Wednesday, July 21, 2010

More than Imaginary Lives

Media Literacy Workshop Participants in SIL Ukarumpa, 2009. Photo credit: Steven Winduo

Writers are never at home with themselves because they live a thousand imaginary lives. Interesting moments do arise with the meeting of fellow writers and others who admire writers. Often, one is left wondering how a Papua New Guinean writer makes sense to other fellow writers. How then does a writer relate to others, especially to the readers of their works and tribal members?

The declaration: “So you are a writer. What do you do?” is used by those who do not know what a writer does. Many people tend to think a writer is someone who lives in the world of imagination without any sense of reality. Many people tend to think of a writer as someone who has no time for other interests or occupations in life, except the world of the books.

I have lived my life as a writer for the last 25 years. I don’t know the reasons I became a writer or the reasons I chose to write. All I remember now is that my teachers introduced me to the wonderful world of creative writing in national high school that changed my life in unimaginable ways. That’s what it was, just creative writing. Writing is something no one chooses to do to earn a living or to make money. Creative writing is something people do as a hobby or as an extra-curricula activity.

It is not something the English teachers or anyone would recommend for a student to consider as a serious career. Be something else might be the answer if the teachers detect a budding writer in the making. And, they are right in many ways. There is no economic sense in becoming a writer in Papua New Guinea. No one in Papua New Guinea is a fulltime writer. Many of our writers have a primary salaried job (outside of our writing life) to put bread and butter on the table before we sit down to write the work that we hope to publish or recite to others with keen ears.

The decision to write comes with the notion of consistency. Consistency enables a writer to remain committed to the art of writing. The opportunity to publish a work is not easy or writing a piece that survives the test of time is not laid across the pathway of a writer.

It is the sense that one writes because that’s what one is passionate about or likes doing to breathe in a world congested with so much tensions and anguish. Choosing to write is a decision to remain focused on the act of writing itself, a process of self-expression and self-representation that brings into focus the general experiences of human society. A writer is seen as someone who is also speaking about the experiences of others.

I had an interesting life as a writer. Apart from publishing my works in local and international literary journals and anthologies I have read my poetry on NBC and ABC, in universities and schools such as Sogeri National High School, Gerehu Primary School, Gordon Secondary, POM Grammar, and Port Moresby Institute of Education.

The universities I have read my poetry include UPNG, University of the South Pacific (Fiji), University of Queensland, James Cook University, Sydney University, University of Canterbury (NZ), University of Hawaii (USA), University of Minnesota (USA), and Alberta University (Canada). Some of the places I have read my poetry are interesting and memorable that the experiences leave me satisfied as a writer. In Canada I read my poetry to a packed room on the second floor of a noisy cafeteria on the campus of Alberta University. In Townsville I read my poetry in the Townsville Art Gallery. With Suva based writers I read in a pub called Traps in downtown Suva, Fiji. In Minnesota I read in a writer’s loft in downtown Minneapolis, and in Hawaii, in the conference room of the Hamilton Library of the University of Hawaii. In many of the international fixtures I have had the good fortune of being sponsored by my hosts in those countries.

The decision to become a writer carries with it a social responsibility. Getting paid for what I write is not a salaried life, but one that comes in drips and drabs. In the days when the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) paid writers for writing and reading their works I earned enough to pay for my younger siblings’ school fees and my own basic toiletries while I was still a UPNG student.

In the life one chooses to live as a writer, one has to deal with others who come into your life as girl friends, then wife, children, grand-children, and a countless hosts of relatives. Seeing a cheque in the mail does not mean that you deposit it in the bank and wait seven days to three weeks before withdrawing. You know you have to deal with the incessant nagging from the wife to have part of that cheque, then the children want this and that because the last time you promised them a bicycle or a Nitendo and you never kept the promise. And what about the grand-children?

The relatives and your communities do not care where you get the money. The social obligation you have is to support them by way of school fees, haus krai, custom, bride price, fundraising, church contributions, and what else? Any way the thing is, the life of a writer has its costs and benefits calculated into its design that the best strategy for a writer in Papua New Guinea is not to be a full-time writer, but to have a salaried job to support your writing life.

I handle these demands as a writer by expanding the things I can do as a writer, not just writing poems and reading, but selling my skills and knowledge as a writer/editor to individuals and organization who can pay for consultation, writing workshops and clinics, copyediting of reports, papers, and books. A writer’s life is more than an imaginary one.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Writers in a Wasteland

Picture: Regis Stella (PNG Writer), Nora Vagi Brash (PNG playwright), and Sam Alasia (Solomon Islands writer)
in USP campus, Fiji.

The intensity of the emotions I felt in losing my mother 20 years ago surfaced a day after the anniversary of her passing. I felt the intensity in the words of the poem that came to me on that day. I began to compose the poem with the keyword “special” as I sat alone in the car outside Taurama SVS shopping area. It is not the method I use in writing poetry, but a spontaneous outpouring of the refined subconscious I have been living with and breathing for the last 20 years. Later, in the comfort of my home, I tried reciting it without writing the poem. The recital was flawed, but the poem in memory of my mother remained uneasily lodged within my subconscious that whole Saturday.

