The Great Mask Debate – To Wear or Not To Wear?

21 December 2020

PAINTING BY LABEN SAKALE JOHN AND WORDS BY GREGORY BABLIS

Masks have always been important aspects of Papua New Guinean societies even in contemporary Papua New Guinea (PNG) with their ceremonial uses in singsings (traditional dances or festivals) and the more tourist-oriented festivals today. All regions of PNG had different types of masks, from whole-body masks to the very small – they all served different purposes. Masks were used to entertain and excite; to represent clan moieties or totemic spirits; to strike fear, warn or intimidate; and to conceal the wearer’s identity. An important function of masks was to protect its wearer for instance in warfare or to protect the wearer’s identity and so from future incriminations as they mete out justice, discipline or punishments. In most places masks were worn and used only by men and even then only initiated men. Presently with the coronavirus pandemic we are witnessing the rise in the importance and usage of a particular type of mask. The protective function of the mask is a constant but the entity from which the wearer wishes to keep safe from is very different. We are also seeing more social inclusion in the access and use of this type of mask with all genders and ages being urged to wear this protective mask for our own goods and health’s sake. We should embrace this opportunity to participate in this traditionally significant but formerly socially exclusive practice of mask-wearing. Mask-wearing is cool, it is important, it identifies you as being part of a particular group, and it shows that you care about that group, about others and about yourself. And it just might save your life, if health experts are to be believed.

 Masks protect
 They conceal
 They hold back 
 Then they reveal
 They identify 
 They distinguish
 They may terrify 
 But may also save you future anguish
  
 To wear or not to wear? 
 That is the question
 Keeping your health 
 Or inhibiting fresh circulation of air?  
  
 But looking on the face of it
 What are the benefits
 Of wearing a mask
 Just for the hell of it? 
  
 Some say it’s a discomfort
 Others say it’s necessary
 I’ll forgo my current comfort 
 For the sake of my pulmonary.
  
 Even if you’re a skeptic
 Is there any harm
 In wearing a mask 
 Just as a prophylactic?
  
 It really isn’t a novelty,
 To mask up for a reason?
 It is a traditional proclivity
 To mask up in the right season? 
  
 Kamap olsem ol Duk-Duk 
 Bilong Ist Niu Briten
 Ol i no sa suruk
 Long taim bilong wokim kastam
 O kain olsem ol Tubuan 
 Ol meri masalai
 Em ol gutpla poroman
 Lo kastam bilong ol Tolai
  
 Custom and duty
 Why should we cover our face? 
 Is it like wearing jewelry,  
 Or our saving grace? 
  
 Traim tingim ol Holosa 
 Bilong wonem ol werim mask?
 Antap long kol ples Goroka
 Ol i gat sampla task.  
  
 Na tingim tu ol Elema
 Mask bilong tewel bilong wara
 Em ol lain bilong yumi long Kerema
 Ol lain bilong stap lareva. 
  
 Is it a personal choice
 Or a government decision 
 To muffle your voice 
 With the new face fashion? 
 To wear or not to wear?
 That is the question
 To fear or not to fear? 
 Personal decision or government stipulation? 
  
 For some, wearing a mask
 Inhibits breathing
 For others, it’s no farce 
 For it enables living.
  
 But let not the law
 Take away my right
 To breathe alone in my car
 When I’m driving home at night. 
 If I’m in a crowded place
 And I forget to mask my face 
 Then I accept any penalty
 As long as it is not too hefty.
  
 Niupla Pasin Protocol
 That is the “new normal”
 To follow WHO or GoPNG,
 What’s the verdict of the public jury? 
  
 Of masks and symbolisms
 What is the appeal?
 Without going into tribalism’s, 
 Generally to protect or veil. 
  
 Protecting or taking away half your face?
 Whichever side you propagate 
 Let us all find common place 
 In this great mask debate.  

The prose and poem was published in the Oceania journal on 16 December 2020 at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ocea.5261.

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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