KBOO 7 January 1987
I first met Alice Wedega 35 years ago when she was representing her country at a conference in Ceylon. Nearly twenty years later we were her guests in her beautiful country, Papua New Guinea. Alice was the first woman member of the Legislative Council and the first woman in her country to be decorated by the Queen of England.
At a dinner welcoming the Queen to Papua New Guinea, one of the Queen’s bodyguards heard that Alice had visited Northern Ireland asked her why. In her direct fashion, she told him that in the early days her great grandfather was a cannibal. ‘At the time,’ she told him, ‘our people used to kill and eat men. They would practice payback. That is, if one of your side killed one of mine, my side would kill one of yours. But the missionaries came from Europe to stop us doing all that. And now I have been back to Northern Ireland to help the Europeans there to stop doing it.’
I have just heard that Alice has died and thinking of this story I realized afresh what a colossal leap into the modern world the Papua New Guinean people have taken in an incredibly short time and also that perhaps a more primitive people may have something to teach us in the West. The answer for payback, or retaliation, or tit for tat, is surely one of the most needed elements today whether it is in Palestine or Sri Lanka, or in street gangs or even on the soccer field.
When I was a teenager I was impressed by a story told me by a missionary of how headhunting was stopped in an area of Papua. It was only years later that I learned that Alice was one of the courageous people who contributed to that story. It was also the story of Western missionaries who were so different than many in their approach that they were not even regarded by some local people as white.
It began in the mission station of Kwato founded by Charles Abel in 1891. He was a far seer and different from most missionaries of his time, feeling the need to develop the practical as well as the spiritual life of the villagers. Even in those days he looked forward to the time when Papua would be a self-governing nation. Today grandchildren of the first Papuans educated by him are in public service in Papua New Guinea, one of them heading a diplomatic mission.
When Alice was young she trained at the mission. Then she was sent to Australia as a servant, the only way Papuans at that time could go overseas. This was a disastrous time and she hated the Australian woman she worked for.
However, in the 1930s a new dimension came to the Kwato mission as those there learned to listen for God’s guidance and measure their lives by absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. Seeking direction from God she found an answer to the resentment against the white Australian woman and as a result against all whites.
At this time it was decided that those at Kwato would go out to the other villages around and share their experiences of how the good spirit had changed their lives. Before long rainmakers had changed and destroyed the things they used to make magic, sorcerers went to the homes of people they had killed and asked for forgiveness, women were no longer the property of men, children were wanted and cared for, people lost their fear of each other, polygamy was naturally ended. People built new houses, cleaned their villagers, and got together for ‘power house’, as they called it, times of listening and prayer that became part of the life of whole villages.
Then, courageously, the Kwato people moved out to the remote villages of the headhunters who were causing problems to the government. Alice and her friends went unarmed. ‘We did not try and teach these people,’ says Alice. ‘We let them find from the good spirit what he wanted them to know that day. In fact dawalia, finding, was the word that was used for listening to the Spirit’s directions. It was amazing to see how fast the experience spread, sometimes a whole tribal group would ask forgiveness for the things they had done wrong.’ After one peace fest 84 men who had been headhunters sent a message to Kwato about their change. The Lieutenant Governor commented that since Alice and her friends had been there he had not had to try a single case.
Alice wrote down the amazing convictions of these headhunters acquired through listening to the good spirit and then during World War II buried them for safety. Luckily they have been preserved and are incorporated in her autobiography ‘Listen My Country’. Its foreword is by a former Papua New Guinea Governor General, Sir John Guise, who had known her since 1928. He could vouch for the stories of change because his own wife’s aunt was one of those murdered before the men changed. Guise calls Alice’s life ‘A challenge to the leaders and youth and men and women of this nation.’
It is interesting to consider that these headhunters who learned to discern the direction of the good spirit had no education, could not read or write, had never heard of the Ten Commandaments. Do we sometimes complicate things in our Western society and fail to recognize when the good spirit is speaking to us? Or do we recognize but fail to obey?
Alice concludes her book, ‘Papua New Guinea will never be a country without problems, but it could be known for the way we get over them.’