From missionary trails

Fr Marek Woldan

I reached Mendi after almost a 24- hour flight and a three-day journey. This is the central city of one of the Papuan dioceses with which my priestly life will be connected for several years. At least I hope so because the word ‘certainty’ loses something of its meaning in this reality. I had had the occasion to experience that before I arrived here. It would have seemed that one year was enough to get a visa. Surely at some other place but not in Papua. In my case it lasted one month more.

It was exactly the first day

After I had landed I met the local Bishop Stephen and Fr Marcin with whom I set out. We were going to Kagua, his parish. It was some four-hour journey. Between raising hands and greeting people, which is here a necessary rite of every journey, I was trying to learn something about the people, their customs and pastoral ministry among them. But the answer to most of my questions was ‘you will see’ or even a mysterious delicate smile (now I know the reason). The road was quite good at first (considering the local conditions). But with time it changed into something like dry, stony river bed. After one hour the car began ‘dancing’ delicately. One back tyre lost pressure. The change of the wheel did not take long, some 10 minutes, but my first experience of a flat tyre made me ask another question, ‘What will happen if we get another flat tyre, we have not got a spare tyre?’ The answer, after a short smile, was like the previous ones, ‘If we get a flat tyre we will worry then.’ I did not suppose that it would happen so quickly. After driving for another hour we got two flat tyres. What should we do? We had to drive for two more hours and it was getting dark. However, it was not a big problem – we were within the reach of technological revolution. One phone call to a friend settled the matter. Fortunately, this friend was around. And so was a station to repair tyres. After one hour we continued our trip. And we got another flat tire after one-hour drive. Luckily, it was the last one during this trip. We reached our destination at about 9 p.m. It was completely dark. Wonderful starry sky. I learnt that such a sight was rare. My colleague saw it for the first time although he had been here for over one year. It was due to cloudiness. But it is a story for some other time. We entered the house. Wooden planks with metal roofing gave a pleasant feeling of comfort. If you add the generator, switched on in the morning and in the evening, and a hot water shower life in a country-bush territory becomes easier. The next day we celebrated Mass in the Pidgin language. I was the co-celebrant this time. After two days I celebrated Mass as the main celebrant, which is not too difficult for Poles. It is like reading the English text with Polish transcription, with slight exceptions. I heard confessions in one of the villages on the second day. How? In Polish and English. Yes, it is true that nobody understood it but to justify myself I want to say that I did not understand them. The criterion of absolution is not too difficult here – people watch one another and know who can and who cannot confess his/her sins and receive Holy Communion.

First contacts with Papuans

My first days were also my first contacts with Papuans. People welcome their new ‘pater’ (priest) very kindly. They express their kindness by clapping and smacking their lips. They approach him and look at him. But you cannot expect any flower wreaths. Well, maybe in some other circumstances. People are very glad to have a priest but this does not necessarily mean deep faith. A priest living in some village simply means higher prestige. So you must be cautious to evaluate the situation. First of all, you must get to know their mentality to avoid any revolt or inter-tribal fight, which is not difficult to start.
Having been in Poland I heard that a certain nun who had returned from Africa said, ‘Once one African asked me, ‘What religions are there in your country? I answered, ‘The majority are Catholics but there are Protestants, Orthodox believers, Muslims, Jews and some atheists’, My interlocutor frowned and repeated his question being slightly disorientated, ‘Atheists?’ and he added, ‘What does it mean?’ I answered that these were people who did not believe in God. He looked at me with disbelief. He was silent for a while and he finished the subject saying, ‘Only the white could invent something like that.’ That’s why what astonished me her, in Papua, were non-believers or rather indifferent Papuans. Unfortunately, there are many communities or rather sects led by self-appointed leaders. And new sects originate. This makes young people feel confused. They feel at a loss. I stayed for about a week in Kagua. During that time I went to Kuare with another colleague of mine Fr Bogdan. His parish is there. Some 40 km, a three-hour drive. I must add – no flat tyres. This road would satisfy any lover of motocross: slippery clay, mud, bridges built of beams, large stones but Fr Bogus was not happy about it. Now he can bear the roads better. One cannot count that the quality of this road will be improved and that concerns many other Papuan things, which have already experienced their glory. After Australia had handed over full responsibility for Papua to the Papuan government, many things began falling apart. Now you can see posts with electric wires (these are witnesses of the better times) or without any wires… If we say that Poles relished their freedom in the 1990s we should say that the Papuans drowned in their freedom. From the region of Kagua I returned to the centre of the diocese, Mendi, where Fr Marek took me for another trip. Several hours of driving to Tari where I should learn Pidgin and get to know the local customs and other things useful for the pastoral ministry. Fr Marek is a chaplain in the Tari Catholic High School. I stayed there for a week and then I went to the nearby town of Kupara.

