When I visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1987, and again last month, I saw evidence of many Christian missionaries along with some of the fruits of their labor (both sweet and sour, depending on your point of view). PNG is now one of the most Christian countries in the world. More than 96 percent of its citizens identify as Christian, with Catholicism the largest denomination at 27 percent. Here are some of my PNG observations, then and now.
Then: I first went to PNG for six months as a visiting professor of mathematics at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby, the country’s capital and largest city. While in the country, I only traveled outside of Port Moresby to give math talks at universities in Goroka and Lae.
About 800 languages were and still are spoken in PNG, reflecting the isolation of its many tribes. In the 1930s, Australian explorers discovered the Highlands of PNG, home to roughly one million people who had never before encountered Caucasians. In a video I saw of this first contact, one PNG woman said they thought white men were gods, until they had sex with them.
Not only were most students at UPNG the first in their family to go to college, they were the first to leave their tribes. In the tribal “payback” system, if someone from Tribe A is harmed by a member from Tribe B, then members from Tribe A can take revenge against any member from Tribe B. Part of my mission was to inform students that UPNG was a payback-free zone.
One day I encountered a Catholic priest who deplored the “ungodly” sight of bare-breasted women. When I brought up serious problems like wife beating, which was legal at the time, he just shrugged and said he couldn’t change everything. Shortly thereafter, I attended a UPNG beauty pageant with five contestants representing different villages. My colleagues were impressed when I confidently predicted the winner. You see, the primary judge was the priest, and four of the five contestants were bare breasted.
Now: In a recent cultural trip with my wife, Sharon, we traveled to villages along the remote Karawari River, surrounded by dense jungle as far as the horizon, and to villages in the Highlands near Mt. Hagen. We visited places I had only heard about in my previous trip.
Written By: Herb Silverman
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