By Fr. Hilary Fischer
When I was a missionary priest in Papua New Guinea, Lent followed pretty much the general rules for Lent as practiced by the rest of the church, with some interesting variations. We didn’t tell the children to give up candy for Lent because they seldom get candy anyway. Occasionally a mother will bring in a stalk of sugarcane from the garden for an after-school snack for her children. She would cut it in short lengths and pass it out to them to eat as well as they can. Sugarcane is very tough and takes a lot of chewing to get the sweetness out of it in the raw state.
First the outer skin must be chewed away and then small bites taken and these are chewed until all of the sweetness is extracted; then the fibers are spat out. So much for candy in the villages! There is another snack that they can have that comes from the trade stores that they call simply: biscuit. These are labelled as navy biscuits and are much like the hardtack the sailors used to eat in the days of sailing ships. Each biscuit is at least a quarter inch thick and rather hard, and a pretty big snack for one child, not much like the PB&J sandwiches I enjoyed as a kid. We don’t encourage fasting for the children because many of them were on the verge of malnutrition in any case. Some mothers were not able to provide proper nutrition for their children.
Many of the mothers didn’t understand good nutrition or often were only able to give their children just one type of food per day. Often, in the hungry times, this consisted of some wild vegetables cooked and served up as soup. In New Ireland, the hungry time is from November to February when the old gardens are used up and they had to wait for the first rains of the Northwest monsoons to plant new gardens. Lent comes just when the new gardens are beginning to bear some produce, and they really needed all the nutrition they can get.
Another problem are things called “taboos.” For example, many women didn’t get enough iron in their diets, especially risky if they were pregnant. Yet, in the Lihir area, and some others too, a taboo forbids them to eat aibeka, a shrub that is very rich in iron, when pregnant, so the mother had to go to the hospital for iron pills. The lack of refrigeration in the village was also a factor in the nutrition problem. Food must usually be eaten the day that it is collected. Sometimes this was an advantage… when somebody catches a very large fish, he will share it with the whole village. However smaller fish would be smoked over the cooking fires and thus last a few days. What the missionaries did encourage was that the kids help their parents in their gardens and in caring for younger siblings. We tell them to try to be especially kind to those around them and not to get in any fights. For the adults, we encouraged efforts at family harmony and cut down on smoking and chewing betel nut. For the men especially to treat their wives with respect and to avoid drinking to excess. The people knew that they should not plan for “sing- sings” (traditional dances) or other parties at this time.
One rather interesting tradition existed at Lamasong when I was pastor there. For Holy Thursday night they insisted on putting the ciborium with the reserved Eucharist into what seems to them to be like a jail cell. It consisted of a pile of wooden boxes in the corner of a classroom for the ciborium to stand upon and it was surrounded by barbed wire. This is a far cry from the beautifully decorated places of reservation that we use in our tradition for Holy Thursday, but they worshiped there with true devotion. Their idea certainly follows the narrative of the Bible where Jesus was taken prisoner right after instituting the Eucharist. The barbed wire idea probably came from the Kavieng jail which consisted mainly of a barbed wire enclosed exercise yard with a few normal looking buildings at one end. Anybody wishing to escape would not have much trouble at all, but people seldom tried to escape because the prisoners mostly have no place else to go except back to their village, where they would be picked up again. Also life in the prison was quite a bit easier than their workload in the village. They did go out to do some road work guarded by one policeman, but otherwise their life in prison was pretty easy, and prison terms were generally short. There was no shame attached to having served a term in jail. Hence there was no problem in using it in a religious setting. These devotions certainly helped them to have a true sorrow for Jesus’ passion and death, and prepared them for the Good Friday ceremonies.