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In search of reconciliation and forgiveness: The Martyrdom of Ivolo Keleto

by André Dupeyrat MSC

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Father André Dupeyrat was but one of an heroic band of mainly French and Swiss Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who laid the foundations of the Catholic Church in Papua New Guinea. These missionaries battled malaria, black-water fever and a hostile terrain to bring knowledge of God's love revealed in Jesus Christ to the people of Papua New Guinea. How successfully they laboured can be Judged from the vibrancy of the faith of the prent-day descendants of those first Papuans with whom the missionaries lived and worked in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The story of Ivolo Keleto is excerpted from Father Dupeyrat's account of his early years among the people of PNG - Mitsinari.

WHEN I met Ivolo Keleto for the first time, he had just been baptized. He was at that time a handsome young man of twenty­five, with a fine physique which made him tower above his fellows, who tend to be short. He had a bronzed, powerful chest that stood out like the breastplate of a suit of armour, and his bearing was full of natural dignity. He walked with an elastic tread, and held his head high. For all that his features were not partic­ularly distinguished: he had a flattened nose, wide, thick lips, and protuberant forehead. But the eyes that gazed out beneath were ardent, full of life and fire, and his whole face bore an expres­sion of innate nobility.

And in fact, Ivolo came from a line of chiefs. He was living at that time in the village of Kone, which was built on the saddle of a lofty mountain ridge dividing the Fuyughe and Tawade countries. But while the Fuyughés, after more than twenty years of preparation, were then on the point of being finally and completely converted, the Tawades were still sunk in all the horrors of the vast pagan night: abductions, rape, raids on enemy villages attended by all the most bestial forms of violence and bloodshed, grisly banquets of human flesh, the slaughter of babies and old people - all these things were for them perfectly normal occurrences.

The inhabitants of Kone, although they belonged to the Fuyughe group of tribes, maintained close relations with their Tawade neighbours because of their position. They had entered into alliances with the surrounding villages, either for warlike expeditions or because of matri­monial exchanges, or because they felt the need to protect themselves from the brutal incursions of more distant tribes.

For that reason they still shared the savage customs of their friends when these customs had almost vanished from the rest of the Fuyughe territory.

From adolescence onwards, Ivolo had shown himself to be a superb and dauntless warrior. His strength, his skill in handling the long war spear and the great black bow of ironwood, his intel­ligence and audacity, his verve and his rank, all had invested him with an authority which won him a far-flung renown. At twenty-five, he proudly exhibited a cord in which had been tied some thirty knots, so that all could see how many men and women he had killed. There was nothing, however, to show how often he had taken part in cannibal feasts.

When, in 1927, Father Norin and Father Bachelier came to Kone, during one of their long apostolic journeys through the entire territory undertaken at the behest of the inhabitants who had begun to ask to be baptized, Ivolo watched their least gesture, weighed every word they uttered, and did not miss a single one of the instruction periods and ceremonies, including mass.

For that reason, and the erection of a cross in the village. After that visit, people noticed that he had changed. He no longer showed the same enthusiasm for the old customs which the missionaries had denounced as evil. Without being one officially, he behaved like a catechumen. Sometimes, of his own accord, during the evenings spent in the communal hut, he expatiated on the new doctrine.

Then came the moment when Kone was faced with an insoluble dilemma, and Ivolo was among the chiefs and old men called to a special council to discuss it.

The leading chief of a nearby Tawade village had delegated six of his men to carry a royal present to the people of Kone as a sign of his friendship and the continuing strength of their alliance. The present consisted of human thighs, smoked and ready to be eaten.

In former days, such a present would have been the signal for great joy in the village - cries, songs, dances, eulogies of the giver, and a banquet with his gifts. Now, however, everything had changed. Kone was coming into the Christian fold. Already, several of the villagers had been baptized. All, men and women, were catechumens or, like Ivolo, considered themselves as such. As a result, the entire village had renounced its former `evil Customs'.

`If we eat this flesh,' said one old chief `we are committing a mortal sin, Therefore, we will become enemies of our Father, God, and when we die we will go to hell, we will never see His Face, we will be for ever in misery ...'

`And if we do not eat it,' retorted a younger man, `the Tawades will take our refusal for a grave insult and a breakingoff of our alliance. They will take up arms, and catch us by surprise, and kill us all. That is their way.

In the safety of the communal hut, the debate raged at length on this problem. What were they to do?

Become enemies of God and risk hell, or enemies of the Tawades and risk being massacred?

Perhaps, someone suggested, they could accept the mournful gifts and bury them. That, too, was impossible. The Tawade emissaries were there, waiting themselves to take part in the feast.

