PNG must make people the centre of power

14 July 2021


CAIRNS – Patrick Angrai’s article, Death of a Teacher, hit me hard too. Firstly sadness, then anger.

Death in childbirth, through lack of timely referral or resources, is so horribly common in rural settings and often goes unreported.

As Arthur Williams has said, how can this happen in such a resource rich country?

I believe we – we outsiders who have worked in and advised Papua New Guinea – need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves some pertinent questions.

In the cobbled together confederacy of 850 nations that we birthed, how far do social capital and a real sense of the common good extend?

Beyond my kaukau garden, perhaps, maybe to the boundary with the next hausman.

If this observation is correct, how does any family hold public servants or its government to account for these sad outcomes. Blame puripuri.

Have our multiple capacity building interventions taken these subtleties into consideration?

Have we done anything in the past 40 plus years that built upon a structure that has been self-sufficient for 50 plus millennia?

Or have we made assumptions that weren’t correct leading up to Independence in 1975 and aren’t correct now.

Are our well-intentioned efforts part of the problem?

Martyn Namorong’s prescient article of 9 July, Bougainville Highlights Need for a New PNG,’ poses lots of questions and touches on some underlying factors.

Martyn observes that:

  • “the Melanesian world has for millennia been a multi-polar world”
  • “people should always be the centre of power”
  • “with no strong political centre or hegemony”
  • “people…have become bystanders in their own land”
  • “we should be exploring models…that may be more relevant to PNG”

In my view Martyn is absolutely right and his sage observations lie at the core of why poor Jerolyn Arimbandai and so many others have suffered and died in the way they did.

And if nothing fundamentally changes, people will continue to die.

Accountability. What accountability? For all our rose-tinted efforts the system is not accountable, and I suggest it never will be.

Real accountability only applies to my extended family or maybe as far as some members in my clan.

Sori tru’, but the well-intentioned views of outsiders are out of touch with the real PNG.

And, if that is true, do Martyn’s observations not point towards a potential way forward?

Make the people – who were always at the centre of power – again the ‘doers’ in their own land.

Through their mausman and mausmeri bring every community into partnership with the government system.

The furthest tentacles of the health structure should not stop with aid posts (who are they accountable to?) but extend right into every community in the land.

And where is the money for that? Time to face facts and a new vision: one that fits with the accepted view of accountability.

Dear communities, the government, for whatever reason, will never be in a position to meet your needs. Accept it. (This is definitely not news to them.)

For the first-time communities will drive the outcomes relevant to them, not the other way around; held to account by their own people, no longer the bystanders in their own land.

Oh yes, how? Not easy, but it helps that this involves people who have been supremely self-sufficient for an awful long time.

It involves providing them with some tools and assistance to value-add the undoubted natural resources around them to generate the capital needed to exchange for regular outreach services.

It involves close collaboration with them in agriculture, fishing, off-grid power, banking and innovative thinking so they can incorporate the extra inputs required into their daily, weekly and monthly routines and, in return, add home based and regular ante-natal, immunisation and general outreach services into community life.

Has this been demonstrated? Yes, in its component parts and always with dependency upon external funding.

Never in its entirety as a whole of community-government socio-economic partnership to deliver sustainable and accountable services.

In memory of the oh so many Jerolyns, the time has come to change that.

Bougainville highlights need for a new PNG

09 July 2021
Martyn Namorong – “PNG needs a new Constitution that recognises the different tribal nations and empowers them with their full rights to self-determination within a political union”

PNG Signal

PORT MORESBY – Will Papua New Guinea break up if Bougainville is granted full independence?

For some PNG leaders the threat of balkanization has shaped their attitudes towards Bougainville leaving the union of 850 tribes.

One of them is prime minister James Marape, who recently pleaded with Bougainville’s leaders to take into consideration PNG’s fate when deliberating on the matter.

But asking Bougainville to empathise with PNG is a bit rich considering PNG has never really empathized with Bougainvilleans.

PNG certainly didn’t when Bougainville first demanded independence before PNG gained its independence and when the Bougainville people opposed the Panguna mine.

Instead of asking for Bougainvilleans to see things through a PNG lens, Marape should be preparing PNG to let go of Bougainville.

Bougainvilleans have already made up their minds on full independence as expressed in the results of the referendum on whether or not they remain an integral part of PNG.

PNG on the other hand needs a serious national consultation on its post-Bougainville political architecture instead of toying around with whether or not it should be defined in its Constitution as a Christian nation.

At independence there was recognition by the likes of the first Governor General, Sir John Guise, that the kind of centralised Westminster government PNG was borrowing from its colonial master would lead to separatist movements.

The context of Sir John’s concern was that prior to independence there were already movements of political self-determination across the land.

The aspiration for self-determination is as old as the independent Melanesian tribes that have for millennia defended their tribal lands from outsiders.

It was against this cultural grain that a forced unification was imposed by the West.

This has been perpetuated since 1975 by an elite whose minds have been successfully colonised. Colonisation in PNG has a black face.

But a tendency for self-determination need not necessarily mean balkanization is inevitable.

After all, Bougainville was initially amenable to being part of PNG at independence in 1975 and dropped its ambitions for independence.

However, Bougainvilleans were to be disappointed by a neocolonial government in Waigani and its instruments of suppression inherited from the colonial Administration.

Attempts to accommodate Bougainvillean aspirations within the nation-state model borrowed from the West led to a civil war remain a source of discontent nationwide with calls for autonomy.

The English language is not the native tongue of Papua New Guineans. Translating their self-determination aspirations inevitably involves losing some of the nuances of the political, social and economic autonomy control they wish to have.

We have seen this in the Bougainville experience where the Westminster model of the nation state has proven itself to be incapable of accommodating the political aspirations of the people of Bougainville.

Even after Bougainvilleans were granted greater autonomy than most other autonomous regions globally, they chose independence.

This reflected their bitter experience of Waigani continuing to deny them much needed development funding and thus stifling their progress.

The Melanesian world has for millennia been a multi-polar world with no strong political centre or hegemony.

The colonial powers imposed their nation-building historical tradition through a newly educated PNG elite.

The colonisers hoped the elite would administer a regime that would create a Western-style homogenous national identity under central control.

Such an animal is not necessarily evil, however the PNG experience has shown that it is flawed as it can easily be hijacked by a rent-seeking predatory elite.

