Canvas magazine carried an article and review on January 26 in relation to Jared Diamond's latest book, The World Until Yesterday. Central to the article was the description of the practice, until the 1950s, of killing widows of the "Kaulong" people of West New Britain on the death of their husbands.
I was in West New Britain, Papua New Guinea, as a missionary from 1983 to 1989. Diamond's ideas are substantially correct in relation to a language group of about 2000 speakers spread across several small scattered hamlets across the sparsely populated New Britain island.
His ideas do, however, need a little nuancing. First, "Kaulong" was viewed as a derogatory term (similar to "bush kanaka"). The self-description of this language group was "Arawe" (or "Arove"). And the practice did not end in the 1950s but still persisted in pockets of the people until the 1980s.
Traditionally the Arawe were semi-nomadic, settling in small groupings (maybe only 10 or 20 people) for a few years and then moving on as soil fertility was depleted in the old area.
In 1981 a late-50s, diminutive, feisty, German woman, Helen Held, trekked into a remote mountainous part of the island and shared the Christian gospel with some of the Arawe people. This led to several of these groups coming together to form a settled village, which I shall call 'A'. Two years later (two months before I arrived in New Britain) Helen went with some of the people from Village A to Village B and preached the Christian message there.
The message was immediately embraced by the whole village, largely because the sister of the primary headman had had a dream a little earlier which she had shared with the village. The dream indicated that people with white skins would come to the village bringing good news.
Village B underwent major transformation over the next few years. With World Vision help it planted coconuts (then absent from that inland area) to lift the woefully low protein levels. Two of the men went off to do a short-term medical course (the remoteness of the village meant that till then basic health care was totally lacking).
A primary school was started. Because of the difficulty of attracting teachers to the location, the village later got some of its children into secondary school and teacher training to provide home-grown teachers. The overall effect was a remarkable holistic transformation.
Certainly there had been widow-killing among these people. My understanding is that this occurred with the co-operation of the widow, who wanted to be with the spirit of her deceased husband. A key headman at Village A had earlier been involved in the death of his mother on that basis.
In 1988, the Christian gospel was being preached to further small groups of the Arawe people. A new village ('C'), partly Christian, began to form. An Arawe graduate from the Bible School I led was placed there as pastor. A man died and his widow wanted to be killed - usually this was shown by the widow doing certain ritual acts to provoke the men to kill her. The woman was about to be killed when the pastor intervened and said, "We don't do this now; we are Christians." There was no killing.
I remember going subsequently to Village C and seeing the widow heavy with grief, demonstrated in her clothing, the dirt on her face and her heavy, downcast demeanour. But next time I went there she was remarkably joyful. What had happened? The village story was that lightning had struck a dead tree and set it on fire. The villagers went out to see the amazing spectacle. When the woman saw it, she interpreted it as a sign to her from God, and speedily embraced the Christian gospel, with a markedly transformative outcome.
What is striking about the incident is how late the widow-killing practice persisted (at least until 1988), even though village C was less than 20km from Kimbe, the development centre and capital of West New Britain province.
Stereotypes scorn Christian conversion in the developing world. They might equally scorn other aspects of Western impact, most particularly the breweries - I have memories of masses of drunken people reeling across roads at 9 in the morning. Change from the wider world is inevitable for such people. The only question is, what change; good or bad?
What I saw of the Christian impact on the Arawe people was remarkably good and holistic. Widow-killing did not die out in the 1950s; but it did much later - through the Christian gospel.
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