Academic journal article Oceania

Acts of Faith: Muscular Christianity and Masculinity among the Gogodala of Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Oceania

Acts of Faith: Muscular Christianity and Masculinity among the Gogodala of Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This article is concerned with examining some of the complex reasons why Gogodala men in Western Province do not consider themselves emasculated by the process of colonialism. While experiences and understandings of colonial contact, pacification, Christian conversion and development vary considerably from place to place, a discourse has emerged that emphasises the dramatic, and often abrupt, ways in which local masculine capacities were challenged during this time. Although in most cases local men actively participated in these changes, and there is evidence of continuities in 'traditional' activities, colonial changes have compromised and diminished, if not replaced, the efficacy of many past male beliefs and practices. For many men in Papua New Guinea, therefore, colonialism and modernity have been discussed in terms of emasculation and a range of negative experiences including feelings of inferiority, subordination, bodily detumescence and dependency (see Herdt 1981, 1987; Clark 1992; Brison 1995; Kulick 1993; Lattas 1992; Tuzin 1997; Knauft 2002). (1)

In what she calls 'the malaise of modernity', Jolly (2001:195) discusses the concern that colonialism and conversion to Christianity, including the end of male cults, diminished and disrupted local practices and gendered relations and that many Melanesian traditionalists consider this as 'having undesirable corporeal effects'. After a patrol post was established among the Wiru of the Southern Highlands, for example, men were made to feel inferior. As a result, Wiru men came to believe their bodies were 'physically shrinking' leaving them 'lacking in ways to socially constitute their masculinity' (Clark 1989:19). In East Sepik Province, Tuzin (1997) writes about the complexities that confronted the Ilahita community as they accepted Christianity and rejected the male Tambaran cult. He laments the 'death of masculinity' for the Arapesh-speaking Ilahita village, when the Tambaran ideology was dramatically exposed and, consequently, died; '[t]he traditional grounds of male solidarity and association were obliterated', and 'masculine identity, purpose, and agency died with it' (Tuzin 1997:33). (2) At different times, and in different ways, Christian missions played significant roles in many of these experiences. As Clark (1989:121) notes for the Wiru, in addition to pacification and administrative changes, the area was subject to an intense program of proselytization from a range of mainline, fundamentalist and evangelical missions, groups and sects (Clark 1989:121).

In contributing to this discourse, of what I call the 'malaise of masculinity', this article argues that the Gogodala experience of colonial contact and missionisation did not diminish men's bodily and social capacities. In 1890, the administrator of British New Guinea, Sir William MacGregor, convened a conference of Methodist, Anglican and London Missionary Society (LMS) representatives where a 'gentlemen's agreement' was reached, to avoid conflict, and the Papuan area divided into respective 'spheres of influence'. (3) Although the LMS were responsible for the south coast region they struggled to establish a presence in what is now Western Province, and, in 1931, the Unevangelized Fields Mission (UFM) became the first 'faith mission' to enter Papua and begin work in the lower Fly River area. Unlike the main Christian denominations, '[t]he principle behind faith missions was to live without appeals for funds, relying on self-support and the power of prayer for God to supply all needs' (Garrett 1997:38). In their historical study of South African missionisation, Comaroff and Comaroff (1991:54) write 'that the missionary encounter must be regarded as a two-sided historical process; as a dialectic that takes into account the social and cultural endowments of, and the consequences for, all the actors--missionaries no less than Africans'. (4) Acknowledging this, I discuss some of the specific qualities of the early UFM missionaries, analysing the importance of their working-class backgrounds and ascetic and austere approach to evangelisation. …

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