At the beginning of last month, I finally experienced some authentic PNG living. We live on campus and Good Shepherd is a very Westernized place – there is electricity, running potable water, modern plumbing, Wifi, and western housing. Much of my normal day is typical for an academic – I am either working, normally with my laptop, in my office or in the library, or I am teaching in a classroom. Typically my adventures are only in the mind.
Last month, a Polish SVD missionary priest, Fr. Andrew, and a native SVD seminarian on pastoral year went on a weeklong bush patrol in the Jimi Valley. This is a giant valley to the north of us that mostly only reachable by foot. Since I have a family and a teaching job, I walked into the valley with them on Saturday, slept in the first village, and then came back on Sunday. A bush patrol is when a priest brings the sacraments to people in remote areas of the country who don’t have a regular priest.
First, the parish priest, Fr. Joseph Mesa (from Indonesia), drove us to the nearby village of Kimil and then down a terrible dirt road to the base of the mountain. We were supposed to be met by a local to guide us over the mountain, but he was MIA. Father Andrew was able to talk a middle-aged couple into taking us over. We were then joined by some women, including a young mother carrying her baby home over the mountain.
The climb up was fine, but the descent into the Jimi consisted of “roots and mud” to quote Fr. Andrew. I went rather slowly, such that everyone passed me but John, who kindly kept me company.
In about 3.5 hours we had reached the village of Korop. The village was spread out on the top of a ridge, with the center worn bare from foot traffic. There was not so much a village center, but rather a progression of groups of traditional houses. On one side of the ridge were Lutherans, and Catholics on the other, with a volleyball court and simple store in-between.
We were treated as dignitaries. People lined up to shake our hands. I caused some mirth by giving every child I could reach a high-five. Eventually we were settled in the Catholic section on the highest point of the ridge. Fr. Andrew introduced us. Children were sent to the valley to fetch us water. With the help of the local leaders, Fr. Andrew created an itinerary for his week, which mostly consisted of walking several hours each day from bush church to bush church. Then Andrew and John sat down with the people to discuss whether their elementary school (grades 1-2) was a government school or a Catholic school and to hear about the people’s needs. As I do not understand tok pisin, I wandered around with some children. I discovered that a Nazarene pastor had set up a small church on a spur to the ridge, but the children claimed that only two people went to it. Eventually I found a place to sit and read the first two chapters of a book on Avicenna that I had packed. John and I also went for a walk to see the Lutheran place of worship, whose primary decoration was a plastic Christmas tree! The Lutheran pastor explained that they were in the midst of building a new church and were just using the communal prayer house . . .
Here are some views from Korop.
I was quite impressed with Fr. Andrew. After his meeting with the people, in which he was told that they want a lot of hose so that they can have access to water, he said that he would rest. However, he walked toward the guesthouse, only to find three couples who wished to have their traditional marriages become official Catholic marriages. Thus he was working with the people until dark.
Our lodgings were a squarish traditional house made of wood, with a dirt floor and grass roof, and fire pit in the middle. On all sides of the fire was a raised wooden platform and on one side the platform extended backwards to create a sleeping area. The villagers provided us with rough mattresses, a giant sheet, and some blankets, though I slept in a sleeping bag I borrowed from my rector.
I learned that in traditional PNG living, there is no private space. The guest house was a single room and someone was almost always there. Even when we were sleeping we seemed to have a fire tender. The people left me alone while I read my book, but I expect that they found that odd. After dark we were brought food in large iron pots – rice, vegetables, tuna and ramen noodles – and the locals exchanged stories and songs with us (with guitar accompaniment). My contribution was to sing all five verses of Amazing Grace in English with John accompanying me on guitar. We went to sleep with the locals still in the lodge, perhaps we disappointed them with our tiredness?
The next morning our breakfast was cold rice from the night before and some hard-boiled eggs from Fr. Andrew. I was surprised that they did not feed us better, though they did bring me water to heat when I asked. Thus, I was able to treat Fr. Andrew and myself to some unsweetened chai tea. Fr. Andrew heard confessions, then celebrated mass in the small but completely packed church, with its metal roof and woven grass walls. Fr. Andrew then gave the adults an “Apologetics school” to help them know the Biblical support behind distinctly Catholic beliefs and practices. Meanwhile, John arranged for some guides to take me back over the mountain.
My guides were primary school children who walk back and forth between their school in Kimil and their home in the Jimi every weekend! I had to insist many times that I would carry my own pack. I don’t think I slowed them down too much. . . . Two of them had some English. One of them tried to tell me that my place (USA) was a good place but that his place (PNG) was bad. I argued with him that children in the USA were not nearly as independent and fit as the children in PNG, but I do not know if he believed me. We met up with an adult couple going over the mountain, but for some time it was just me and the children.
I enjoyed my little excursion very much. It made me wonder what choices I would have had to have made in order to be a bush missionary priest like Fr. Andrew instead of the missionary academic I am.