Finding myself in history

If she were alive, she would be 102 years old this year.   The year on her graveyard marker says that she was born in 1915. I imagine a tiny babe swaddled in bark cape and laid on a bed of moss.

Other aspects of her life from 1915 remain a mystery to me.  I cannot begin to picture her growing up, the games she played, her duties, her diet, her adornment and the other details.

According to history books, the turn of the century was the dark ages for PNG.

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Zia Warriors early 1900s. Source: Lutheran Church Archives

Professor John Waiko, one of Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) educated elite – a Binandere man, describes warfare, cannibalism, payback killing, and sorcery in my part of the world around the time my great grandmother was born.

My people, the Zia tribe held prime land along the Waria river, Morobe South Coast. My people were fierce warriors who defended our land from other hostile tribes.  These other tribes include the Binandere, the Mawae, The Suena and the Yekora.

A few decades earlier, the German and the British and Dutch, oblivious to the existence of the thousands of tribes, had drawn lines all over the island of New Guinea and were enforcing their colonial governments and disbanding “hausmans”  aka tribal parliaments.

The “hausman” that could not fight their own battles were looking for allies. That included accepting the colonial government in a hope, the guns of the colonial masters could help them fight their battles. The self-sufficient tribes initially rejected all colonial advances. But eventually succumb to the colonial powers.

While she played with her toes and looked into the sky from the comfort of her “bilum”, I wonder if my great grandmother saw aeroplanes because the airplane was already invented before she was born. Kodak products were routinely used to take color “snap shots”. The air condition, the escalator and the roller coaster were features already in existence in the West since the early 1900.

Around the time, she was born, Albert Einstein had completed his paper on the General Theory of Relativity.  And Adolf Hitler was a young man – a soldier in the World War I.  Micheal Leahy was a teenager: Leahy and his team of explorers and prospectors would be responsible for opening up the highlands to the world in the 1930s.

The West had transitioned from the industrial revolution and was at the end of the modern era around the time my great grandmother was born.

But she know that?  Did she care?

Two things of significance happened that seem to have shaped PNG.

First, in less than 100 years, PNG has been forced to assimilate a new culture – the culture of our colonists. We were forced to adopt the new way of living without understanding how the Western culture was shaped.

Our rank in the world near the bottom of the pile is based on judgement meted us on criteria we have had less than 100 years to adopt  – criteria which took hundreds of years to develop.

Second, the power centers of our tribes aka the ”hausman” were disbanded. The dissolution of the “hausman“ resulted in a loss of power and education for our warriors. Our warriors lost the pride to defend our ways and our land and resources.  And what more, our men lost their potency because without a “hausman” they moved into women’s house too soon.

According to my elders, the death penalty was the order of the day when the “hausman” ruled. There was no individual rights, there were only clan and tribal rights. Your allegiance was to your clan and tribe. Outside of it was death.

It was rough and dirty, but order was maintained. Births, initiations, adulthood, marriages, death all had a place and were celebrated. Diseases, deaths, and uncertainty were all part of life.

Fast forward time to 2017, PNG a construct of colonialism, has survived as a united nation for 41 years. But what identity are we projecting to the other nations of the world? Are we a united nation of warrior tribes or are we a tribe of weaklings looking for allies?

All the power we need to take back our pride as warrior nations is inside us. Just take a look in the mirror. Unfortunately, all mirrors have a perspective. All the colonial mirrors need to be smashed and ground to dust, same for religion, and for aspects of the outside cultures that bring more confusion than solutions.

What then, should be our true reflection? Look beyond your mother and your grandmother (or your patriline). Seek the image of your great grandparents and back.  Consider the stock you are born from.  Consider your tribe of proud warriors who fought all their battles for survival. Consider their honour and pride and resilience.

Where we are right now in space and time is a snapshot of the long walk our people have been on since our ancestors became custodians of the land we call New Guinea.  The walk will continue even after we are dead and gone. The lives and times of our ancestors is our history, and in time we will also become history and our descendants will judge us accordingly.