The accumulation of power and resources at the centre of power has had little trickle-down effect to the periphery.

In natural resource law, many Papua New Guineans feel cheated by a system that enables itself to own and decide on the exploitation of oil, gas and minerals that lie under tribal lands.

Year after year sub-national administrations wait like beggars for Waigani to release warrants for their development activities.

Political leaders, proud of their people’s mandate, have become yoyos jumping into different political camps hoping to grab some crumbs for their people.

People who were once warriors have become worriers and bystanders in their own land.

Bougainvilleans clearly do not want to be part of this failed project and are intent on bailing out.

Through their natural resource laws they have demonstrated that the people should always be the centre of power and not the central government.

Waigani needs to catch up to this reality instead of looking for band-aid solutions towards maintaining central control through the nation state.

A second Constitutional Planning Committee is needed to seek opinions from the people of PNG as to the type of system of government that is more relevant to them.

PNG needs a new Constitution and a new political architecture to accommodate the different interest groups in this land post Bougainville’s inevitable exit.

The current centralised system has been rightfully acknowledged by many leaders, including the prime minister, as being unable to withstand pressures from separatists especially when institutions of the state are weak.

PNG is a pluri-national state that has been pretending to be a nation state for over 40 years.

Instead of obsessing over whether PNG’s Constitution defines it as a Christian country, we should be exploring models of government that may be more relevant to PNG.

Should PNG be redefined from being the Independent State of Papua New Guinea to becoming the Pluri-National State of Papua New Guinea?

PNG needs a new Constitution that recognises the different tribal nations and empowers them with their full rights to self-determination within a political union.

Two questions long struggled with

Sweet potato farming in the Southern Highlands – communal sharing for mutual benefit is the Melanesian Way

By MICHAEL DOM – posted on PNG Attitude blog

LAE – Power, power, power. Yeah, sure.

In Papua New Guinea subsistence agriculture is a basic mode of living, resources are communally shared and political power is gained and maintained by the assurance of mutual benefit for all.

It can be challenging to understand that the infant national character (that which emerged through parliamentary democracy) doesn’t know what to do about the vast wealth made available to it.

It has been that way since Somare.

The wealthy know what to do with wealth. The poor know only poverty.

Where does Papua New Guinea sit in reference to these two poles?

Only Bougainvilleans reverted to their true character when they realised that the power structures created by Western imperialists and adopted by PNG elites were leading to the destruction of their homeland.

That is why Bougainville wants independence and why their people bled for it.

They have learned a better way and their national character is born of harsh reality.

Bougainville is already independent.

The PNG government and the rest of the naysayers just haven’t realised it yet because they cannot.

They have a different character.

It may be suggested that according to Melanesian society’s rules of cooperation, PNG should allow Bougainville independence, since no one is coerced to join with others if they don’t want to do so.

Power forces its own way. Mutually assured destruction is its natural outcome.

Observe PNG’s resource use – from Somare, the other guys, to O’Neill and now Marape – but still no sovereign wealth fund.

Power in the hands of the people should not be power for its own sake, it should be the power of cooperation for mutually assured benefit.

I think that is called the Melanesian way.

Two central questions for exploring new governing structures should be: how do we facilitate a return to cooperation and what means do we adopt to keep power responsible?

And I think we’ve been struggling with these questions all along.

Our young poets are ‘the hopes that we bear in spite’


Remote models require assimilation. You can learn from the past with little risk of merely aping it as you might ape your contemporaries, or the generation just before your own. A young poet impatient with the assumptions and styles of the present might look for springboards and encouragements in another time.” Robert Pinsky

Our ancients understood the power of poetry, even if it remained undefined to them, because the dramatic life events and their emotional responses were encapsulated in their naïve poetic authenticity and released during their chants and dance, sung tales and oration.

They used poetic techniques and devices to express their desire for dominance over nature or fear of the unknown elements lurking there, to marshal, manage or manipulate women and men, to gain more land, for success in hunting and fishing, for battle glory, increased virility and numerous pigs, all in varied orders of importance.

They knew how precious was verbalised hope for good harvest, healthy children, helpful weather, calm seas, peace with enemies, victory over rivals and good fortune in finding and wooing a spouse, and in order to communicate their stories and customs over generations.

What we now call our oral literature was doubtless an intimate part of the knowledge systems which helped us to survive and to inform successive generations of the core values in our traditional societies, those which have served us for tens of millennia on this island. Even today elements of our traditional life provide a social safety net and customary obligations for family and community as well as for leadership.

In a very real way oral literature was the articulated hope of our ancients who were living in a darker universe than ours is today. Hope for the future and trust that their descendants would continue to survive and thrive using the knowledge which they had encoded in their chants and dance, sung tales and fireside fables.

It is now our responsibility to make sure that we don’t let such ancient hope fade and leave us with blank pages in our history.

While writers may bear the task of recording historical facts and truthful fictions, poets hold our hope poised on the points of their pens and tuned tantalizingly on the tips of their tongues.

We need to hear from our poets when our society and economy is being rocked from within and without, when our political leaders fail to offer us the kind of hope, justice and peace of mind that comes from facing the truth, because without doing this we continue dwell in doubt about our leaders and uncertainty about our future.

As one psychology professor expounded “If you put people in wildly uncertain circumstances, they discount the future”. That is a reality which many rural communities face after continually unfulfilled promises from MPs for mineral resource projects and leaders on logging deals, both scenarios where too many communities have had very little say.

And a similar sense of hopelessness for the future is bound to be felt in the ATS community after their recent evictions.

Social issues abound and how we dramatize the emotional response in memorable poetry determines the value of our literature and what we learn from it.

We need to hear from our writers and poets at times when society’s fundamental building blocks are being battered and bruised because, for instance, it’s not only women who are the victims of gender-based violence, it is our on-going relationships as couples, in families and communities that suffer, and where the emotional and psychological wellbeing of our children impacts. About half of those children are the future men of this nation.

How do we understand and come to terms with what’s happening in our lives?

Moreover, if “Value is what you perceive and pursue” then what do the works of our young poets demonstrate or reveal about us to ourselves and others on what we are aiming to achieve.

What is the Beauty and Truth that we perceive today?

We had poets. We have poets. They articulate a new oral literature and write it too, partly maintaining our modern society’s history. But do we still keep to our core family and tribal values?

