During a research trip to my homeland of Rabaul, I met a voracious elder woman called Sister Angelica of the F.M.I. catholic congregation. I had discovered a hidden story from 75 years ago about 45 F.M.I. Sisters who refused to give up their faith under Japanese occupation in the Second World War.
I met Sister Angelica through her niece Angie Kolita-Payne. Angie plays a key role in the East New Britain QLD (ENB QLD) Association based in Brisbane. The ENB QLD community travel to Kokopo every year to attend the Tolai Warwargira Mask Festival held in July. They use this trip as form of benevolence work and deliver donated goods for schools and hospitals via shipping containers collected over the previous year. Grass roots community goodness.
I had been funded by the Australian War Memorial to research and creatively respond to Australia and Papua New Guinea’s shared war history. I chose to honour Papua New Guinea women. When Angie and her husband discovered what I was researching whilst I was in Kokopo, they told me about Sister Angelica. We drove up to Rakunai where she lives.
Sister Angelica F.M.I. was born in 1930 her village is Nanga Nanga in East New Britain. She joined the F.M.I Congregation in 1952. Father Damian showed her a picture of an African woman Sister Kosila, which became an inspiration and her calling to God. In the Tolai custom of Warakukul, tabu (shell currency) is given by the man’s vunatarai (family) to the womans vunatarai as a gift of compensation for taking her away from her vunatarai.
Sister Angelica’s parents had arranged for her to be married. When we asked her about this story, she assertively said “I didn’t choose to marry that man, that was not my decision!” During the warakukul ceremony the tabu is placed in the central space of the woman’s village. Sister Angelica, picked up the tabu and marched it back across to the man’s vunatarai in refusal. Sister Angelica’s family feared for her life as they said she would be killed. Sister Angelica bravely and cunningly said “don’t worry, I’m running away to the church.” Alalai! What a woman.
After this event Sister Angelica went back to school and went on to become a pioneer female teacher at Takabur. She would ride her bicycle for 3 kms each day to commute to work as this was the only transport of the time.
Speaking to women like Sister Angelica and archivist Sister Margaret Maladede from the F.M.I. congregation helped me understand that the church became an avenue of independence and sovereignty for Tolai, Bainings and Papua New Guinean women. Entering the church was a way out of oppressive forms of cultural practices that did not take into account their consent or sovereignty of their bodies. I felt like I’d found the spirit of black feminism by talking to these strong Tolai women.
After we had finished talking Sister Angelica walked outside and started to dance in the rain. Sister Angelica had a glint, a knowing look in her eye that I recognised and felt. She happily danced in the rain because she was free. Free to be herself. Free to commit to her faith and her passions. Isn’t that what we all want as women?