Voices of Independence: echoing back with nothing new to say

Michael Dom (August 2017)

In Samoa there are many people who recall with only partly contrived awe that some of their early national missionaries were eaten by New Guineans. While holidaying there recently I gladly explained to a few people who asked me about this event that ‘we ate only the bad ones’. But maybe I should not have been so glib.

Voices of Independence – New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea, edited by Ulli Beier, 1980, St. Martin’s Press New York

It’s a relatively inoffensive question however the agenda their query relates to – reports that PNG people are un-baptized, uncivilized, tribal cannibals – is a familiar frustration to many of us. We’ve been independent for over four decades and still we get these ‘negative images / printed in the media’ about our far gone past.

We know that all of the above reports are not true today (large grain of salt applied here). But there’s a hazy image which sometimes projects itself through the mists of time and into the casual meet-and-greet conversations wherever Papua New Guineans roam abroad. Or maybe it’s just me?

The Western media lies about cannibalism in PNG. The guy who ate a new born baby was actually possessed by an evil spirit. The burning of Leniata in the centre of a town market place was not an act of savagery because she was a Jezebel and the whole community witnessed it, and besides which she wasn’t eaten. Mt Hagen town will rise from the ashes and ruins and become the Turkey of the highlands. God wills it!

If those singular news stories captured the attention of international media and social network audiences then it may be little wonder if the cannibalism question pops up in the casual remarks of those folks in more elevated circles too.

Turnbull: “Hey, Pete, your people aren’t going to eat me when I arrive in PNG are they?”

O’Neil: “No way bro. You’re not that appetizing.”

Turnbull: “Oh, that’s good then, I suppose. What about those boat people on Manus?”

O’Neil: “Nah, we can’t eat them because Roy Trivedy is watching. And I tell you what, after this year’s election mess nobody will have an appetite to eat any foreign body, except in the nicest possible way.”

Turnbull: “Pete, you’re a Master theft, I mean chef.”

O’Neil: “Watch it mate. You never know who’s in my kitchen cabinet and not even God knows what I might cook up for you. We’ve just had some tribal fights too.”

In truth, most people do know better about cannibalism in PNG but those newsworthy tidbits are still an awfully interesting story with which to strike up a conversation. I often enjoy these little engagements.

Our cannibalizing past left a lasting impression in the Samoan psyche and provided my visit with a distinct and juicy flavor.

While the recollection of these historical misadventures may provide a fascinating and far less scandalous anecdote today it nonetheless remains suggestive that not much is really known about the broader evolution in PNG over a number of generations. We can help to cure this unintentional ignorance by engaging in small talk and talking about bigger things. (Alternatively we can write a fictional story which tells the truth about us.)

For instance, the Kumuls, oops! Scratch that. It’s Rugby Union which dominates in the islands, not Rugby League. And we were…still not present at the world cup this year. Anyway Samoa lost to Wales on home-ground so there!

PNG on the other hand hosted the biggest and bestest Pacific Games ever, in the whole wide world of sports. It cost us bucket loads of money and made us millions more, but hang on…we’re still awaiting official confirmation of the actual income generated and who got how much for what. I’m sure it must have been up there in the millions for paying off the billions in loans. The important thing is that we won!

Don’t forget that we created the Bank of South Pacific, which probably works with a third of the Pacific economy, and even though we still have to fly via Australia, with a transit visa, just to get to Vanuatu or Samoa, that’s a different think – neither incorrect notions about cannibalism nor intermittent and brutal violence has anything to do with tourism, business and air routes. Clearly it’s the airlines which are to blame.

Also, despite our low exchange rate and poor GDP, PNG is the largest economy in the Pacific. Fiji and Vanuatu, our smaller, much, much smaller Melanesian brothers may be richer with much, much fewer resources, although well connected internationally from the middle of the Pacific Ocean and having relatively strong governments, they still don’t have the great, great, great, really great big-men leaders we have – and size matters, and notwithstanding height, because Peter is our most vertically challenged big-man ever.

And we got lots of money. O’Neil spends it all for us and borrows some more, but we got even more money coming soon to a BSP branch near you, so we good. We got this. Our 300 LNG ships are coming in soon – “Go tell a passerby / that here by Spartan law we lie”, and lie.

On one occasion when I took refuge in the National Library in Apia the same never-endingly negative storyline seemed to follow me upstairs to the Pacific Collection.  Right there what small delight I had taken in correcting the fake news and providing much needed alternative facts ended abruptly. And it ended in my favorite zone.

Relaxing in what I had thought was the safety and sanctity of the library, while going about my favorite pastime of exploring for poems, I came across a book that was an exhilarating find but which soon led to hours of rambling, frustrated thought.

When reading the foreword to ‘Voices of Independence’I took a step thirty-seven years back in time and arrived exactly at where I am today. Nothing much seems to have changed.

But you decide.

“Political events have obviously made a critical examination of colonialism less relevant. Instead, there is already disillusionment with the national government; its conservatism, its easy acceptance of foreign business, its timid stand towards Indonesia, and the resultant “betrayal” of the West Irian freedom fighters. Above all there is disillusionment with the power-hungry bureaucracy and the increasing pompousness and Westernization of the so-called elite.

“The writer’s position has become more difficult and more ambiguous since independence. In the late sixties the young angry writers were seen as natural allies by Papua New Guinea’s politicians. The writers then helped them to form public opinion and political consciousness and exercised some influence on the stance of leading politicians. But now the government is sensitive to criticism, and many leading politicians fail to distinguish between issues and personalities. Writers on the whole have been tolerated rather than encouraged. There are few intellectuals in parliament, and the leaders of the nation are pragmatic men not given to ideologies. Many of the younger people have found the government uninspiring and mildly unsympathetic to their own aims and ambitions, but they have not espoused alternative political ideologies. Mostly the writers have seen themselves as social critics rather than political rebels. During the years since self-government many of them have taken an unsentimental look at their own communities, both rural and urban. The unflinching way in which many have learned to look at themselves is one of the healthiest symptoms of Papua New Guinea society today.” Ulli Beier (1980)

At least Ulli ended his foreword on a positive note and one on which I hope the writers, poets, essayists and novelists, emerging through the Crocodile Prize also persevere towards. More so, I sincerely hope that our new crop of political leaders hears our voices.

We are not the disembodied echoes of a senseless state; we are the independent voices of a free nation.

Article first published on Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude. https://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2017/08/voices-of-independence-echoing-back-with-nothing-new-to-say.html

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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