Over the last decade the latest wave of PNG’s literary movements, The Crocodile Prize Literary Competition, has calmed from a cyclone to a whirl. It remains to be seen if the tide has carried PNG writers of this decade to their final shore.

A few old hands continue to “rage against the dying of the light” including journalist and author Daniel Kumbon (Victory Song of Pingeta’s Daughter), the distinguished poet and literature professor Dr Steven Winduo (Land Echoes) and our national literary guru Russel Soaba (Scattered by the wind), formerly blogging at Soaba’s Storyboard.

The early generation of the Crocodile Prize era are still blazing on, with much more recent publications from Baka Binaka (Tales from Faif), Marlene Potoura (6 Whacky Tales for Youngsters) and Caroline Evari (Nanu Sina).

The twilight of our small print industry has provided other opportunities, such as poet and author Jordan Dean (Tama’gega) becoming an independent online publisher with Kindle and helping even more PNG writers to become published authors.

Across the Coral Sea Rashmii Bell (My Walk To Equality), essayist, editor and advocate, is building a brilliant publishing brand in Hibiscus 3. The landmark women’s publication that Rashmii edited was also reviewed by Tess Newton Cain of DevPolicy Blog.

The small number of writers involved with Ples Singsing – A PNG writer’s blog and other blogs, such as Sipikriva Girl, Auna Melo, Academia Nomad, Em Nau PNG’s Blog and My Land My Country continue to write about everything from politics to pumpkin tips.

You will find the works of more than a few of the newer literary hands alongside those of the old hands on the famous PNG Attitude blog, ten whom I’ll mention here are seasoned poets, and I have read that many more of these young bloods are born in the Facebook pages of Poetry PNG.

 Wardley DB Igivisa is our poet’s poet. A deep thinker with an axe to grind. But he swings that razor-edged axe with a dexterity that leaves a scalpel clean cut. 

Reading his poems can feel like you’ve just bitten the tip of your own tongue and now you can see the open slit in the mirror. Salt can really burn after a cut like The Melanesian; “She clawed deeper / into my flesh as she spoke, / as if to plant each syllable / firmly in my consciousness”.

And a smack down from ‘The Ward’ can give us hope too, hope that we can do better when he tells us to keep your heaven; “keep your prophetic gift / it is pushing me back / into the darkness // all i want is humanity / all i want is equality / all i want is a jesus / that says everyone matters”.

Wardley’s first book of poetry demonstrated his technical skill and the intense scrutiny of himself and society at large. ABCDreams showed us that “Poems are an avenue for us to ponder, plumb and pun on life’s varied scenarios”.

A personal favourite of mine from that book is My Tumbuna Talked. It was one of the poems which earned Wardley the Crocodile Prize Award for Poetry in 2016.

The poem is a masterful description of modern-day dilemma, a list of qualms reflecting on the frustration that our youth have with past generations, disenchantment with their present struggles and feeling dispirited about their future.

Let me not talk about tomorrow
Let me not think about tomorrow
Let me not write about tomorrow
For sufficient for today is the evil of yesterday.”

Then there’s Raymond Sigimet, a published poet, story teller and teacher. We have a few of these characters around and Sigimet’s poems can brighten us up like a festive season.

 Raymond’s poetry is like Christmas lights on ‘slo-glo’ mode. Watching from afar it looks like an ethereal wave as each bulb fades dimmer then builds up to a fiery sparkle.

At the moment when most of the bulbs are waving down there’s that brief chance to catch your breath on a poem that leaves a residual glimmer of the lights in your brain.

Sometimes that glimmering sounds like a melodious verse as in Let words be not silent or sleep alone; “Have all good poems been written / That we today have none to write / What then of the difficult mundane / The highs and lows we must bite / Or the hopes that we bear in spite”.

When a poem leaves a residual glow, you know that it’s good. Two other poems from Mr. Sigimet imprinted themselves on me in this manner.

A truly marvellous villanelle in which words offered no respite, the way in poignant moments we search for Bigger words to say I’m sorry; “The stabbing hurt does dull much memory / The falling away then has no uses / as we sit and stare without a worry”.

This poem must always be read in full. It is one whole piece.

Then when I think that I am daydreaming of a pleasant beachside holiday of my own volition Raymond instead tells me that The Island is Calling; “Over the calm water / when she is sleeping / Under the weather / when I am praying // The sand will be joyous / to walk with you again / The birds will be curious / to see a boy now grown”.

A short almost castaway set of words that comes drifting back in with the tide.

At other times a small spark of hope is all we need, a brief flash to remind us of something valuable or vulnerable and encourage us to keep seeking our path through the gloom and gore we are surrounded with every day.

It’s helpful to have poets hold a light up for us but Hezron Wangi Jnr and Edwin Lako each flashed a high beam torch directly in our eyes, switched it off and then ran away into the night. Shame on them! 

Naughty boys! Come back here and explain yourselves!

Maybe they’re hiding in the Facebook Poetry PNG pages. (Someone should go smoke them out of Zuckerberg’s mindless maze of miscreants.)

Here’s the promiscuous torchlight that Hezron ‘shined us on with’ before disappearing, Till death do us part; “My blade was quick, / Stabbed and dead, / Her and Sir Dick, / Naked in our bed. // Lifeless, they lie, / Their sinful cadavers, / Submerged in lye, / Forever he’ll have her”.

As for Edwin, I suspect that he’s won that sweet young sine-gai he was crooning his heart out for, the sly devil wailing Ohh Sine-Gai Tine; “Convincing you is like climbing Mt Wilhelm, being with you makes me feel I’ve conquered Mt Wilhelm, losing you is unimaginable. //… Oh Sine-Gai Tine of Laswara, I’ve heard of, seen and known. But you…?”.

 While we are at Mt Wilhelm searching for our Sine-Gai we should look out for Jimmy Awagl of the Simbu Writers Association.

Jimmy Awagl is a workhorse. What can I say, he’s a Simbu. They’re made of rock.

Although rocks start off in a soft molten mash that you can’t pick up so easily, when they cool you can examine them closely, especially when they’re cracked and brittle, like in Shattered Dream; “The dream is a fairytale / Your love was legendary / until it all turned to clay // The tale of our good old days / The ambitions we shared / walked out of our lives”.

We may feel sorry for the young lass who dropped that rough piece of rock.