They will judge us for our betrayal to our warrior way of life. Indeed, we erred when we accepted as time zero the time Whitman stepped on our land; we erred when we accepted the colonial story about us as our story; we erred when we accepted that we are lesser people because it is a challenge to fit into an alien culture. We think that here and now is play school and that real life is after we have mastered a culture. While we tarry, our story is being written.

Cultures die when we lose pride in the ways of our ancestors. Cultures die when we undermine what we are and give up our place in time.  When culture dies, we lose our land, we lose our families and we lose ourselves.

Change is the only constant in the world and we will eventually evolve, but it should be on our terms.   Given so much that has happened, do we have time to salvage our history and pride?

My oral history takes me about 300 years back into my matriline. I am taken back 300 years of resilience. When I put my life into perspective, the 102 years since my great grandmother seem like yesterday and my 40 years of living a blink of an eye.

I am the fourth generation since my great grandmother, but the first generation since PNG became a nation in 1975.    The realization that I am as old as the history of my tribe but also as young as my nation is liberating.  I have the ancient wisdom of my land in my blood, but I am also educated in the ways of the West and can participate in the technologically advanced life in this post-modern era.

The life we are living is not our own, we are to defend the legacy of our ancestors and pass that spirit on to our descendants. Are we living up to our warrior spirit? If not, then, go home and dig your roots beyond your great grandmother and put yourself in perspective. Only then, can you set your priorities going forward.

When you find your place in history, ensure that this becomes the legacy your next generation builds on.


The Matriarch 1915 – 1970


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

Can the Melanesian Way guarantee a good life for Papua New Guineans?

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WHEN THE AGREEMENT WAS signed to reroute asylum seekers bound for Australia to Papua New Guinea, there was a public outcry against the move by a majority of Papua New Guineans.

In the midst of the animosity levelled against the decision the more peace-loving Papua New Guineans were using social media to remind the rest of the people about the Melanesian Way.

Papua New Guineans were urged to embrace the asylum seekers in ‘the Melanesian Way’.

What then is the Melanesian Way that is supposed to make asylum seekers welcome?

Proponents talked about love, acceptance and peace such that, if this concept was a picture, it would show a line of people standing along a beach with the Bible in one hand, a lei in the other and a smile on their face, singing welcome songs.

Is the Melanesian Way a way of love? Did our ancestors stand on the shores and sing songs of welcome when the Whiteman sailed into the harbours and coves of the island of New Guinea?

John Waiko in his narration of the first contact between the Binandere and Europeans showed that the manner in which the different tribes approached the intruders was a direct reflection of their capacity to fight their tribal battles.

Some tribes were self-sufficient in their capacity to fight and maintain tribal lands and acquire new land from the losing tribes, while other tribes were being run to extinction.

Those that could not defend their lands embraced the Europeans as allies in the hope that the white skins and the power of their guns could be used to fight the local  tribal battles.

On the other hand, those that were self-sufficient saw the Europeans as a threat and rejected them and fought them off at every chance they had and even ate the bodies of white men to assimilate their power.

The Binandere people were portrayed as a scheming lot who forged alliances based on the benefits the alliance would bring to them to assist them fight their enemies. Unfortunately the Europeans were not aware of this agenda.

Other commentators define the Melanesian Way as a value of equality. Indeed, most Papua New Guinea societies are egalitarian. Apart from a few societies that had chieftain systems, most tribes in Papua New Guinea lived in a society where everybody was equal.  (Although the introduction of sweet potato disrupted this system in some societies by breeding pigs, polygamy and the big man.)

The notable writer and blogger Martyn Namorong calls this the ‘Melanesian equilibrium’ wherein  the fruits of the land were regarded as communally owned and, as such, everyone in society expected a fair share – not necessarily an equal portion a balancing act between the interests of the individual and those of the tribe.

