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.