If you polish a piece of quartz rock it will gleam like a gemstone catching the reflection of sunshine When the flame kisses the earth; “And the beauty of the sun is ours to keep / Bestowed to bring light to our lives / Its rays conferred without a price / To keep our hearts at peace”.

There is zen in the mountains. But it sure gets cold. And that makes life challenging for high altitude highlands communities, like Tambul Nebilyer, where Samuel Lucas Kafugili works assiduously on his poems.

Highlanders glorify and praise the majesty of the mountains which their ancestors first named, as in Kiluwe, oh Kiluwe; “Mt Giluwe, oh Giluwe / Kiluwe in mother lingua franca, / from whose mighty peaks, / the freezing mists disgorge // And snowflakes that puff out, / and ice, the spray-gunned ice, / Sending away the glacial drops / that slide into the mist”.

(My review of Kafugili’s poem is provided here.)

These six young men aren’t alone in their poetic perambulation. Our young women keep them on their toes, as muses and moving poets in their own righteous place.

The talented and well-known Dominica Are continues to surprise and delight and does so again in her new book Prized Possessions.  She has put serious study into her poem creation and it has made a noticeable difference.

While her early poems contained stalling phrases, her recent work flows smoothly to an inevitable cascade.

As a mother she has affords us a unique perspective during the Covid-19 lockdowns when her young children are In their cocoon; “But their infectious laughter pulls me through / To live without fear as we want to do // Whilst adhering rigidly to instructions / Stay home, stay safe, no obstructions // In their carefree world I’d love to dwell / But the fire will stop, all will be well”.

Marie-Rose Sau is a matriarch of the Poetry PNG page. Marie-Rose blooms for us every now and then on PNG Attitude.

But sometimes her presence is to foretell a creeping disease like in The death of decency Part I; “They eat the fattest pigs for dinner / And drive around in golden cars from China / I guess it is true what they say now / They’ve made a deal with the devil / And gave us bones for the picking”.

And Ms. Sau completes a full diagnosis in Part II; “This is the irony of reality / They look you in the eye and promised you the heavens / They vow to carry your voice against the wind / And now they spit back at you and drive away in flashy cars / They have no time for you”.

One of the benefits of living in PNG Attitude’s vineyard is wine tasting.

We can watch the grapes grow, being pressed, fermented and blended then barrelled away and left to mature.

Stephanie Alois poetry emerged in that way to my salubrious sampling. Her poetry has matured into a fine full-flavored wine.

Here’s a tasting of her early Sauvignon blanc, Relentless; “Secrets in my head / Scars in my heart / Fear in my bones / I want to explode / Each time I’m provoked / To remember what happened”.

It’s fresh, raw and fast paced like most youthful poetry.

A much earlier sample from Stephanie’s cellar leaves us equally breathless while reading about the Coronavirus Pandemic: “Panic’s in the atmosphere / Freakish reaction everywhere / How did it get here? / In a tropical paradise / I’m feeling paralysed”.

But nowadays Stephanie’s bottled words offer a well-crafted and settled vintage like the  remarkable and earthy Mud Woman; “A taste of wine with in her presence / Spending more time with her / Leads to loving her even more / It’s difficult not to laugh at her jokes / Or her wicked sense of humour / She’ll get you thinking, she never cries”.

That is a deep red merlot. Warm and hearty.

But Miss. Alois offers another tasting which is a more feisty, red blooded revelation about My sister Celest; “So I’ve said nothing, nothing at all / about our Celest. Maybe you heard? / My sister’s such a disappointment. / She goes off to school each day / in hope of a future bright and bold, / Then comes home full of complaint / about clothes, stationery, friends, money”.

Stephanie serves a full glass of wine each time in the PNG way – right up to the top.

Then there are the newly minted celebrity servings we occasionally receive on PNG Attitude.

When Koivi Rex Biva burst open her champagne bottle like a Formula 1 winner, it was almost with tears of joy that I beheld the beautifully crafted verses even while I read of The perpetual tears of Hela; “Once no cries were heard nor bitter tears shed, / This time when ancients and babes mingled calm, / Love and respect were their constant companions, / When no one stood bewildered by enmity or anger”.

Ms. Biva does not bivouac there, she’s a mountain lady and she rolls her lingua franca to blow kiss her love with full lips, Dobasi wandkii; “Beauty is the word for you, no other can do / I found you somewhere, now I don’t know how, / Your smile, it just made that moment explode / I failed in my choice of the right words for you / Doo dobasi wandkii, oh!”

I suspect that Koivi is a poetic talent born fully formed. 

We are fortunate to share her language of love. Beauty is the word.

While we constantly remind each other that the youth of the nation are our future it is up to this current generation to offer them better stories to tell, to enable them to write the truth of our lives and inspire them to imagine what a future Papua Niugini might be like.

We should be confident that Papua Niugini is a country with unproven human potential and the vast natural resource base to provide for advancement. We cannot afford to let our youth agonize over tomorrow in the way Wardley’s exhausted writer had exclaimed.

Indeed, Wardley’s first book, ABCDreams, was hailed as “A new collection that declares a bright future for PNG poetry”.

The Crocodile Prize ship, under which broad sails many writers and poets made their first passage, has made its last voyage. But that ship was sunk right where it should. We are on home ground.

Now we must create new platforms for our youth to talk and gain experiences, provide them forums to think and share ideas, and encourage and challenge their writing pursuits.

It is young poets, like those mentioned here, whom we trust to express the honest responses to what we experience in life today and explore our hope for tomorrow.

Singaut igo aut long ol wanlain bilong mipela. Ples Singsing i sanap.

Science meets oral history at Orokolo Bay

Orokolo Bay

| Monash University

MELBOURNE – In late 2015, I arrived for the second time at Orokolo Bay on Papua New Guinea’s south coast.

The bay is a long grey-black beach, densely forested with hibiscus and coconut trees. As we approached by dinghy from the east, clusters of houses could be glimpsed fleetingly among the bush.

I had arrived with colleagues from PNG’s National Museum and Art Gallery to commence an archaeological project in partnership with two village communities, Larihairu and Kaivakovu.

Working alongside local experts in oral tradition, I hoped to use Western archaeological techniques – surveys, excavations, carbon dating and analyses of material culture – to unravel aspects of the human history of the south coast.

But in the weeks that followed, I became aware that we were covering old ground.

Our archaeological surveys were not revealing previously unknown archaeological sites. Rather, locals introduced us to their ancestral places.

