Every year on February 5th, the whole of West Papua celebrates the arrival of the two missionaries Johann Gottlob Geissler and Carl Wilhelm Ottow from Germany, who landed on the small island of Mansinam in northern Papua in 1855. The still great importance of the old missionaries for the Papuans today can be seen in the fact that this date is a holiday in the easternmost region of Indonesia. And so also this year about 20,000 Papuans from all regions of the island made their way to Mansinam on February 5 to attend the celebrations of the local church GKI Tanah Papua, a UEM member church. The governor regularly and generously supports the commemoration ceremony by instructing the state ferry company to transport the passengers free of charge to the small green island off the port city of Manokwari on this day. But also to the right and to the left of the big ship, countless small traditional wooden boats with bamboo booms travel back and forth between the mainland and the missionary island. Music and travel groups, families, among them also numerous visitors dressed in Islamic way as well as innumerable young people flock to the island that serves as a local recreation area.
Of course the visit of thousands of day visitors attracts numerous merchants. On this holiday, the island is transformed into a fair with many stalls selling food, drinks, balloons, souvenirs, toys, clothes and much more.
"They brought us the light", is the unanimous opinion of the Papuans about the arrival of the two missionaries from far away Europe. "With the arrival of Christianity, we gave up a part of our culture on the one hand, but on the other hand we received something new, for example we learned to read and write and gained knowledge about how to develop a modern society," explains Rina Krebu, who spent a year in Schwelm in Westphalia from 2016 to 2017 as a South-North volunteer of UEM.
Carl Wilhelm Ottow died early in 1862 at the age of 35 of malaria. His grave lies today on the coastal road in Manokwari with a view of the island of Mansinam. A few years later Johann Gottlob Geissler returned with his wife and son to Germany, where he died in 1870.
An old church, painted blue, is still standing near the beach and has become much too small for the growing Christian community. The church next to it, built by Geissler and Ottow, no longer exists. Only the weathered partial foundations give an idea of the outline of the first church.
Not far from the old church there is a mighty memorial with a wide metal cross on a high staircase pedestal. It commemorates the beginning of the Christianization of West Papua 164 years ago. By the way, this Christianization took place with the help of a Muslim ruler: Sultan Achmadul Mansur Sirajuddin Syah equipped Geissler and Ottow, who had first landed in the Moluccan archipelago, with a ship that brought the two missionaries to West Papua.
A few years ago, the GKI Church on Manisnam erected a new, more spacious church with a large fairground in front of it. Geissler and Ottow were honoured here this year in a five-hour service. 15 choirs sang their praises to the missionaries, who were also the subject of the sermon by Pastor Dr Sientse Latuputty, President of the theological university of the GKI "STT Izaak Samuel Kijne" in Jayapura.
But the main attraction of Mansinam is the huge white statue of Jesus, which greets the visitor on the top of a small hill with spread out arms. A circular path leads up to the statue and back to the church. A striking number of young people walk up the path to photograph each other with their mobile phones in front of the impressive scenery.
Every five years, I was told, there would be an especially big memorial service for the missionaries from Germany. So I should come back next year to experience the really big celebration on the island of Mansinam - for me it is hard to imagine that such an event still has potential for improvement.
Further information on West Papua and the current political challenges can be found on the website of the West Papua Network.
Dr Martina Pauly