My journey to the Chepang People

This is the story of Kathleen, a North Otago farm girl who at 20 had a call from God that took her on a lifelong journey to a remote village in the foothills of the Himalaya’s. Here she worked with her husband sharing God’s love to the Chepang people.

 As soon as I turned 15,  I left school to help my father on our family farm hoping to leave days of study far behind me.  I enjoyed the outdoor work and being involved in our local village church.  Then as a 20 year old I went with my sister to a Keswick Convention in Southland where I was challenged to dedicate my life for missionary work.  This really rocked my comfortable little world!  Besides, what did I have to offer?  I had no qualifications and minimal education.  I spoke with a counselor who advised me that the next step would be to go to Bible College!

Meanwhile, Ross was studying science at Victoria University in Wellington with an interest in the newly developing space programme.  He was involved in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and found the bible studies there a great help.  He greatly valued his own bible so he was very interested to see a film about people doing bible translation.  But as he was studying science he thought it would not be something he could do.  The following year there was a speaker at an IVF conference at Masterton who was actually doing translation for an ethnic group in Papua New Guinea.  When Ross spoke with him he learned that it was not essential to have studied languages as Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) had their own specialized courses – the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL).  In fact this translator had a degree in biology. He advised Ross that the next step would be for him to go to Bible College.

That is how we both ‘happened to be’ students at Laidlaw College (formerly Bible College of NZ and, in our own time, known as the Bible Training Institute [BTI]) in 1962-3.

I was frightfully scared about going there with those students who I presumed would all be intellectual and probably saintly as well!  This was a huge step for me but I was convinced that was where the Lord wanted me to be.  It was a total change of life-style from being very active to spending hours each day in lectures and study.  In the end it turned out to be a wonderful time. I had great teachers and I made many life-long friends as well as meeting my future husband.  During my time at BTI it became clear to me that my next step would be to do nursing training.  This also was a surprise as I had had no previous interest in medicine at all and hated even giving injections to sheep! We both graduated in 1963 – Ross with Honours!

In 1964 I began three and a half years of nursing training at Oamaru Hospital while Ross went to Brisbane to attend the initial 3-month linguistics training before returning to Wellington to complete his science degree.  I later did a linguistics course in Auckland while he did an advanced course in Brisbane.  In the midst of all this we wrote many letters and were married in Oamaru 10th of December 1966.  April 1967 was another important day when we received notification that our application to become members of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL, had been accepted.  After my nursing training was finished we went on to ‘Jungle Camp’ in PNG for another 3 months of challenging activity.  There we learned to cope with all sorts of conditions (and food) as well as learning to relate to and live among cultures completely different from our own, practicing learning their language.

The end of 1967 found us both in Brisbane where I did the advanced Linguistics course and Ross was on the staff.  Six years of training had been quite a challenge for one who had left school at 15 hoping to do no further study!  However, I found the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) training practical and intriguing.  It taught us how to unlock the mysteries of unwritten languages and put them into writing.  Firstly there was phonetics, where we learnt how speech sounds were made, how to hear and mimic them correctly then to record each sound with phonetic symbols.  Following that we could begin the analysis of the sound patterns as well as the grammar.  All languages have rules and patterns – linguists are just the sleuths who find and document these.  We had some practice at making basic literacy materials and doing actual translation.  A working knowledge of any culture is necessary for language analysis as well as bible translation, so living with the people is important.

Another important milestone was the birth of our eldest son Philip in Brisbane just a few days after I finished my SIL training.  Now it was time to prepare to travel to Nepal with a three month old. Why Nepal?  While at BTI, we had both become interested in working there as we had heard about the difficulties Christians were facing.  I often wonder if our interest was stirred because Ross’s mother had been praying for the king of Nepal for many years.  The Nepalese government had no idea what languages there were in their rugged little country the size of the South Island of New Zealand. So when senior SIL linguists approached the vice-chancellor of the newly established Nepal university with the offer to go into those remote places to do language research and analysis, he contracted for them to come.

