Journey to Papua New Guinea

Research expedition opens FIU team to a new world of culture, experiences and ideas

Miami. Atlanta. L.A. Sydney. Cairns. Port Moresby. Balimo.

The journey took 30 hours in the air. Two exhausting days of travel. There were unexpected fees. Excruciating lines. A frantic sprint to a flight we almost missed. In the beginning, just getting to Papua New Guinea seemed to be the fulfillment of our purpose.

As in any journey though, the rewards for the FIU research team came later, in ways we never expected. While the “getting there” will always inspire laughter and groans, it was what happened next with the people of Papua New Guinea that expanded our perspective and understanding.

When FIU Professor Tudor Parfitt, his wife, four students and a team from External Relations finally arrived in Papua New Guinea on March 10, we were greeted with the first of many celebrations in our honor. Parfitt, known internationally as the “British Indiana Jones,” organized the expedition as part of his ongoing research into the religious life and identity of the Gogodala tribe of Balimo. Some members of the Gogodala believe they are a Lost Tribe of Israel and they are seeking Aliyah, a return to Israel.

“The trip was a tremendous success in every way,” Parfitt said. “We were shown the greatest possible hospitality and warmth by the Gogodala people. Our students learned a lot about their culture and the trials and tribulations of fieldwork and I was able to push forward my own research into the tribe’s Judaising movement. And we’ll have a remarkable documentary to boot.”

On the 12-day trip were his wife, Olivia Autolino, a graduate student in the College of Education; Sabrina Diz, a graduate student in religious studies; Pablo Currea, a psychology major from the Honors College; Kyle Decker, a religious studies undergraduate and Keysel Pelaez, a biology undergraduate. In addition, filmmaker Tim Long and I from External Relations traveled with the group to document the entire expedition in film, photos and stories.

Joining the delegation were husband-and-wife Rabbis Gerald and Bonnie Sussman from Staten Island. Mrs. Sussman is a member of Kulanu, a nonprofit organization that supports emerging Jewish groups by helping them learn about Judaism and connect with the worldwide Jewish community.

External Relations will be working with Parfitt to produce a full-length documentary of his Papua New Guinea research. In addition, we will be producing more videos and writing more stories for FIU News and the FIU Magazine about various aspects of the trip, including the student experiences and their research projects on women’s issues, education, traditional medicine and religious practices.

Learning to make new friends

Decker said that initially, the trip seemed like a cool experience he could not pass up. “After I got there and experienced what we did, the experience really started to grow,” he said. “It became life changing to able to experience another culture and see what their focus was.”

Religious Studies student Kyle Decker talks with tribe members at one the gatherings hosted in our honor in Balimo.

Religious Studies student Kyle Decker talks with tribe members at one the gatherings hosted in our honor in Balimo.

Among the highlights for Decker was playing in an afternoon rugby match organized by the tribe in honor of Professor Parfitt. The FIU delegation brought a trophy cup for the inaugural Tudor Parfitt Rugby Tournament. No one in the village had cleats in Decker’s size, so he played barefoot, slip-sliding in the mud to the delight of hundreds who gathered for the game. Decker, a former football player, took it all in stride with a big smile.

When he wasn’t on the field, he stood on the sidelines hanging out with the rugby players, a big group of new friends. “That was the coolest experience, getting to make friends cross culturally.”

Decker, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. said the trip changed his research interests. “My focus academically has always been the history of religion verses contemporary religious movements. This has shifted my focus to a more contemporary view of religion and doing research on an international level.”

Learning alongside the women

Religious Studies graduate student Sabrina Diz says the trip opened her eyes to the destruction missionaries can wreak on native cultures. Christian missionaries have all but wiped out the native Aida religion of the Gogodala and Westernized many of their traditional practices.

Graduate student Sabrina Diz and FIU Magazine Editor Deborah O'Neil prepare gift bags full of supplies for the women's clinic.

Graduate student Sabrina Diz and FIU Magazine Editor Deborah O’Neil prepare gift bags full of supplies for the women’s clinic.

“I was very saddened by the missionary work that was done there. I came away invigorated to do work around social justice issues with missionary work,” she said. “Their traditions, their culture, their island, their spaces have been ransacked by missionaries.”

The focus of Diz’s project was working with women in the village. She organized a day-long event at the women’s health center with help from Rabbi Bonnie Sussman. The clinic has neither running water, nor electricity and the village has been without a doctor since 1996. Diz and I filled FIU Alumni Association gift bags full of supplies and delivered them to the clinic. She spent time talking with staff and patients. Sussman held an HIV/AIDS and contraception educational talk that was attended by more than 100 women and a handful of men.

“The high point was working in the clinic and talking to the nurses,” she said. “The main nurse that had been there forever was extremely relieved to be able to just talk and tell someone her story and her struggle there. This may have opened a door for me to reach out to health care organizations that I normally would not be involved in and issues like nutrition or prenatal health that I have never been involved in, but all of a sudden are important to me.”

Learning through the lens

Honors College student Pablo Currea served as second camera to Tim Long and spent much of his time helping to film and photograph the trip. Currea will continue to work with External Relations as we develop multimedia stories about Papua New Guinea.

Honors College student Pablo Currea assisted the External Relations team with filming and photography.

Honors College student Pablo Currea assisted the External Relations team with filming and photography.

“The experience has made me think about my career and going into filming and taking the opportunity to travel and film other cultures.” Currea said.  “That’s the literal change. But then I’ve also become interested in other cultures, more than I was before. I have seen how different they can be.”

The day we traveled by boat from the Gogodala village of Balimo to the tiny island of Kimama stands out in Currea’s memory. As we approached the island, men from Kimama dressed in traditional war costumes approached in two Gogodala war canoes, chanting and circling our boats.

“Being on the boat when the two canoes were going around us and then landing and being received at Kimama was amazing,” Currea said. “Behind the camera. I kept thinking,  ‘Oh my God this is something like from National Geographic.’ It is beautiful. It is so intense. I wasn’t thinking about how hot it was and the sunburn I was getting. I was just trying to catch all of it.”

Learning to be Gogodala

Keysel dancing

Biology student Keysel Pelaez took the stage to sing and dance during a ceremony in Balimo honoring the FIU delegation.

Everywhere we went, the Gogodala embraced biology student Keysel Pelaez as one of their own. It was more than his skin color and afro. It was his openness to immersing himself in the tribal culture. Pelaez learned as much Gogodala language as he could and spent time with villagers doing the ordinary things of daily life.

“The trip has a sense of friendship,” he said. “I’ve taken away friends and the ability to make friends with people in cultures you aren’t familiar with. I knew it was possible but I now I really did it. This trip has opened me up to the world outside and beyond the things I understand and am comfortable with. “

Pelaez endeared himself to many by leaping at every opportunity to participate in the activities of Gogodala life. On the trip to Kimama – the same one that stands out for Currea – Pelaez was offered the opportunity to join the men in the war canoes.

“The canoe came over to us and guy driving mine said to me, ‘They would like to know if you would like to get on the boat. Would I?! Of course I would like to get on that canoe!’ “ Pelaez recalled. “When I got on that canoe I felt the heat, the energy of all those guys on that canoe and the fact that they wanted me on there. That was the pinnacle of me fitting into their culture.”