In connecting with the subconscious where poetry resides I met T. S. Eliot reciting The Wasteland as if he was standing next to me beside the Gavamani Road linking Manu Autoport, Korobosea, Kirakira, Sabama, Pari, and Joyce Bay. I became aware of the urban decay, the wasted lives, and the poorest worming out from wherever they are to split the remaining trees of the Motuan Savannah landscape as firewood bundled up for sale. Eliot continues in that memorable utterance: “Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit/There is not even silence in the mountains/But dry sterile thunder without rain/There is not even solitude in the mountains/But red sullen faces sneer and snarl/From doors of mudcracked houses.’ In that moment I had to ask Eliot what it all means, the voice behind those words vanished into thin air. I was left to decipher the meaning on my own, but self-assuredly as a poet.

Did anyone ever mention to Eliot that being a poet is a lonely affair often tagged as a misunderstood life? No wonder Eliot kept his job as a banker, a job that carries with it the burden of trust the society have on bankers. No so for the life of poet whom no one trust or let alone give any recognition for serving as unofficial legislators and Ombudsman of society. Poets say all they want to say, but no one will listen to them. Choosing to be a poet is the decision one takes to remain misunderstood, so much so that one is free to write those deep inner thoughts as a therapeutic exercise if not as an outpouring of anger, disappointment, anxiety, remorse, lament, or praise.
But as they say, once in a while the lonely poet needs to reconnect and find meaningful connections in the company of fellow travelers out there. One such moment was the writers recital held at the Port Moresby Arts Theatre on 26th June 2010 around 2.00pm. I popped up there without any invite only so that I can reconnect with fellow writers in Port Moresby such as Nora Vagi Brash, Abba Bina, popular known as Mr. Shit, Dr. Alfred Faiteli, Scott Waide, Grace Maribu, Lady Judith Bona, Robson Akis, and other new faces. Nora, our much loved playwright, had a nice way of describing my
appearance as from the woodwork, though not personally at me, but at the collective in the likes of my colleagues cocooned in a superficial shell of aloofness.

For what it’s worth I recited three poems from my third collection of poetry: A Rower’s Song (2009). One of the poems read was entitled: “Urban Natives”, a piece intended as a critique on transferring our tribal ways and stubborn backwardness into metropolitan spaces: “We brought the village to town/We are the urban natives/We will never return home.” I tried linking this poem to the most important question asked by Associate Professor Eric Kwa in his class on the Constitution of PNG: “What does it mean when one speaks of my basic social obligation as a Papua New Guinean?” I don’t know about others in that class, but to me the question goes to the heart of what it means to be a Papua New Guinean.

Did I say poetry written by Steven Winduo, or the Anuki neighbour across the page with his weekly doses of Soaba’s Storyboard are fulfilling their basic social obligations to themselves, to their families, and their communities? One need not read the Constitution to understand what the basic social obligations are for every Papua New Guineans. Or should we?

I sacrificed six months of my salary to self-publish my poetry collection so that I can fulfill my basic social obligations to take initiative to make a living. I have sold a few copies of my book to the Michael Somare Library, the UPNG Bookstore, Theodist, and the National Library, but the rest are beginning to gather cobwebs in my study until such a time when Papua New Guineans have come to their senses that buying a book written by a Papua New Guinean is also a basic social obligation.

Whether they appreciate it or not I made it my business to give complimentary copies of my poetry book to NCD Governor, Honourable Powes Parkop, Honourable Charles Abel, Member for Alotau and Minister of Tourism, Arts, and Culture, Honourable James Marape, Member for Tari Pori and Minister of Education, and His Excellency Mr. Teddy Taylor, American Ambassador to PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu.

The trouble with being a self-published PNG writer is that the company one keeps always turns up as the very weak foundation needed to survive as an author. Writers can do well in Papua New Guinea if the principle of basic social obligations is observed by everyone when it comes to financially supporting writers to have their works published and sold.

The advice I would give to anyone thinking of writing books is that it is a long road to travel without the financial support of friends, relatives, acquaintances, and strange-bedfellows, all the more reason to find the company of a writers collective such as the ones organized by Lady Judith Bona, Nora Vagi Brash, Grace Maribu, and the Waigani Arts Centre in Port Moresby.

Text Books Galore in PNG Schools

Young Waigani Community School Dancer

In a show of unspoken satisfaction on the Education Department’s efforts to have sufficient learning resources provided to Papua New Guinea primary schools the Waigani Primary School was again chosen to host the launch of the 2010 Textbooks Distribution. The event was no small event considering the presence of the senior officers of the Department of Education, representatives from NCD schools namely Boreboa, Noblet, Hohola Demonstration, Wardstrip, Carr Memorial, and the Diplomatic presence of the Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Papua New Guinea Ambassador Aldo Dell’Arriccia and his Excellency the French Ambassador to Papua New Guinea.

Credit must go to the Headmaster Mr. Kala, the staff and students of the Waigani Primary School for demonstrating the leadership in setting the benchmark for facilitating national educational events such as the launching of the National 2010 Textbooks Distribution. I say this as a proud parent and keen observer of educational activities in the country. Thumbs up for Waigani Primary School.

I must also take this rare opportunity to congratulate the Delegation of the European Union for its commitment to the education of Papua New Guineans. This is the largest-ever partnership between the Government of PNG through its Department of Education and the European Union distribution of textbooks in PNG: 2.6 million volumes delivered to the schools throughout the country.

The EU-funded Education, Training and Human Resource Development Programme (ETHRDP) provides PGK 83.1 million for the supply of more than 2.6 million textbooks to schools in all provinces throughout the country. The Curriculum Development and Assessment Division (CDAD) of the National Department of Education is managing the distribution.

More than PGK1.8 million has been allocated for the distribution in National Capital District (NCD). Most of the schools have already received their textbooks.

