Book Review: The Embarrassed Colonialist

embarrassed colonistI was intrigued by the title of this recent publication by Sean Dorney, a long time  journalist to Papua New Guinea (PNG). The 140 paged book, titled, The Embarrassed Colonialist was published in 2016 for the Lowy Institute of Australia by the Penguin Press.  The book is small and easy reading but the 8 chapters is packed with so much insight about the Australia-PNG relationship.

I was curious about the title.  Who was embarrassed for what? In PNG, there is already a feeling of shame and anger at being labelled a lot of names including  a failed state, a violent nation and even a hellhole.   Since the author is married into a PNG tribe, was he embarrassed at the way PNG has turned out – a 40 year old wayward man-child? Or was the author just being a mouthpiece for the collective view held by Australia – PNG’s former colonial master. Or was he expressing his own embarrassment about the deteriorating state of the PNG-Australia relationship forged at colonial days.

I had these questions running through my head, so when I received a copy at the Joint PNG and Lowy-Institute Bung Wantaim meeting at the Lamana Hotel, I tore into the book.

It was an interesting read for me. I was born after PNG independence and therefore had no memory of time and events before independence and the two decades thereafter. Therefore, this book put into perspective the Australia-PNG history.

The main emotion that ran through my veins was pride but when I eventually closed the  book, I was angry…. then sad …and then resolute that change for the better must take place in my lifetime.

Change has been very rapid for PNG since independence. The vortex of change has sucked PNG from isolated primitive tribes into the global village already made small by virtual reality.

The physical change has been enormous in the last 80 years but sadly the psyche of the Papua New Guinean individual is yet to assimilate the changes.

The continuous transition from a thousand cultures to the western culture is indeed  a growing pain for PNG. As rightly stated by the author, the symptoms of this transition are everywhere – corruption, poor development policies, law and order challenges and attitude problem. But PNG has made commendable progress in other fronts: economic development, the justice system, the free media, women empowerment, to name a few.

Indeed, the PNG challenges started at independence. At independence it was a big ask for thousand tribes to exist as one. In retrospect, the author observes that the Australians including the Kiaps packed up and left  too soon. But they left a legacy behind.

They left behind their colonial policies – policies that are outdated for the 21st century, policies that favor colonial power. Translated to this day: policies that favor those in power (i.e. modern day kiaps) and outsiders.  This is most obvious in the natural resource extraction policies.

Given this insight, it is indeed not ignorance, but self-serving and blatant indifference to PNG, when Australian projects and even in some case AID money is given to implement projects based on such old policies.

Australia also left behind a leadership vacuum.  The kiaps were a government unto themselves in the villages . But when they left, they transferred everything to a committee  of parliamentarians in Port Moresby. Without direction, people came up with their own definition of leadership – mixing the new and the old. This may have also contributed in the self-serving, undefinable  concept of the “Melanesian Way”.

I disagree that PNG is Australia’s illegitimate child as asserted by the author. The inhabitants of the island of New Guinea were nations running their own affairs until colonialism  unceremoniously dumped this land of a thousand nations onto Australia.

At the time, the island of New Guinea was made a territory of Australia, the white Australia had declared Independence less than 5 years prior. Australia was a very young nation of united colonies  when it was given the task of rearing a unruly and primitive nation of a thousand tribes.

Unlovely it may have been, the island had natural resources for exploitation. Australia had forsaken the caste system of their motherland and was embracing  capitalism – they needed a chicken that could lay golden eggs. Even before the World War II, Australians were prospecting for gold, timber, and oil in New Guinea. These prospectors were the ones that opened the New Guinea interior to the world.

Then World War II broke out.  The Japanese threatened the newly independent country, and Australia needed to win that battle away from their home front  in New Guinea.

As valuable as it were, PNG was reared at arms length. The evidence is in the many policies from the colonial days. Then again, in defense of Australia, PNG was their first born, and like new parents they were unsure how to bring it up.

What I still don’t understand is why in this day and time, Australia is still keeping PNG at arms length when compared to how they treat other Pacific Islanders? How else can we explain the unjustified challenges faced by Papua New Guineans in issues such as visa and the fruit picking scheme and the latest project – the Colombo Plan?

It is true that so many Australians love and have adopted PNG as their second country and like the author, may have married into the Melanesian culture. But the collective machinery in Australia used in dealing with PNG still seems so-old fashioned and racist and patronizing.

