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[Note that the word “education” in the quote to which this webpage is linked—‘There is no evil to which education cannot reconcile us’—should be taken in the wide sense of simply “passing on culture.”

Could it be plausibly argued that, more than anything else, struggling with moral and political issues is what distinguishes man from the other animals? Perhaps the following account (chapter twelve of André Dupeyrat’s 1954 book, Savage Papua, A Missionary Among Cannibals) will help to make this question more concrete. It describes how a small and insignificant group of people in Papua New Guinea in the late 1920s resolved what seemed to them a serious moral dilemma. The fact that the dilemma arose in an extremely primitive society supports, it seems to me, the view that the moral dimension to human life is universal—though perhaps, unlike politics, not inescapable.

Twelve years later, a complicated set of circumstances led a member of that small group to make a heroic decision that cost him his life. Whether the moral transformation of Ivolo Keleto in the space of those years is a matter of wonder and admiration—probably not one civilized person in ten thousand can match his achievement—or merely a curious but remarkable fact can perhaps only be settled in the light of prior philosophical opinions. Whatever the case, we know that Einstein was appalled and disgusted when, at the outbreak of WWI, his older friend and mentor, Max Planck, crazed by nationalism, eagerly sent his students into the army. And we may reasonably suspect that there was less justification for that colossal slaughter than there would have been for the minor massacre that Keleto’s death probably prevented.]


WHEN I MET Ivolo Keleto for the first time, he had just been baptized. He was at that time a handsome young man of twenty five, 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 Koné, which was built on the saddle of a lofty mountain ridge dividing the Fuyughé and Tawadé countries. But while the Fuyughés, after more than twenty years of preparation, were then on the point of being finally and completely converted, the Tawadés 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 Koné, although they belonged to the Fuyughé group of tribes, maintained close relations with their Tawadé 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 Fuyughé 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 Koné, 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 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 Koné 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 Tawadé village had delegated six of his men to carry a royal present to the people of Koné 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. Koné 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 Tawadés will take our refusal for a grave insult and a breaking off 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 Tawadés and risk being massacred?

Perhaps, someone suggested, they could accept the mournful gifts and bury them. That, too, was impossible. The Tawadé 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.

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 Tawadés 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 Tawadés 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 Tawadés 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 Fané-les-Roses, where the missionaries were living, to get a ruling on the matter. Ivolo was to be the spokesman.

Two days later, he caused the missionary 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 catechist), 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 Tawadés.

Naturally, his request was at once and gladly granted.

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

The Woïtapé 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 Woïtapé villages were situated in this valley, near the source of the swift running river, and near a projecting strip of Tawadé territory. The main mission station, Ononghé, lay further down the valley on a powerful spur which overlooked the whole region.

To reach Ononghé from Fané 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 Koné, 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 Woïtapé 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 onto 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 Fuyughé 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 Fuyughé territory, but the accent is different. Patave is the Fuyughés’ 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 Tawadés who killed me. I wanted to keep Yesu u’Maïno, 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 Woïtapé, 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, God. . . . 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 Dubuy 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 Woïtapé tribe who were still unsubjugated. To meet the threat of the British rifles, the Woïtapé called on a tribe of Tawadés at Sopou, who were their friends and allies, to aid them. The Tawadé warriors arrived, but the white man had the greater force on his side. They were compelled to submit. The Tawadés, however, did not return home. To reward them, the Woïtapés 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 Woïtapés, converted by Father Dubuy, became Christians. The Tawadé 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 Woïtapés 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 Tawadés had burst into the Woïtapé village in which the catechist Ivolo 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 Woïtapés who were innocent, grew angry. They were a hot-blooded 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 Tawadés, demanding that they listen to the words of peace with which he, as catechist, felt bound to greet them. In a trice, the Tawadés had surrounded him, half-crazed at the prospect of spilling blood. They seized him, and while one stout warrior pinioned 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 Tawadés, 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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