Faith, weather and theft

Undoubtedly, one of the first beauties of Papua, which I got used to, can be described on the example of the weather. Here it rains all the time, almost every day. And apart from these days it is sunny. And life here looks the same. You do not know what tomorrow brings and sometimes even what today brings. After staying a week in Kupara Fr Marek asked me to replace him for two days. He returned after a week. But I understood that – his passport was lost and he had to apply for another one (the nearest embassy is in Sydney). It happened so that he was to go on holiday to Poland in several days’ time. And his accommodation on the way was already booked. I want to repeat: you do not know what tomorrow brings. The only solution is to get used to it, otherwise you get discouraged. Moreover, you need to get used to dirt, fleas, big cockroaches and rats although the latter do not get used to people and they only use their shelter and food. My stay in these lands gives me the opportunity to get to know people better. My first impression was confirmed: they are very emotional – in both ways. However, the majority are very nice and kind. But this does not prevent them from practicing the customs of the forefathers. I mean first of all …theft. And stealing is a daily practice, most often people steal when others are absent. These are not typical criminals but ordinary people who ‘catch occasions.’ My colleague lost quite good shoes just after he washed them and tried to dry them. Food disappears very frequently, but it also happened that two dogs were stolen from the parish house. Some Papuans took them as food. But these dogs were lucky since someone intervened and the dogs returned to us. But the cat of Fr Marek was not lucky at all. A few days ago a blanket disappeared from the parish house, which seems not very surprising. But the circumstances were strange. It was one of the catechists (who celebrates services when the priest is absent) that took the blanket. He came from one of the missionary stations and wanted to stay here for one night. We gave him two blankets and a place to sleep. The next day he brought one blanket, trying to convince us that he had been given only one blanket. By the way, for the Papuans it is great joy to deceive a white man. But in this case his joy did not last long. After our intervention we had the blanket back. Stealing is not a way to survive here but a way of life. This concerns the authorities of Papua, too. But the scale is much bigger. I cannot say that it concerns all people. I will give you one fact. Several years ago Americans wanted to invest in the Internet in Papua, which required buying suitable equipment for a considerably big sum of money in Australia. Such transactions require the mediation of the state authorities. In brief: the customer pays the government, the government confirms that and when the seller sends the order, the government transfers the money. All things seem to be in order. Who would not want the guarantee of the government? The above mentioned firm in Australia? But it turned out that the government owes big sums of money to that firm. Where has the money gone? Who knows… Something more about theft. It happens – not too often but you can hear about it – that cars are stopped on the road for ransom or robbery. It has not happened to me yet but others have had such experiences. Those who stopped the car demanded money and sometimes they took your shopping. From time to time, when they realised that they had stopped ‘a pater’ they let him go. But they follow no rules. One day a group of armed local people stopped one of the missionary on the road. They said that they wanted to borrow his car. Their words were ‘convincing’ enough. They unloaded the car and left the car with the shopping in their village. It was getting dark and they seemed not to return. Night fell. The missionary stayed in this village for the night but the next day he was to celebrate Mass in his village. The village people encouraged him to wait and to celebrate Mass at their place. Indeed, ‘the boys’ came that day. They gave him the car back; they filled his tank with oil, loaded his shopping and paid 50 kina for ‘hiring’ the car.

"Niedziela" 42/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: