Record Rewind: The first Adventist in Papua

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Wattafeni (Watti) Boiori was one of the first Seventh-day Adventist converts in Papua (now Papua New Guinea), being one of 11 who were baptised in 1924 (Australasian Record, December 15, 1924). No-one is quite sure when Watti was born, as birth dates were not an important aspect of his people’s culture, and no records were kept. He may have been born as early as 1897 or as late as 1910, based on assumptions of missionaries to the area who met him as a child (ESDA, January 29, 2020). 

Watti was the son of Boiori, an elder of the Koiari mountain tribe of south-central Papua New Guinea (PNG), and was born in Eikiri village. The Koiari tribe are the people whose land the Kokoda Track passes through. At the time Watti was born, the Koiari were a warring tribe who built their houses high in trees for defensive purposes. 

When missionaries Septimus Carr (English) and Peni Tavodi (Fijian) first entered this region of Papua in 1909, Watti’s father and two other elders of their tribe negotiated with the missionaries to lease them some land, however they stipulated that the land could not be used as a missionary station. So, Carr and Tavodi instead planted a rubber plantation, which provided them the opportunity to offer night classes to their workers to teach them Scripture as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. After two years of running the plantation, the tribe gave them permission to become a mission—the Bisiatabu Mission—and in 1911, a school was started.

It was at this school that Watti spent much of his time as a child. Watti became a close friend of Peni Tavodi and looked up to him as a spiritual mentor. Tavodi taught Watti all about Jesus and salvation. Not only this, but Tavodi also taught Watti how to speak Fijian, in which they both enjoyed conversing with one another. Watti could still speak Fijian fluently in 1998 before his death. 

At Bisiatabu Mission, Watti and a friend from his home village decided they wanted to get baptised, and joined a baptismal class run by one of the teachers at the mission. They became part of the group of 11 candidates who were among the first to be baptised as Seventh-day Adventists in Papua (Australasian Record, December 15, 1924). About his baptism, Watti said (translated), “I also want to follow Jesus that I might be His workman. The longing of my heart is that I might be able to have everlasting life. I request at this time that I might follow in the way Jesus has marked out by following Him in baptism“ (ESDA, January 29, 2020).

After marrying his first wife Togoro Aino, Watti attended the Mirigedu Seventh-day Adventist Workers Training School where he received missionary training before being sent to the Papuan Gulf as a pioneer Adventist missionary. This was a challenging assignment for two main reasons. Firstly, he did not speak the language of the Papuans in the area. To overcome this barrier, Watti taught himself the trade language, Motu, which was understood across much of the southern part of the country—in order to converse with those in the area. The second obstacle Watti faced was the danger of entering unfamiliar territory. In those days, Papua New Guinea islanders did not travel outside their home area, and strangers could be killed on sight. Watti, however, believed strongly in spreading the gospel message and trusted in God to protect him. 

Watti spent his entire life serving as a missionary in the Papuan Gulf and ministering to numerous villages near his home village. Throughout his lifetime, Watti ran church meetings and encouraged others in their Christian journeys. He even composed worship songs in his native Koiari language for his people to sing. Watti was well known for his wide smile, openness to helping other believers, and encouragement. Upon his death in 1999, a very large crowd assembled to show their respect for the humble man who stepped out of his comfort zone to serve God wholeheartedly.

Watti’s life was a life lived in devotion to God, never backing away from any opportunity to serve, no matter the risks or difficulties involved.This year, Papua New Guinea is hosting a major missionary campaign called “PNG for Christ“, continuing the efforts which began 100 years ago with the first Adventists in PNG. May their mission continue to spread the gospel of Jesus to the whole nation of PNG . . . and beyond!

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