Fifaia Matainaho and Teatulohi Matainaho: Dialogue with twin brothers – Adventist professional leaders in Papua New Guinea

Fifaia and Lohi are twins. Born in the Mortlock Islands of Papua New Guinea, they grew up in the midst of beauty – the swaying palms, the never-ceasing waves of the sea beating the silvery sands of the beaches, the thrill of wading into low-tide waves to catch fish, and all other fun that goes with simple and undisturbed seaside village life. Their family, like the rest of the village, with a total population of 450, were ancestor worshipers, and knew little or nothing about Christianity. Their formal education began with a primary school in their lagooned village. After completing high school in Bougainville, the twins went to the mainland – overnight journey by boat – where they enrolled in university education: Fifaia enrolled in Papua New Guinea (PNG) University of Technology, while Lohi joined the medical school at the University of Papua New Guinea. Today, both brothers have doctoral degrees and are deeply immersed in the educational and developmental work of the island nation.

Dr. Fifaia T. Matainaho currently serves as the director of development at Pacific Adventist University and as an environmental and chemical engineering consultant to many government and professional organizations. Dr. Lohi T. Matainaho is the head of the pharmacology department at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Papua New Guinea. Presently he is the only Adventist with a professorial appointment in a government (public) university in PNG. He focuses on researching new medicines from marine and forest resources.

Fifaia, your love of reading led you to the Adventist faith. How did that happen?

Fifaia: Once I happened to visit a fellow university student who spoke my language. In his room I saw a book with an interesting title, Steps to Christ. My passion for reading drove me to borrow this book. That night I sat up and read the book right through. I was amazed at the style of writing and the content of the book. It took me over completely. About a week later, I visited the student again, and this time I borrowed The Great Controversy. I was impressed with its flowing narrative of history and the detail portrayal of the origin of sin and its climactic end. Soon I found out that both the books were written by the same person, a woman with great insights. I was greatly touched by what I had read.

My interest in Ellen White’s books began to grow. My friend put me in touch with the Adventist Church, from where I could get more of her books. Although some classmates told me that this author was weird and Adventists held strange beliefs, I wanted to personally know more about this author. I used all my allowance to buy books, such as Education and Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing. Her way of writing caught my attention.

While reading The Great Controversy, two subjects interested me deeply: the sanctuary and the Sabbath. I dug into those two topics and bought more books. I read George Vandeman and Morris Venden and came to understand righteousness by faith. I arranged to get Signs, The Record, and the Review and Herald. Before long, I was keeping the Sabbath.

None of your relatives belonged to any formal religion. How did they feel about your newfound faith?

Fifaia: When I went to visit my home during Christmas of 1976, I met up with my twin, Lohi, and a cousin who were also going home for the holidays. While waiting in Bougainville for the boat, I explained to the two that I was going to church on Saturday, and encouraged them to come along. Like me before, they knew only of ancestral worship, but they agreed to accompany me to church.

Arriving in our village, I told my family and others about Jesus and the Sabbath. Those on the island had no religion with which to compare, and they simply accepted the Adventist faith. The three of us weren’t even Adventists yet, but we got everyone together under the coconut trees to worship and sing the gospel songs that I had learned at the Adventist Church. They continued to worship that way under the coconut trees for many years. About eight years ago, an Adventist church was finally built on my island.

How did you come to the decision to join the Adventist Church?

Fifaia: After reading Ellen White’s books, I sought out and worshiped in an Adventist church. The local pastor visited me in my room. He was impressed with my book collection, including the Adventist books. When he asked me if I wanted to be baptized, all I could say was, “If that’s the way you people do things, that’s OK by me.” That was it. I just walked into the church.

You faced challenges because you would not participate in the required field work that was part of your engineering course.

Fifaia: We were required to do field work in engineering (geology, hydrology, etc.) on Sabbath on a number of occasions, but I did not go. As a result, I lost marks and had to rely on doing well in the exams. But in one class, the field work was a major component. The entire class was to go together with the professor to determine the velocity of a stream by means of stream gauging. I didn’t go because it was on Sabbath. The professor said: “I’m sorry, I can’t help you. You’ll have to figure out how to do it yourself.” I had to study all the technical manuals and figure out how to operate the instruments by myself. But stream-gauging cannot be done alone. One of the department technical staff saw my predicament. He had at one time gone to an Adventist church, so he offered to drive me with the equipment to a stream on a Friday afternoon so I could collect the data. An Adventist student at the university came and helped me handle the equipment and assist with data recording. I received a passing grade for that course. God cares for His people when they are faithful to him.

Has Sabbath observance negatively impacted your professional career?

Fifaia: Whenever I started a new job, the first thing I did was to notify my supervisor that I am an Adventist and therefore will not work on Sabbath. If efforts were made to force me to work on Sabbath, I was determined to find another job. I have always been forthright at the outset. My pay was lower, but that didn’t bother me.

When I attend professional conferences, I tell my colleagues right at the start that I will not attend the meetings on Sabbath. My colleagues understand my position, and often they will speak with the organizers for a schedule change so that meetings don’t fall on Saturday.

What advice would you give Adventist students if they feel their faith is becoming weak or challenged in the course of their studies?

Fifaia: Be involved! I was heavily involved in church meetings and outreach activities. I attended Bible studies with fellow Adventist students and was active with the Adventist student association at the PNG University of Technology. I found joy – real joy – in those activities.

Sometimes I would miss out on my own academic work in order to participate in special church outreach or Bible study programs because I felt I should take advantage of the special opportunity. I have been involved in teaching Bible studies in church or at home, and have helped lead others to make a decision. But academic studies are also important and should not be neglected.

