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Jeff LaMarca | all galleries >> Galleries >> New Guinea > missionaries*
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Irian Jaya is one of the least developed places in the world. There are only two major towns and there is no road network. Airplanes are the only mode of long distance transportation, and most air service is provided by Christian missionaries. Western missionaries have been active in New Guinea for over a hundred years, and have had a significant impact in the area. They worked tirelessly to curtail cannibalism, and after many early missionaries became meals themselves, the practice finally died out completely in the 1970s. Less successful has been the full-scale conversion of the natives to Christianity. Even though many of the most remote jungle villages contain a sturdy wooden church among the usual handful of huts, most New Guineans blend Christian teachings with traditional spiritual beliefs in magic and sorcery. In the Melanesian islands the missionaries have had particular difficulty getting people to conform to Victorian sensibilities: children of the Trobriand Islands for example are encouraged to live in bachelor houses and have as many sexual partners as they like, and during the annual yam festival couples have extramarital flings. It is tempting to accuse missionaries of cultural imperialism but whatever their intentions, they provide essential air transportation services and have done much to combat the scourge of malaria. Medical care and hygiene have also improved greatly under the tutelage of the missionaries. There are some nutjobs at work though, for instance a Texas evangelical group that is intent on printing the bible in each of the 800 or so different tribal languages of the region (a curious task, given that most of these languages do not exist in written form). I heard that this particular group lives in a gated compound with western conveniences and medical facilities, to which dark-skinned natives are absolutely forbidden entry, even when one old man arrived at the gates bleeding to death.

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