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Rescuing the Memory of Peoples in Papua New Guinea

 Philip Gibbs svd


1. Introduction

From archaeological sources we know that the land now known as Papua New Guinea has been inhabited for over 40,000 years (Irwin, 1992: 30).  Since the first settlement, successive migrations from SE Asia, have resulted in a cultural complexity evidenced in the 800+ languages in Papua New Guinea alone.  Today Papua New Guinea is an independent nation with a population of some 5,100,000 people, 96% of whom identify as Christian.


2.  Mission Contact

Marist Missionaries first landed on Woodlark (Murua ) Island in 1847.  However the effects of malaria on the missionaries and influenza on the local people, soon brought an end to the attempt, and the surviving missionaries left in 1855. The next missionaries, the Anglicans and the London Missionary Society, arrived on the South Papua Coast in 1871. Shortly after, the Catholic effort began again with the Sacred Heart Mission (MSC) on the islands of New Britain (1882) and in Papua (1884), and the Society of the Divine Word along the New Guinea North Coast in 1896.

 After 1899 the British and German governments assumed responsibility for their respective colonies in Papua and New Guinea.  During this time the Seventh Day Adventists came to Papua in 1908, and the Liebenzell Evangelical Mission (LzMS) entered the Admiralty Islands in 1914. Germany’s defeat in the first world war meant that much of the Lutheran missionary work would be continued by the American and Australian Lutheran Churches.  Also, between the two world wars, the Unevangelised Fields Mission (UFM) entered Papua.

 The Second World War had a shocking effect on the missionary enterprise.  The Catholic SVD missionaries lost 122 (over half) of its pre-war missionaries, particularly in two instances where 102 missionary prisoners died on the Japanese ships Akikaze and Yorishime Maru. Much of the mission infrastructure and mission records were lost during the conflict.   

 In the pre-war period there had been just seven denomination groups working in Papua New Guinea: Anglicans, Congregationalists (LMS), Evangelicals (LzMS, UFM), Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists.  However, after the Second World War, many other denominations and interdenominational missionary groups began to arrive, such as the Baptists, Assemblies of God (AOG), South Seas Evangelical Mission (SSEM), Christian Brethren (CMML), the Australian Church of Christ (ACCM), the Swiss Evangelical Brotherhood Mission (SEBM), the Nazarene Mission, and the New Tribes Mission.  Prominent among the Pentecostal type missions were the Four Square Gospel Church, the Christian Revival Crusade, the Gospel Lighthouse, and the Swedish Pentecostal ‘Philadelphia’ Church.  Today there are a bewildering assortment of churches in Papua New Guinea


3. Mission Records

I am not aware of any comprehensive study of mission records. I understand that Fr. Ralf Wiltgen svd, who is now at East Troy, Wisconsin, in the USA, has a substantial collection of early Catholic mission records.  Several factors have limited the availability of Catholic church records within the country: the destruction brought about by two world wars, the structure of 19 dioceses all with their own archives, and the plurality of religious “orders” all with their individual system of records.  Much of the early SVD documentation was destroyed during the wars. Some SVD records are stored in the Noser Collection at Divine Word University, Madang.  More recent records are filed at the SVD Provincial Headquarters in Mount Hagen.  MSC archives are housed in three locations: the German archives in Rabaul, the French in Fane, Bereina, and the local Papua New Guinea province archives at the MSC provincial headquarters in Port Moresby. Women’s orders usually store their archives at their provincial headquarters, for example, the OLSH sisters have a special room at their headquarters in Port Moresby. With 18 dioceses and over 80 religious orders, the Catholic archives in Papua New Guinea present a challenge for archivists and mission researchers in the future. 

 Evangelical Lutheran Church records are housed in Lae at Martin Luther Seminary. Anglican and United Church records are housed in the Papua New Guinea Collection in the Michael Somare library at the University of Papua New Guinea.  The LMS records are available on microfilm in the same library.  Currently I do not have information on the archives of the other churches in the country.

 4. Rescuing the Memory of People in Enga

The Enga-speaking area of the Central Highlands, was first opened to missionaries in 1947.  The area comprises some 7,000 sq. km of rugged mountainous valleys. The Enga Province (one of twenty Provinces in Papua New Guinea) now has a population of 295,000 people. The four initial missionary groups to enter were the Lutheran (Missouri Synod), Catholics (Society of the Divine Word), Apostolic, and Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries. Records for the Catholic Diocese of Wabag (erected in 1982) are housed at the Diocesan headquarters in Wabag, and in the Henry Feldkotter library at Holi Spirit Senta Par, near Wabag.[1]

 The remainder of this paper will focus on four current projects attempting to rescue the living memory of Enga people, particularly members of the Catholic Diocese of Wabag.