Many of these places bore surface traces of their ancestors’ lives, such as scatters of earthenware pottery sherds and shell middens, making it obvious how and why people were aware of them.

To my surprise, though, the villagers also had an intimate knowledge of what lay beneath the ground.

Through the daily activities of cultivating crops and building structures, people in Orokolo Bay have been continually digging up and interpreting evidence of their ancestral past for generations.

This kind of uniquely Indigenous archaeology – conducted as part of daily life – continually breathes life into and sustains local oral traditions.

The local people told us about how these cultural deposits, along with distinctive layers of dark sediment in the ground, spoke of the actions of their ancestors in recent generations, and of a time when the Earth itself was formed in the cosmological past.

All this gave me a new appreciation for oral traditions of Indigenous peoples, and how they may incorporate not just memories, but also physical evidence of the past.

In Orokolo Bay and other parts of the south coast of PNG, people are in the business of working with the earth.

When people want to establish a garden, they find a location where the sandy soil is well-drained and fertile.

Whether the garden is new or being remade, areas of vegetation and undergrowth are cut down and burned. Then holes are dug to plant the varied and colourful crops that grow so abundantly in the tropics, such as taro, yams, pineapple, sweet potato, and corn.

In this process, the ground surface is laid bare and the subsurface exposed. Activities such as house-building have similar effects – surface vegetation is cleared, and foundation posts are dug deep into the ground.

Today, the people of Orokolo Bay build their gardens in cleared forest patches a couple of kilometres inland – an area that was once situated on the coastline.

Throughout the human history of coastal occupation in this part of the world, beaches have been growing rapidly southwards at a rate of about three metres a year as river sediments pile up and extend the coast.

Previous archaeological studies have shown that people moved their villages with the changing coastline, preferring to live near the sea to access marine food and trade routes.

For many years, the old inland sites have been overgrown with dense tropical forest. But within the past five generations, people have cleared areas of forest to establish gardens.

On a Wednesday morning in September 2020, our archaeological team had just finished the technical drawings of a site we had excavated.

Kaivakovu village elders – who had been busy with community meetings – arrived to take us on a survey of their ancestral sites.

Each at least 40 years my senior, the elders took off at a startling pace; they threaded a trail through numerous named and storied places situated on ancient beach plains and hillsides.

Wherever we saw evidence of recent gardening activity, there were physical remains of the past spilling out of the ground.

At one site (Maivipi), one of the elders had just dug scores of banana plants into the ground. Each plant was now surrounded by dozens of recently disturbed pottery shards.

At another site, we saw once-buried shell and animal bone strewn across a large communal garden area.

For locals, these materials signify two things.

First, the pottery shards are reminders of close social relationships with Motu people who live approximately 400 kilometres to the east.

Until the mid-1950s, the Motu (from today’s Port Moresby region) would annually sail into villages such as those in Orokolo Bay, bringing with them tens of thousands of earthenware pots.

They would return to their families months later with tonnes of food in the form of sago palm starch, along with hardwood logs to make canoe hulls.

Second, the remains of pots and food are reminders of the large and thriving villages that their forebears established.

Women used their pots to cook food for daily sustenance and for communal feasts. Fragments of the pots are reminders of work and life in the village, and their presence indicates where centres of domestic activity might have been located.

Of the ancient villages, a 1.3 kilometre-long place called Popo looms large in local and regional oral traditions.

Popo is a legendary migration site for Orokolo Bay residents and for many other clan and village groups living in coastal locations up to 125 kilometres farther to the east.

According to oral traditions, the village was inhabited by ancestors between 16 and seven generations ago. (Western dating techniques put it at 700-200 years old.)

Clan-based social structures, longhouse buildings (15-metre-tall cathedral-like houses), and ceremonies were all developed there.

The people recount that the site was divided into estates that belonged to the different clans that today occupy the coastal village communities.

Popo is also a cosmological origin place; their stories tell how the entire world was made there.

Interestingly, there’s a strong correlation between the intensiveness of agricultural activity in various spots throughout Popo and the perceived antiquity of those sites

Villagers in Orokolo Bay prepare a meal in clay pots

Estates where more land has been cleared, and where people regularly encounter pottery shards or shell middens, are generally perceived to be more ancient.

The remains have also helped locals to determine where the centre of the village or the longhouse might have been located.

During our excavations at Miruka and Koavaipi, we found thin layers of jet-black sand. According to Western geomorphology, these are layers of iron-rich magnetite sand – sediment that was transported by rivers from PNG’s volcanic mountains into the Coral Sea.

The locals see their ancestors’ actions in the sand. Paul Mahiro – son of famed Orokolo Bay historian Morea Pekoro – told me the black sand was laid by his ancestors when they were creating the land.

Paul said that two ancestor beings travelled from the west in a magical sky-borne canoe sometime in the deep, cosmological past.

In their hand, they had a black sand,” he recounted, which they left at Popo and other nearby coastal locations. When gardeners unearth these thin layers, they are reminded of their ancestors’ travels and actions.

Of course, Western scientific doesn’t always agree with these people’s reading the past. For example, our excavations and radiocarbon dating program provide a different order. Some of the youngest estates according to oral tradition were the oldest in our radiocarbon sequence.

Likewise, archaeologically speaking, the black sand layers formed in two relatively recent events – one dating to about 650 years ago, and the other just before 200 years ago.

These contradictions don’t necessarily cause conflict. One night, while socialising in a house in Larihairu village, a younger community member asked me what I knew of the past.

I replied that, as an archaeologist, I hoped to investigate human history using the materials people left behind.

He replied, “You only know about the human story, but we know about the mythical beings and spiritual beings.”

I get the sense that Western scientific chronologies don’t pose an existential threat to the mythical and spiritual pasts of Orokolo Bay.

Within the oral traditions themselves there are already overlapping and interwoven chronologies, each of which serves a different purpose.

Popo is understood simultaneously as a migration site occupied between 16 and seven generations ago, and as a timeless origin place.

Orokolo Bay has crucial implications for how we understand oral traditional knowledge.

Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in millennia-old Indigenous oral traditions from North America and Australia that record details of environmental changes and interactions with long-extinct animals.

Aboriginal oral traditions from across coastal Australia describe a time in which sea levels rose dramatically, which Western science dates to a time from 13,000 to 7,000 years ago.

Even more remarkably, stories told by Australian Aboriginal Gunditjmara people may describe a series of eruptions that took place 37,000 years ago.