On the advice of our on-the-spot colleagues we packed our trunks and sent them off to Calcutta, the nearest Indian port to landlocked Nepal.  Then we received a rather garbled telegram telling us to redirect our luggage to Bombay as the Nepalese government was limiting visas to only 5 teams (10 people).  Fortunately (or unfortunately) our luggage had not departed and we were able to redirect it as advised.  A few days later we received yet another telegram telling us to revert to the original plan as one couple had become ill and we were to go to Nepal in their place.  Too late!  Our trunks had already gone and we didn’t see them again for almost a year – not quite intact!  Three odd socks and my BTI blazer were missing!

We flew to Bombay then went by train to Pune in central India where we spent a month in orientation and preparation for Nepal.  Finally, in June 1968 we flew into Nepal over rugged ridges dotted with thatched huts that were eventually to become our home. The rainy season had just begun and as we descended into the wide bowl of Kathmandu Valley we saw green, terraced paddy-fields with clusters of brown villages spread beneath us like a carpet.  The airport was very basic and one of our friends was waiting for us on the tarmac with a jeep – which was also very basic!  It would have been impossible for us to find our Linguistic Centre without him as there are no street names or numbers.  My memory is of desperately clinging to the frame of the jeep with one hand and my 4-month old baby with the other as we bumped in and out of potholes and past mud-brick houses with grass growing on their tile roofs!  It seemed as if we had arrived on a completely different planet!

The next 6 months were spent learning how to speak Nepali, the national language and adapting to a very different life.  We were grateful to colleagues who taught us so many valuable lessons as we shared accommodation and experiences.  Five teams from five different countries who would be working on five different languages.  Our health was also challenged but nothing had prepared me for the day I thought I had lost my baby!  I had taken him in a stroller with me when I went down the street to buy bread.  On our way we were met by a group of colourful village women who had obviously never seen a foreign child before.  One of them grabbed him out of the stroller and ran off to show him to her friends. I was paralyzed!  Philip played his part well by screaming at the top of his voice so they soon returned him to the stroller while I went on to the bread shop shaking all over!  Needless to say I took a different route back to the flat.

Why did we choose the Chepangs?   After we arrived in Nepal we began to look for clues as to which language to work on. Very little had been written about the great variety of ethnic groups which were living in the Nepalese hinterland.  One anthropology book mentioned the little-known Chepangs who seemed to be very needy and neglected people.  It was not clear where exactly these people were and maps were difficult to obtain.  After the rains had finished Ross and his brother along with two young Nepali lecturers set off to find them and see if we could live amongst them.  After several days on buses then on foot the Chepangs were located and arrangements were made for us to live in one of their more accessible villages. I soon followed with Philip and all our bundles.

It was a long, winding bus journey with an 11-month old child. Up over a 3,000 metre pass (add another sweater), then zigzagging down to about 500 meters, (sweaters were off again)!  Ross met us and we spent the night in the grottiest lodge imaginable! Next day we had a shorter, straighter bus trip but it was slow and bouncy.

Along with an entourage of villagers carrying our baggage and baby we then set out on foot up the stony riverbed enclosed by steep, jungle-clad hills. After about two hours Ross tried to encourage me by telling me that when we rounded the next bend we would see the village where we were to stay.

Thinking we were nearly there, I was shattered when Ross pointed out the tiny houses perched high on a ridge away in the distance!  We were only about half way and the last part was straight up about 1500 metres!  However, I could not possibly turn back with all those villagers watching! We finally made it to the ridge and the people popped out of their houses to watch the curious sight we presented.

I had this overwhelming sense that this was what God had been preparing us for.  These people had waited a long time for someone to come and learn their language, put it into writing and translate the message of Jesus’ love for them.  They had never even heard His name! Now this awesome privilege was entrusted to us!

 And so began our relationship with the Chepang people of Nepal.