A 150 Year Obsession: Soccer & Christianity in Morobe

PC: Oceania Football

The obsession Morobe Province has with soccer goes back to the 1900s. Some 150 years ago, Lutheran Missionaries from Finchafen, Morobe, and Lutheran Missionaries from Madang met at village in Kerowagi, between Jiwaka and Chimbu. They were among a group of missionaries pushing into the frontiers of the Highlands of PNG, evangelizing the people. They called themselves Songangs, a term popular with Lutheran circles connoting a leader in the Lutheran Church, which is used to this day. At Kerowagi, the two Songang groups had a dispute over who should take over Kerowagi as their ‘wok miti’ area (or Wok Mission, or Mission Area). Once you claimed a village or tribe as your wok miti area, your group was responsible for teaching, converting, and baptizing the people. You also had to bring waring groups together to make peace, build schools, teach and train the people in your wok miti area. Miti means Gospel in Finchafen. Wok Miti means sharing the Gospel.

Both groups, the Finchafens and Madangs, wanted to claim Kerowagi as their wok miti area. Since they couldn’t compromise, they decided to settle it through a game of football. These two missionary groups were trained by Lutheran missionaries from Germany. Germany of course was, and still is a giant football nation in Europe. The German Missionaries brought the Gospel and football – soccer. The two Songang teams selected their best reps. In what is probably the first soccer tournament in that part of the Highlands, the two Songan teams played out their hearts in the cold muddy field of Kerowagi.

They played barefoot. They did not have uniforms. They wore targets and malo. Prayers were said on both sides of the camp. Their audience had probably never seen a game of soccer. And they watched two foreign tribes from the coast chasing around a ball like kids.

The Songangs from Finchafen won the evangelism soccer tournament. The Madang Songangs moved on, whilst the Finchafen Songans settled, set up camps, and began their wok miti.

I was told this story in December 2019, when I travelled up to Nondogul, Jiwaka.I was there taking photos and observing the 30 years anniversary of PNG Lutheran Renewal in Nondogul. The Lutheran Renewal is an offshoot of Evangelical Lutheran Church of PNG (ELC PNG). ELC PNG itself has more than 150 years presence in PNG. The Renewal Lutherans as an offshoot started later. It was the ELC PNG missionaries who met at Kerowagi that day.

I returned to Lae after two days in Jiwaka, and one afternoon I was reading a book titled “Cloud of Witness” I bought bought the book at Ampo book store. It documents the life stories and work of Lutheran missionaries in PNG, as they pushed inland, converting “heathens” to Christianity, stopping cannibalism, pay back killings, tribal fights, polygamy and establishing schools. It’s a really great book I recommend to anyone interested in such history, but also on how to halt the same instances in our time. Most of the stories are about missionaries from Finchafen, understandably so, given that the German missionaries were largely based in Finch.

As I finished a chapter of the book, Lae City FC players drove into the Lutheran Church of Hope Parish ground at East Taraka, Lae. It was the team’s prayer time – they pray every Monday evening with their Club Chaplin Pastor Dulan Zairing. I was visiting the pastor. I shook hands with a few, went back to reading as they went into the hall. A minute later, I could hear them sing the worship song “Aba Father….” The entire team worshiped and prayed.

Lae City FC (formerly Toti FC) has dominated soccer in PNG in recent years. And after every win when Raymond Gunemba, the captain, or any of the players are interviewed, you always hear them thank “Anutu”, Kote word for the “Great Spirit” or “God.” Kote is main language spoken by people from Finchafen. It was the same language used to train early missionaries (Raymond and Nigel left Lae City FC and joined Hekari later in 2020).

10 months after I was told this story, Lae City FC won the NSL for the 2019-2020 session.

Well, I kind of saw that coming 🙂

Congratulations 🍾.

Correction: Initially the blog said the two missionary groups met at Nondogul. However, one of the decedents of the Madang missionaries corrected me after reading it on LinkedIn: it was Kerowagi, not far from Nondogul. His grandfather was on the loosing team. The separation of Jiwaka and Chimbu as separate provinces has put Nondogul within Jiwaka, and Kerowagi within Chimbu. Initially both were within Chimbu.

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Published by Academia Nomad

Blogs on politics, economics and social issues in simple language.

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