on foot.

Opening the airstrip at Onya had been on my own list for some time. A year earlier the community had completed their airstrip, but we had been unable to provide service there because of a shortage of aircraft. Now, with Ketengban Old Testaments piled high in our hangar, a full complement of pilots, and four operational Pilatus Porters, it seemed like the right time to get in there.

So early on a recent Tuesday morning, my colleague Tim Harold and I flew a full load of Scriptures into Omban, the Ketengban airstrip closest to Onya. We unloaded the majority of the Bibles in Omban, but kept ten boxes of Old Testaments on the airplane for the people of Onya.

We then took off from Omban and headed northwest, following what the pilots here call The Long Valley. Looking down at the terrain below, I could only imagine how many hours of hiking it would have taken Andrew to check this particular trek off his bucket list.

When the GPS showed we were within a half mile of the airstrip, we still couldn’t see it. Having never been there before, I wondered if perhaps we had the wrong coordinates … but I didn’t have any reason to believe our data was wrong. Besides, we’d followed what I remembered of Andrew’s instructions to a tee: “From Omban, go out into the Long Valley and hang a left.”

Just as my worry motor was firing up, Tim spotted the airstrip through the dissipating morning fog.

When the weather in these mountains calls for patience, patience is what you give it. With plenty of fuel on board, we circled overhead and got to know this little cul de sac off the Long Valley better. As we circled, the fog steadily lifted and soon the approach path was clearing nicely.

Perched on a picturesque ridge line, the community at Onya had done an excellent job of subduing their mountain into an airstrip. After a couple of practice approaches, we were soon touching down on its smooth, firm surface.

As soon as the prop stopped moving, a reception committee in full ceremonial dress started a high-speed spin-cycle around the aircraft. The now-familiar Ketengban whooping overpowered our senses.

Once the mayhem settled down a bit, we had a short time of prayer thanking God that these Scriptures had come to the people of Onya. After more than 15 years out here, I’m finally catching on that ceremony is important, so we made one up on the spot.

On a remote ridge line in the Star Mountains of Papua, under the wing of an airplane that God’s people gave specifically for this task, pastors and elders from the seven churches in the Onya valley received boxes filled with books that held the very words of their Creator.

Looking at the crowd pressed in around the airplane, I guessed there were about a hundred Ketengban folk cheering each time a box came out of the airplane. If my spiritual eyes worked better, who knows … I might have been able to count the angels cheering.

All photos by Tim Harold. 

Nate Gordon

Nate Gordon and his wife, Sheri, have served with our aviation partner YAJASI in Papua, Indonesia, since 1997.