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Romancing the Stone Age : Papua New Guinea Is Paradise Found for Ocean View Assistant Coach Randy Karcher

March 08, 1986|GERALD SCOTT | Times Staff Writer

For most high school basketball coaches, saying it's a jungle out there probably means a tough league schedule or trying to land a job in a profession overloaded with good coaching talent.

Not so, Randy Karcher.

For Karcher, an assistant basketball coach at Ocean View High School, the jungle out there is an all-too-real one, thousands of miles away, with real natives and bushes and snakes.

Aside from helping Jim Harris coach the Seahawks basketball team, Karcher also devotes much of his time to teaching Bible study to natives on Papua New Guinea, a country made up of the western half of the island of New Guinea as well as many smaller islands nearby.

Among the other islands in the area are exotic-sounding places such as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and New Britain, all scenes of some of the bloodiest battles between Allied and Japanese forces during World War II.

Papua New Guinea, or PNG as it's sometimes called, lies immediately northwest of Australia and is a world away--in more ways than one--from Karcher's life as a basketball coach at the Huntington Beach school.

Since 1981, Karcher has managed to divide his time between his life on the mainland and working as a Bible translator with PNG natives on that remote, tropical island nation of three million people.

"In that society, you have people who are totally illiterate to others who are university-educated. The people in the bush are the ones with thatched roofs, no water or electricity, and live off of subsistence farming.

"Many have never seen a white man before, either. "

Working on PNG can be especially frustrating for a missionary such as Karcher because the nation has 1,000 tribes speaking 750 different languages and dialects, a great source of friction between the various tribes.

Among the larger tribes are the Muglump, Telefomin, Oksadmin, Bimin-Kuskusmin and the Kukukuku, a dwarf tribe that practices cannibalism, which is legal in PNG as long as the deceased died of natural causes.

It was into this backdrop that Karcher first began his work at Ukarumpa High School in Port Moresby, PNG's capital.

"We were a little apprehensive at first because we really didn't know what we were getting into," Karcher said. "But it has been worthwhile for us to get other peoples' world views in such a cross-cultural setting."

Sometimes, however, such differing customs can be a little unsettling to a Western visitor such as Karcher.

Once, while working in the village of Kauris on PNG's north coast, Karcher recalled being invited to a tribal wake.

"I'm one of the few white men ever to witness that ceremony," Karcher claimed. "I happened to be in the village and they invited me along."

Karcher said their mourning can last anywhere from six months to two years; the one he witnessed was the end of a two-year mourning.

Said Karcher: "During that time, the men in the village don't shave until the final ceremony, when they dry -shave their beards off and then dismantle the deceased's house, signifying the end of mourning.

"A lot of this might sound funny to us, but they really are the nicest, most accommodating people you'd ever want to meet."

The tribesmen also offered Karcher a live chicken and some tobacco-like chew known as buai , something that has a far greater kick than does tobacco. Live chickens and buai , apparently, are staples at any self-respecting PNG wake.

Food is another area that provided an eye-opening experience for the 35-year old Karcher.

Although he has tasted kapul, a native dish made from a possum-like animal, Karcher shys away from the local delicacy, bat.

"No, I won't taste that," he said. "But they do have a lot of good fish there. They practically give away lobster--it's nothing special in that area."

Such generosity strikes Karcher as being one of the most important aspects of the PNG culture, something that he said was slowly being eroded by outside influences.

It wasn't until the 1930s that the island of New Guinea began to be colonized by Westerners, and Karcher, for one, isn't sure that is necessarily such a good thing. Long a protectorate of Australia, PNG declared its independence in 1975 and is the 142nd country to be recognized by the United Nations. The young nation with some very old traditions continues to struggle with the Stone-Age past and 20th Century present.

Said Karcher: "What strikes most when coming back to Southern California is the materialism and the fast-paced life style. Most PNGs have little material goods. And if you're supposed to meet a villager at 7 p.m. but don't show up until 8, well, that's just fine with them. Most of them don't have watches nor do they know when they were born, anyway.

"Westerners expose them to more and more material types of things, but they can't obtain them, so they resort to crime to get them. Crime is on the increase in PNG."

Karcher noted that PNG has been working hard to expand its sports programs and that the country even sent eight athletes to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

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