Then, perhaps they could give the present to the pigs. Yet that, too, was ruled out. The horrible morsels had to be consumed in whole or in part by actual representatives of the tribe.

On July 4, 1885 Mass was offered for the first time on the soil of Papua New Guinea by Father later Bishop Henri Verjus MSC [1860-1892]. This is a pen sketch of the siteof the first Mission station where the Mass was celebrated. The sketch is almost certainly by Father [later Archbishop] Louis Couppé [1850-1926].

There seemed to be no possible way out. Suddenly, someone thought of a solution.

`The missionaries told us that the little children, who do not know what they are doing, do not commit sins. Therefore, let the Tawades give their present to our children. They will be content. For they will see that we are depriving ourselves of something which they consider excellent, so that, through them, our children shall become strong. We can give the rest to our pigs, by explaining that we want to see them big and fat as well. Then, as a friendly gesture, we can kill a pig and give it to the Tawades to take back with them. There, they will sing our praises, and our Father, God, will not be angry ... '

The whole council approved the plan, including Ivolo. It was put into execution, and the Tawades returned home delighted. But Ivolo was not quite happy about the council's casuistry. (It shows, nevertheless, how mistaken are those people who imagine that primitive peoples are incapable of reflection.) Discussions started up once more, and it was decided that a delegation would leave at once for Fane les-Roses, where the missionaries were living, to get a ruling on the matter. Ivolo was to be the spokesman.

Two days later he plunged the missionary into considerable embar­rassment when, sitting on the veranda with his companions, he explained the nature of the problem. But the former was overjoyed when the speaker added:

`Father, baptize me. My heart has been longing for the baptism for so many moons! ... I want to be a child of God:

A year later, Ivolo, having thoroughly renounced his past ways, was baptized as Ivolo Keleto.

He was not content, however, to be merely a good Christian. He begged to be allowed to become a 'Kis' or catechumen, not only to teach his own people and keep them on the right path, but above all so that he could carry the holy word to the Tawades.

Naturally, his request was at once and gladly granted.

Unfortunately, he was not able to remain for long at Kone. For extremely complicated family reasons he was obliged to take up residence among his mother's tribe, the Woitape. There, he became the head 'Kis'.

The Woitape was a tribe of the Ononghé district. That vast district, founded in 1913 by an amazing missionary, Father Dubuy, lay at the foot of the central mountain range, in the wide, open, grassy valley of the Upper Vanapa. The Woitape villages were situated in this valley, near the source of the swiftrunning river, and near a projecting strip of Tawade territory. The main mission station, Ononghé lay further down the valley on a powerful spur which overlooked the whole region.

To reach Ononghé from Fane involved a seemingly endless journey. In actual fact, it took two days, but one had to climb almost constantly to a height of some six thousand feet, along a moun­tain track cut by Father Dubuy, using picks and dynamite, around a hundred rocky outcrops. At the end of the climb, one found oneself on the very summit of the central range...

Twelve years after the episode of the human thighs in Kone, fresh tasks called me out once more on the route to Ononghé On the upward climb, I was accompanied all the way by a silvery bell-like sound, which seemed to come from under the ground. It consisted of three or four notes, casually scattered like tiny enchanted bells, in a tone of gentle, resigned melancholy ... It was the song of the pretty little toad called Toundulé, which seemed to greet the traveller on his way.

After that came the long descent into the Vanapa valley, down a labyrinthine jungle path bordered here and there with clumps of pandanus trees, like giant candles with long green flames, which were characteristic of the high regions. I was by then just putting one foot automatically in front of the other: but the arrival dispelled all my fatigue.

The infrequent voyager who ventured through the region was, in fact, bound to stop and ask himself if he had not fallen victim to a mirage when, turning a wide and level section of the track, he first saw the mission station of Ononghé `One was prepared for anything, in that wild landscape, except to encounter the little plateau perched at the tip of a mountain spur, with its impeccable, parallel rows of houses, and towering over them, the proud church with its tall, square tower, bound with iron and surmounted by a belfry and a cross ...

At that period, however, the impression one had on first arriving at Ononghé of having stumbled into some garden of Eden was soon dispelled by contact with the natives. I had scarcely had time to shake hands with Father Dubuy, when he led me to see a man who lay dying beside a small fire in one of the clean, new houses. I bent over him, and the sudden shock made my heart miss a beat. It was Ivolo Keleto ...Some of the Woitape men had brought him to the mission two days earlier, in a lamentable state.

Throughout that night he had been delirious. In his convulsions, he had thrown himself on to the fire, giving himself severe burns in addition to his earlier wounds. Blood­stained dressings swathed his neck, chest and back, his left thigh and part of his right leg. For the time being, he seemed to be unconscious.

