West Papua: A Lost Country 20 000 km away?

Michael Wagener (Köln) -Corrections Jose & Odile - 
I haven’t heard any news for three weeks, because I was lost in a country 20.000 kilometers away from Germany and maybe also with a gap of 200 years of development. In West Papua, with the exception of some tourist places for diving, you will find a less developed country...

©Photos Michael Wagener

Ukraine, MH 370, Israel against Palestine again… the conflict in Libya. I haven’t heard any news for three weeks, because I was lost in a country 20.000 kilometers away from Germany and maybe also with a gap of 200 years of development.

In West Papua, with the exception of some tourist places for diving, you will find a less developed country, under the control of the Church and with the friendliest people I met in Asia.

With my high school students I visited, in cooperation with the evangelical church, the highlands of West Papua. The community of the town in which my school is located has a partnership with a women‘s house in Wamena. A city, which you can only reach by airplane, surrounded by the wild nature of the jungle of West Papua. It is a  province of Indonesia which has a border to New Guinea and which has attempted to be an autonomous nation for years, but which is still suppressed by the government of Indonesia.

I was impressed by the work of Agnella Chingwaro, an African physician, who takes care of around 35 people with HIV. He tries to help them, to be proud of their lives again.

I met also “Walihole“, a young baby, named after the clinic, because it was her birthplace. I was sorry, to hear that Walihole has a terrible disease and needs a operation. Walihole has a cleft pallet and the cost for an operation is too high. So Agnella is trying to save money for a flight to a good hospital for Walihole, her mother and a nurse and also for the operation. Feel free to send some money! (Bank Account: 1540010769424/Bank Mandiri Jayapura/ Klinik GKI Walihole) or contact me for more information.


I had the pleasure to follow Dr. Siegfried Zöllner, a well know German expert of Papua, who has lived 13 years with the Yali, a tribe deep in the Highlands. I witnessed many people who recognized the 80 year old expert on the streets of Papua. They were proud to shake hands with this man, who sees his sense of life in working for the human rights of the people of Papua.


Also my group had a discussion with the Catholic priest John Jonga. He has spent time and money to found a small group of activists, who work in the Highlands of Papua against the problem of street kids, violence against woman and education concerning HIV and other sexual diseases. He is a man who is not very loved by the Indonesian government. My students were impressed by this group and the strong ideas of this young Papuan. Very impressed, because we met a lot of young Papuan students and we were mostly shocked by the low level of education from a western point of view. Their English was not good, there was no knowledge about Europe and our life, besides football, and my students missed the individuality of the young Papuans. During discussions it seemed, that there was no need to express their own personality or individual ideas. But Pieter van der Wilt, a Dutch teacher, who works in a teacher training college near Wamena, explained to me that I had to change my view. Of course the Papuans are not used to express free will. They are punished in school, if they do not answer in the teacher‘s way. In most government schools a student could be happy, if the teacher comes to work, because there is no control system. But on the other hand, it would be a fault to say that the Papuans are not intelligent or creative. At least they often speak three languages. Indonesian and the tribal languages of their parents. Also they know a lot about their traditional handicrafts like the famous noken.


My students were very impressed by how a young Papuan could manage to make a fire, like someone in the medieval ages. Also you feel the basics of life in a place like Papua, as Pieter said, far away from the self-made problems of an ordinary life in Europe. But a good education system could solve a lot of problems in Papua.

For my students it was a life experience. A kind of adventure together with the exploration of a totally different culture. And they remember the values of life, when they saw the poverty and the hard work of the Papuans. For example one earns 4 Euros for a day hard work in a brick factory. And my students experienced the kindness of the Papuans and the feeling that nobody should be an outsider.

But also we all had the idea that the students in Papua had to learn more. Also to get a realistic view of the hope to be an autonomous nation in a world of globalization. But saving the culture of the Papua is a must. I thought about this idea, that it would be nice to have an organization like Médecins Sans Frontières for teachers. Teachers would spend two or more years in an undeveloped country, just to help local teachers do a better job.

Back in Germany, I had a sad experience. I posted a picture of a Yali family from Wamena. The man only covered with the traditional quiver over his penis. It took just minutes and a former student was annoyed about this picture. Angry to see a naked man. I was sad, to hear, that a German student, who should be open-minded, has a problem with the naked body of a tribal person. He did not see the difference in cultural behavior and did not imagine that this kind of living is also a part of globalization.

Of course, maybe Papua seems a lost country, but also we are lost, when we do not learn from cultures like the Papuan culture.


Michael Wagener


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