“We live at the foot of the snows. And even our own king had never heard of us. But the King of Kings knew us, and one day, He visited us.” – Kham believers
NOTE: This review was completed with the cooperation of the Watters family. It has been edited slightly from its original version. All images were used with the permission of the Watters family.
BY: TRAVIS K. KIRCHER
The more you read “At the Foot of the Snows” by David T. Watters, the more you realize it doesn’t make any sense.
The book, published in 2011 by Seattle-based Engage Faith Press, tells the harrowing story of American David Watters, his wife, Nancy, and their two boys, Stephen and Daniel, as they make a home among the isolated, tribal Kham-speaking people hidden deep in the mountains of Nepal.
It was the 1970s, and Watters was a linguist for SIL International. (Think J.R.R. Tolkien, but in the Himalayas — and no hobbits.)
SIL’s mission was two-fold. Its mandate was, “the documentation, development and preservation of minority languages.” At the time, one of the ways it accomplished this was by translating the Christian Scriptures into those obscure languages.
So in the late 1960s, when a rare opportunity arose for SIL linguists and their families to partner with Nepal’s Tribhuvan University, it was an answer to prayer. It was an open door. It meant that for the first time, they could have a presence in the country — a country with less than 100 Christians in a population of 13 million. Watters and his clan took the plunge.
Of course the overwhelmingly popular language in Nepal was…
Wait for it…
But there were rumors of another language. Of a tribal people so isolated in the mountains that one would have to travel a long, rugged mountain trail to get to them. A trail that posed several dangers to the uninitiated.
That language — and people — were known as Kham.
David Watters and fellow linguist Gary Shepherd would spend weeks in the book’s early chapters, trudging through the snowy mountains — living on rice, flour and smoked lamb sausages — trying to find the Kham people. In the dead of winter, it was a quest that very nearly cost them their lives. Watters’ bizarre explanation for how they ultimately made their way to the Kham village of Taka-Shera will prove problematic for the agnostics among us. Believers will see is as God’s sovereign hand.
But the book’s most harrowing chapters aren’t about Watters’ lonely treks through the icy mountains. They come when the Watters family first settles in with the Kham tribe.
Imagine moving to a mountain village of primitive people that is so isolated it takes weeks to hike back to civilization. Where there’s no plumbing. Limited radio communication. Where a white person sticks out like Darth Vader at a rodeo.
And the sewage disposal is… well, we won’t go there.
When the Watters family arrives at what will be their new home in Taka-Shera, they are surrounded by hundreds of villagers, gibbering in an unknown language, poking, prodding, yelling, pulling at their clothes and demanding to know what they have in their supply boxes.
Night falls, as the Watters family hunkers down in their new squalid home, so do their spirits:
“The distant sound of a shaman’s drum broke the silence, and Nancy slipped her hand into mine,” Watters recalls. “Grasping it firmly, I tucked it into the warmth of my coat pocket. ‘I’m scared,’ she whispered quietly as she shivered next to me.”
We’re scared too.
These chapters are filled with both hardship and humor. You will be startled awake by a rat stampede at two o’clock in the morning as the bulky critters rampage through the Watters’ village home. At one point, speaking in broken Kham, Watters tries to explain to a villager that the Earth is round, but will succeed only in inadvertently confessing that he and his family are demons from the underworld. A villager will steal some of the Watters’ laundry detergent to use as seasoning.
And you’ll just LOVE the part about the tapeworms.
“Our hearts are black…”
Watters begins deciphering the Kham language, one syllable at a time. He starts with a list of 100 words. And as he continues to “do life” with his Kham neighbors, that list grows.
So does his rough translation of God’s Word. Watters is up-front about the challenges of translating words originally written in Hebrew and Greek into a primitive language that evolved continents away.
“How in the world can I translate the gospel into a language like this?” Watters asks, bluntly. “Their language might be enjoyable to speak and hear, but it’s somehow lacking. Love, hope, faith, forgiveness, mercy: these aren’t grand notions from advanced philosophy; they’re just basic human concepts. If the Khams can’t talk about these, how will they understand theological notions like justification or redemption?”
For their part, the Kham people are less than enthusiastic about literacy.
At one point, a leader in the village asks Watters, “Sahib, if we learn how to read, will we ever be white?”
“What do you mean, ‘Will we ever be white?'” a frustrated Watters replies. “Being white is not what it’s about.”
“That is what it’s about,” the leader retorts. “We’ll always be black, because our hearts are black.”
They’re not speaking in racial terms. Even here deep in the Himalayas, thousands of miles from the nearest theological seminary, these people already know they are sinners in need of a savior.
But persevere as he will, Watters can’t find anyone interested in reading the Scriptures he is translating. Only Hasta Ram, a former Gurkha soldier he met in a nearby village. Ram agrees to go with Watters and teach him his language — but there is a price tag. Ram makes Watters promise to tell him everyone he knows about the one called Jesus.
“After a while, I began to believe that perhaps I was translating for the sake of this one man alone,” Watters writes. “Nancy and I decided that that was okay.”
That translation — be it for one man or many — will not come without hardship.
Watters is clear that those first few weeks living in Taka-Shera were among the most miserable for he and his family. The Kham are slow to welcome them. They fight with his children. They pile into the family’s home unannounced, often pinning them to the wall to mock them while they eat. Privacy — what Watters describes as “the most highly prized commodity in our Western societies” — is nonexistent.
“But the most disturbing thing was our own response,” Watters writes. “We had come halfway around the world with idealistic visions of what it would be like to serve these people, and now that we were here, we found ourselves secretly hating them more and more every day. What’s the matter with these idiots? we thought. Can’t they see what we’re doing this for them?…At first , we refused to admit our feelings even to ourselves, but we couldn’t avoid them forever. At night, together, Nancy and I began to cry out to God to help us love this horrid people. Was it even possible?”