Those who study oral traditions often refer to them as ‘memories’. The word suggests that experiential information was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth alone.

What if oral traditions are not just handed-down stories? What if they incorporate First Peoples knowledge of the archaeological and geographical features they dwell among?

In Orokolo Bay, people read the ancestral past in their landscapes. They identify stratification features and relate these to the stories told to them by their elders.

They observe concentrations of pottery and weave their interpretations of old village sites into the oral traditions their families’ curate.

These interactions hint that Indigenous archaeologies and other forms of landscape knowledge are crucial to how oral traditions are sustained and maintained across generations.

It’s time to reconsider the remarkable (and complex) ways in which First Peoples record and reconstruct the past.

I think we’ll continue to be amazed by their oral traditional technologies, and what they record.

Uphill: A journey from the Highlands to the Coast (Part 1)


November 2018, Morobe, a blend of everything Papua New Guinean, from the cool mountainous ridges that step from the majestic highlands to the endless plains of the Markham and on-wards to the shoreline of the Huon Peninsula. A walk around ‘Eriku’ and a visit to Lae Market remains no exception to this, fruits and vegetables of variety, faces and languages of throughout the country, all in chaotic-harmony of economic exchange. As in any bustling city, it becomes clear as to what drives the tempo of society here, and it can be quite unforgiving to the un-counselled. But a closer look into the crowd reveals a people of a different tempo, a people of a different time. A people I would never have noticed had I not ventured into the remote mountains of Morobe. So here follows accounts of the time, “No! The times!” I walked from the mountains of Bulolo down to the shores of Salamaua, on The Black Cat Track.

Figure 1: Map of the Black Cat Track and surrounding communities, extracted from the book “” 1943

The path we took was the one most traveled by the locals, one of detours and shortcuts, “shortcuts that were nothing like shortcuts” and breathtaking bypasses past treacherous landslips peeling off half the mountains. It was a time when the track had been closed off to the public due to rivalry among two tribes over tourism royalties, “one may have heard of the ‘Banis Donkey’ incident”, an unfortunate event which saw the aerial medevac of local victims and distraught foreign tourists. The tension between the tribes and fear of retaliation forced people along the track to abandon their villages and move away further into the forest for their livelihood, a return to the time when the clock’s hands were daylight and the tummy.

Lae was my first posting as a junior officer in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Going to Lae meant two things to me; it was a city I have known and enjoyed for four and half years whilst a student, and most importantly to me, it was not more than a day’s travel by road to Mum and Pap in Goroka. There, I was attached to the Headquarters of the Engineering Battalion in Igam Barracks, and reported directly to the Second-in-Command of the Unit. Looking back; it was a fantastic start to that line of work, especially in understanding the coordinating processes of a military establishment.

Now every two years, it is tradition that the Unit conducts what is called an Adventure Training Exercise. It was decided that for that year, the Black Cat Track would be walked. As in any good military organization, a reconnaissance team had to be sent ahead to assess what was to be expected and required prior to undertaking the activity. I leaped at the opportunity, “I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience what our forefathers went through during the Second World War?” Fresh out of Officer Cadet Training, I knew there was nothing quite like physical hardship out bush that brought soldiers together; a bond forged by pains suffered together, is a bond unlike others.

So off we went; a composite reconnaissance team with representatives from the Morobe National Disaster Response, Salamaua Community leader representatives, guides from Wau and us four defence personnel; two senior officers, a Sapper and myself. Our mission was simple, walk the route, establish contacts along the way and report back on feasibility. That was my first time to walk the Black Cat Track, Wau to Salamaua.

Figure 2: Morning of day one; the Reconnaissance, Biawen Village

Two weeks later, with a unit prepped and ready, we set out again, this time we numbered a little more than 25. We left Igam barracks at around 10am and got into Wau around 5pm. The drive is a tale in itself, spectacular views. Most noticeable was the drop in temperature as we ascended into Bulolo and onwards to Wau. There was a small vineyard of grapes, “Yes, Grapes!” as we passed what was the ‘Vitis Industries’ plantations and factory. Switching vehicles to local PMVs which were 4×4 trucks that looked like props from ‘Mad Max’ the movie, the next hour and a half was a breeze before we reached our starting point, ‘Biawen Village’ which was situated between ‘Kaisenik’ and ‘Ballam’.

Figure 3: Godogasul Village; lollies for smiles.

Amongst our group were two medical specialists, one a combat medic and the other a female nursing officer. They had the greatest impact on the people, winning hearts and minds of the communities along the way. Apart from our rations for the journey, we carried also medical supplies, clothes and useful items to give to the most remote villages. Things such as old newspapers which they could use to roll their tobacco cigarettes were greatly appreciated amongst the elders of the villages. I had in my pack an assortment of sweets for the children. “I tell you there is no greater joy then to see children light up to a present carried especially for them. I even had some adults lining up for that different taste of sweetness, priceless moments.”

Oh the first summit…if you’ve ever been led to a remote village by Papua New Guinean locals then you might know how they would say; “It’s just over yonder! It’s just around this bend! Not too far now!” Having done the reconnaissance, and now walking the second time, I can see the innocence in what they were saying, for in their perception, it truly was as they said; “Just over yonder”. But I knew better this time, and I made sure I told my team, “It’s further than they say it is!” There is a certain ease of doing things when one is mentally prepared to expect a far greater challenge than there actually is.

We reached the summit which was funny enough called, “Summit.” If the weight of your pack was unevenly distributed, you would have already known by then. Unlike my first trip, I was better prepared for this one, mentally and physically. The look on my companions’ faces though…little did they know, this was one of the easier climbs.

Figure 4: WWII Plane wreck as seen along route to Summit.

