The Gospel According to Michael

Speaker's Corner: Disappearing native culture. Vanishing tradition. Abbie Kozolchyk was appalled by the impact of missionaries in Papua New Guinea. But not for long.

10.04.07 | 9:41 AM ET

Britney Spears T-shirt in Papua New GuineaMere days after a magazine assignment had landed me in the Papua New Guinea highlands, I could see the scope of the missionaries’ impact. While traditional dances and rituals remained on display for tourists, each performance came with the same basic introduction from whoever happened to be chief: “A generation ago, the whole village knew how to do this. But since we’ve become Christian, only these five old guys do.”

Like any properly self-righteous liberal, I was appalled. Nothing against Jesus—nor the schools, hospitals and social halls built in his name. Imposed beliefs and vaporized traditions were my sole objections. Though hardly the Buddhas of Bamyan, whose 2001 dynamite-induced demise is recalled in the UNESCO Declaration concerning the International Destruction of Cultural Heritage, the highlands’ figurative implosion seems covered under the same terms: “Cultural heritage is an important component of the cultural identity of communities, groups and individuals, and of social cohesion, so that its intentional destruction may have adverse consequences on human dignity and human rights.”

Granted, as a tourist, I’m part of the problem, however unintentionally. If I learned nothing else in high school chemistry (and as the D- on my transcript would seem to suggest, I didn’t), I was able to grasp this: The contents of an airtight container generally start to degrade the second you expose them to oxygen and light. And though perhaps never hermetically sealed, the Papua New Guinea highlands were still basically untouched by outsiders until well into the 20th century. So each visitor who shows up now—treading lightly or otherwise—is altering the local equation.

But the impact of tourism, I would wager, pales in comparison to that of missionaries. And while some of what they want to stamp out deserves to go—domestic violence and general female abasement come to mind—what about the centuries-old dances that pay homage to tribal ancestors? So those gorgeous getups happen to show a bit of skin? Come on. Where’s the harm there?

Though I’d normally keep such views to myself among converts, Michael* made me forget my manners. The lobby minder at a lodge where I was the only guest for three days, he was perpetually bored to tears and desperate to talk. Between his gift of gab and disarming smile, decorum stood no chance. And by the time I found myself walking to his village with him (for lack of anything better to do, he had offered to give me a tour), I felt like I was chatting with an old crony. Except that this particular crony was the only indigenous, university-educated, missionary-loving highlander of my generation I’d ever met.

So I asked the question that had been plaguing me most:

“I understand that you’re grateful for a lot of what Christianity has brought to the highlands, but aren’t you even a little resentful to see your own culture slipping away?” 

“Our culture does need to be preserved,” he answered. “Tourists really like it, and without it, they won’t come.”

Um…right then. Not exactly what I’d had in mind.

“Let me rephrase the question,” I said. “Pretend, for a moment, that tourists don’t exist. Just remove us from the equation. Now, aren’t you at all sad that so many of your traditions are being destroyed?”

“Frankly,” he began, “I could do without them.”

Then he turned the question around.

“Do you have any idea how much time it takes to go into the bush and track down all the seeds you need for the face paints, all the feathers you need for the costumes, etc. etc. etc.?”

No, actually, I didn’t. So he went on to describe what a time- and labor-intensive pain-in-the-ass the whole culture thing can be.

“I’d rather be working at my real job, or e-mailing friends, or reading, or watching a movie,” he added.

He had a point. So I shut up for a minute and tried to apply his logic to my own traditions. I started with bat mitzvahs, and had to wonder: Would mine ever have happened had I been required, say, to hunt down and process my own Torah parchment? Especially if the project entailed significant cutbacks to whatever I was doing for fun at the time? (A combination of playing Space Invaders and slow dancing with Dan Hirshfeld, as I recall.)

No matter how many analogies I thought through, I couldn’t come up with a single legitimate rebuttal. The truth is, I was no more eager to forgo reading, movie-watching and Web surfing than he was. And why were such pursuits my God-given rights, but not his? Who was I to tell him he should be foraging for face paint in the rainforest?

