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
Mere 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.