The longer I stay, the less I know
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, 26 October 2019 -- This is a personal sharing after years spent in the Vice Province of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
Spending years of enjoyable, enriching and adventurous years in the ‘Hapi Isles’ and in Papua New Guinea ‘Land of the Unexpected’ is indeed a small time-frame for a missionary in the South Pacific. Several of the dedicated and brave Marist missionaries, priests, brothers and sisters, in Solomon Islands and brave members of the Society of the Divine Word in Papua New Guinea have celebrated their ‘Golden Jubilees’. They have planted the church with great love and sacrifice, blood and tears.
The Pearl of the Pacific: 1999
In 1998, after a conference by Fr Joaquim D’Souza sdb, the then Regional of East Asia and Oceania, I had raised my hand to volunteer, without knowing anything about the place and am now on that mission soil. Archbishop Adrian Smith sm, Archbishop of Honiara was there at Henderson airport to welcome me on 2nd April, 1999. I stepped out of the Solomon Airlines in the wee hours of the morning and thanked God for my missionary calling and vocation. This was to be my home for the next 15 years.
I call the Solomon Islands, ‘The Pearl of the Pacific’. In this Melanesian country, nature is at its best in its 992 mountainous islands and corral atolls, a variety of flora and fauna, exquisite and abundant fruits, vegetables, crystal clear water and unique sea creatures. Time stands still as one encounters groups of people, young and old, under the shade of the huge trees, sheltering themselves from the equatorial heat. Regular rainfall over several months of the year, brings a gentle, cool and refreshing breeze. These damp and moist islands are insect prone. Malaria, caused by widely prevalent mosquitoes carrying Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, weakens the individual necessitating rest.
Over the years, I have learnt to appreciate the people. Their knowledge of mother nature and their ability to manage with the minimum is deeply ingrained in them. “You have a high IQ and are able to perceive, read and understand situations and people. Once you build on your ‘rhythm of life’, you will do excellently anywhere in the world”, is my constant refrain to the students during the Good Morning talks.
The longer I stay the less I know
My mission is Social Communications and Youth Ministry for the Catholic Church. It gave me the opportunity to travel to different islands, meet the islanders in their unique island setting and experience the primitive beauty of island life. Perhaps the many ‘Hill Thrill’ and ‘Sea Thrill’ camps together with Fr Godfrey D’Sa, Fr George Quadros, Fr Glen Lowe, Br Savio D’Mello and several others disposed me to enjoy the islands. Travelling to an island would be by canoe, a 9-seater islander or 18-seater twin otter propeller-driven aircraft that would fly at about 10,000 feet. Once on an island, I was treated royally. I was given the best thatched room with fresh bedsheets and a mosquito net. A delicious meal of cassava with coconut milk, taro leaves and vegetables, steamed cray fish, freshly caught and a warm cup of tea. The coconut crab, a delicacy in the islands, was occasionally boiled and served as well.
Listening to the experiences of the Marists and interacting with the islanders gave me an insight into these wonderful people. It was into a year of my stay in Solomon Islands and I was gradually getting to know the people when I encountered a lady and shared my insight and understanding of the people with her. I then asked her about her understanding of the people and the islands. Her response is something, I will always remember. She looked straight into my eyes and said, “I have been here for 17 years. The longer I stay, the less I know.” The answer took a moment to sink in. How true I reflected. People here always treated me with respect but their responses were guarded and limited. I thought it was the language. But the Melanesian people are slow to trust and will only reveal themselves over a period of time. It therefore requires of us an openness to a different reality, that will reveal itself over a long period of time. Missionary activity is something that breaks through our customary models and ways of thinking. (Maximum Illud). It means that as I strive to bring about an authentic missionary encounter with this unique culture, I must strive to divest myself of my own culture. This is no easy task, as I constantly want to return to my food habits, the way I dress and my learned ways of doing things. “Take off your sandals” (Ex 3:5) is a gentle reminder that only then can I be a source of the life-giving power of God.
The power of domination
The Melanesian people are a male dominated, top heavy and a very controlled society. The young are told what to do and the ones who want to be heard can do so only under cover of darkness. Women are most at risk. A study of the Solomon Islands Country Gender assessment of 2009 states that 64% of women have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused by an intimate partner. Sadly, over one third of women have been sexually abused before the age of 15 most often by a male family member.
An experience on a Catholic island with over 500 people opened my eyes to the reality of abuse. Celebrating the Eucharist for a church packed with people on a Sunday morning, I was asked by the catechist to bless the mothers and their newly born children. 20 young mothers lined up together with their children. At least 12 of them were below the age of 18 years. Later that evening, at the entertainment, I turned to the catechist and inquired about the husbands of the young mothers. “We do not know”, was the quick reply. On an island where everyone knows each other it came to me as a surprise. Being abused by a father, uncle, brother or a male acquaintance is a common occurrence. Social acceptance of violence and high levels of stigma against those who try to break away from a violent relationship make it extremely difficult to break cycles of violence.
Young ambassadors for Christ
In 2016, I moved to Papua New Guinea. With its population of 7 million, the country is 10 times the size of the Solomon Islands. Together with the great possibilities of youth ministry, one has to face the dangers of ‘raskols’ and wide spread violence. However, young people are ready to stand up for Christ and work towards peace, respect and dignity of all people.
23-year-old September Genevieve Kelokelo from Normanby island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) represented the young people of Papua New Guinea at the High-Level Political Forum at the United Nations in July, 2019. Being a victim of climate change, she is passionate about care for the earth and did an excellent job speaking about the Small Island Developing States of the Pacific as she spoke on: “Youth Aspirations and Climate Urgency”. Fr Savio Silvera, Provincial, was keen that a young person from the Pacific Islands should be part of the event. September was the one chosen. Returning from the rich international experience she said, “I am a Green Ambassador not only for my village and island, but for the whole of Papua New Guinea”.
Desmond Agilo represented Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands at an International Forum held in Rome in June, 2019. The Forum was part of the implementation phase of the recent Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, concerning the relationship between adults and young people and its implications for the sustainability of the Catholic Church throughout the world. Desmond is now a leading advocate in the implementation of ‘Christus Vivit’ in the region of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
The challenge to lead Young people
Our young people are ready to stand up and be counted. All they ask of us is to listen and accompany them on their journey. The Church needs men and women who, by virtue of their baptism, respond generously to the call to leave behind home, family, country, language and local Church, and to be sent forth to the nations, to a world not yet transformed by the sacraments of Jesus Christ and his holy Church. (Maximum Illud). ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’ (Lk 10:2).
Time stands still in the islands. Little has changed and progress is slow. One needs to have the patience to wait. All of us are invited to get off the beaten track and launch out into the deep within our own setting. To those willing, welcome to the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the ‘Land of the Unexpected’ - breathtakingly fresh destinations! Come to listen, to learn and be enriched by the lives of simple Melanesian people. Each of us will then be transformed as we strive to evangelize our Melanesian people.