WHEN the villagers of impoverished Bereina need to quell their famine, they reach for the noxious betel nut.
In the town of Bereina, in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea, the addictive seed, which is prohibited in Australia, is often the only food source for the local villagers.
It is an unfathomable sight for Sr Anna Pigozzo, a missionary of the Cavanis Jesus Good Shepherd community, a congregation that has worked in Bereina diocese since 2013.
“It is difficult to believe that in 2019 there are people who still live in poverty, daily chew small walnuts (betel nut) in order not to feel the pangs of hunger, die from tuberculosis, live in huts without water and electricity, go to school without books and without shoes,” Sr Pigozzo testified.
“Papua New Guinea is extremely rich in natural resources: deposits of oil and gas, gold, very fertile soil.
“And yet, despite these natural riches, people here are still in a state of misery, cultural backwardness and indigence.
“Papua is often called the ‘land of the unexpected’, and it is really true.”
After an initiation invitation to Bereina in 2013, the sisters were shocked by the level of poverty and misery in PNG, a relatively young section of the Church in Oceania.
“The Church arrived in Papua New Guinea 130 years ago, with the first French and Australian missionaries, Marists and Missionaries of the Sacred Heart who gave their lives to announce Jesus Christ,” Sr Pigozzo said.
“It is a very young Church, which still needs so much support and guidance.
“On the occasion of the conclusion of the liturgical year, the new bishop of our diocese of Bereina, Monsignor Otto Separy arrived, who is now familiar with the reality of this area.”
And the reality is the villagers of Bereina are in dire need of help. For the sisters, this is a mission field, a place where they believe Jesus lives in the hearts of children and the youth, or at least the ones still alive.
Infant mortality in PNG is the highest in Oceania.
The people in Bereina have limited access to health services, and those who do survive infancy are mostly illiterate.
“Illiteracy is very high, there are so many children who do not cross the threshold of first grade,” Sr Pigozzo said.
The villagers’ existence is almost primal, where women are still bought with livestock to become wives.
“Outside the few urban centres, the social structure is still organised in villages with huts, led by a village chief,” Sr Pigozzo said.
“Women and children have no value, so much so that the tradition for which wives are bought with pigs still applies.
“Being in contact with the children at school, we became aware of so many sad family situations of abuse and mistreatment.
“Here in Papua the rights of children and women are very often trampled.”
Food supply is short, destroyed by natural disasters that rid the villagers of the year’s crops.
“During the rainy season the villages are very often flooded, and the vegetable gardens, the only source of survival for many families, are often destroyed,” Sr Pigozzo said.
“Even at the beginning of this year, we had serious problems due to flooding.”
But there is hope. After six years of ploughing the spiritual field, the seeds of hope are sprouting.
“In these six years, we have seen how the Lord has paved the way for this mission,” Sr Pigozzo said.
Volunteers from Italy and the Philippines have built a school and, in the first year, 140 children were enrolled.
Adults who missed out on a vital education can go to school at the Fode Centre, an institution for assisted study for adults.
“Many have enrolled, and this is a great sign of hope for us, which we see on the faces of so many young and old people who have the opportunity to return to school,” Sr Pigozzo said.
And to combat the betel nut addictions, the sisters have established a bakery, named in honour of St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory.
“Every day almost 50kg of bread is baked: for us, for our children and teenagers, for our mothers who help us in our mission work and for the many who knock on our door every day,” Sr Pigozzo said.