The Provincial Departments of Education are in charged of the distribution in their respective provinces.

The Education Training and Human Resources Development Program, with a budget of 39 Million Euro (PGK137 million) is in its third year of implementation. The main areas of focus are school-based leadership and management, provision of teacher training scholarships for rural communities, textbooks and library material provision, and community participation in vocational education.

The program is firmly placed within the framework of the National Plan for Education 2005-2014 and the Integrated Community Development Policy 2007. It is closely coordinated with other development partners, particularly the AUSAID financed Education Capacity Building Program (ECBP) and the Basic Education Development Project (BEDP) the New Zealand and European Union financed PRIDE Project as well as other initiatives financed by JICA and UNFPA. The National Department of Education supervises the entire Programme under the guidance of a Programme Steering Committee.

On behalf of the Government of PNG, the Minister of Education, Honorable James Marape thanked the European Union, the France Ambassador and all other development partners for financing the purchase and distribution of books to all primary schools in the country.

“The government acknowledges and expresses its gratitude that this large Education Program will be implemented directly by the Department of Education utilizing existing government mechanism and system in the distribution and delivery of these services. This is indeed strengthening and enhancing the Government’s capacity in the operation and financial management of donor funds,” said Mr. Marape.

Mr. Marape added further, “This is indeed contributing to PNG’s overall performance in terms of implementing the aid effectiveness plan of action, as agreed upon in Kavieng in February 2008 between the Government of Papua New Guinea and Development Partners through the execution of the PNG Commitment on Aid Effectiveness, a national response to the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the 2009 Accra Agenda for Action for Action. These are both international agreements that more than one hundred Ministers, Heads of Agencies and other Senior Officials adhered and committed their countries and organizations to continue to increase efforts in aid harmonization, alignment, managing aid for results with a set of actions and indicators that can be monitored.”

I was happy that the European Union and the Education Department chose Waigani Primary School for this national event. As a public advocate for books, literature, and education I had the personal satisfaction of knowing that some of my concerns regarding the provision of teaching and learning resource materials to our schools around the country are taken on board in a practical way.

Having a school without books for children to read is not a practical idea. Children expand their knowledge through reading books. The kind of reading practice I have in mind is both reading based on the curriculum and reading done outside of the school activities, especially reading done to enhance learning skills and improve knowledge of the world.

Some of the books listed on the European Union textbooks list include books published by Pearson Educational, Oxford University Press, Niugini Crossroad, Mel Publishing House, and the Melanesian and Pacific Studies (MAPS) of UPNG. Some of the books that I want to see the children of PNG read are included on the list. The question is whether the books on the list were actually included in the books distributed to schools. I am aware that the two books published by MAPS were never reprinted or ordered for inclusion in the books that were distributed to schools around the country. They would have made great reading and inspiration for PNG students because they were written by two leading Papua New Guinean writers. I note several PNG writers on the list, but not all.

One final point to make regarding books and reading is that the books are as good as they come if they are kept in a modern library building that can stand against severe weather conditions, theft, vandalism, disrespectful individuals, overcrowding students, and poor managements. A library is the natural space for books.

I hope the European Union, other development partners, and the Department of Education will help Waigani Primary School build its first modern library to house the books and provide a reading space for children.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Solomons, Bonito, Shells and Tsunami

After Vanuatu, the Oceanic Discoverer entered the Solomon Islands waters, beginning at Santa Anna, where a fiesta of activities, were staged to welcome us. As soon as we anchored the early morning had begun on Santa Ana. This friendly Island is 7.5km off the San Cristobal’s eastern tip, and 77km from Kirakira. Formerly called Owa Rafa or Owa Rah, the island is a raised coral atoll. From certain aspects Santa Ana can look like a peaked cap. Mt. Faraina, a 143m plateaus in the centre, dominates the whole island.

After the welcome we moved to the entertainment area. The tourists gathered in a small shade, made of timber and corrugated iron roof. The entertainment began with panpipe music, a women’s dance, and a couple numbers on fishing rituals. Santa Anna Islanders are very good carvers and bead makers. Most of the woodwork is made from hardwood and ebony trees. The carvings depict the life of the islanders such as fishing and myths about sharks, bonita, and other marine life.

From Santa Anna Island we sailed into Langa Langa Lagoon on the big island of Malaita. Alite Harbour is in Langa Langa Lagoon, a magnificent lagoon of small islands, surrounded by mangroves, sandy beaches, and tall coconuts. Langa Langa Lagoon is famous for its artificial islands. One of these, Laulasi is 400 years old. This is the Headquarter for shell money manufacture as well as for ship building. There are also skull shrines. Centuries ago the people of nearby Malaita built islands in Alite Harbour as protection from the inland bushman. Known for trading shells as money, the village still uses this traditional currency for bride price. Malaita Island has a large and mysterious hinder-land, a sort of reservoir for old ways. The highlands rise to 1303m at Mt. Kolovrat. Many people worship ancestral spirits, and still have more sacrificial faces and tattoos. Many have blond hair.

We visited the Busu Cultural Centre to a fanfare of activities, including being treated to a traditional shell money making show. The organizers of the Busu Cultural Centre thought about everything from welcome ceremony, to collecting, and recording all the money made from the tourist. After the tourists leave the organizers would convert the Australian or American currencies into Solomon Islands Dollar before paying the owner of a product sold during the tourists visit.