Evidence? How else would one describe the 5 word admonishment by a representative of Australian High Commission to the author … “Stop thinking like a PNGean” (pg 76). I have read and reread but the author does not elaborate anywhere in the book, what it means to “think like a local”.

Unfortunately for white people who have been in the PNG sun too long, they start thinking different-like Papua New Guineans.

So at the end, who was the embarrassed one? Sean Dorney is an Australian, with  over 40 years of family ties to PNG. He may be regarded as a renegade to his birth country because he has started to think like a local. This inside knowledge  however, makes his voice one of the most authentic voices to discuss PNG issues. With his leg in both societies, he has judged for himself and has spoken.

The rules for re-engagement as recommended by the author are spot on.  Seeing eye-to-eye is very important for the way going forward. PNG has been forced to grow up fast in the last 40 years. At 40, PNG is old enough to navigate its own waters, but put into nation building perspective – 40 years is still infancy. Indeed, PNG needs a guide, if not Australia then who  else will do it?

As a re-engagement recommendation, PNG also needs to take responsibility for its own growth and start behaving like an independent nation.

This book even though written by an Australian, is the PNG voice speaking to Australia.  It will serve Australia well to take this work seriously. I also highly recommend  this book to Papua New Guinean readers. Young people, you need to learn your history and only then can you chart a better way forward for your nation

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Book Review: Searching for pekpek. Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea rainforest.

IMG_6511I see James Cameron’s Pandora in my mind’s eye, but behind the scenes – the internal conversations, the private moments, sickness, death, frustrations and many tiny victories – all the little moments that go into informing a great script.

It was a feat to relocate from a jungle of concrete, steel and glass to the forest – with jungle of trees that seem to stretch all the way to the end of the earth, covered with man eating vines, giant waterfalls, steep mountains, misty valleys, flash floods, pre-historical birds, and humans so at home in their environment they seem to possess supernatural powers.

Instead of Jake Sully among the 7 foot tall Naavi you have Andy and Deb among the 5 foot Pawaia.  Roaming the jungle, living, seeing and learning by searching for  “pekpek”.

In the pages of this book lies the proof that we are each built for our respective environment. It is perfectly Ok if in another life you find yourself a Pawaia in a forest or an urban warrior on the streets of New York.

In the pages of this book is also the narration of a life calling. The noblest calling – to defend Mother Nature in this tiny blue marble we call home. Many are called but few are brave enough to walk the path.

In the Avatar of Pandora, the story ends with the hometree burning to the ground, in Papua New Guinea, there is hope for a future because of dedicated people who with brutal honesty share their personal experiences – setting the foundation for greater exploits for science.   And cautioning against capitalists who come dressed in sheep skin.

I was briefly a student in the capacity building course before the program was dismantled. The training program taught me more than my four years of university.  Andy and Deb were mentors and role models.   Conservation was like a religion to them, a conviction that permeated their whole being (as is apparent in this book) – and they were building disciples. Disciples armed with a science knowledge to ensure sustainable management of resources for the forest people.

Much of what has become the basis of my consciousness for nature protection was absorbed from Andy and Deb and the countless visitors they brought to the program and the conversations and importantly, the paper discussions.

In retrospect, their model for building local manpower is working.  Regardless of whose payroll the ex-students are being paid from now, the conservation principles received from Deb and Andy lives on. They have built a cohort of biologists and conservationists who are capable of driving conservation into the future.

The first chapters of the book sounds so romantic – the stuff of adventure tales immortalized around dinner tables. At the turning of the pages, it becomes apparent that this accomplishment was at a great cost. Disease, rascals, “sanguma”, death, estrangement from relationships – a hefty price was paid in the name of conservation.

So what, after all of this?

Indeed, humans have short memory. The only remaining physical evidence of the dream of  a field station may be the metal frames of the proposed research centre and the iron cast oven slowly rotting in the jungle, which are now probably “tumbuna” story among the locals. But for some of us who have walked part of the way, no matter how brief, the place will forever be an altar of sacrifice – where tears, sweat and blood were shed for a cause. It is a sacred site for pondering life and the purpose for being alive at a time such as now when reckless plunder of the earth seems more fashionable than protecting it.

The best gift any generation can leave for the future is telling their story so the future can learn and make better choices.  Andrew Mack has done just that with his book.

The documentation of conservation history in Papua New Guinea in this book is priceless. The lessons to learn from it is universal. I would recommend this book as a reading for any student in the field of conservation in PNG or anywhere else in the world.

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