Rolling meadows of grassland that led to the forests edge. Off in the distance to our left the locals pointed to the wreck of a WWII plane, a common first stop for many past trekkers.  Ideally, we had to reach the forest before the midday sun kicked in, and fortunately we did. From there the path went winding along the contours of the mountains in the shade of lush green trees. Even out of direct sunlight, there still was no relief from the heat of the Morobe Sun. We’d pass numerous freshwater streams; I made sure I replaced all my water containers with nature’s own. I had four litters carrying capacity on me, and I went through it easy. Sweat poured out my pores faster than I could take in water. All the toxins of city life; expelled in one day. The air, rich and nourishing, untainted by the tang of economic progress…“Oh what price to pay for progress…”  

This profession has also given me the opportunity to travel abroad on several occasions. Awe-stricken at how amazing human ingenuity can be, awe-stricken at how human behaviour and environment resemble each other. Now even more so I am able to contrast the notion of a nation developed, a nation developing and one caught in-between the two. Ripped from the bosom of Mother Nature, the more people create, the more people learn, the more people are required to do and the more complex the society. But then you come out into the forest, and you see these people, the primary necessities are still the same, but the process to it is much, much simpler. I pity them for our conveniences they lack, but I envy them for the comforts there in. And in their eyes I see the same compassion back towards me. They as I are products of the environments we were raised in, and they give so willingly, sharing food, smiles, and at times laughter at how clumsy we foreigners look, trying to navigate the rugged terrain which they so effortlessly and naturally glide through.

Figure 5: Dawn at Haus Mambu Campsite.

With around an hour of light remaining, we reached our first camp site, “Haus Mambu,” a regular first stop for trekkers as we learned. Setting up camp, we had been walking for a good eleven hours. That night was truly memorable. I didn’t bring any sleeping gear so I had to make do with a balaclava over my head, my raincoat over me and socks on my feet facing the camp fire. You’d hear the crackle of the fire slowly giving in to the sound of silence. I recall staring up into the canopy of bamboo and trees, pitch black, no light but that which we brought, nothing but the thoughts about nothing in your mind … and then sleep, like you’ve never slept before.

A pre-dawn light drizzle rousing heavy eyelids with the songs of insects and birds stirring unseen throughout the green…the second day had begun.

To be continued…

And justice for Jenelyn


Jenelyn Kennedy, born March 18 2001 tortured by her husband from 18 to 23 June 2020, died of head injuries and bruised internal organs caused by blunt force trauma.

This is a poem I did not want to share but I am doing so because Jenelyn’s story haunts me. She is the same age as my baby girl and she was the mother of two infant children.

I am a poet but I don’t know what to say to those children.

God grant them peace and joy. That will be blessing enough. And justice for Jenelyn.

And justice for Jenelyn
Tell me, Jenelyn, why must love grieve today?
Is there no mercy to grant us reprieve today?

Show me – sweet beauty – how can we trust love again?
When the ones whom we love – hatefully deceive today

What foolhardy hopes had caused you to run away?
Your youthful glee could never have perceived today

Now you have become a perverted Juliet – 
DAMN YOU ROMEO! She is decked in wreathes today!

So young, Jenelyn, so much more to have in life – 
There is joy, there is peace – but anger seethes today

Where were we when you needed us? Do we ask?
If we had known or imagined – these deeds today?
How the hands which covet may also kill this way
A lover turned torturer – we too bleed today

And amidst this horror – Men – look in the mirror
It is our soul not Jenelyn’s which is bereaved today

One dead daughter, one less wife – we are less one life –
Jenelyn’s – one more statistic bequeathed today

Oh, dear young mother, what do we tell your babes?
What good sermon of peace do they receive today?

Surely it must be some demonic force – I say
This cannot be what God has conceived today?!

I pray for justice, or vengeance, from God Himself!
Culprit husband – thanks to you – I believe today	

I am calling my namesake – Michael, Archangel 
For loves damned sake, let us your swift sword cleave today!

This poem was offered to the Kennedy family through a friend attending the haus krai an funeral last year.

In that Paradise

By Fiada Kede

First place World Environment Day Poetry

My name is Fiada Kede. I’m from Eastern Highlands Province currently residing in Port Moresby.

I love reading poems. What I love about poems is the way the ordinary things are expressed in an extraordinary way. When I read poems, it gives me a new sense of seeing things.

When I first saw the flyer of the mini-poetry competition I thought I was not eligible for the competition since I ‘m not a student or in that age category for that matter. But then, I realize that what’s important is not our age or eligibility. What’s important is expressing our thoughts and views freely when it comes to this kind of topic/issues as it affects all of us irrespective of who we are or what we do.

I thank Ples Singsing for the creating the platform where Papua New Guineans can unleash their potential and develop their creativity.

In that Paradise

As free as the wind
No zoo, never confined
Paradise birds take flight
Without plight
In that Paradise

As clear as the crystal
Unblighted, bountiful and admiral
Were the oceans
Teeming with billions
In that Paradise

As thick as the clouds
Enshrouded with un-numbered crowds
Were the forest
Untouched from the rest
In that Paradise

Oh alas! As dumb as the numb
Was she, till the oceans blighted with scum
In the name of development
He threw his environment in devolvement
Of that Paradise

Oh Arise! As tall as the tree-stand tall
Dear compatriots, for tis our call
To manage, nurture and protect
To replant, recycle and reuse- that never neglect
For that paradise

Em Maikel Dom emi tanim Tok Pisin

Long dispela Paradise

Emi stap free olsem win
Nogat zoo, ino bin kalabus
Paradise pisin ikirap
Inogat hevi
Long dispela Paradise

Olsem glas bilong wara
Nogat mosong, karim na mangal
Em ol solwara
I pulap na pulap turu
Long dispela Paradise

Emi paspas olsem klaut
Na karamapim giraun olsem bikpela kibung
Em bus ibin istap
Taim nogat wanpela han i holim
Long dispela Paradise

Oh sore! Mauspas olsem ston
Em meri iet, igo inap pipia pulapim solwara 
Na developmen emi as bilong en
Em man iet i bagarapim giraun long development
Bilong dispela Paradise

Olgeta kirap! Sanap olsem diwai igo antap
Ol gutpela poro, em singaut ikam long yumi
Long lukautim, kamapim, na putim was
Long kirapim bek, givim igo bek gen na gen – inoken lusim nating gen
Dispela paradise

What is happening to Mother Nature?

By Kesia Erick

Third place World Environment Day Poetry

My name is Kesia Erick and I come from Hube LLG (Pindiu) in Finschaffen District of Morobe Province. I am 21 year old studying Language and literature at the University of Goroka, and I tend to love writing poems, short stories as well as reading books. I have few of my original work that includes poems and short stories that I wrote. 