From Malaita we travelled across to the Florida Islands where we stopped at Rodderick Bay. Our stop here was brief, but warming in that the villagers welcomed us with open arms, even though they were so upset with another tourist company that abandoned its cruise ship in the harbour after it ran aground on the reef. The ship, tilted to the side on the reef, looks like a broken glass stuck to the ground with its sharp dangerous edge sticking upward.

I was out in the sea and islands so long that I had lost sense of days that going into Gizo did not seem like a weekend. Through out the journey we visited only islands and isolated lagoons in various countries. This was the first time we had come ashore a modern township. The Oceanic Discoverer anchored in its harbour on a fine and calm Saturday morning.

After breakfast we went ashore to Gizo. A bamboo band welcomed us on arrival at the shore. I did not realize that it was a Saturday on Gizo. We went ashore and looked around the small township. We were welcomed by a group of Tamure dancers in the Gizo Hotel.

I asked the agent representing the Coral Princess Cruises in the Solomons to show me where I can change some money. I had only US dollars. I was lucky as I found out I can change US dollars at the reception of Gizo Hotel. So I changed US$20.00 into Solomons $140.00. That was a lot of money to pick up a few things that I could get hold of.

We walked around the township of Gizo for a while. I also met some Papua New Guineans living in Gizo. One of them was my colleague, Regis Stella’s elder brother. It was good to meet him. I also met Jully Makini, a fellow poet from the Solomon Islands in Gizo. So it was nice to meet them in Gizo. We sat on the beach side outside the Gizo Hotel and talked for some time before I returned to the Oceanic Discoverer.

As soon as we arrived on the ship a group of PNG government officials from the Department of Immigration, NAQIA, and the agent representing the Coral Princess Cruises joined us on board. The officials had just arrived from Honiara to Gizo airport, located on one of the small islands next to the town. Since we were to enter PNG waters for the first time the officials had to process our papers before crossing over to PNG.

A brief stop at Kennedy Island was necessary before crossing into PNG waters. I went with the tourists to the island. where we enjoyed a bright and beautiful day on the Kennedy Island has natural crystal sandy beach, untouched reefs, and clean clear waters. Kennedy Island was named after John F. Kennedy, who along with his crew, was run down by a Japanese Destroyer Amagiri. The island is preserved as a marine reserve, but serves as a popular tourist site. There are no people living on the island, except for artefact traders who visit the island regularly. I even had my first scuba diving lesson here for which I was to receive a certificate later.

It was only 48 hours after we left Gizo that the Tsunami wiped out everything we saw and captured in our memory of Gizo. Ironically, this island went under the Tsunami when it arrived on the Island on Tuesday. The Tsunami went passed us on the day we anchored in the safe harbours of Milne Bay waters.

Gizo will remain in my mind as a precious pearl lost to Tsunami.

Melanesian Magic on the Beach

The unfavourable weather denied us the opportunity to go ashore on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. We stayed on board the Oceanic Discoverer. I just watched in disappointment as the inclement weather kept us at bay. That night I felt seasick for the second night. This was part of the job, I assured myself rather than complain.

By the time we arrived at Ambrym I was up and ready for the day. I felt much better. It was the first time on this journey that I was very comfortable. I had had a good night’s rest. In the morning I woke up to the calm waters off Ambrym. As we journeyed into the bay I realized that since we are in Vanuatu waters I felt much more at home.

Ambrym Island is an interesting island. Ambrym is a volcanic island. The Explorer took us ashore to Ranon Beach. Ranon has a black sandy beach. Volcanic eruptions deposited their volcanic elements around it.

A welcome ceremony was performed on our arrival. As part of the official party I was given a present of a wooden garamut carving. I was very surprised with this gesture. We then walked to the dance area where we sat down around the big dance area.

At the dancing area the mask dancers and the main chorus of the dance performed a couple of numbers. The villagers performed the famous Rom dances. It was one of the most striking ceremony and the costumes were extraordinary. The Rom dances seemed too familiar. I thought the dancers resembled some of the dances of the West New Britain area of Papua New Guinea. The masked men were covered from head to the toe with grass skirts made of dried banana leaves, a mask carved out of wood, and some palm leaves on top of their masks. The main core of the dancers, who were inside the circle created by the masked dancers, wore small tapas that covered most their hips and genitals, similar to the shell kambang dancers of Telefomin area in Papua New Guinea.

Following the dance an exhibition of sand drawing took place. Sand drawing is also very intricate and Ranon is the home of sand drawing. This area of Ambrym is famous for its fern carvings and tamtams (slit gongs). There were three acts featuring two Ambrym magic performances and a sand drawing. The finale of the performance was a solo bamboo flute player.

With the show over we left the dancing ground and walked back down to the beach. On the roadside near the beach front the villagers had built small stalls in which they sold artefacts such as carvings, animal miniatures, bamboo flutes. The woodcarvings were spectacular. The tourists bought some of these as souvenirs.

The village youth band strummed out a few local numbers sung in Bislama, in the local Ambrym vernacular, and in English. The band was truly a popular village band. Their strumming seemed to resemble some of the string bands of Papua New Guinea. Guitars, ukuleles, a base cello made of an empty wooden box with strings tightly stretched to a short pole. The vocals went from base to very high-pitched voice. Not so different to some of the coastal villages style of entertainment in Papua New Guinea.

Ambrym is considered Vanuatu’s sorcery centre. Sorcerers are treated with great respect. Many islanders have seen too many unexplained happenings associated with sorcery. I immediately put up my guard by taking extra precaution as I would when I visit a place where sorcery is known to exist. I don’t think the European tourists were scared of sorcery, but I was. It does not matter whether I am in PNG or in Vanuatu, sorcery is sorcery. I had to be careful in my negotiations.

