BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
‘Whispers of the Voiceless’ (2011) by Rev Oala B Arua is published by BGA Consulting Services in Port Moresby. It runs to about 150 pages. In Australia it can be obtained from Barbara Short for $40, including postage. Email Barbara here
SOMETIMES OUTSIDERS ARE SURPRISED to see how deeply ingrained the churches have become in parts of Papua New Guinea. This is no more evident than among the Motu-Koitabu people who occupy the coastal areas around Port Moresby.
Here the church arrived in the form of the London Missionary Society in the 1870s. That society has since morphed, via Papua Ekalesia and Methodism, into the United Church of Papua New Guinea (UCPNG).
The Motu presently occupy 13 main villages over a stretch of coastline beginning at Manu Manu to the west of Port Moresby and ending 70 kilometres away at Gabagaba to the east.
Within this strand there are eight adjacent Koitabu villages. Each village houses about 3,000 people, although the biggest, Porebada, has over 7,000. Together the Motu-Koitabu number about 60,000 souls.
These people not only encountered the missionaries first but they also bore the brunt of colonisation and its subsequent western-style modernisation, most notably in the form of urbanisation. Whether they like it or not, the Motu-Koitabu people have been lumbered with the nation’s capital.
Urbanisation is a direct outcome of capitalism and modernisation. It has positive as well as negative impacts. The latter includes an emphasis on the individual, which leads to social estrangement and economic inequity.
In the Papua New Guinea context these developments “mitigate against communal values in a … largely egalitarian society, and in turn give rise to undesirable consequences such as law and order problems”.
These problems come about because neither the norms of the old traditional order nor the norms of the new emergent social order are dominant. It is a sort of social no-man’s land where rebellion against established society, the breakdown of traditional institutions, deviance from the village community structures and the abrogation of community values governing social relations occur.
“Ignorance of and failure to carry out one’s communal responsibility and unwillingness to fulfil kinship obligations also contribute to other social evils like poverty, that in turn lead to anti-social behaviour.”
Not only have the Motu-Koitabu been subjected to these pressures but they have also become a ‘victim’ community. Because they house the nation’s capital ‘their land and lives have been encroached from all angles.
On top of their own village-based social problems they have had to endure a spill over of crime and other problems from the city, particularly via its burgeoning population of settlers.
As everyone knows, the Papua New Guinea government and the Australian administration before it failed pathetically to manage any of the problems of urbanisation in any of Papua New Guinea’s cities.
Thank goodness for the churches you might think. To this, the Reverend Oala B. Arua, pastor of the UCPNG church in Porebada, would respond, think again!
He says that the Motu-Koitabu people are facing “dire social issues which they need answers for, but the church is not interested … Adherence to the UCPNG’s kind of Christianity is a second culture in Motu-Koitabu society. Yet the church has stood by and allowed the lifestyle of the people to deteriorate to crisis point up until now”.
It seems that the leaders of the UCPNG are much like Papua New Guinea’s politicians. They are tied up with policy and grand plans that never seem to come to fruition but are having too much of a good time increasing their girths to care about the ordinary people any more.
The ordinary people, as a consequence, are rapidly losing faith in the UCPNG and other, more progressive and caring denominations, are creeping into the area.
Understandably, Rev Arua says that this must change. “For once, UCPNG needs to shift her inward-looking, self-pitying perspective towards developing a selfless consciousness. She must embrace a much broader outlook that recognises the present conditions of our peoples’ livelihood. Relative poverty and anti-social behaviour directly affects life in our local grassroots communities”.
He suggests that the UCPNG is in dire need of something like the Hebrew concept of shalom, which means ‘peace and wholeness’, so it can participate in improving the socio-economic conditions of ‘the flock under her care’. In short, the UCPNG needs to become more like the other mainstream churches in Papua New Guinea.
This is a complex and thoughtful book which is well worth reading. Not only does it explore the particular problems of the Motu-Koitabu people and their UCPNG churches but it also reflects similar problems in other parts of Papua New Guinea. Rev Arua also offers solutions which involve shared responsibility between the church and the government.
The reverend has published the book at some risk to himself because by doing so he has incurred the petty-minded and insular wrath of the UCPNG hierarchy. This is a beast whose vindictiveness should not be underestimated.
I know this because I have seen it elsewhere, most recently in John Kadiba’s excellent biography, Night Dreams of Passing Memories.
In this sense it is an important book and deserves a wide readership in Papua New Guinea. My heart tells me that this won’t happen, which is a shame, because Papua New Guinea needs outspoken patriots like the Reverend Oala B Arua.