Mind you, he hadn’t disavowed all “the old ways.” In fact, his own bride price ceremony (basically, a wedding) was a mere two weeks off. Completely fascinated by the ritual—and frustrated that I’d be missing it by a matter of days—I grilled him for details.

I learned that at the appointed hour, both wantoks (the clans on which Papua New Guinea’s society is based) would be gathering in front of his father’s house, where his people would be offering her people the following: 20-40 pigs, several thousand kina (the country’s paper currency) and a pile of yams. If all went well, some spare pigs would be clubbed (though not by Michael; he might be the only guy in the South Pacific who can’t bring himself to do the deed), cooked and eaten. Then, duly sated, the wantoks would part ways. No pageantry, no costumes, no sing-sings à la National Geographic—unless, of course, any tourists caught wind of the ceremony and wanted to attend, in which case the participants would happily oblige with a feathered accessory or two, and perhaps a little jig.

Again, my manners eluded me. I had to know: How did a university-educated woman (i.e., the bride) feel about being purchased for the contents of a pigpen, a money-market account and a produce bin? And for that matter, how did a university-educated man (i.e., the groom) feel about buying her?

The couple would gladly have skipped the whole ordeal in favor of a simple, modern wedding, he explained, but didn’t want to inflict such heartache on the clans.

The next nosy question I couldn’t help but ask: What would happen if one wantok rejected the other’s offer?

“Brides from her province generally go for much less than those from mine,” he said. “So our offer is going to seem really impressive, unless her family brings up their investment in her university education and wants compensation for the lost returns. (Those returns being her college-enhanced earning power, soon to be transferred to his family.)

Still, he seemed confident that with a bit of negotiation, all would go well. The only serious wild card was his girlfriend (not to be confused with his fiancée), who was threatening to disrupt the proceedings.

On a none-of-my-business roll—and fresh off the first season of Big Love—I asked, “Why not marry both?”

One of the few local customs Christianity hasn’t managed to extinguish (to the outspoken consternation of the missionaries on my flight to the highlands) is polygamy. Not to mention good, old-fashioned skirt-chasing. As one highlander told me, he and his cohorts liked to “resign from Christianity once in a while to have fun with the ladies.” 

Sadly, Michael explained that his fiancée wasn’t so interested in sharing. Hence the quandary in which he now found himself. The longer we talked, the more its complexity emerged—-and the less I knew what to say.

Regardless of my thoughts, which weren’t particularly illuminating anyway, what standing did I have? Only hours earlier, I’d been prepared to relegate the guy to a life of seed gathering and loincloth feathering. Meanwhile, the missionaries who had essentially informed his decision to get hitched had provided education and health care along the way. And, last I checked, I hadn’t built any clinics or schools in the neighborhood.

As if to underscore the point, my humble pie was served à la mode: By the time we reached the village for the aforementioned tour, not a soul was around. Naturally, everyone had gone to church.

* Michael is a pseudonym.

Photo shot in Tari, Papua New Guinea by Abbie Kozolchyk.

Abbie Kozolchyk is the beauty and travel director at Every Day With Rachael Ray magazine and a contributor to other publications.

8 Comments for The Gospel According to Michael

Gabriel Parra Blessing 10.04.07 | 9:18 PM ET

There is a term in modern economic theory called “creative destruction,” which proposes that antiquated and inefficient business models are “creatively destroyed” by new models that are more profitable and efficient. To wit, Wal-Mart doing away with the mom-and-pops. Like the author of this article, as a “properly self-righteous liberal” I am “appalled” (possibly the most oft-used word in any self-righteous liberal’s vocabulary) by the cultural consequences of such inexorable “progress”, but recognize that while the cream rises to the top, the lowest common denominator dominates the bottom. And by that I mean, of course, that humans are like a gas - to ape a scientific analogy like the writer of the article above - and will almost always take the path of least resistance. Which is what makes of me a misanthrope, and prevents me from being a thoroughly insufferable liberal. I’m still self-righteous, though.