I decided to walk with some of the crew to the Ambrym lower secondary school. The school was built next to the shore on a raised hill. From land this must be the best view, but the view from the Oceanic Discoverer is similar to the view of St. Johns Seminary on Kairiru Island in Papua New Guinea.

Our walk was distracted by two men busy making their Kava drink. One of the men pounded the Kava roots in a specially made container made out of an arm length PVC pipe stuck in the ground..The pounding instrument was a long iron bar that fitted the pipe. The other man squeezed the pounded Kava into a dish. They kept on doing whatever they were doing on our arrival.

Ambrym has the twin volcanoes of Mt. Marum and Mt. Benbow. They are usually shrouded in smoke and cloud for the best part of the year. The sky above the infernos glowed in red in the night as if to scare strangers.

We sailed onward to Champaign Bay on Espirito Santo Island the next day. This was the island where the PNGDF campaign flushed out Jimmy Stevens, the infamous rebel leader. I had little enthusiasm about this history as I was more interested in talking to owner of Champaign Bay, a well kept and managed beach without the support of the government.

The owner was approached many times by multi-millionaires to sell off the Bay, but he refused the offer. If he sold Champaign Bay then the villagers, who depend on the income generated from tourist visiting the Bay free-of-charge, would no longer benefit from it. It means the villagers have to pay to participate in the tourist industry. As long as Champaign Bay remains with the traditional landowner the villagers will continue to earn income to meet their basic social and economic necessities.

I can see the reasoning behind this position as it supports an indigenous Melanesian economic perspective. As long as traditional land remains with the traditional owners everyone in the community will derive their sustainability from it. Once it is sold, traded, or that the transfer of ownership is negotiated, a whole community can lose out on gaining any economic benefits.

A Melanesian Odyssey: Ouvea

Melanesia, a concept developed out of the need to categorize, a particular group of people with certain characteristics, distinct from the other groups, namely the Polynesians and the Micronesians, who occupy the vast expanse of Ocean known as the Pacific—another term first inserted by Europeans to describe the huge body of water dividing the East and the West.

In daily use of these terms we forget to ask ourselves if we really know what we are talking about. We say we are Melanesians, but it is difficult for us to describe what it means to be a Melanesian. The easiest route for our response is to list Papua New Guinean features of customs, belief systems, and traditional way of life. That is probably where our understanding of what it means to be Melanesian lie. It is never stretched far enough to include other Melanesians in other countries. Melanesians are scattered across the south-western Pacific islands with many distinct languages, cultures, and unique political experiences that differentiate them.

In the next series of articles I will share my experience as a Melanesian tourist on board the Oceanic Discoverer—a Cairns based cruise ship traveling through the Melanesian Islands of New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and PNG. I have long wanted to talk about this experience in this column to highlight the importance of tourism and share the experience of a Melanesian odyssey with readers.

The Chief of one of the tribes on Ouvea Atoll of New Caledonia bid us farewell after our visit there. When I addressed him as Chief he replied, he acknowledged me as his brother. I was saddened that we had to leave his beautiful coral atoll. Earlier on our arrival, a village party welcomed us on the beach in front of the magnificent St. Joseph’s Cathedral at the Catholic mission station. After a welcome address by the Chief, our tour leader thanked the people of Ouvea for allowing us to visit their beautiful island.

Ouvea is an important island in the political history of New Caledonia. It was here that the resistance to French colonialism was more radical. On 22 April 1988, just days before the French presidential election, a group of Kanaks captured the gendarmerie at Fayaoue, Ouvea’s capital, and killed four gendarmes. They took 27 hostages, 11 of whom were released, while others were transported to a cave near Goosana, in the far north.

Ouvea was declared a zone militaire and all communication and transport was cut. More than 300 soldiers were flown to the island. Captain Phillippe Legorjus, head of France’s elite antiterrorist squad, began negotiations with the hostage takers. During attempts to secure the hostages’ release, Legorjus was captured, but was freed after coming to an agreement with the group’s young leader, Alphonse Dianour, on a date of release for the hostages. It was set for after the presidential election.

On 4 May, three days before the election, Captain Legorjus had two guns and a set of handcuff keys smuggled into the cave. In what was code-named Operation Victor, the military then stormed the cave and reported ‘at least 16’ people dead, all of them Kanaks. The following day, the figure was revised to 21, including two gendarmes. Later, allegations were made that four of the Kanaks, including the leader, Dianous, and Waina Amosa, a 19-year-old who had been sent into the cave to deliver food, were killed after they had surrendered.

It was also claimed that the military tortured and beat civilians from Goosana during the operation. The human rights group Amnesty International took up the case, and France’s Minister for Defence later announced that ‘acts contrary to military duty have unfortunately been committed’. One gendarme commander was suspended but no judicial action was taken.

After the cave assault, 32 Ouvean prisoners, including Djubelly Wea, a local independence movement leader and FULK (Front Uni de Liberation Kanak) supported, were flown to France to face trial. This was despite a previous assuance from the French High Commission in New Caledonia that trials would be held in Noumea. Wea was eventually released and the others were given amnesty as part of the Accords de Matignon. Wea returned home to find that his elderly father had died shortly after the hostage crisis. His father had apparently been beaten and left tied up in the sun by the military, and was soon regarded as the ‘20th victim’ of the Ouvea massacre.

