By Father Francis Vega
Twenty-eight years ago Father Francis Vega arrived in Papua New Guinea with Father Nestor Ubalde.They were the first Filipino SVD priests to be assigned there. Father Francis now works in Hilongos, Leyte. Here he shares with us his experiences during his first year in PNG.
I arrived in PNG with Father Nes on 6 September 1977. We were sent to the highlands to learn thelingua franca of the country, Pidgin. We were provided with a Pidgin book and a language tape. Then we were left to ourselves to read the book and to listen to the tape. After six weeks of language study, Father Nes was assigned to the coastal Diocese of Madang and I to the Diocese of Goroka in the highlands.
MY FIRST ASSIGNMENT
The Bishop of Goroka gave me my first assignment as the assistant priest of Neragaima parish. Before giving me the faculty to hear confessions, he made sure that I had enough knowledge of Pidgin. How beautiful are the mountains there! The people just couldn’t understand why I kept gazing at their beautiful majesty.
At that time, there was tribal fighting in most of the parishes in the highlands. The common reasons for fighting were: land grabbing, abducting of women, pigs destroying gardens of the enemy. No guns for the warriors, only bows and arrows, axes, wooden shields and bolos. They would burn down houses (usually made of bush materials) of their enemies. They would uproot root crops and cut down coffee trees. Fortunately, we missionaries were not included in their skirmishes. Thank God!
Once I was coming home with two young men. They pointed out to me a small group of men on a mountain ridge, with their backs toward us. ‘If you weren’t with us, Father, most probably we would be dead by now,’ they told me. ‘Those men are just pretending they haven’t seen us.’
FAITH AMIDST CONFLICT
A predecessor told me this story. He went to a village for Mass, only to find out that the people were engaged in warfare. He told them that he wouldn’t say Mass anymore. But the tribe leaders told him: ‘Father, let us have the Mass. First we go to confession. After Mass, we will continue with the fighting.’
In PNG the men and women accept their distinct roles. The women do the gardening, gather firewood and food supplies. While doing all this, they carry their babies on their backs. On the other hand, the men would only be carrying their bows and arrows, always ready to protect their families in times of danger.
The men would stay in one place and their womenfolk would bring them food. The reason for this was practical; it would be easier for the men to gather in case there was a sudden raid by the enemy.
In spite of the relatively small population of Papua New Guinea, there are about 900 languages. A parish in the highlands would usually have at least four major languages plus minor ones. A priest usually had with him a catechist-interpreter at Mass. The priest would give a ten-minute homily and the catechist would do the interpreting for half an hour.
ON THE ROAD
The parish priests were practically the only ones with cars. There’s one main road running through each province. The feeder-roads were much worse than the main road. A priest could be driving for hours without meeting another car and needed always to bring extra fuel and a long iron chain to get his car out of a rut, as was often the case. And since the priests were the ones with vehicles, their cars would serve as ambulances from time to time.
On two occasions I had to bring a pregnant woman to the hospital. I was nervous. I didn’t know what to do to help ease the mother’s labor pains and much less what to do if she were to give birth in the car. And, indeed, both mothers gave birth in my small Suzuki!It was very rare for a new missionary not to get malaria in PNG, for there are lots of mosquitoes there! Perhaps we could call this the ‘PNG baptism’. Each time I came home to the Philippines during my more than 20 years in PNG I still wanted to go back there. Yes, I did. I’m not saying this in malarial delirium!