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Saturday 6 January 2024

In the Jungle: Serpents, Sorcery, and Salvation

     The drunk throws away the empty bottle, the smoker discards the empty packet, but a book addict never throws away anything. Thus it is that I still have many of the books I read and enjoyed fifty years ago, and since my backlog of reading material is almost finished, I have had the chance to read and enjoy them once again. One of these was Mitsinari, twenty-one years among the Papuans by André Dupeyrat (translated by Erik and Denyse deMauny for Beacon Books, 1957). A version was published in the US as Savage Papua. Some of the events he recorded were quite unforgettable, and ten years ago I shared with you his story of the man who apparently turned himself into a cassowary. However, on rereading it, I came across other very strange happenings.
     To set the picture, Fr. Dupeyrat was a Belgium priest who came to Papua in 1930 as a missionary. Papua is the southern half of what is now the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, but at the time it was administered by Australia as a Crown Colony. The original Roman Catholic mission station was at Yule Island, approximately 100 km up the coast north west from the capital of Port Moresby, and most of Fr. Dupeyrat's activities were involved among the Fuyugé people in the jungles and mountains of the interior. There violence, superstition, and disease had held sway for thousands of years.
     In this stronghold of mountains and jungles, the central mission station was Fané-les-Roses (French for "faded the roses"), with Cour-des-Anges ("court of the angels") in the Dilava Valley being another, and in this vast area, for most of his sojourn, Fr. Dupeyrat was the sole missionary and, indeed, the sole white man. Once, he had just returned to the former centre from a lengthy expedition when his catechist, Severiano rushed in with bad news from Cour-des-Anges. The Devil, he said, was once more taking charge of their valley. The sorcerers had returned from a trip to the coast, bringing back new and more potent magic items, and were insisting that the people renounce Christianity, and return to their pagan ways - or else.
     In less than an hour he was heading down the trails into the Dilava Valley, arriving four hours later, soaked with sweat and caked with mud, at Cour-des-Anges, only to find the entire population out waiting for him. Tired, and with hardly any idea what to say, he became a tirade against their backsliding, and ending with the following challenge:
But this is what I proclaim before you all: I am going into all the villages, those of the tribes in the mountains and those of the tribes in the valleys. I shall spend a day and a night in each village, and in each I shall celebrate a mass and pronounce the exorcism of St Michael, to drive away all evil spirits from your fields, your homes, and your hearts.  ... If, during my voyage, the sorcerers succeed in causing me to die, so be it, I am not the emissary of the true God, I am wrong, and they are right. But if hey fail to kill me, it is they who are wrong and you will never listen to them again ... I have spoken. Now, go ... Tomorrow at dawn, the people of Kodighé and Ilidé will come for confession and holy mass ...
     But when he was in his hut, the full significance of what he had said struck him. He must have been crazy! He had thrown down the gauntlet to his spiritual enemies. They would try to destroy him.
     The next day, as he approached the first village on his circuit, he was attacked by a poisonous snake on the trail, but managed to kill it. Poisonous snakes are by no means uncommon in the jungle, but are rarely encountered, and even more rarely do they make unprovoked attacks on humans. Then he started thinking about what he had learned about sorcerers on the coast. Somehow or other, they have learned how to tame the dangerous reptiles, and he knew one fellow who kept two wrapped around his head in a kind of turban. The story was that, when a sorcerer wanted to get rid of an enemy, he first acquired a piece of his clothing, which would be impregnated with his scent. He then stuffed the cloth and the snake into a container, sealed it, and left it for several days without food for several days. The impatient snake would then take out its frustrations by biting the cloth. Next, the sorcerer would pound the container with a stick, driving the snake into a frenzy, and later hold the container over a fire. The poor snake would now connect the smell of the cloth with its misfortunes. It then remained only for the witchdoctor to release the snake on the approach of his victim, and the reptile would charge forth to bite him. Had someone attempted the same trick on him? If so, it would be possible to kill him without alerting the colonial authorities.
     Even so, when he reached the next village, Avole he entered the hut the villagers had made for me on his previous visit, where he flung himself on the floor, unbuttoned his shirt to the air, and closed his eyes. Suddenly, he was awakened by the yells of his audience. He looked up.
[Less] than two feet from my face, the head of a snake swayed slowly to and fro. Instantly, I sized up the situation; the snake was at least six feet long, as thick as a man's arm, and gunmetal-grey in colour, with a reddish stripe running from the large, flattened head to the tail: it was, in fact, one of the worst reptiles in the country! . . . The lower part of its body was still wrapped around the central roof beam, but I could see its scales gleaming in a faint undulation. It was on the move! Slowly and inexorably, its venomous jaws came near my face.
      Praying to his guardian angel, he shammed death. The serpent fell down and slithered off him. He describes in vivid detail its movements over his prostrate body. As soon as it was gone, he leapt up, grabbed his staff, and killed it.
      In the next five villages he was attacked by snakes. He found them in his blankets, in his spare shirts, and even in the instruments he carried to celebrate mass. He had never seen so many poisonous snakes in his life. In the final village, he was stretched out at rest when two snakes started climbing up the stakes supporting his hammock, just above his head. But again he managed to kill them, and the prestige of the witchdoctors was broken.
     In the following chapter he described his experience with a witchdoctor who appeared to have turned himself into a cassowary. However, I have already shared it with you. Instead, I shall skip to the following chapter, where he described an amazing experience towards the end of his first year in the country. At that time he was still learning the language, and the ropes, under the tutelage of the chief missionary, whom he refers to as the curé. The latter had taken him on a circuit of the villages in his domain, and considering this meant trekking through jungle and mountains over appalling terrain, you will appreciate that this represented a rugged introduction to his official duties.
     They were negotiating a jungle trail, the three porters in front, with Dupreyrat next, followed by the curé and two converts. Miles from any village, they came to a fork in the trail. The porters took the left hand fork. For reasons he could not explain, Dupeyrat took the right; he felt compelled to do so. The others called him back. He continued on his own, and at last the curé decided to follow him, still grumbling.
    All at once, Dupeyrat came upon a tiny hut made of leaves by the side of the track. Peering inside, he saw in the darkness a very old Papuan, naked, wrinkled and filthy, and lying on a pile of branches. The old man muttered something which the new missionary failed to understand. Just then, the curé arrived, and made his own inspection. The old man came from a pagan village near Inaye, where they were going, and had been left to die, as was their custom.
     "They carried him into the forest to die. He was becoming too much of a burden for his family in the village. He's already been here at least days, without food or attention. This hut was to be his grave. As soon as he saw me leaning over him, he said, 'I have been waiting for you . . . Baptize me, so that I may go to God our Father.' You realize, however, that he couldn't have known of our arrival. No doubt he had heard something of God - he probably came to Inaye during one of my earlier visits there. But I never noticed him, and no one spoke to me. Poor old fellow! He's clearly sincere . . . I tell you, the angels must have led us here!"
     So while the curé was giving the old man his first and last instructions, Dupeyrat prepared some beef tea for him, before giving one of his first baptisms in the country. The old man passed away in the curé's arms less than a quarter of an hour later, his face bathed in a radiant smile.

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