Exactly a year to the day after the cave assault, Jean-Marie Tjibaou and Yeiwene Yeiwene were assassinated on Ouvea. They had come for a ceremony to end the 12 months of mourning for the 19 Kanaks killed at Goosana and were about to address the gathering when Wea fatally shot Tjibaou. Yeiwene was killed by another gunman. One of Tjibaou’s bodyguards then shot Wea. All three were buried in their tribal villages—Tjibaou, 53, at Tiendanite on Grande Terre; Yeiwene, 44 at Tadin on Mare, and Wea, 44, at Goosana.

In June the previous year, Tjibaou had signed the Accords de Matignon that guaranteed a referendum on New Caledonian independence in 1998. Some Kanaks were unhappy with the agreement, and continued to call for an immediate independent Kanaky. Wea, a former Protestant pastor and journalist, did not like the agreement. He had no-compromise policy on independence and was embittered by his father’s death. He also blamed the FLNKs (Front de Liberation Nationale Kanak et Socialiste) for failing to act over Ouveans’ demand for an international inquiry into the military’s alleged atrocities.

The assassination of Tjibaou and Yeiwene was the last act of political violence in New Caledonia.

I left Ouvea behind in a cloud of heavy Oceanic winds and currents. All I could think about was the hope that one day the Chief of Ouvea and his people will join hands and dance with other Melanesians as a free people of this great Ocean.

I sat on the deck and looked back to Ouvea disappear into the horizon as we headed for Vanuatu.

The Kanak Apple Season: Dewe Gorode

The Kanak Apple Season is a book of short stories by the Kanak writer Dewe Gorode. The book is a selection of short stories written in French by this prolific national figure and one of Pacific’s powerful woman in politics, Dewe Gorode. She was born in 1949 at Ponerihouen on the central east coast of New Caledonia.

The Kanak Apple Season is an anthology of selected short fiction penned by the Francophone speaking Melanesian of New Caledonia, whom I had met briefly in a conference on Indigenous epistemology in Suva, Fiji back in 2006. The book was published in 2004 by Pandanus Books for the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in the Australian National University. Peter Brown translated and edited the collection with the assistance from Australian Research Council, Australian National University, as well as the French Ministry of Culture and Communication in New Caledonia and the French Embassy in Australia.

The Kanak Apple Season interested me for a very good reason. For a long time, the syllabus on Pacific literature in our regional universities has not included any of the Indigenous writings from the Francophone speaking Pacific countries. As far as I know this has been the case until this decade, we began to see the emergence and exposure of the literature of our French speaking Pacific brothers and sisters such as Ma’ohi writer of French Polynesia: Henri Hiro, Chantel Spitz, Flora Devatine, Loiuse Peltzer, Taaria Walker (Mama Pere), Titaua Peu, and Celestine Hitiura Vaite; Ni-Vanuatu writers such Grace Molisa, Sam Ngwele, and New Caledonian writers such as Dewe Gorode, Wanir Welepane, and Pierre Gope. It brings home the point that the Pacific Ocean is home, to both English or French speakers, that our discussions of Pacific writing, cultures, and knowledge systems must include Indigenous authors in the French speaking countries as well as English speaking nations. Reading the writings of our fellow Pacific Islanders, whether these are in French or English, we can come to understand and appreciate each other’s social, cultural, and political conditions and experiences. The answer to the question how much do we do each other as Melanesians or as Pacific Islanders is possible through reading books by Indigenous authors.

Dewe Gorode has a lot to do with the resurgence of Kanak cultural consciousness. Her first volume of poetry Sous les cendres des conques (1985) appeared in the midst of the troubled years of New Caledonia. Gorode was heavily involved in the political history of New Caledonia. In the late 1960s and 1970s she became politically active by joining the Foulards rouges (Red scarves) movement, set up by Nidoish Naiseline, a grand chef from the Loyalty Island of Mare. She later formed, with the Elie Poignoune, the Groupe 1978, in memory of the Kanak revolt of that year under chief Atai. In 1976 she founded with others the political party PALIKA (Pari de Liberation Kanak), and has remained a leading member of the party. She was interned twice, second being for inciting violence and armed revolved through the publication of a tract written in the wake of the death of a young Kanak protestor.

Gorode continued her political work in PALIKA, with a special attention to the setting up of schools designed as an alternative to the French education system to teach Kanak children about their culture and in their own Kanak languages. In 1984, after the formation of the FLNKS, she became a representative for external relations and as such made many trips to speak at international conferences of developing countries and the non-aligned movement, United Nations’ committees (New Caledonia was pit on the UN decolonization list in 1986) and women’s groups. After the Noumea Accord in 1988 she formally entered politics at the territorial level, in May 1999, as an elected representative to the New Caledonian Congres, where she assumed the portfolio of Culture, Sport and Youth Affairs. Since April 2001, she has been Vice President of the New Caledonian Government.

Introducing Dewe Gorode now is important to me. Dewe Gorode continues to conduct a dual career that is cultural and political in her life that just reading the stories she wrote in The Kanaky Apple Season, I am reminded of the committed writing, in the sense of writing being a political tool, that is used to address particular political concerns of a writer.

Peter Brown, in his introduction, to Gorode’s writing says: “Indeed, her writing, like her career as a teacher, is an act of cultural politics. Her double heritage, Paici and French, can be seen in her texts, which reject exoticism and facile dichotomies in favour of a critical evaluation of and creative engagement with culture that often involves her in a transgression of boundaries….Her writing is a mise en scene of kinship relations within the Kanak world, an attempt at a reinterpretation of history, and an interplay of aesthetic forms that catch the unfamiliar reader off guard…, multiply narrative perspectives and to some degree ‘kanakise’ the French language.”

