From missionary trails
Fr Marek Woldan, a priest from the Diocese of Czestochowa, who currently works in Papua, writes about his missionary life.
Today I continue my missionary story, which I began last week. Returning to Kupara I already took part in the so-called patrol, a journey to one of my missionary stations. About an hour in mud and ankle-deep into the water, a little like in my childhood. There are usually about 10 such stations in every parish. You can drive to some of them but to others you must walk 7-8 hours. In order to visit all the stations once or twice a month you must leave for a few days but I am looking forward to these trips.
One of my experiences on the missions took me to …court. It sounds seriously but the court is only a barrack where the judge comes once a week. I was there only as an observer in the case that one of the inhabitants of the village brought to court against the parish. He claims that the roof of the building for youth meetings in the parish, which was erected in 1973 and pulled down in 2004, belonged to him and he demanded compensation. I must add here that compensation is one of the main sources of income. Even if a married couple dies in a car accident the family of the deceased wife demands compensation from the family of the driver. Influenced by the culture of the white man there has developed a custom to pay compensation for hitting a child. For example, if a mother hits a child the father’s family demands compensation. Compensation is paid for many things: for knocking off a pig, for a dog that bit a hen to death, for hurting someone. It did not matter whose fault it was or why it happened. Your dog could bite your neighbour’s hen in your yard, a pig could try to cross the road just in front of your car, some child could get hurt during playing in your store house. It did not matter that the child had broken in. The Papuans demand to pay them. But not the other way round. They did not pay the white men. They are aliens here. All these things, like many other things, do not refer to the whole of Papua since although it is one country there are considerable cultural differences between particular tribes. To give you a better picture I would like to add that there are about … 1,000 tribes in Papua.
I go to the missionary stations with Fr Sam. Unfortunately, he celebrates only in the language of the Huli tribe. I get to know people and myself. I am learning to cook. For the time being I cook for myself and those with whom I live. I am learning the pidgin language and playing cards. I am much better at the former. Before coming here someone had told me that all days here looked the same. It is true as far as the weather is concerned, but not always. The only thing that is the same is the length of daylight. The sun greets Papua about 6 a.m. and says good-bye at ca. 6 p.m. Apart from these things Papua is predictable to a small extent. I know that in the future this unpredictability will become something obvious for me and hardly anything will astonish me. But now many things astonish me. In Poland it is hard to imagine a sane adult in a woman’s dressing gown walking in the middle of the street or a child wearing a skiing uniform on a hot day. But here nobody is astonished – after all these are all clothes. Recently someone has boasted to my colleague of being able to distinguish between men and women’s clothes. As far as clothes are concerned one can see a big chaos here. In the territories of the Huli tribe one can see traditional clothes: a loincloth holding some leaves or grass: men wearing hats made of previously cut hair. Additionally, their faces are painted and narrow sticks are in their nostrils. But the majority have got used to wearing modern clothes. However, they do not understand the need to wash their clothes. New and old customs can be seen in clothes. Sometimes you can see people wearing loincloths and white shirts with ties. ‘Bilas’, an ornament, is an important part of the Papuan clothes. One can be surprised seeing only rims of glasses, a broken watch, a plastic rim from the helmet. By the way I have seen people wearing such helmets as caps several times. One can also see earrings made from a safety pin or a paper clip or a ring from rubber band.
The other things that surprised me were a father and a son going out of a bush and carrying a TV set and a DVD player. You can very frequently meet boys or men holding their hands. You could regard this as a sign of homosexuality in other parts of the world but here it is an expression of friendship. What is interesting here is that girls seldom hold their hands. Of course, this astonishment concerns both parties. I will never forget the expression of some nurse’s face who learnt something about Polish customs. We were going to ‘hospital’ to get some medicines. On the way I tried to learn something about diseases in Papua, about people and their customs. As usual, we waved to the passers-by; sometimes we greeted them. I thought for a moment how people in Poland would react to all those who waved and greeted them on the way. I shared this reflection to the nurse, ‘Sister, if we greeted all people they would think that we are not normal.’ But seeing her astonishment and horror I was trying to ‘diminish’ the seriousness of my words, ‘I mean some people. Others would think that we took them for their acquaintances. And actually young people do this sometimes and people think it is funny.’ I added some more explanations but in vain. After keeping silence for a while the nurse asked me with an open disappointment, ‘Would they really think that we are not normal?’