Even Watters’ own faith will be shaken. On one occasion, a teenage girl who claims to be possessed by the spirit of a goddess will taunt Nancy in perfect English. Watters’ account of the incident is chilling.
But the spiritual battle will eventually take a much more personal turn.
One day, the Kham shamans (think witch doctors with their “witch sticks” and headdresses) conduct a ceremony at a nearby cemetery. Nine years earlier, a shaman had died, and according to Kham folklore, a shaman’s spirit had nine years to find a new host, or be lost forever in the netherworld.
One-by-one, several of the young boys in the village are overtaken by what the shamans say is the spirit — or “gel” — of the dead shaman. As potential hosts, they fall into trances. They prance about like animals. In some cases, they scream as they are overcome by horrific hallucinations and visions. It was not unheard of for children to be driven to suicide by these experiences.
Watching from his window, Watters says he was intrigued by the display.
That is, until he and Nancy began hearing screams coming from the bedroom of Daniel, their own toddler.
“Daniel saw leopards, he saw serpents, and all tried to devour him,” Watters recalls. “He was crazed, and his eyes were filled with terror. He was being called by the gel, but we didn’t know it. Only later would we learn that, according to shamanistic lore, no one shakes ‘the call.’ You accept it or you die.”
The terrifying trances and hallucinations would continue for months. With his family under spiritual attack, Watters would ultimately gather his wife and children and flee Taka-Shera for the safety of Kathmandu.
They were beat. They would admit defeat.
Shepherd of the Kham
Which brings us full circle, and back to my original point: The more you read “At the Foot of the Snows,” the more you realize it doesn’t make any sense.
If you’re going to evangelize Nepal, why would you start with an isolated tribe on the backside of nowhere? Why suffer the unnecessary hardship of living with them — of going without some of life’s most basic necessities? Would it not make sense to focus on people of some influence?
And while we’re on the subject of language, why pour so much blood, ink and tears into translating the Bible into a dying language so obscure only a tiny fraction of the population can read it? If the mission field is so large — again, there are less than 100 Christians in a population of 3 million — why not focus on the Nepali people who actually speak Nepali, the language of the future?
After all, doesn’t Scripture clearly teach us that, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?”
Oh wait. That was Captain Spock*.
On the other hand, Scripture teaches that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one. The one who is forgotten. The one who is lost and afraid, who lives on the backside of nowhere, and cowers in terror from the spirits of animism. The one whom British colonialists deride as “wild, quarrelsome and of inferior intelligence,” who never sees a dime of the foreign aid money that pours into the country, and is hated and despised by his own countrymen.
In other words, Watters tells us, the Kham people.
The Acts of the Kham
The Watters family will eventually return to Taka-Shera — but not before a lot of prayer, fasting, spiritual battles over their son, and a heart change that only God can provide.
The Kham people undergo a major change as well. And it’s a change that isn’t accomplished through literacy or education. Or greater access to resources. Not even by the faithfulness and dedication of the Watters family.
It will be accomplished by their access to God’s Word.
Against all odds and a backdrop of David Watters’ doubts, the Kham church is born. It happens on page 207. And once that flame is lit, not even the full force of an adversarial Nepal government can snuff it out.
If the first half of the book is about the Watters family and their struggles, the second half tells the story of the fledgling Kham church. In a series of events that closely resembles that of the early church in the Book of Acts, the early Kham believers will face persecution, imprisonment and assassination. They will write their own hymns in a language the government doesn’t want them to speak. Against the backdrop of the growing Maoist uprising, they will stand before dictators and preach the gospel.
“At the Foot of the Snows” is their story.
David Watters died in 2009, before he was able to finish his book, but don’t worry. Whether through his own skill, or massaging by subsequent editors, his final chapter does manage to bring a satisfying conclusion to the story. A couple of brief epilogues by his sons, Steve and Daniel (now adults), tie up the remaining loose ends.
If you’re a believer in Christ, as I am, you need to read this book. You will be both challenged and uplifted. If you feel you’ve been serving the Lord year after year, with no result, be encouraged. God may take his time — but He is faithful. If you feel forgotten and alone, be encouraged. God DOES see you, and He draws near to the brokenhearted. If you’re not serving the Lord in some way, be encouraged. There’s still time to get onboard.
If you’re not a believer, and you’re coming at this with a more secular humanist point of view, you also owe it to yourself to read “At the Foot of the Snows.” Watters makes no bones about the fact that he is an evangelical Christian — and you may be frustrated by his naked belief in the supernatural — but he was also widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading experts on Tibeto-Burman linguistics. His “A Grammar of Kham,” “A Dictionary of Kham” and “Notes on Kusunda Grammar” are still recognized as solid, scholarly works in academic circles.
Finally, regardless of your worldview, “At the Foot of the Snows” is a reminder that — in a world of increasing division and fracturing communities — we should take time to show kindness to others across cultural divides.
As David Watters states:
“It is no small thing to live with a primitive people — to learn their language and thought processes, and to participate in a way of life that is soon to pass. You begin as an outsider, but if you stay long enough, there’s no end to laugh with those who laugh, to weep with those who weep, and to become a part of them.”
TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is an advocate for MAF based in Louisville, Kentucky. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* EDITOR’S NOTE: No doubt several of you will point out that Spock was actually First Officer – and if you’re talking about “Star Trek: The Original Series,” you would be correct. But the quote actually comes from “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” By that time Spock had been promoted to Captain of the Enterprise, while Kirk was admiral. So take that, smart-alecks. Sheesh.