Kitahi: Cargo Cultist to Father of the House of Assembly

January 6, 2008 at 6:18 am (Fiction) ()

Jock was unsure what to expect, as the only report of trouble had come from Fr Shultz’s brief message. He knew of the existence of a cargo cult, but until now this had not concerned him much. If anything, he thought it encouraged development as its leader, Kitahi, had got the villagers to plant extensive gardens.

 Fr Shultz’s note had said only that there had been trouble with Kitahi, and Bongos village was very unsettled. 

 “Mr MacGregor, for the last few months I’ve been very worried about the general situation in the village. A number of my regular Mass-goers have not been turning up for services in the church. The practice of confession has completely fallen away, and Kitahi has been holding large village meetings where mission workers have been religiously, please excuse the pun, kept away.” 

  “The other evening at about 6:30 pm I was returning to my house, after talking to a group of catechists. When I got inside the front door, there was Kitahi and he came at me with a bush knife. His first swing got me on my arm. At first I was taken completely by surprise. He gave me a substantial cut on my arm and blood was flowing. However, I quickly regained my composure and I realised that this was a life and death struggle. Kitahi was intent on killing me.” 

 Kitahi was a tall man for a Melanesian, standing about 5 feet 10 inches and built like an ox. He was also a good 15 years younger than Karl, though he did not have Karl’s expertise in unarmed combat, learned in his German Army days. Kitahi’s line of attack mainly consisted of him swinging and thrusting the bush knife at Karl, and expending a lot of energy yelling. Karl demonstrated some brilliant maneuvering, and eventually closed with Kitahi, disarming him by putting him flat on his face with his arm twisted behind his back.  Karl then called for assistance from the group of catechists who were just outside his house, having come in response to all the noise emanating from the Father’s house. Together they took Kitahi, after binding his hands, to a nearby shed, where he had been kept under guard. Since the fight, he had been remarkably docile, and had given no trouble. Karl had been able to talk to him and find out more about what had been going on. 

 In the morning, the village leaders came to see MacGregor. MacGregor had already decided that his activities would be confined to an investigation, as the nature of Kitahi’s offences went beyond his jurisdiction. He intended to send him under guard to the Sub-District Office at Maprik, where the Assistant District Commissioner could decide if he had the jurisdiction to hear the case, or if he would refer it on to District level, where it could be heard by a visiting judge.

The following account, which Jock pieced together in investigating the witnesses, formed the basis of his report to the Assistant District Commissioner.  The Catholic Mission Station had been in Bongos for twelve years. Whatever Fr Shultz thought, in Jock’s opinion it had had very little influence on the people. Kitahi, in the early days of the mission, had been quite enthusiastic and was baptised a Catholic. Jock thought that he had never been much more than a ‘rice Christian’. His view was confirmed when Kitahi talked about the teachings of the mission as the rot bilong kago (the way to get goods). A number of years previously, Kitahi had become increasingly disillusioned with Catholicism, as the cargo did not seem to be coming, in spite of the fact that the teachings of the church said that all men were equal.  This, he felt, was rubbish as the whites obviously had so much more than everyone else. He did not reject the teaching as such, for he believed that Jesus wanted all men to be equal. So he could only conclude that Jesus’s intentions to distribute all goods equally were being thwarted by someone or something.

With this in mind, Kitahi decided to try the Protestant Mission.   The nearest Protestant Mission was not far away. He was given an enthusiastic welcome by Miss Helga Schwartz, a forceful German woman in charge of the South Seas Evangelical Mission. Miss Schwartz was very eager for converts, and was only too happy to save Kitahi from “Roman entrapment”. Kitahi was accommodated at the Mission Station, and Miss Schwartz gave him personal instruction in the Evangelical version of the reformed faith.

Everything appeared to be going well for about six months, but Kitahi was still confronted with what he considered a fundamental problem with the Christian message: the idea of the equality of all and the blatant inequality, in terms of possessions, between the blacks and the whites. Even in Miss Schwartz’s community of believers, the whites had it all. The blacks were left with very little. Kitahi still believed that Jesus wanted a fairer society, and the ancestral spirits, he considered, supported Jesus in also wanting this. 

  Kitahi considered that the abundance of the natural world depended on supernatural goodwill, and in his limited knowledge manufactured goods also depended on supernatural benevolence. After all, the goods, as far as he knew, came from nowhere in ships to Wewak and in planes to outstations. His thought processes increasingly became more and more anti-white. He had no sympathy with the concept of whites as ancestors, an idea advanced by some of the elders.

 In Jock’s opinion, these ideas were all very well if they stayed an inward-looking cult idea, but when interpreted as a philosophy of action leading to violence, they were quite unacceptable. Jock saw it as his clear duty to bring Kitahi to justice for his attempt on Karl Shultz’s life, and to do what he could to discourage the cult. 

  James had detected increasing disillusionment in Bill with the political goings-on in Moresby. In Bill’s words: “You have to associate with some real ratbags in the House of Assembly. That Peter Kitahi from the Dreikikir area is one of them. You know of him from your Dreikikir days, James. Jock, I think it was you who put him in the kalabus (gaol) for cargo cult activities, and attacking a Catholic priest.” 

  Peter Kitahi was knighted and was recognised as the father of the House of Assembly because of his years of service as a member. However, he lost his seat in the early 2000s and left politics under a cloud. There was a scandal about the granting of timber leases to a Malaysian company and accusations that Kitahi had been given money to facilitate this. He was not charged but strong suspicions remained that he was guilty. 

Excerpts from Sepik Blu Longpela Muruk

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