Since centuries christian missionaries are traveling to the most rural places in the world to convert heathens into tamely believers. What legacy do 500 years of proselytisation leave behind? A two-part experience on a small island in the South Pacific. Part One.
We sit on woven mats in the back of the church as the pastor tells the story of little Jesus and the census of the Roman Empire in Bislama. He looks serious, important, as if he is delivering a crucial message, a matter of life and death. It’s hot, the sun is burning on the little concrete house. Looking out of the door shaped hole in the wall behind me I see men sitting under a big tree in the shade, having given up on the service.
Behind them the marine blue ocean stretches to the horizon. It shines in shades of blue and green and big waves break far out over endless reefs, the home of countless fish swimming happily about on this Christmas day, not knowing that the pastor is preaching 4000 year old stories about Israel and the exodus of the people.
Just another day in a fish’s life.
But not in the Anglican Church.
“Tudei yumi selebratem birtdei blo ol’ Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour blong yumi” exclaims the pastor gloriously with wide spread arms. His eyes slowly look through the room. In this moment I remember him. I had met him the day before when walking around with no real destination. He was wearing a clean black shirt and a distinctive colourful necklace made of shells and stones. At the bottom hung a big cross giving away who he was: A man of the church.
“I made it myself in the Solomons” he told me. On a church trip, I’m thinking to myself. To the big brother of Vanuatu when it comes to church things, the Solomon Islands. In Vanuatu you know when you are talking to a white black man, a man of god. They usually wear clean trousers and white shirts, like the pastors in the west, and around their neck hangs a big cross. Every time I meet one they seem to feel important and serious, as though their title alone made them respectable. And of course the people respect them.
On this hot Christmas morning Bill, the pastor, wears a white cleric robe with green decorations. It must be hot underneath, I can see the sweat run down his forehead.
He raises his arms again and everybody starts singing.
As everybody sings songs about Jesus, salvation and the big man, also known as god, I watch Bill preaching. He holds a small leather bound bible. Over him hang two balloons, one orange, one purple.
To me he has taken a seat on the white man side of history. A traitor in the rows of the old Kastom traditions of Vanuatu. A black man born on this island that now preaches the religion and the way of life of the white man, a puppet, an extended arm of the Roman Catholic Church on a far away, small Фильм island in the South Pacific.
And not even of the Roman Catholic Church. But of the Anglican Church or the Prespetarian Church or the Assembly of God Church or of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. As if there was a difference. These white man churches have given the people a sense of identity over the past centuries. They have established their structures ever since the first early missionaries arrived and have since grown their roots deeper and deeper into peoples lives until they became an essential part of peoples life’s, even in the most rural areas.
Now they are a separating thorn in the unity of families, villages and islands. It keeps the people busy fighting over whether the Seventh Day Adventist or the Prespetarian Church are the better institution so they don’t turn around and wonder if it is not the white man who brought this separation in the first place.
The Landing at Tana one of the New Hebrides. by William Hodges ≈ circa 1775-76.
Religion is after all a well thought and well proven system that so many countless cultures have fallen for throughout history. In the Pacific Islands, full of lovely, open, easy to impress people it must have been an easy game for the first missionaries that came here, preaching to the people that they are all born sinners and they will go to hell if they continue their Kastom way of life.
A cultural genocide that now, looking back, seems so fatal. And we are not even talking about the real genocides in Central and South America where an estimated seven times more people were killed than during WWII.
“When Europeans arrived in what is now Latin America in 1492, the region may have been inhabited by between 50 million and 100 million indigenous people. By the mid 1600s, their population was slashed to about 3.5 million. ” writes Jason Hickel in his Guardian article.
Oh, history can be cruel and it is so hard to hold anybody responsible! Putting it in perspective helps though. Compared to the Americas the Pacific Islands have still kept quite a Lot of their kastoms and in some places mixed them with the rituals the missionaries brought.
