Amidst potential danger, social disorder and a lack of empathic love for one another, a group of World Wide Witness medical students decided to embark on the journey to Papua New Guinea. While this trip has been taken for a number of years through the program, this time was a tad different – they brought a woman. For the first time, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, freckled-face girl was about to join the realms of a strict patriarchal society where men are the dominate – and only – leaders of society.
With only a few key pointers and essentials on the native culture, Kristen Brehm, a senior biochemistry major from Flowermount, pushed herself out of her western comfort and dived headfirst into a country where she is seen as inferior, worthless and even disposable. For the first time in her life where being an American was valued and being white would elevate her status among the people, being a woman was something to be ashamed of.
“Women there are seen as the lowest bar of society and as a woman in that culture, I would have to humble myself and follow the cultural guidelines expected of females,” said Brehm as her eyes looked up in remembrance. “And that was a very overwhelming task and they didn’t really know what having a woman on the team would really entail.”
Brehm explained how life in Papua New Guinea was difficult, to say the least. Women are expected to cover up their bodies from neck to toe, keep their eyes glued to the dungy floor, and are constantly surrounded by men at all times for protection from other men.
With one man behind, in front of and beside her, Brehm found that life in Papua New Guinea for a woman is vastly a 180 degree flip compared to everyday life in the states. Brehm explained how she was fortunate enough to have male colleagues around her whom she considered friends. However, simply by her womanly presence, this made the men more susceptible to threats.
“When I was on the missionary compound it was a pretty safe place because of all the different types of people that were there,” said Brehm. “But when we would go into town, it was very different. We were immediately in PNG world. One time we went to the marketplace and this truck pulled up and all of men guys piled out and they came up to me. They were catcalling me, reaching out to touch me, licking their lips at me, whistling and one even tried to step on the edge of my skirt when I was walking away. The guys instantly came to either side of me and just took me away. We didn’t look back and simply kept walking forward. I had to pretend like I didn’t hear what they were saying. People there have nothing to lose and no social boundaries and rules.”
Fellow missionary colleagues like Cameron Ludwig, a senior biology major from New Guinea, said the people of PNG are used to their own way of life. They still practice animism, which is the belief that objects carry spirits and so the believers live their lives accordingly. For this reason, they live in underdeveloped areas and jungles where the nature of the beast roams free – no rules, boundaries or ordinances.
“The people of PNG are just different. I lived there with my family for my whole life and am used to walking with my sisters everywhere and knowing what some remarks mean and what others don’t,” said Ludwig. “The people there are just stuck in their own world and that’s just how it is.”
Even by having a female on the team, Ludwig said Brehm didn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table nor did she put them in any immediate danger. She was able to accept the social contracts of the town, humble herself without protest and remain silent when asked to.
“She really was able to roll with the guys and act accordingly when we were around town, so we didn’t have any problems that occurred on our part because of her lack of submission,” Ludwig said.
Brehm explains how she had to change for the guys. Whether that was jumping off waterfalls, going into town or simply attending an event, wherever the guys wanted to go or do, Brehm had to tag along or remain at the base.
“They didn’t look or treat me differently and say things like ‘we’re going to go jump off a waterfall’ and my answer was ‘okay, let’s go’,” said Brehm. “I think me being that type of adventurous person really helped out a lot because not just any woman can do this. And maybe that’s why they were so hesitant on allowing me come on the trip. I would have to agree that not showering for a couple of days was okay and not having any personal girl time. I was constantly surrounded by guys, but that’s just what it was and that’s what I signed up for.”
While on the trip, the students packed up for medical trips across the span of the country. The team packed multiple vaccines, quick pain remedies and hodgepodge medicines for maximum relief. They then piled into tiny airplanes. Tyler Cepica, a sophomore biochemistry major from Lubbock, said the team was focused on curing or alleviating pain that could be easily prevented. When arriving at the scene, Cepica said the team assisted physicians with boils, scrapes, backaches and some procedures like ultrasounds. Brehm remembers how eager mothers where to give their child to the “white doctor” poking their babies with needles as their child cries aloud – their screams echoing in her ears and yet unheard by the community.
“It was amazing to see how these women allowed their children to be handled by the doctors,” said Brehm. “They didn’t mind that their child was screaming because of the vaccination because they knew that whatever the “white doctor” was giving them was good.”
Her voice cracked as she recalled stories of women explaining details of their lives such as period huts, or small tents where menstruating women were summoned until their bodies became clean once again. These women would bleed for days on a small cloth until she was allowed to emerge and join society once more. Brehm’s face began to fall with heartache as she later described one young woman who could not stand to be unclean during her period and would roll wet moss from the ground into a tampon for the sole purpose of reclaiming the essence of purity.
“That night, I just laid in bed and I silently cried,” said Brehm. “Because this woman is putting bacteria, infested things inside of her body in an attempt to try to have some type of pride. And I have pride in knowing I am a daughter of the King and that I am a woman and they have no pride. That just made me really sad.”
Brehm’s voice cracked as she forced herself from allowing a tear to run down her face. Then she took a couple long breaths.
“We have so much privilege in America and it saddens me that the people of New Guinea don’t know the God that I know,” said Kristen as her tired eyes look across the room.
Her face softened, causing her intense blue eyes to sparkle amidst her recollection of the faint memories. Like many World Wide Witness students, Brehm and Ludwig wanted to experience life without Christ, without the preconceived notion that protection, societal status and basic human rights are granted.
“I don’t know if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word because I gained a lot of perspective than anything else,” said Brehm. “I wouldn’t use the word ‘enjoyed’ because seeing the extreme poverty and lack of Christ love in those people wasn’t enjoyable – it was heartbreaking. I got to see what a world is like when Jesus is unknown.”
Brehm explains how the whole point of going to New Guinea was not to be the first female to embark on the trip nor was it to achieve a once in a lifetime medical mission trip. Rather, it was to make a difference in the community at whatever the cost.
“Having a female on the team is a great asset to have since some patients prefer a female to look at them instead of male,” said Cepica. “By being a woman, Kristen was able to see things differently and challenge us in different ways.”