Make it a regular habit to read the Bible. Turn to its pages when you have any problems. When I was preparing to defend my doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt University in the United States, I spent a lot of time reading the Bible and received great comfort, strength, and inner peace. I felt confident that even if something different happened than what I had wanted, God is in control.

What about finding a life partner? What was your experience and what advice do you have in that area?

Fifaia: Be cautious about rushing into relationships. Be open-minded rather than overly serious. I was visiting the University of PNG Port Morseby when I met a non-Adventist who was active with the United Methodist Church and the Tertiary Christian Fellowship. We became friends and wrote letters to each other. I shared my faith with her through our correspondence, without pushing her. In the beginning I wrote about the fundamental, basic Christian beliefs rather than about the specifics of what Adventists believe. That came later. Then when we met face to face some time later, I was frank with her and told her that I was an Adventist and I was concerned whether we should become more serious. I did not want to get into something deeper without consulting with her. She said that because of what I had been communicating about my faith in letters, she felt she could become an Adventist. It turned out that her father’s sisters were Adventists, so she was open and willing to learn more about Adventists. It led to Bible study, which I love doing very much. We studied the Bible together and then I went and told the pastor, “I think she’s ready for baptism.” Eventually we got married.

My advice to young people is: be open with others. If you want to become more serious, look for the window of opportunity to share your belief. It will open. Be steadfast in your beliefs and assert yourself with respect to faith.

Last year you resigned from your position as the head of the Department of Civil Engineering at the PNG University of Technology. Why?

Fifaia: In mid-2006 I told my wife, Karo, that I would like to work for the church. I started corresponding with the president of the South Pacific Division. In the meantime, the Vice-Chancellor of Pacific Adventist University (PAU) contacted my wife who has an MBA and was working as a manager for Price-Waterhouse Coopers. The university was interested in her to be the new bursar. We had already talked about being useful in the church, and PAU was ideal with my background in university administration and her experience in the financial field. My wife became the bursar and I took a one-year leave from PNG University of Technology and operated as a consultant. Later I resigned from PNG University of Technology to join PAU to assist with the strategic plan and to become their director of development.

Why are you working in Papua New Guinea when you could earn far more in Australia, Europe, or North America?

Fifaia: Tyco International, one of the largest engineering companies, made an offer for me to work anywhere in Canada or the U.S. But since I’m the only PNG national with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, I felt obligated to work in PNG to help my people and my country. In addition to my current positions at the Adventist university, I also serve as a consultant in several PNG organizations, including the government. I chair several technical committees and am involved in environmental issues. These tasks give me a satisfaction and fulfillment. After all, life must not be defined in monetary terms alone.

Thank you, Fifaia. Let me now ask your brother, Dr. Lohi Matainaho, a few questions. Tell us about your conversion, Lohi.

Lohi: I was in the medical school at the University of PNG. During the Christmas break, as my brother has already mentioned, he not only told me about the Sabbath but also its relationship to the concept of creation. The concept of a Creator immediately made sense to me.

You see, our village elders told us about big people with big feet who came a long time ago and created the atoll where we lived. Then they went away and no one had seen them since. When Fifaia told me about the Sabbath, it all made sense. There was a Creator and the Sabbath was the culmination of creation. He was the one who created our islands. We were so excited that we told all our relatives when we got home.

When I got back to the university after holidays, I got a Bible, opened it, and read the first thing I saw. It was Matthew 6:6. I couldn’t believe it! I suddenly remembered I had read those very same words when I was 10 or 12 in a book in our house. I had never heard of a Bible and didn’t know that’s what the book was then. I opened the book and read: “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly” (KJV).

We didn’t have a door or a closet in our palm-thatched dwelling, and I didn’t know what it meant to pray, but I immediately sensed I should do something. I got up and closed the opening to our home and then sat inside waiting. I didn’t know how to pray, but I felt I should wait inside. I sensed something then in my wait, but didn’t know what or who it was. Until that day, I had not opened a Bible again. Now when I read the same text once more, I was convinced God was talking to me and had already done so back when I was a boy. It encouraged me to continue reading the Bible, and eventually make a decision for Him.

Tell us about your work at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. How do you find expression for your faith?

Lohi: I teach in the basic medical sciences, but most of my time is in research, exploring new medicines from forest and marine resources, and translating the molecules from the forest-bed and seabed to medicines for the sickbed. We, for example, dive and gather marine sponges or collect other botanical specimens for development as therapeutic compounds for the treatment of HIV/ AIDS, TB, malaria, cancer, and diabetes. I also study the biochemical and pharmacological properties of snake venom to improve management of snake bite. I am also involved with policy development for traditional medicine.

The focus on biodiversity for health has added enormous interest to conservation of resources and highlighted the need to articulate clearly the global and community issues associated with the use and management of the environment, including the impact of climate change.

Some of our research is funded by the United States National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, and World Health Organization, and I am involved in multi-national pharmacology research projects. I am particularly concerned about understanding the environment and the benefits offered by biodiversity, without exploiting it in the process. I believe stewardship of the environment was entrusted to us by the Creator.

To support Adventist education, I serve on the University Council for Pacific Adventist University. I am also very active in my local church. Recently, I have been writing on the topic of creation, and how the principles of success are illustrated by the days of Creation. But I would like to find a way to be even more involved with Adventist education somehow.

Lisa M. Beardsley (Ph.D., University of Hawaii at Manoa) is the editor-in-chief of Dialogue and an associate director of education of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A. E-mail:

Fifaia T. Matainaho, Ph.D. (Vanderbilt University, USA),, K. Matainaho, Ph.D. (University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia),