Mission trip to PNG was an enriching experience

This article submitted by Father Al Blonigen, CMM on 9/1/98.

Editorís Note: The following is excerpts from a report Father Al Blonigen wrote about his trip to Papua New Guinea this summer.

Father Blonigen grew up in the St. Martin area, the son of Herman and Magdalena Blonigen. Every February he returns to Paynesville to take care of St. Louis Catholic Church while Father Leisen has a vacation.

On July 1, 1998, I left Detroit, Mich., with a seminarian, Greg Dustra, for Papua New Guinea (PNG). We had an overnight in Sydney, Australia, on the way, arriving in PNG on the afternoon of July 3.

PNG is the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, just north of Australia. The climate is tropical. There are many tribes of indigent inhabitants with over 700 different languages. The common language is Pidgin English, a language with only 1300 words, derived from English and German with other words mixed in. I had little difficulty communicating with the people since most have a sufficient knowledge of English, the language of the government and the one they learn in school.

I visited two missions in the Highlands, Bulolo and Wau, as well as an island mission in Siassi.

We arrived in the city of Lae, on our way to the missions, in their monsoon season. The first day in Lae was nice and sunny, but after that it rained every day.

The Monday after our arrival, we drove into the Highlands, going to almost the top. What a view! The roads to this place were at times very rough. Sometimes we crawled in our four-wheel drive vehicle over the deep ruts and boulders. We passed many villages, where the people were always very friendly and inquisitive. The villagers eat from the fruit trees and their gardens. The villagers near the ocean also have plenty of food from the sea.

In the Highlands, coffee grows wild. The people pick and dry the beans for their own use, but coffee is also an important export for PNG.

The second week we flew to the island of Siassi in a small aircraft, landing on a small airstrip of grass in a town called Lap-Lap. Travel by air is a common means of travel in PNG, but on the islands, there are boats as well.

Father Henk Lenssen is the missionary in charge of this island. He and some parishioners met our plane. We rode in a large truck to the shore, where we went to the mission in the missionís boat.

The first part of the boat trip was on rough waters as the boat pilot had to maneuver around the coral reefs. We stopped on the way at the coral island village of Amoro, where Father Henk looked in on his parishioners there.

The island of Por is where Father Henk lives. It is less than the size of a football field and also has a school and three teacherís houses. Mandok is another small island about 300 yards across the water. It contains about 700 inhabitants and is the size of two football fields. The villages are extremely crowded and everyone lives very close together. There are seven different tribes in this village. Their livelihood consists of fishing, working in their gardens, and gathering fruit from trees on the main island of Siassi.

They also had to bring water over from the rivers on Siassi, but now the pastor has installed large water tanks to collect the water from the church roof, when it rains. Although surrounded by the ocean, drinking water is a precious commodity.

The people still hold on to many of their old customs, which does not interfere with their Christian faith. Whenever there is a big celebration, the whole village is invited to share. Only then will pigs be slaughtered and prepared with fruits and vegetables for all. Such an occasion might be an initiation into manhood for a boy.

The pig is an important means of ďpurchasingĒ large items and for bargaining. Pigs will be used to ďbuyĒ a wife or to celebrate important events for the village. As for marriage, they are arranged by the parents of the couple. There is no dating or show of affection between men and women.
Although there is no holding of hands between girls and boys or men and women, it is not uncommon to see two men holding hands as they talk to each other or even walk down the street.

In PNG, one commonly sees the father carrying a child and kissing it. Children seemed to be regarded as precious. Infant mortality is still quite high; perhaps because they have little access to modern medicine.

Another custom they cling to is that part of the village is reserved for men only. No female is ever allowed to step foot in that area. This area contains a lodge for the men and the ďspirit house,Ē where the ďspirit masksĒ are stored. Whenever there is a bad spirit or discontent in the village, manifested by troubles between peoples, some men will put on the masks, dress in leaves, and perform a ďspiritĒ dance to restore good spirits and peace to the village.

The peopleís dress code is simple. The loins are covered by a pair of shorts or a cloth wrapped around their middle. They usually go barefoot or wear flip-flop sandals. In town like Lae, the people dress more like we do, maybe wearing a shirt and shoes, but even in towns, many are barefoot or in sandals.

I left the island of Siassi and returned to Lae. The next morning I heard about the earthquake and three tidal waves (tsunamis) that hit the coast of PNG, about 500 miles west of where I was. Having visited villages similar to the ones destroyed by the tsunami, I can more deeply appreciate the tragedy. Some of the people I met and befriended have relatives in that area.

My purpose for traveling to PNG was to accompany the seminarian Greg who wanted to go there for a mission experience. Although I had heard about PNG from our missionaries who had served there, I had no personal experience of it until now. The experience was for me very enriching.

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