Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: Tragic clash of existences that shows us ours is not necessarily best way of life

Missionary and the tribe which killed him shake our own assumptions, writes Gail Walker

American adventurer John Allen Chau (AP Photo/Sarah Prince)
American adventurer John Allen Chau (AP Photo/Sarah Prince)
Gail Walker

By Gail Walker

The death of American Christian missionary John Allen Chau, killed in a hail of bows and arrows on the tiny island of North Sentinel (a part of the Andaman group of islands in the Bay of Bengal) as he attempted to convert the inhabitants to Christianity, produces a mixture of emotions. The first, of course - and let us be candid about this - is a kind of wry bafflement. Missionaries? Tribes? Conversion? It seems like the bones of a Two Ronnies sketch from the 1970s.

This type of thing simply doesn't happen in our latte-loving, agnostic world. Even many of those with faith will find the idea of a missionary walking into what seemed to be certain death all rather bewildering.

The Sentinelese are what is officially described as an 'uncontacted people', meaning they have had no real contact with the wider world. Even their tribal name is a made-up one - we have no idea what they call their island or themselves; we don't even know a single word of their own language. In an era where we like to think of ourselves as part of the global village, where we delude ourselves that our world is snugly tied together by commerce, technology and common cultural assumptions, the death of Chau implicitly challenges our complacency.

First of all, Chau's faith is unsettling. He knew the risks. Fully. Unblinkingly. He had attempted to make contact with the tribe several times. As he prepared to make another attempt, he wrote a letter to his parents: 'You guys might think I'm crazy in all this, but I think it's worth it to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed. Rather, please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has called you to and I'll see you again when you pass through the veil. This is not a pointless thing. The eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can't wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language, as Revelations 7:9-10 states.'

The missive ends: "Soli Deo Gloria" (glory to God alone).

Whatever our theological positions, the sincerity of his words should make us pause to reflect. His truth and 'our' truth don't coincide. John Allen Chau was prepared to lay down his life for his truth. Like a Christian martyr of old, he walked towards the arrows that were to kill him.

But nor do the truths of the Sentinelese themselves fit with ours. Described as the world's last Stone Age tribe, they have aggressively defended themselves from the outside world. From Marco Polo back in the fifteenth century, through British Imperial expansion right up to today's agents of the modern Indian state, the Sentinelese have defended their isolation, raining mini-hells on anyone so arrogant as to stick their neb into their business.

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And so successful have they been in preserving their isolation, we know - even today - little about their beliefs, their customs or even how many of them there are (best estimates say about 150) on their island, which is 7.8km long by 7km wide.

Indeed, judging by some newspaper reports, the only thing we do know is that the tribe enjoys vigorous communal sex on the beach (you don't get that at Brown's Bay!). Thank goodness for the investigative powers of the Press.

The Sentinelese need more protection from us than we do from them. They are under siege from ever more exotic tourism (while it is illegal to visit North Sentinel island, half-a-million tourists a year visit the greater Andaman group), our insatiable curiosity masquerading as concern. Even our germs are hostile, threatening the tribe with possibly fatal diseases as flu, measles and the common cold. Bows and arrows won't protect you against those. The Sentinelese are a salutary reminder that 'our' way isn't the only way. From what little we know, they seem happy, surviving on fruit and berries, clams and the odd pig. It may seem flippant but there is something to be envied in their isolation from our values and the pointless neurosis of our society. Imagine no internet, no Facebook or WhatsApp. No paranoia about why so and so hasn't liked your last tweet. No TV. Imagine that. No Simon Cowell, no Ant & Dec (& Holly), no Davina McCall, no Cheryl New Name, No Kanye and no Love Island.

Bliss. But more important than those boons, no demands - to be thinner, richer, more successful, more fulfilled, more compassionate, more aware, smarter, wittier, wiser, more in touch with yourself, more fashionable, less solipsistic, calmer, happier, aware and self-confident.

They have never heard the word 'Brexit'. Glib, perhaps. But there are times when you think of places like the Andamans and wonder if we're so smart: we know everything except our own minds, we have advanced but we know not where to and at what cost.

Maybe it is sentimental to think that the Sentinelese are on to something, watching the sea and the stars, living from day to day, sufficient but no more than that, living without judgment. But are their lives any less complete, any less satisfying than our own? It's a big question.

Chau and the tribespeople who killed him unnerve us because each, in their differing ways, chip away at all our easy assumptions. Chau's own assessment of his own mission and its risks does have something noble about it. You can call him foolhardy - but then mountaineers and seafarers and rushers into burning buildings can be dubbed unwise. Whatever he was, he paid the heaviest price for it.

By the same token, he was killed by people against whom no law of our devising can reasonably be deployed - and by 'our' I mean any law of any legal or moral system existing anywhere.

Those who killed him weren't murderers.

More than likely, the isolation of the Sentinelese will eventually wither away as the ravenous appetite of the consumer world for novelty and freaks and fly-on-the-wall voyeurism finally finds a way to encroach upon their tiny life. Then we may indeed someday find a means to account for the response they had to aliens landing on their beach.

But I don't think it'll be much of a surprise, really. We like to think that we would be open to the unknown and the totally unfamiliar - genuinely 'alien' life, for example. We like to think also that we respond in a friendly fashion to those who seem friendly to us.

But that's the greatest self-delusion, the story in which 'we' (or glorified versions of ourselves) are always the heroes. But we are not the goodly, beauteous creatures Shakespeare had Miranda celebrate in The Tempest. Instead, isn't it true we must appear immediately ugly, hostile, fearsome and invasive? And is that guesswork so misguided? After all, wherever we go, we drag a fairly hellish existence behind us. The record shows, as Tyrone poet John Montague noted in The Last Monster, that the story of our contact with the strange and unfamiliar doesn't end well: "Somewhere on the ultimate scarp/the last monster will watch/with hooded eyes/while tiny men trek importantly towards him/bristling with strange supplies."

It's no disrespect to the late John Allen Chau, who ran his ultimate risk of his own beliefs, or to those completely innocent islanders who met him with their own, to note that it isn't so clear just who the more fearsome party is in that exchange between islander and visitor.

The monster, for want of a better word, may be closer to home than we think.

Belfast Telegraph


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