Bending nearer, I spoke softly in his ear a few words in the Fuyughe language. At once his eyes opened, eyes that were haggard and a little frightened.

`Who is speaking patave, who is speaking my own native language? . . he stammered.

In the Ononghé country, the language is `substantially the same as that spoken in Fuyughe territory, but the accent is different. Patave is the Fuyughe language spoken with the accent of the `lower peoples' - that is to say, the inhabitants of the Auga valley, in which, on opposite slopes, both Fané les-Roses and Keleto's village of Koné are situated.

I smiled at him.
`It is your Father - don't you recognize me?'

He stared up at me intently. Then he seized and pressed my hand, closed his eyes, and his whole frame relaxed. A faint smile played over his lips with the small trickle of blood at one corner.

`So you have come?' he whispered. `I am going to die. Tell all the other "Kis" down below that it was the Tawades who killed me. I wanted to keep Yesu u'Maino, the Peace of Jesus. They struck me, and I am going to die. Be sure most of all to tell my dear friend, the "Kis" Keleto of Idou: "He who bears your name, Ivolo Keleto, "Kis' of the Woitape, is dead".

He stopped, exhausted; then sighed, and went on:
`My whole body is full of pain, but my heart is glad ... I am dying for my Father, Cod ... Soon I shall see His Face ...'

His voice grew stronger. Once more his eyes shone with their former ardour and self-confidence.

'You know our customs,' he went on. `When my people hear of my death, they will weep, and then they will take up arms to avenge me. I do not want that.
Go, and tell them the last words of their chief, the "Kis" Keleto, were these: "I forbid any revenge ... I forgive everything ... Let them pray for my soul, and let them all be children of our Father, God ..."

He had propped himself up on one elbow, in his bloodstained bandages. But now he fell back, completely exhausted by the effort, by the extraordinary exertion of a Christian will which, even at the moment of death, triumphed over the old and powerful pagan atavism. He grimaced with pain, raised one hand to his wounded neck, strained to get more air, and sank into a sort of coma. He had received extreme unction the previous evening. I gave him a benediction, and went out.

It was then that Father Dubuv told me the story of his martyrdom. Some fifteen years earlier, Government patrols were carrying out a campaign in the neighbourhood of Ononghé in particular against the Woitape tribe who were still unsubjugated. To meet the threat of the British rifles, the Woitape called on a tribe of Tawades at Sopou, who were their friends and allies, to aid them. The Tawade warriors arrived, but the white man had the greater force on his side. They were compelled to submit. The. Tawades, however, did not return home. To reward them, the Woltapés had ceded to them the use of several vegetable plots, so that they could grow their own food. And there they settled down.

Later, the Woitapés, converted by Father Dubuy, became Christians. The Tawade group, living a short distance away, had just begun to follow suit. Alas, human nature sometimes has a terrible way of reasserting itself!

In the end, and not without some justice, the Woitapés began to feel that their former allies were an encumbrance: and they could not bring them­selves to hand over permanently the lands which they had originally merely lent to them. Their proximity gave rise to much friction.

Thus it was that four days earlier an excited band of armed Tawades had burst into the Woltapé village in which the catechist lvolo Keleto lived. Hurling insults and brandishing their spears, they stopped in the central clearing, accused the inhabitants of having stolen and killed several of their pigs, and threatened that if they received no payment, they would massacre the entire village.

The Woitapés who were innocent, grew angry. They were a hotblooded tribe. At once the young warriors leapt to their spears, and the rumour of war mounted over the village. At that point, conscious only of his duty as a messenger of peace, the former war chief Ivolo Keleto, advanced towards the frenzied Tawades, demanding that they listen to the words of peace with which he, as catechist, felt bound to greet them. In a trice, the Tawades had surrounded him, half-crazed at the prospect of spilling blood. They seized him, and while one stout warrior pinnioned. his arms behind his back, another, stepping back a couple of paces, drove a spear full into his face. `It entered by the mouth, breaking the teeth, and emerging at the back of the neck. Another spear transfixed his left thigh, another his right leg. A blow from an axe cut a deep gash in his back. He fell: and around him, a furious battle began between the villagers and the Tawades, who now beat a retreat.

There were, however, no other deaths. Ivolo Keleto was, as he himself had said, the only victim.

On the morning of my departure from Ononghé, the former savage, the former war leader who had gloried in killing and had eaten human flesh, but had now become a Christian, an apostle and martyr, went to offer a fine red garland to `his Father, God,' so that the `Peace of Jesus' might indeed reign.

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