The poem that I wrote and translated was based on the current state of our mother nature and the current state of our flora and fauna today. There has been massive destruction done to them without realizing the consequences and effects they have suffered and undergone. Therefore, to sustain and preserve our mother nature, it is time we act now before something destructive happen not only to nature but human beings as well. Additionally, we must be mindful of the way we live our lives daily and the things we do to our environment because the nature gives us everything we as human need for survival. If we cannot be mindful, we might also faced the consequence of our actions to the nature. 

What is happening to Mother Nature?

Garbage are piled up and scattered everywhere, 
Along the road to villages, towns and cities, 
In the rivers and seas, 
In the bushes and jungles, 
Wildlife is affected, 
Yet, human are ignorant, 
What is happening to mother nature?

Forest are disappeared, 
Animals are endangered, 
Rivers are polluted, 
Land is not worth living, 
Air is not worth breathing, 
Water is not worth drinking, 
Food is not worth eating, 

Forests of green, 
Now become forests of doom, 
Rivers of life, 
Now rivers of death, 
Food becomes not edible, 
Diseases are incurable this is unavoidable, 
What is happening to Mother Nature?

The breeding ground of animals and plants 
Are all gone because of greed and stubbornness, 
Our mother nature is severely affected, 
What can we do about this?

Soon enough we will regret, 
What we have done to mother nature, 
It’s time to repent, 
It’s time to renew, 
It’s time to recycle, 
It’s time to save mother nature, 
Please human! Be awake before it’s too late.

Em Kesia iet ibin tanim Tok Pisin

Wanem samting i kamap long Mama Graun?

Pipia i hip na pulap nambaut long olgeta hap, 
Long rot i go long ples, taun na siti, 
Insait long wara na solwara, 
Insait long bush na jungle, 
Ol enimol bilong bikbus i no stap gut, 
Ol plawas na bus bilong yumi i kisim bagarap, 
Wanem samting i kamap long mama graun? 

Bus na ol diwai i pinis olgeta, 
Ol enimol i stap wantaim poret, 
Ol wara i bagarap, 
Graun i no moa gutpela long stap antap long en, 
Wind i no moa gutpela long pulim, 
Wara i no moa gutpela lo dringim, 
Kaikai i no moa safe long kaikai,
Naispla grinpela graun, i dai pinis, 
Wara bilong laip, i nau wara bilong dai, i hatwok long oraitim ol bikpela sik, Dispela i no samting bilong lukluk na larim tasol, 
Oh! Wanem samting i kamap long mama graun? 

Graun ol enimol na plens i save kaikai an stap laip antap, i lus pinis bikos long pasin bilong, 
Mangal, les lo skelim samting na het strong, 
Mama graun bilong yumi i kisim bikpela bagarap, 
Na bai yumi mekim wanem? 

Klostu taim nau yumi bai wari na sori, 
Long ol samting yumi mekim, 
Long ol animal, bus na diwai bilong yumi, 
Em i taim nau yumi tanim bel, 
Em i taim nau yumi mekim nupela samting gen, 
Plis ol manmeri! Taim i pinis so kirap now.

Porugl: Son of the Underworld

Book Review

Phil Fitzpatrick

Porugl: Son of the Underworld by Kamnguru Nem, Independently published, 183 pages, ISBN: 9798520442332. Available from Amazon Australia, ebook $25.94, paperback $42.83.

A gigl ambu is a female spirit who lives in the underworld and travels into the outerworld, where humans live, to secretly forage for food at night.

The underworld is ruled over by an ancient serpent called Kerwanba. Among her subjects are spirits, dwarfs and the mysterious smoking makan nem who act as landlords.

Above ground Kekemba, the mythical eagle soars and a gifted shaman invokes chants to heal wounds and illness and conducts rituals like the mengagle sungwa to bring back the souls of humans stolen by underworld spirits.

Such is the Tolkien-like world inhabited by the hero of Kamnguru Nem’s novel Porugl Son of the Underworld.

Set in Simbu just before contact with Europeans the novel tells the story of Porugl, the grandson and heir of the powerful leader of the Akenku tribe, Kande Kumugl, who is thrown into a deep pit to die by a rival intent upon undermining his family lineage.

Why Porugl was treated in this manner and how he somehow survives and comes to live in the mystical realms of the underworld before eventually escaping makes up the intriguing narrative of the novel.

While the novel is reminiscent of the world created by JRR Tolkien in his fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings it also invokes Greek and Roman mythology. 

In this sense it is a reminder that the western world was not the only place that developed foundational myths of complexity and durability.

In Simbu and other places in Papua New Guinea complicated systems of thought and belief that explained both the natural and supernatural world were widely extant before Europeans arrived.

These systems were also decidedly more potent than the simple superstitions that were ascribed to them by proselytising missionaries and others.

I first became aware of the depth of these beliefs while editing Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin’s seminal blending of myth and history in his 2013 book The Flight of Galkope.

In that book he describes the effortless transition from legend to history that occurred among his own Galkope people.

This easy transition is one of the main reasons why Papua New Guinean people, used to living and dealing with their ghosts and spirits, were not overly surprised by the arrival of the strange, light skinned men with their strange habits and attire who appeared among them.

One of the characters briefly featured in the novel is Mangruai, a fair skinned and long haired man who arrived before the first missionaries came to Simbu Province.

Some readers may remember the discussion on PNG Attitude about this man and who he might have been. As the late Francis Nii suggested, some thought he was a Christ-like figure and this is how he appears in the novel.

Mangruai, as it were, was a logical and preparatory lynchpin between the traditional world and the new world.

Whereas Sil Bolkin presented his narrative as history, the author of this book has taken a different path and used a fictional story to explore many of the same or similar issues.

This has given him leeway to be creative and imbue his narrative with the elements of fantasy mentioned earlier.

While the reader is never sure how true to type the characters in the novel are it is still possible to construe what might be factual and what is invention. This makes for an intriguing narrative.

Whether true or fiction, what comes across strongly in the book are the complexities of tribal organisation and leadership.

As the reader follows the fate of the central character and that of his father and mother the nature of traditional Simbu society in all its nuances becomes abundantly clear.

Not only does the reader get to learn about these fascinating people they also get to feel what it might have been like to be them.

And, on top of that, and for those with not so much an esoteric impulse, the book is a rattling good yarn.

Kamnguru Nem is the pen name of John W Kuri. John is a program/operations manager with over 15 years’ experience working with international development organizations.

He is an enthusiast of tribal history, the origins of people and their traditions. He also composes music in his free time.

Porugl: Son of the Underworld is the first book in a planned trilogy.