In reading Gorode’s The Kanak Apple Season a strong sense of kinship among Melanesians holds us together, inspite of the political history and geographical dispersals we find ourselves in. I kept thinking about an experience I had on Ovea, meeting a chief who made sure to register with me that we are brothers even though we live in two different countries with different histories. And in some sense, being in New Caledonia in 2007, felt like a strange country, but the kinship recognized through the Melanesian identification renews that ancestral connection.

The Kanak Apple Season is a remarkable collection highlighting the ethnic complexities of the colonial past of New Caledonia. Dewe Gorode draws her inspiration from the heritage of blood-line, family, cultural traditions and colonialism. Peter Brown sums up this collection nicely: “Modernity and tradition, kinship in Kanak village setting and the problems of contemporary urban contexts, women’s liberation and custom, political action and explorations of being, are all at stake for Dewe Gorode in this collection of stories.”

Transforming Mindsets Through Art

We often assume that our tribal art expresses the symbolic commemoration of ancestors and the representation of clan spirits. Masks and carvings are supposed to stand for such figures, making them become the canonical icons of primitive cultures that predate the arrival of Europeans. Appropriating them to suit the modern fashions, uses, and in institutional adaptations raises the question of incongruity. The perceived notions of cultural conflicts and contradictions are underscored by one simple rule: culture is always in a flux and so too are our needs, perceptions, and notions of who we are and what we do to maintain that identity in the face of change.

In his book Oceanic Art (1995) Nicholas Thomas explains the significance of our tribal art: “Ancestors and deities, however, are important not simply because they are dead or divine, but specifically because legends concerning their accomplishments frequently account for the ways in which life, work and political relations are organized; they might describe the origins of a society, in the case of creator-beings and founding ancestors, or in a localized sense, tell of more recent human ancestors, whose deeds are often the basis of claims to land, rank or ritual authority.”

A reader of this column wanted to know how much of our traditional art forms and designs are transferred into the modern textiles and fabrics used in Papua New Guinea. Beyond personal use, there are visible expressions of the public taste for local art and designs on laplaps, tee shirts, bilums, and other everyday material items.

Our traditional material cultures and art forms have also been institutionalized in various places such as in the Parliament, in various churches, educational institutions, and on the legal tender of Papua New Guinea.

The observation of a day in the week reserved for traditional wear seems to have vaporized into thin air, leaving us wondering how serious we are when it comes to the promotion of art and culture in our country. We need to do more.

Consider this: would it make a difference if UPNG decides that for 2011 graduation the gowns and hoods will adorn the traditional art and design of PNG? My views are reserved, but that decision to institutionalise PNG art and design on UPNG gowns remains with the powers that maybe.

I am thinking of art forms and material cultures as the embodiments of many cultural narratives that form the national storyboard of Papua New Guinea as a land of thousand tribes, thousand parliaments, thousand peoples, with thousand cultures and thousand traditional knowledge systems. Our ancestors have lived in this land for thousands of years without a written culture, but which by no means make our people less developed or less intelligent than others.
“Given the narratives of various genres are prominent in both oratory and everyday talk in Oceanic societies,” says Nicholas Thomas, “ it would not be surprising if art forms that possessed no obvious narrative content for an uninformed outsider were, nevertheless, understood as bearers of stories. This can even be true of objects that do not represent deities, protagonists or places that figure in myths and traditions: Queen Salote of Tonga said, ‘Our history is written in our mats’, referring to the exchange relations, kinship bonds and links between aristocratic titles that would be connoted, to the knowledgeable person, by particular fine mats. These artefacts bear their histories, as do Maori taonga (treasures) and high-ranking Trobriand shell valuables.”

There is more to say about the embedded narratives in our tribal arts and material culture that we draw inspirations from to tell our contemporary stories, but our interest now is how we can also package these to serve our need for positive national imageries. Take the storyboards of the Kambot in the East Sepik Province, which have been sought after by many people in the world. The distinctive openwork carvings have no obvious antecedents in traditional art forms in the Kambot area.

“The closest parallels” says Nicholas Thomas “are in filigree plaque figures, from Maprik villages such as Roma, further up the Sepik on the northern side of the river; travel associated with plantation work may have brought Kambot artists into contact with Maprik carvers or their products. They have been produced specifically for sale to tourists since the 1960s and have proved popular, partly because they convey something exotically simple that appeals to collectors. The most prominent figures are usually crocodiles and groups of men paddling canoes, and is probable that myths of origin and migration are referred to, although the meanings attached locally to carvings have not been documented.”

Some of our art forms are now twirled into the bilum designs. It is fashionable these days to give a bilum as a gift to someone. A recent publication: Twisting Knowledge and Emotions: Modern Bilums of Papua New Guinea, compiled and edited by my colleague, Nicolas Garnier, attests to the remarks I make here on bilums as the bearer of art and local narratives that we are too happy to share with visitors to our country.

Garnier observed that bilums have become an important economic source of income for many women: “From an economical point of view, making of bilums, amongst other resources, have provided an opportunity for women to participate in cash economy, such as tourist market which, although limited, contributes to creating a “national” identity of bilums.”

