Alison Dundon, Adelaide University, Australia

Bani’s Footstep and a Star of David in Papua New Guinea

In Balimo, in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea, an indentation of a giant foot can be seen on the path bordering the local community school. This is known as Bani’s Footstep (Aeiwa Saba) made by Bani, a powerful and enormous Gogodala Ancestor. According to the ancestral narratives that detail the lives of the Ancestral beings, Bani’s Footstep was made during the ancient Ancestral migration from their distant home (Wabila or Yaebi Saba) in search of a magical place. These complex narratives map the movements and actions of the Ancestors during their travels from what is now understood to be Jerusalem, Israel. In the last decade, a Messianic Church has been established in Balimo, based on the observance of Shabbat and Pesach, and drawing on Hebrew words and forms of worship. At these times, women who attend the Messianic Church dress in white meri blouses and skirts with blue piping and bands, and men with blue trousers and white shirts, as well as woollen yarmulkes and prayer shawls. Many are blue and white, colours perceived to be representative of identification with Israel. Walking around Balimo on Shabbat, ‘Messianics’, as they are referred to, may also carry small Israeli flags and greet people with ‘Shalom’.

In 1995, when I first began working in Balimo and neighbouring villages, Bani’s Footstep was a site of considerable local significance. By the mid-2000s, however, it was widely feted as central to a growing belief that the Ancestors were Jewish, members of the Lost Tribes of Israel. This perception had some precedent. In the 1960s, Gogodala school children at Awaba High School, discovered Bani’s name listed under the families of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the Lost Tribes. An intense spiritual revival ensued, during which Israel was named as the original home of the Ancestors. In the process, Bani came to represent a direct link to Israel and a Jewish heritage.

Ancestral canoes
Canoes from the Red and White moieties, embodying ancestral clan-based canoe designs referred to as gawa tao (‘eye of the canoe’). Ancestral canoe designs are central to ancestral narratives and contemporary clan-based kinship relations
Bani's footstep Balimo
‘Bani’s Footstep’ (Aeiwa Saba) in Balimo, Western Province, a significant site of ancestral power

In the 1970s and 80s, this emerging discussion became public and explicit correlations were drawn between Ancestral and Biblical figures. Ancestral stories provided a reference point for explanations for how and why Christian missionaries, the Unevangelised Fields Mission, chose this area for the site of their initial missions as a gateway to the populations along the Fly River. A non-denominational and newly formed faith mission, whose focus was reaching the ‘unevangelised’, became the basis for the establishment of the Evangelical Church of Papua New Guinea (ECP), which continues to be influential in this area so much so that Gogodala often refer to themselves as members of an exclusive ‘Christian Country’. It has been speculated that these missionaries, who initially came from Australia, had foreknowledge of the existence of Gogodala villages, most likely from Christian communities in Israel.

In the early 2000s, I was told that an ‘investigation’ was being conducted into the links between the Ancestors and Israel, initiated by a man I refer to as Henry. Community interest grew both in Balimo and its surrounds, as well as in Port Moresby. Henry contacted Professor Tudor Parfitt, at that time Director of Jewish Studies at the University of London, when he became aware of Parfitt’s role in promoting Jewish antecedence for the Lemba of Zimbabwe and South Africa. In July 2003, Parfitt and his multidisciplinary team visited Balimo to investigate these claims, during which DNA was taken to test the claim that Gogodala descended from The Lost Tribes.

Star Of David
The 'Star of David' constructed in 2003 near Buila Community School, Balimo, Western Province

It was around this time that a ‘Ground Committee’ for those claiming a Jewish heritage was established in Balimo, and people were encouraged to add their names to a list of those identifying as Jewish. In 2004, while in Balimo, I was informed by a member of the Ground Committee that, once Gogodala were confirmed as Jewish, they would be given the option to live in Israel, where a settlement consisting of houses, cars and televisions, had been prepared for them. This was part of the rationale for constructing a Star of David metres away from Bani’s Footstep in 2003. The star was constructed from compacted dirt raised one metre from the ground and held in place by corrugated iron roofing. A hollow square in the centre held the lamp that would be lit when the Israeli planes came to take them to Israel.

Although Parfitt, in subsequent trips to Balimo, has stated that a clear genetic link to Israel has not been established, the debate, and ‘investigation’, continues. The connection to Israel is predicated on the notion that Gogodala were chosen by the early missionaries who, with Gogodala villagers, mutually constituted ‘Christian Country’. This plays into a wider perception, not confined to those in the Messianic Church, that the Gogodala are saelena luma – ‘good’ or ‘chosen people’.  In this context, identification with Israel represents not only an ongoing dialogue about Jewish origins and Gogodala Christianity, but also outlines the extent to which contemporary communities situate themselves in networks beyond their villages and province. Significantly, it also foregrounds an entrenched critique and disaffection with the state, which, from their perspective, engages little with the needs of these remote communities. The erosion of key infrastructure, such as roads, airstrips and electricity, and a chronic lack of access to a variety of educational and financial opportunities, has left many Gogodala concerned for their future as Christian and national citizens, whether of Israel or Papua New Guinea.