It was a fine day in May in the Altai Republic: a region of breathtaking beauty in the southwest corner of Siberia Russia. From our windows we saw swaths of dark coniferous forest; and rising majestically behind, faint blue peaks capped with snow. This is the rugged and remote land of the Altaians: a distinct Asian people with their own language. They are perfectly at home in the Altai Mountains, a name based on a Turkic-Mongolian word meaning “golden”.
It has been a few years my wife and I learned Russian Sign-Language and began visiting sign-language fellowships and small group of Christians who are deaf. In this country, more than 100 ethnic groups and 70 distinct cultures share one common spoken language, Russian. The deaf among us use yet another language, Russian Sign-Language.
In the city of Gorno-Altaisk, we learned of a few deaf ones who live in a small village 155 miles away. We wonder about these deaf Altaians and decided to drive out to find them. Our enthusiasm excites Yury and Tatyana, a deaf couple who agree to come with us. We loaded a minivan with sign-language publications on DVD and a DVD player. We also packed sandwiches and some water. Finally, we sprayed ourselves, our clothes and our shoes thoroughly with a tick repellent, as tick-borne encephalitis is common in the area.
The road we were traveling winds through spectacular mountain scenery. The air is thick with the fragrance of jasmine and lilac. We were thrilled to see a herd of Siberian deer calmly munching on the grass. Altaian settlements are clusters of wooden houses with neat metal roofs. Next to many of the houses are wooden dwellings called “ayyl”, usually six-cornered houses with a conical roof. Some resemble tepees covered with tree bark. Many Altaian families live in the “ayyl” from May to September and move into the house for the fall and winter.
We were warmly welcomed in the village by local Christians, who led us to the home of a deaf Altaian couple. They were delighted to see us and were curious about where we were from and what we were doing. It turned out that they had a computer, so when we pulled out a DVD, they insisted on playing it. Immediately, all conversation ceased; it was as if we were not there. Their eyes glued to the monitor, they occasionally copied the signs they saw and nodded in appreciation. With difficulty, we got their attention so we could stop the DVD and return to opening scenes, which depict a beautiful picture of God’s kingdom. Pausing on one scene, we discussed what God will do for mankind and what kind of people will make it to His kingdom. We were heartened by their interest, and at the end of the visit, they told us about another deaf couple living a few hours away in another village.
Setting off again, we crossed a spectacular rocky pass cut deep into the mountain and followed the serpentine road to a much smaller village. There we found the deaf family: the husband, the wife, the couple’s small son, and the wife’s mother: who were delighted to have unexpected company. We entered the door of their small “ayyl”, which smells pleasant of wood and butter-milk. It has a round hole on top of its cone-shaped roof, which lets the light in. A whitewashed brick oven and stove stands in one corner, and cherry red rugs carpeted the walls. The couple treated us to an Altaic dish: small fried doughnuts and tea in little Asian-style bowls. We asked them if they have ever considered it being possible to be God’s friend. They ponder on the question. The wife’s mother told us that as child, she once took some food to a place in the mountains as an offering to the gods. “What that meant, I did not know”. She shrugged and smiled. “It is our custom”.
We showed them a DVD on this subject and their faces lighted up. They became eager to continue the discussion; but how? Although text messages usually makes it easy to keep in touch with deaf ones, there is not one single mobile-phone antenna in the area. So we promised to keep in touch by letter.
The sun is already setting as we parted affectionately and set off on the long road back to Gorno-Altaisk, tired but content. We later learned that every other week, the husband travels to a larger town where he studies the bible and attends fellowships with the help of a local sister who knows sign language. How happy we were that our effort bore fruit.
With a time wisely spent, our search for honest-heart people can be compared to looking for treasures hidden deep in the mountains. Long hours of searching are rewarded when we find a stray jewel, seemingly by accident. For us, the mountains of Altai will always be golden, reminding us of the sincere ones we met between the rugged peaks.
About the Author: Fortune Obiagbor is a writer and a youth conference speaker. He was once an instructor years back. He enjoys sports generally especially football, sprinting and table tennis.
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