But that was where it ended, within the tribe. No Melanesian equilibrium was ever extended to those outside the tribe. Tribes were fiercely protective of their land and women.

John Fowke, in his essay on the Melanesian Way, says that it is the way of a fragmented multi-tribal society. It’s a way which facilitated the existence of such societies whilst they remained divided, multi-lingual, local, warlike and competitive. In PNG’s case, this was a society that existed successfully and independently for tens of thousands of years.

The ‘Way’ that kept a fragmented multi-tribal society intact, as referred to by Fowke, can be put down to one word – suspicion.  Suspicion of everything beyond the tribal boundaries, suspicion of the unknown kept tribes independent for thousands of years.

The trade links and allies that existed were acquired, maintained and managed through marriage over time. The elaborate planning and ritual that went into arranging marriages and paying bride prices demonstrates how important marriages were for strategic purposes.

Although confusing to outsiders, the sometimes messy mortuary ritual that takes place to honour the “mama lain” and the “papa lain” when someone dies serves to reaffirm those links and allies.

Other commentators say that the Melanesian Way is an attempt to bring the thousand tribes with diverse tribal rules together as one nation. The Melanesian Way served to bring the thousand tribes ….under a new version of tradition as a bundle of values specific to no particular place but putatively shared by all.

Is that what Bernard Narokobi meant when he coined the term back in the 1984?

The rule of law which judges right from wrong is a concept absent in the Melanesian context. Narokobi recognised this and pointed out there was no right way of making peace and that conflicts can be successfully settled by recognising differences in the approaches and then coming up with the best mode to resolve the issue.

Through this method of considering all options, all parties win to some extent and none lose. This ensures that relationships are maintained and none is estranged, because one may need to call a favour in the near future.

This method of reaching a consensus had practical implications when the thousand tribes came together to become one nation. This method validated all the different customs that existed and showed respect and consideration for the differences. This method of dispute resolution I believe, was the Melanesian Way Mr Narokobi referred to.

Does a Melanesian Way exist and does it work? The answers are ‘yes’ and ‘sometimes’. For instance, the Melanesian Way is the winner in land disputes cases. Through dialogue, the genealogy is constructed and the land divided accordingly. All parties are satisfied.

This however, is not so for those who go to a court of law. The law rules that one is the winner and owner of the land and the other is the loser. This breeds animosity between blood relatives.

Despite its usefulness, the Melanesian Way is open to manipulation and misuse because of the oral nature of customary law.

This misuse has been pervasive in the political arena. A commentator states this about the Melanesian Way in politics: [It] is whatever those in powers choose it to mean. Lacking any kind of scrutiny their personal lives are enriched by theft, bribery and corruption. The Rule of Law means nothing to them and corruption is so entrenched that it is the norm rather than the exception.

After observing politics in PNG, hard-talking commentator, Dr Susan Merrell says the Melanesian Way is redolent with self-serving pragmatism and a fickle approach to commitment that can be called upon, or not, according to whim.

This self-serving pattern exists because Papua New Guinea’s parliament has two guiding principles. First is the one borrowed from the west and based on Christian tenets and the other is custom.

Custom, however, is not one custom but a thousand customs, unwritten and open to interpretation and which cannot be challenged in a court of law.

In such a dual system, with no rule to guide decisions, the trend has been to choose culture over the constitution when it seems beneficial to do so. The Melanesian Way has become the excuse to break laws and circumvent obligations and hard decisions and even escape the grasp of the law.

Justice is not served when a compromise is reached outside the modern court of law to pay “bel kol moni” to the families of victims of rape and abuse. It is against human rights values when a young girl is forcefully married off by her family to an older man to settle old scores.

So the Melanesian Way has become self-serving, as pointed out by political commentators. It suppresses innovation because it rewards supporters and kin and not hard work.

Can the ‘Melanesian Way’ guarantee a good life for the people of Papua New Guinea?

