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Modekngei, or Ngara Modekngei (United Sect) is a monotheistic religious movement founded around 1915 by Temedad, a native of the island of Babeldaob, that spread throughout Palau. It rose to political ascendancy between the world wars and is currently professed by 8.8% of Palau's population.
While only about 8% of Palauans practice Modekngei, a large concentration of that figure reside in the same village. Ibobang, a small town with a population of less than 100 in Ngatpang state, is a community devoted to the practice of Modekngei.
Modekngei religion is a hybrid of ancient Palauan customs and Christianity. Followers of the religion believe in the Christian God and recognize Jesus Christ as the saviour while simultaneously making appeasements to traditional Palauan deities.
The origins of Modekngei are unknown, but one belief is that Modekngei began as a nonviolent opposition to the Japanese occupation and is an amalgamation of native animistic and Christian beliefs carried on in an oral tradition of chants called keskes, tending to reinforce the native culture heritage.
A common story told in Ngatpang is that the religion developed from the efforts of Christian missionaries who came to Palau in hopes to convert the islanders to Christianity. Upon arriving in the village of Ibobang, the missionaries were so taken back by the citizens' commitment to traditional customs that the missionaries made an exception and allowed the Palauans to keep their goddess and still partake in Christianity.
The goal of Modekngei religion is to preserve ancient Palauan traditions in a way that aligns itself with Christian salvation.
Modekngei followers in Ibobang practice a traditional lifestyle centered on ancient ideas of family, community, and purity. The religion prohibits followers from all alcohol and drug use, and children in the village are required to be home by dark and abstain from making loud noises in sacred places.
Citizens of Ibobang attend daily church services. The church building is located in the center of the village and is likewise the center of activity. One of the many Modekngei customs requires members of the community to walk silently to church each morning. To speak, especially loudly, before a church service is disrespectful and borderline blasphemous. Women in Ibobang usually dress in western apparel, but when it comes to church they are required to always wear a skirt or dress when either entering or passing the building. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see a woman in Ibobang dressed in pants to take a longer route to her destination to keep from crossing the church grounds without the proper attire.
Daily Modekngei church services are short, consisting mostly of individual and group prayers. However, services celebrating both traditional and religious holidays are more elaborate and can last several days with weeks of communal preparation.
One custom that most Palauans observe—regardless of religious affiliation—is the prohibition of any alcohol or tobacco within the city limits of Ibobang. According to ancient belief, violating this religious law will bring terrible rainstorms upon the village that won’t go away until the sin has been forgiven by the Modekngei goddess.
Even Palauans who normally partake in such activities will abstain from bringing any banned substances within the city limits. The traditional belief that continuous rain will plague the village is so strong that Modekngei elders will hang fruit and other treats on tree branches throughout the village in hopes of bribing the goddess to be forgiving of outsiders' misconduct.
Another customary activity that takes place in Ibobang is the blessing of the roads. This particular custom coincides with the moon’s cycle. A few days before each full moon, the community works together to clean the entire village. Lawns are cut, trash is cleaned and houses are scrubbed. Then, the evening before the full moon dawns, everyone who lives in Ibobang waits inside their houses while a village elder walks up and down the streets chanting prayers and blessings over the village. This is a necessary practice in Modekngei because it’s believed that during a full moon, the Modekngei goddess is better able to see the malpractices of her people.
Ibobang is the home of Belau Modekngei School (BMS), a boarding school for high school students situated at the far end of the village. In 1974, a handful of Modekngei elders realized their desire to pass on the ancient traditions of the Modekngei religion to future generations.
Today, between 25 and 30 students from the 9th to 12th grade are enrolled at BMS. Students and faculty have the option of living on campus in traditional dormatory-style housing with no electricity or running water, or in the surrounding villages of Ngatpang. Slightly more than half the students live on campus.
The student body at BMS is diverse. Some of the students attend because they come from families who value a traditional education. Other students enroll at BMS as a last resort option. As one of very few private high schools on Palau, BMS has the option of accepting students who have been expelled from the island's one and only public high school.
Students at BMS study core academic subjects such as English, Math and Palauan, but they also take Modekngei religion classes, have the opportunity to farm ancient medicinal crops, and practice traditional customs along with the village.
Belau Modekngei's primary goal is to preserve Modekngei religion for future generations of Palauans.
- "CIA - The World Factbook -- Palau". Retrieved 2006-08-06.