We have to move away from thinking of indigenous art as “associated with cult activities, or within transmission of sacredness, or within the statuses of powerful individuals”, says Nicholas Thomas (1995). “Some arts forms were primarily connected with the propitiation of spirits; many certainly aimed to evoke their presences; but others were ancestors and even recent white intruders. Oceanic art possessed not a single presentation, the embodiment of ancestors and storytelling: it incorporated all these things and more.”

Changing negative attitudes of ourselves can take place if we shift our attention to using our art forms. Art can be used as a powerful tool to transform mindsets today.

Harvesting the Arts and Culture

Our arts, literature, and cultural knowledge systems were employed to define the nation we are proud of today. If we need to make the Vision 2050 work let us put our money into reaffirming our sense of what it means to be a Papua New Guinean through our arts and literary culture. My boldness in making this statement is derived from the foundations set by our early writers and artists.

Under Ulli Beier's guidance, young Papua New Guineans used writing, drama, poetry, and arts to capture national sentiments and to promote PNG cultures. Beier’s book Decolonising the Mind is not just a memoir that recalls the Beiers' time in Papua New Guinea; it also tells of the activities and people with whom they associated during the period leading up to independence. It covers the vibrant period of literature, art, performance, writing, and publishing at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG). This was a time of quick planting and harvesting of the literary and artistic talents that the Beiers stumbled into, waiting as it were to be nurtured, given impetus, and made to bloom.

From subtle nationalism to fiery anticolonial resistance; from imagining one's own community to living in one that is about to be independent—those were the moods of the period. Those Papua New Guineans that the Beiers influenced—such as Albert Maori Kiki, Vincent Eri, Kumalau Tawali, Leo Hannet, Mathias Kawage, Akis, Taite Aihi, and Ruki Fame—have all shown that the arts and literary culture have a purpose to serve the people of Papua New Guinea.

The main thread of the book is about the impact of the university on culture and identity in Papua New Guinea between 1971 through 1974. Ulli Beier is telling us his story about what happened in between those years. After spending many years working to promote the art and literature of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, Ulli and Georgina Beier came to Papua New Guinea in September 1967 to teach at UPNG.

One of the first Papua New Guineans they met on their way to the country, late at night in the departure hall of the Brisbane Airport, was Sir Albert Maori Kiki. Ulli recounts that encounter: "On the plane we had a brief conversation. His name was Albert Maori Kiki, he said. He had been a patrol officer to the Australian administration, but he had recently resigned from that position in order to become the secretary of a new political party. I asked him what part of the country he was from and he said: "Well, you wouldn't have heard of it, it's a very small place on the Papua Gulf called Orokolo" (22). Such openness on the part of Maori Kiki led Ulli Beier to help Kiki publish his autobiography, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime (1968), a book that would trigger a wave of excitement, not only in Papua New Guinea, but internationally as well. The second autobiography that Ulli had a hand in was Sir Michael Somare's Sana (1975).

Ulli Beier also passionately recounts his work with pioneer UPNG students, then referred to as the "boys' university." He discusses establishing a relationship with Allan Natachee, the Papua "Poet Laureate" (12-19), developing the UPNG creative writing course, and starting a publication series called the Papua Pocket Poet series (43-50). From the creative writing class, Ulli recalls: "One of my first and most fascinating students was Vincent Eri. He was a mature student, 31 years old, who had been an education officer. He had twice visited Australia and had been to a conference in Teheran. In 1966, he was sent to Malaysia to represent Papua New Guinea at a writer's conference. This experience inspired Eri to write his first and only novel, The Crocodile (51-60), which was also Papua New Guinea's first novel, published in 1971.

Then, in later years, Ulli was inspired to establish the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies. Ulli was supported by his wife, Georgina, on his mission to accomplish this dream—or perhaps it is better considered an awakening. Georgina provided mentorship and guidance to artists, sculptors, and textile designers in the studio behind their house. This was the beginning of what later would become the National Arts School, an icon of an era rich with artistic flowering. The Beiers also helped to foster the work of pioneer artists at the Center for New Guinea Creative Arts and formed a close relationship with the center's Mathias Kawage, who became the most original and prolific of all PNG artists and brought contemporary PNG arts to the world.

The book is dedicated to John Gunther, first University of Papua New Guinea vice chancellor, and to Kawage. Ulli also devoted his attention to theater, and joined Peter Trist and Frank Johnson in the founding of the University Drama Society (which also included Professors Clunnies Ross, Leo Hannet, and Arthur Jawodimbari). The first plays were Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, Euripides' Alcetis, and a sketch in Pidgin entitled, Em rod bilong kago (Road of Cargo) by Leo Hannet (staged in April 1968). Later plays, however, were written by peoples of Papua New Guinea--Rabbie Namaliu's The Good Woman of Konedobu, Cannibal Tours (later turned into a brilliant film by Dennis O'Rourke), Arthur Jawodimbari's The Sun, Kumalau Tawali's Manki Masta, and of course Ulli Beier's two plays They Never Return and Alive (written under the pen name M Lovori).

The memoir is written with passion and honesty. As expected, it is a book rich with vivid recollection and dedication to the arts, artists, writers, and people of Papua New Guinea. It gives these pioneer artists the place they deserve in PNG history. Equally, I think, Ulli Beier deserves a national recognition by way of a Logohu Award or an honorary doctorate from UPNG.

The reminder here is that our nation is in dire need of the artistic, literary, and cultural energy to move it forward.

Note: The original review was published in The Contemporary Pacific. vol. 19: 1 (Spring 2007).