Gabriel Parra Blessing 10.05.07 | 6:01 PM ET

I respectfully disagree with Mr. Rosendahl. Tourists do, in fact, “seek to change” the places and people they visit. Tourists who, for instance, seek out “exotic” places and people vote with their wallet and, by interacting economically with the “exotic” people in question, they implicitly demand that they behave in a manner that may be regarded as expressive of whatever culture the tourist purports to be interested in. Take the Caribbean, for instance. Although Puerto Rico is one of the principal Caribbean destinations, it is not nearly as attractive to some tourists because it is, basically, entirely too developed to have that “Caribbean island” feel many, if not most, tourists to the Caribbean seek out. Thus, European tourits flock to the Dominican Republic or Jamaica instead, while ironically, especially in the case of the former, remaining safely ensconced within isolated enclaves otherwise known as all-inclusive resorts, rarely venturing outside the utterly artificial confines of these sun-and-sand playpens. Meanwhile, one of the most egregious examples I have found of tourists forcing the local populace to whore itself for their voyeuristic benefit was at a reservation in North Carolina, where the local tribe had set up these life-sized, live-action dioramas that showed how these people purportedly lived before the white man came and nearly did away with them. Of course, the “traditional” dances they performed and the ornate and colorful plummage that they wore were never actually a part of that particular tribe’s culture. They merely adopted such displays because that’s what the tourits who flocked to this formicarium expected from a bunch of “injuns”. Or take an even more popular example: Venice. Would gondoliers still exist if tourists did not demand their services? It’s like “Michael” above said, “Our culture does need to be preserved. Tourists really like it, and without it, they won’t come.”

Tammy 10.06.07 | 11:17 AM ET

I do not believe that just Christian missionaries are responsible for upending the culture there.  I think tourists do more damage.  When an exotic place, like Costa Rica is exposed what happens is like a flood, developers dive in like vultures and build massive resorts and destroy the landscape and eventually the culture.  I think the governments are eager to agree with developers because tourism dollars help or kill their economy.

Patricia Neely 10.07.07 | 3:26 AM ET

Your opinion is typical of the liberal you claim to be.  Missionaries do not go to other countries to “change” the traditions of the people.  They go there to give them the only hope they or any of us can have. That hope is the hope only found in Jesus Christ. Many of the traditions and rituals of these people are pagan in nature, some even stemming from witchcraft or the black arts.  If these people are changing regarding the performances of such traditions, then it is the conviction of the Holy Spirit that is changing them.  The missionaries are only the messengers.  What goes on in the human heart is between that person and God.

Gabriel Parra Blessing 10.07.07 | 4:55 AM ET

In response to Ms. Neely, does the Holy Spirit then take human form in the shape of Britney Spears? Or manifest itself in cyberspace as email? Because it would seem that these people are more interested in the accoutrements of Western culture rather than in accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. I don’t think “Michael” said anything about not wanting to carry on hard-to-keep traditions so he could worship Jesus. Just a thought.

Sarah 10.07.07 | 9:36 PM ET

While I was in college I went on a short term mission trip to East Europe, after the fall of the iron curtain.  The girls were told that we could not wear make-up or jewelry, and that we had to wear dresses or skirts in the villages.  Someone asked if that was really necessary, since the area we were going to was becoming more westernized anyway.  The group leader let us know that while it was true that the country was changing, we were not going to be the ones bringing the changes. 
True, missionaries did not always have that mindset; but if you read the history of the world during European colonialism, you’ll see that most the rest of the world didn’t either.  In recent years respect for non-Western cultures has grown both in secular world, and among missionaries.
That is not to say that missionaries are no longer trying to bring changes; they have just become mores selective:
Human sacrifice: change
Native musical style: don’t change
Forced prostitution: change
Hunter/gather lifestyle: don’t change

Brigitte 10.08.07 | 5:22 AM ET

How about the hope that can only be found in the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Gabriel Parra Blessing 10.10.07 | 9:42 PM ET

Many a dark night of my soul has been assuaged by my faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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