And then there are the exceptions, like Tanna Island in Vanuatu, where the people have realised the values of their traditions and have thrown the missionaries out of their villages. But they are very strong and connected people and everybody around the country respects and maybe fears them a little.
This photo was taken in Lemakara, on Tanna Island. The building on the left is called the “church”, a multi use building for prayers, Kastom ristuals and village gatherings, feasts and all-night music sessions.
Now the active cultural genocide of the missionaries and churches is continued as a passive one by big western and Chinese companies and investors. The lie of the fulfilled consumerist lifestyle, forced upon almost all countries by the US and other western governments, is now creeping into the deep bush of the furthest away islands of Vanuatu. Cities like Port Vila and Luganville are already lost, now it’s time to take the bush and to convince the young generation life is more fun in the city.
It’s the exact same thing the missionaries did but instead of fear the system now uses false promises and lies to lure the young away from the traditional lifestyle, where everything comes free in pure abundance. Instead they want phones and cars and fast food and alcohol. And who am I to tell them they shouldn’t have it? Me with my white skin, with my electronic devices and my passport that lets me travel around the world. But me, I grew up with all this shit. And I come from a place where we start to see and understand where all of it leads: to emptiness, to voluntary slavery and to the destruction of our mother nature, of this one planet we live on.
I come from a place where our traditions, the tribal life, the heathen beliefs, have been lost thousands of years ago. I never experienced it. And seeing it here I can only tell the youths that sit next to me: Look again at your kastoms and wonder if it might not be worth preserving them. Because the city life won’t make you happy, this much I can promise you. And once the old die and the traditions die with them, they are gone, gone forever. You will not bring them back. With this message I sometimes feel like a new type of missionary. A white guy coming here traveling and preaching to the people to hold onto their traditions before it is to late and they are lost forever.
A Paramount chief on the West side of Gaua, practicing Black Magic. The stories say they stop hearts from beating and cut people’s heads off, just to bring the killed back to life.
And that is the difference I stare at between Bill and me on this hot Christmas day in the Anglican Church on Gaua. We both preach, but we preach different things. For me its hard to take this whole theatre seriously but I know everyone around me does. Somehow it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, a lingering vail of sadness.
Sure, they also do many things for the people in the villages. Near the airport lives Dr. Marc, an american doctor that flies around the Banks islands in his small red plane, treating sick people, the only doctor in the whole province. Everyone knows him and is infinitely grateful for his service and expertise. He is part of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. So next to opening his clinic, he opened a school, the Seventh Day Adventist School of Matafanga. An institution spreading knowledge and religion. Visiting the school costs an almost unplayable amount of money, like all schools here in Vanuatu.
Dr. Marc approaching the air strip in his red plane.
Education is important to empower people on the long term, intellectually and physically. But literacy, a third language (either English or French) and other basic knowledge is taught in the first six years which are already free. After that, from year six until year thirteen they are taught further studies. Higher maths, physics and french grammar. Things really far away from island life or any job they might find.
On the short term it leaves youths that drop out before year thirteen with a bitter taste of what they did not achieve. The ones that do finish are driven into the cities where they will look for a job. You can chose from: A scholarship in a white man country, hospitality and tourism, mechanics or sales. Many may even study in university in Vanuatu or Fiji, just to be left in the city being overqualified for their job or not finding one at all.
A shoe cleaner living on the streets of Suva, Fiji. An example of drug addiction and poverty created by “development”.
Funnily enough this sounds exactly like the reality of so many young people in Europe, the United States and many other “developed” countries.
Welcome to the life of the white men.
After the sun has set we sit in the dark kitchen with a small solar lamp illuminating the room between us. It draws contrasted shadows on the faces of everybody. I hear a singing, quiet and far away. Slowly it comes closer. The Kava demands it’s effect again.
After some time a big group of children, women and men enter the yard. They sing the christmas carols in bislama and their native language. Tis year they started late.
Photographic Memory by Ramin Aryaie