An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Christianity, Breast Feeding and Hand Holding

Christianity is the dominant religion in PNG. Unless you come here though you don't fully realise how successful the missionaries have been in converting the "savages". Coming from a secular society like Australia where religion has more or less taken a back seat to everyday life, I have found it is interesting to see a society that is quite the opposite. Everyone seems to be from a particular denomination (with some obscure ones in thrown in) and you learn early, if you are inclined like me, to either tell everyone you are an atheist/agnostic/Buddhist etc or pick a denomination that is not represented locally. This is wise advise as you will find within the first few weeks plenty of people who will inquire as to what church you belong to.

Whether you agree with the what the missionaries have done or not, one thing that is certain is it has certainly changed the lives of the average Papua New Guinean. Church life has now become a fantastic social event for the people. It gives them something to do, it allows them to sing and they get to mix with their friends. Perhaps the reason churches have been so popular here, and the missionaries so successful is that they so allow for social activity, something that previously was limited to the odd sing-sing once every blue moon.

It is amazing to see how many different denominations have taken root here. If you look at the history of colonisation it is not hard to realise why. Papua New Guinea has been on the world map longer than Australia has, and the coastal people have had contact with the outside world for centuries. It was commonly thought (for some reason) by the early 20 century colonists that the interior of PNG did not contain much in the way of human habitation. Hence the shock that was to be had by both the locals and the explorers when in the 1930's white man first ventured into the highlands and discovered twice as many people there than were on the coast. By the 1930's the industrial age was well and truly in swing, so information about the multitudes of heathens needed "saving" went far and wide and quickly. After the war the race was on by all the missionary Christian groups of the world to "save" these multitudes from their heathen ways. So now you have the bizarre situation in a town like Goroka with a population of around 25,000, having 43 denominations represented.

Unfortunately from a secular point of view living in PNG does have it disadvantages, though nothing that can't be put up with. These seem to be mainly the incessant bombardment of religious tenets. It ranges from the ever present street side preachers, gospel music at the supermarket, people asking you to come to their church and the constant e-mails that are sent around via the universities e-mail system. The Uni All Staff distribution list has more or less been taken over for purposes apart from University work. People use it as a soap-box to preach their gospel, invitations to join their crusade (not sure what happens there, though it brings visions of men in armour with St. George crosses) or come to a lotu (pray meeting), warnings of some new devil like technology that everyone should be wary of, showing times for "The passion of the Christ" at the campus Christian centre and this weeks TV schedule for the Hope channel. It gets a bit much at times.

The culture in other respects though has grounding very much in the past. It is funny to think that a simple thing like a mother breast-feeding her child in public is frowned upon in supposed liberal countries like Australia or the UK (though with Howard in office prehaps I should rephrase that), but here in what you would assume to be a more conservative country it is not uncommon to see mothers with one breast poking out of there top suckling a little one. One image that I don't think I will forget in the near future was while buying bananas at a market. The woman selling the produce was wandering around showing me the best bananas, while all the time having a wide eyed child attached. I am not sure who had the biggest cultural shock the kid seeing the whitefella or me doing business with a breast-feeding mother.

In western culture seeing two men holding hands and walking together, it would be safe to assume that the pair were gay. Now as I said before PNG is a very conservative country due to the influence of the churches, which is why seeing men holding hands here seem bizarre. But the holding hands act is quite a common occurrence. It does not mean the men are gay, but most likely just good friends. It seems that the stigma associated with that act in western cultures has not transgressed to PNG life, and the act is still a throw back to a part of their pre-colonial culture. The act of taking another mans hand takes place all the time. If you happen to meet a friend while walking, you will always shake his hand before having a conversation. From my upbringing it was usually the case of only shaking hands upon the first meeting of someone, or if you have not seen them for a long time.

Oddly enough though physical contact is usually only done between same sex groups. Acts of male-female contact is rarely if ever seen in public. In fact the entire relationship between men and women is very different to western culture. It is not uncommon for a husband and wife to live in completely separate towns and only see each other occasionally. This is what my boss does. It seems they make up for lost time when they do get together as approximately 50% of the population is under 20 years of age. Living seperate lives does not mean that they are not good parents. Fathers dote over their children just as much as mothers do, they just may see less of them.