5. Proverbs

I began collecting Enga proverbs and sayings for the purpose of illustrating homilies.  However, when it became apparent that these proverbs and sayings comprise an important dimension of Enga culture that is in danger of being lost, the parameters of the study were expanded in an attempt to collect as much material as possible. Major assistance here came from two Engans, Joseph Lakane and Nita Pupu. At the present time the collection comprises over a thousand proverbs and sayings. These are available as a simple listing in the local language, and another list, interpreted, and translated into English. This amounts to several hundred pages. An initial attempt to make use of the collection may be seen in a paper written by this author: “Evangelising with Enga Proverbs and Sayings”, which has been published in several journals in English and Italian.[2]


6. Recovering Life Histories

The Diocese of Wabag is in a unique situation in that people are still alive who remember what life was like in pre-contact, pre-mission days, and who remember well the process they went through in choosing to become Christian.  With the help of a talented local Elementary School teacher, Regina Tanda, the author has taped and transcribed hundreds of hours of life testimonies from local people, mostly elderly Catholics.  Some of these people have since died.  Regina talks with people about their early faith experiences and the important moments in their lives and then records the response.  These responses are then transcribed into exercise books and entered onto computer.  To date there are approximately 5,000 handwritten pages in exercise books, some in the original Enga language, most translated into Melanesian Pidgin, and a few translated into English. The computer record of these histories comprises some 1,000 pages or 50Mb.   People are very frank in the interviews, and the testimonies of challenges that people have faced are at times heroic and very moving. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints the tapes have been reused, so the original tape recordings are no long available. The recording of life histories is continuing today.

 The author hopes in the future to expand the collection to include people from other churches.  Hopefully these written records will provide source material for several projected books; on Enga spirituality, and Enga Christian oral traditions.


7. Faith and Culture Workshops

With growing fundamentalist influence, many Catholics are tempted to adopt a negative view of culture, which amounts to rejecting everything from cultural tradition as evil and sinful.  The author has developed a week-long workshop to try to counter this tendency. It has been conducted successfully to women in five parishes of the diocese and to men in one parish. Older married people gather in a predetermined place, usually the parish centre.  I come accompanied by a small team of three or four younger educated Engans.  Over the course of a week, for eight hours a day, the group reflects on topics like:  childhood, growing up, courtship, marriage, childbirth, sickness, domestic life, religious life, conflicts and reconciliation, ageing and death. For many, particularly the older people, it is an opportunity to relive and share experiences from early days.

 The workshop is conducted in the local language throughout, and we use group work and drama, finishing with a special worship service, usually a mass, in which people celebrate their identity as Enga Christian men or women.  For the author, the evenings and nights are particularly valuable times to sit around the fire and share with the male participants, or to compare notes with the female assistants in the case of workshops for women.

 The workshops are appreciated by the local people who gain new confidence and interest in their culture and its values.  It is also a special opportunity for the author to share with people and document their experiences from childhood until death. We are now experimenting with ways to share the knowledge gained from these workshops in week long camps with young people.


8. Video documentation and digitalisation of Photographs

Visual records are an excellent way of complementing written records.  I helped set up the “Binatang Studio” for the Diocese of Wabag.  The studio has two digital camcorders and a “Casablanca” non-linear editing system.  The studio has recently been moved from a shipping container at the Par Catholic Mission to a room at the Diocesan headquarters in Wabag.  So far we have completed 30 productions, ranging from short videos for youth to longer films like “Jubilee” (27 min.) which documents the celebrations of the Diocese during the Jubilee Year 2000.  The communications committee of the diocese is trying to document on video all significant events in the diocese.

 I am also working in co-operation with Ms Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist based at the University of Utah, USA, to locate, and digitalise photographs taken by early missionaries from the four churches that came in the first missionary wave to Enga.  Our hope is to produce materials that can be utilised in teaching materials on history for the Enga High schools and Secondary schools.


9.  Comment and Conclusion

I have offered some brief comments on two levels of rescuing the memory of people in Papua New Guinea.  At the National level I have pointed out the important, yet complex task of documenting church and mission records.  Just documenting the records of the Catholic Church with its various Dioceses and many Religious Orders is a daunting task in itself. The new library complex at Divine Word University, Madang, and the Papua New Guinea collection at the Michael Somare Library, Port Moresby could both provide facilities for storing recovered collections.

 I have also described three dimensions of an on-going attempt to rescue the memory of people in the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea.  While I concentrate mainly on members of the Catholic Church, Ms Polly Wiessner continues to collect historical data from a wider anthropological and historical perspective.[3]  I have both a PC laptop and the new model iMac with the potential to read and write both CDs and DVDs. The projects are limited by various factors, firstly time constraints, since I am now a member of the Melanesian Institute in Goroka; secondly, financial constraints; and thirdly limitations in technical know-how on the best ways to store data so that it does not deteriorate, and ways that data can be retrieved easily and shared with other interested parties.

 Irwin, Geoffrey, 1992. The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 Dr. Philip Gibbs svd

The Melanesian Institute,

PO Box 571, Goroka, EHP.

Papua New Guinea.

Fax.  (675) 7321214

Tel.  (675) 7321777



[1] The borders of the Diocese of Wabag coincide with those of the Enga Province

[2] See, Verbum svd 41/1 (2000): 151-160. Reprinted in Catalyst 30/2 (2000) 185-196. Reprinted as “Evangelizzare con i detti e i proverbi” Ad Gentes 4/2 (2000) 265-274.

[3] See P. Wiessner and Akii Tumu,  Historical Vines, Bathurst: Crawford House, 1998.