Missions case Study: Obi's Death

General case study guidelines to aid your reflection and discussion.

A look at being a change agent in cross-cultural situations

Based on a case study by Joanne A. Wagner

     Brad stepped out of Okame's tiny home. His heart was heavy and confused. His friend Okame was ill and convinced he was dying. Brad felt sure he needed to get Okame to the coastal hospital. However, because of what had happened earlier, Brad did not know whether he dared suggest the two-hour trip and, if he failed again, he wondered what the effect would be on his attempts to plant a church in the village.
     As he stood looking out across the valley bathed in morning sun, Brad's thoughts went back several months to the death of Obi, his co-translator and dear friend.

     Brad and Crystal had come as missionaries to Papua New Guinea. Their goal was to translate the Bible for the Kube people and to plant a church among them. They had come to love Obi, a strong Christian who became their national co-translator.
     One day when they returned after an absence of a few weeks, Obi was not at the door with his usual warm welcome. The villagers told the missionaries that Obi had been ill for two weeks and was in great pain. Crystal and Brad were shocked to see Obi with a swollen jaw and a high fever. He was in obvious pain. Obi's wife, Swenge, told them that her husband was convinced that this sickness was going to kill him, and that he had resigned himself to death.
     A nurse, Ruth, had accompanied Crystal and Brad on this particular trip to the village. After examining Obi, Ruth diagnosed the problem as an abscessed tooth. She recommended strongly that Obi be taken to the coastal hospital. There, he could see a dentist and receive medical care.
     When Brad relayed the nurse's recommendation to Obi's family and reinforced it with his own, their reaction was negative. Obi's kin felt that if Obi was taken to the hospital (haus sik in pidgin English), he would surely die. Moreover, Obi had already announced that he was going to die, and they did not want that to happen away from the village. That would be bad for the village's reputation. For them, it was important for the mental well-being of everyone that a person be at home when he or she died.
     So, Obi remained at home where his condition continued to deteriorate. Brad persevered in trying to convince the family that hospitalization was necessary for Obi's survival. Finally, on a Friday afternoon, they had consented, and so Brad, Crystal, Swenge, and Obi quickly departed on the two-hour drive to the coast.
     As they were admitting Obi to the hospital, Crystal felt a sense of relief. Now, she felt, their friend was in good hands and would be cured. With confident hearts, she and Brad drove back to the village, leaving Swenge at the hospital with Obi.
     However, because it was a weekend, very few medical staff were on duty. Consequently, Obi received only minimal care. They didn't even schedule a dentist's appointment for him until Tuesday morning. Over the weekend, the nurses on duty tried to keep Obi comfortable. Unfortunately, on Sunday evening, the abscess in his jaw burst. The bloodstream carried the toxins to his brain, and he died.
     When the news got back to the village, Crystal and Brad were shocked and grieved. Obi's family was angry at the missionaries, claiming that Obi died because they took him away to the hospital. The accusations stopped only when an influential relative of Swenge's rebuked the people for blaming Crystal and Brad for the death. Moreover, when the family saw the genuine grief of the translators at the burial ceremonies, they decided that Brad and Crystal were not to blame for their relative's death.
     Later, the family placed the blame on Jeremiah, a close friend of Obi's who happened to also be a member of an enemy clan. Jeremiah, already grief-stricken at the death of his friend, was finally forced to leave the area and live elsewhere because of pressure from Obi's embittered clan.
     Brad's thoughts returned to the present as he heard Okame moan with pain.
     "Lord, help me to know what to do," he prayed "Should I try to influence Okame to go to the hospital? Or, should I step back and not interfere this time?"

  1. Was Brad indeed "interfering"?
  2. Since he and his wife are there as translators and church planters, should medical issues even be a concern for them?
  3. Should Brad go for a short-term fix in terms of just caring for Okame or should he be looking more at a long-term change in attitudes about health care for everyone in the village? Can he do both?

This case study appeared in its original form in Case Studies in Missions, edited by Paul and Frances Hiebert, Baker Book House, 1987. Edited and used by permission. This case study may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35¢ fee per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

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