My introduction to the ministry has been continued. I have had more and more experiences, including a ‘senate meeting’ – quarterly meeting of all priests working in the diocese. Important decisions are taken at the meeting. Previously it was done in a more American style. Here I will make a short pause. I have not written about this but it is worth knowing that the beginnings of the Diocese of Mendi and the present times have been closely connected with the American Capuchins from St Augustine’s Province. In the beginning there were about 70 Capuchins. Now the number has decreased – several fathers and brothers, maybe a dozen brothers. But they have still one big advantage – one of them is a bishop in this diocese.
But returning to my last thought: the meeting was held in a more American style, i.e. democracy was the basis for taking serious decisions in the diocese. Now the situation has changed. The bishop takes decisions and the priests do not vote over them. The change was made when at some senate meeting the bishop decided to move the catechists’ school to another town. But it happened that the director of the school – a Polish priest – held a different opinion. Finally, the Polish priests, being a majority, voted against the decision of the bishop. It is true that man learns from his mistakes. Nevertheless, I held a positive opinion about the meeting. It was an occasion to get to know the people I will be collaborating with.
The funeral of a certain good woman, which was held in Tari, was an interesting experience for me. I have noticed that death is celebrated more than birth. People prepare the so-called hauskrai, which is usually hanging a tarpaulin as a roof. There is another explanation of this word – not a place but an activity. For a few days, up to a few weeks, the family of the dead gathers at this place. Sometimes it can be several dozen people, sometimes over one hundred. They talk, eat, sing and cry. That’s the way to commemorate their dead. In the meantime the grave is being made. In these territories people build a platform (one to two metres high). Then they make a hole in it (sometimes they pour cement) and on the top they build something that resembles a little house with windows and doors, often they paint and decorate the house. Graves are different in other territories of the diocese. Once I saw something (like a doghouse) in the vicinity of Kuare. Depending on who has died a suitable number of pigs is killed. Pigs indicate the greatness of all celebrations. In Poland it is sometimes said ‘It was a great celebration – several priests came.’ I have never heard such a sentence here. Instead, I have heard, ‘It was a great celebration – 60 pigs were killed.’ Coming back to the funeral of that woman I have already mentioned. I do not know how many pigs were killed but there were plenty of people. I did not stay long at the funeral. Actually, Fr Sam and I dropped by when the coffin with the corpse was in the community chapel. It was also something unusual. People do not usually call a priest to funerals. That is their religious tradition. But if they organised a religious service the deceased must have been someone very important. Then I learnt that that woman had run a few shops nearby and helped others. As I have already mentioned the service was in a chapel, which belonged to the United Church. I was glad to have seen this practical way of ecumenism. I had heard earlier about some religious conflicts in other territories of Papua. To my joy I saw something different here. But this is Papua…
My stay in Kupari is coming to an end. So I am trying not to lose any occasion to gain new experiences. Together with another Capuchin Fr Anthony (from India) we have visited one of his ‘out stations’ today. During the Mass there was a celebration of handing copies of the Bible to the catechumens. Here many people receive the sacrament of baptism as adults. Some more words about the school in Tari. I sometimes go there; especially that it takes only half an hour to drive there. A few days ago I witnessed a wonderful celebration – confirmation. It is a boarding school and most students cannot receive the sacrament of confirmation in their local villages. Therefore, Bishop Stephen comes here every year to strengthen these young Christians by ministering the sacrament of confirmation. This was the service when I got there. A marvellous service, common meal, many good words, joyous faces of young people and actually all people enjoyed themselves. Unfortunately, the joy did not last long. The next day we learnt that one of the boys who had received confirmation, attempted to rape a girl in the school in the evening. Sadly, joy and sorrow, good and evil are close neighbours in these territories. And the school could see such events many times. It is the best school in the diocese. And even in national ranking it holds a good position but… Last year their pupils went on strike. Actually, one pupil had a problem and since he was a good leader numerous pupils joined him. They closed the school and threatened to kill one of the teachers. They carried machetes and guns. The police arrived at the school but it took them over a month, or perhaps two, to restore order. These are some pictures of my missionary life.