“These ancient carvings are tremendously important, especially to the older people,” he says. “The older people believe that if they sell them, they risk sickness and death. So the entire clan has a stake in them. But the younger people believe this less and less. They want outboard motors instead, which they haven’t a hope of buying on dollar-a-day wages. So they agree to sell an old piece, for a thousand dollars or more.
“However, the government is now trying to prevent any material that is needed for Papua New Guinea’s principal museum, in Port Moresby, from being sold abroad. Protecting the cultural heritage, they say.”
Several nights later we make camp downstream at Korogo village. Curtains of water are sweeping over the huts in a tropical cloudburst. Flashes of lightning illuminate the river with dazzling brilliance. Amid thunder, we hear a knock at the door. Four men stand shivering outside, their skins shining in the cold deluge. “Sori tru, masta!” one apologizes as we invite them inside. “Last week one misis from America buy carving belong mipela. Now pikinini got sick. Mipela like give pay back.” He holds up a bag containing $250, which they wish to return for their carving. In their minds, there is no other way to save the sick child.
Our hearts bleed for them. They have paddled several miles through the storm, thinking Barbara might be the person who bought the piece. We try to reassure them that the child might recover if they take him to a medical post. But we know we haven’t convinced them. With distraught faces they turn back into the storm, and begin the wearying paddle home. A few weeks later we pass through one of their rented apartments barcelona, and I ask what happened to the child. The village councillor points to a small boy splashing happily in the water. “We sacrificed some pigs, and he recovered,” he explains.
The various mission stations along the Sepik River, Catholic and Protestant alike, are playing a large role in changing the old ways and beliefs. They established a network of village schools long before the administration did, and through their numerous churches they preach the power of Christianity over paganism.
“But soon after I came here, I realized my role was not to convert and baptize as many people as I could. For this reason I am criticized by many of my older colleagues.” The speaker is a young Dutch priest named Alphonse Ruijter, who lives at Angoram, an administrative center some 80 miles from the mouth of the Sepik. With his shoulder-length, reddish hair, unconventional approach, and easygoing manner, he is one of the most controversial figures on the Sepik.
“I think it’s ridiculous in this day and age to preach sin, Satan, and hell to these people,” he continues, flashing an irreverent grin. “In fact, when you come to think of it, we’re almost as superstitious as they are.