The definition of a good life is subjective, but all people, regardless of whether they live in glass houses or grass huts, desire a society where there is respect for lives and property, where there is an opportunity to better their lot in life through education, where they can access good health care, where they are safe and protected and where justice prevails.

We can make a good life for our people when we stop pretending that the Melanesian Way is relevant in the 21st century because it is not. Every human being must abide by the rule of law and conduct their lives according to the moral code all humans live by.

Justice has to prevail. The troublemakers must be punished and the people must rise and fall not because of influence but because they have worked hard and earned a good life.

In conclusion, we revisit the initial question: what version of the Melanesian Way would Papua New Guinea offer to make the Asylum Seekers feel welcome? In keeping with the spirit of the “Melanesian Way”, the details of the welcome party will be decided upon when it has to be decided.  As for the future prospects, the Government as the head of the united nations of Papua New Guinea may decide through legislation, to accommodate one more new tribe, to be housed on government land, to serve the government. This action will violate the thousands of year old instruction, encoded in the DNA of every Papua New Guinean, that compels warriors into warfare over land and that invokes deep distrust for outsiders. The attraction of acquiring powerful allies may just win over the default for keeping it between “wantoks”.

*** This essay was written for the Rivers Writing Competition November 2013

The Maybes of the Asylum Resettlement Arrangement

I was not convinced, actually, I felt insulted by the basic explanation given in a full paged Q&A taken by the Honorable Minister Rimbink Pato, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration in the Post Courier (Aug 12 2013, pg 44) regarding the Regional Resettlement Arrangement signed between the government of Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The Q&A can be read here.

There is no doubt about it, PNG will always be grateful for Australia’s’ role in the birth of this nation and her continued support. We, as Melanesians know the hand that feeds us and in time, I am sure, we will reciprocate, but not in this manner.

The PNG PM should not lie and say that we are helping a friend in need, because clearly this is a business deal where money is going to be exchanged for a favor. The donor is the master of the receiver thus, our PM is compelled to rewrite the PNG laws to suit the deal. Seems Australia also paid for the right to call a sovereign nation, “hellhole” in front of the global audience, since we have not heard any official rebuttal from the Haus Tambaran about that label.

If PNG was a responsible neighbor, then the West Papuan plight would have been addressed long time ago. It is surprising that an extradition deal was signed with Indonesia and in just a few weeks from that, PNG announced that she will waive the citizenship fees and settle the Papuan Refugees in PNG. Which will come first, the extradition or the resettlement?

Nor were we being good Christians. The ancestors of this land were animists; we only adopted Christianity from our colonizers. Fair enough. Christianity says, extend your hand to the needy. But how generously should we give when 80% of our own flesh and blood live well below the poverty line? Does the world need charity from PNG?

If Australia is serious about preventing more people from losing lives at sea, then why not process them in Indonesia and stop them from getting on the boat in the first place. Better still use that money to bring peace to wherever the people are running away from.

Maybe boat mishaps are not the concern, maybe the asylum seekers have become an inconvenience to the Australian way of life. But, is it right to outsource your inconvenience to your brother who has minimal capacity to deal with the issue? What is stopping Australia from approaching the UN to rescind her decision to take in refugees?

Maybe, Australia wants to keep PNG in a state of chaos to justify Australian Federal Police in PNG. Whatever happens, those settled in PNG , with the help of Australia, will become a class of people well above the class of the standard PNGean. This disparity will ignite citizens into acts of rebellion and terrorism.

Maybe it is an election ploy; or maybe this is one of those “soft approaches” for Australia to establish her presence in the Pacific. If the latter, then a honest dialogue would not cause such strong feelings of animosity.

Perhaps this is all it is – a deterrent – to discourage Muslim Asylum Seekers to risk their life only to end up in a country where the pig is a legal tender. Only time will tell if this will work – the prognosis is not rosy but we shall wait and see.

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