Wednesday, 16 September 2009

the 40 years of Reverend SS in Papua

I have a problem. I keep washing my hands, and it doesn’t come off. Immediately after it, I rubbed my palm on the wet grass outside, but that did not help. The soap back at the hotel might be antibacterial, but evil does not come off that easily. Now, I guess, his handshake will just haunt me forever.

He was in the Hitlerjugend. His dream was to join the SS. He did not tell me, “my Hungarian friend”, whether he succeeded or not. All we know is that he found himself in Mexico right after the war. He became a Christian - “in two weeks, would you believe that?” He wanted to go to Africa to be a medical missionary.

When he finished his studies and his mission finally came up, in 1968, he was assigned to New Guinea. He arrived at a tribe called the Sougp, at the western end of Papua. They were “dirty”. Their lives were “miserable”: revolving around “black magic” and “bride-price”. Some of them “had never washed ever in their whole lives”.

(Now, I washed my hand again. There is still no effect.)

These people, the Sougp tribe, lived on the mountains, around two lakes, up at around 2000 meters. He had his wife with him and their sons. They had built a house, and had most of their food given to them by the Sougp, the rest flown in.

They brought the “word of Christ” and a lot of medicine. He taught them not to be afraid of spirits of the forest, of black magic, to be nice to each other. He taught them that “to pay a lot for a bride is not the right way, you only pay compensation for the man that he will be without a pension, you do not ask for more”. He learned their language and translated the bible. The medicine he brought, the hygiene he taught, and the “respect for women, and giving up the bride-price” led to more kids being born, and fewer people dying. When the population started to grow too fast, they felled all the trees in the land. Then he went to America to fetch high-altitude corn, and taught them what to do with it.

The spirits of the forest are now gone. You can “use the forest as you should”, he tells me. The black magic is over. “They saw that we have stronger spirits than that. You do not have to fear one another. You can travel, you can go and visit each other without harming each other.” People now make larger and larger plantations on shifting forest clearings. They produce sweet potatoes and gather prawns for eating, but also produce “white Irish potatoes” for the market on the coast, together with garlic, shallots, and celery. Then they return with rice, sugar, palm oil and salt. The nutrition level has actually deteriorated, his nurse wife keeps nagging him...

He did not bother to take notes about the belief system, or understand the way the economy or the society works. After four decades, he is still mostly ignorant about the basics. “I am just not interested in these things. I gave them the word of Christ. That is enough, isn’t it?”

After two and a half decades, he started to turn some of his disciples into missionaries. By now, in the past 11 years, he has dispatched 16 Sougp missionary couples to neighbouring tribes.

What can I say to him? I was speechless. Reverend SS. He was just a child, really when the war was over. Whatever reason there may have been for him to leave for Latin America, who cares. (Well, actually, I do, as he still seems to be proud to say the words of ‘Hitler Youth’ and ‘SS’.) The destruction he has caused - as his penitence - is an adult, grown-up sin.

We had a chat about the missionary work ahead. Unsuspecting, he told me about the areas that missionaries still have not covered in Papua… Luckily, there are quite a lot of swamps here.

At the end I tried to slip out. But there was no way around it. He grabbed my hand and shook it heartily. At age close to 80, he still has a strong handshake.

I wrote the note above last year, but decided to keep it to myself until this moment. Reading it now, I am intrigued by seeing the moral dilemma of development encapsulated in phenomena of such extremes. We are at a loss to find a global value-framework to judge this man. I am acutely aware that my own assessment of his deeds is rooted in the history of the culture that I come from.

Yet, it is difficult to judge his actions even within my own value-framework. He was ready to destroy a self-sustaining culture, and to watch the deprivation of a large forest in one of the most ecologically diverse parts of the world. Opposed to that stands the introduction of education allowing global integration, and improvements in healthcare lengthening life expectancy.

The fact that the indigenous Papuans are not really in a position to weigh these factors either, does not help. There seems to be a consensus now that the ‘World’ should let the Papuans decide. But, given Papua’s amazing ecological and socio-cultural assets, the World might come to regret this.

The closest I got to a ‘solution’ was to come up with the notion of a ‘global impact community’. But, I’m afraid, it is not much more than a shameless excuse to overrule the principle of self-determination. The idea behind ‘global impact community’ is, that even if there are no common norms shared by all cultures around the world, all societies use and affect global public goods. The Biosphere being the most important of these. This perhaps could give us guidance about the cases and the extent to which the global community could and perhaps should set local development rules.*

In a way the notion of ‘global impact community’ is a particular application of Arrow’s impossibility theorem. There is no way we can guarantee agreement among our cultures. Unless, of course, there is some part of preference ordering that is shared by all. Shared preference ordering could easily come from norms originating in the evolution of our species, as well as from the recognition that our societies have grown out of the buffers this finite global system provides.

I believe that morality is a societal phenomenon, and not a set of abstract values floating out there. Then then won’t be any norms guiding your behaviour unless there is a reference society in place. The Papuan Highlanders’ cultures and my culture diverted 45,000 years ago. There has been a mere 50 year period for ‘reintegration’ of the two. (Well, in a rather one-sided way.) There is no shared ‘reference society’ whatsoever.

A made-up, abstract global society might just do the trick.

*This experience also contributed to the idea of an oral history project, in which early missionaries - some of whom are still alive: the first wave of missionary centres in the Highlands of West Papua arrived only 53 years ago -- and Papuans who were either young adults affected by their arrival or children educated by the missionaries back then would be interviewed. The idea would be to try to recover some of that lost history, before it is too late. If you’re interested, please write to me.