Saturday, September 4, 2010

Looking Through Indigenous Lens

Port Moresby Public Art Scene

Often human society is such that a man’s life is celeb rated more after his death. The success and accomplishments of an individual are never talked about much, rewarded, or celebrated in the days that individual is alive. We may feel let down as humans, but that is the way it is since creation.

In our midst and days of our lives the experiences of death, loss, remorse, and haus krai, people have come to develop subculture of pay respects or show your face to the dead for two hours only and forget the experience for the rest of your life. It’s again another of those human frailties we have to live with. We only remember the dead for two hours of respect. No body seems to care after that two hours whether you have lost a loved one or some dear and respected person in your life. That’s what we do as humans, is probably the best comfort one would get when people forget our losses.

I have never forgotten one person, from a list of others long gone in life and in death. That person is the late Paschal Waisi, a student and teacher of Melanesian Philosophy and Indigenous epistemology. The late Waisi taught Melanesian Philosophy at the University of Papua New Guinea until is death in early 2009. He died during his research trip to his beloved Lau’um society in the Lumi District, of Sandaun Province.

This scholar and philosopher of Melanesian epistemology has never waivered in the promise of seeing the study of Melanesian philosophy, a promise he shared with his mentor, the late Bernard Narokobi. Waisi developed a course in Melanesian Philosophy at UPNG and left without seeing a list of graduates who would promote the ideas of Melanesian philosophy. Now a vacuum is left, because both proponents of this Indigenous epistemological system are no longer around. There are few people, I can say, who are passionate true believers and students of Melanesian philosophy as these two men were.

I had the honor of associating with the late Paschal Waisi as a friend and his principle supervisor during the days he studied for his Masters degree at the University of Papua New Guinea. He completed the degree within the time required. On completion of his MA degree he proceeded to prepare the publication of his MA degree thesis. One of his examiners felt that the late Waisi’s MA thesis was more like a PhD work. That encouraged Waisi to approach the UPNG Press and Bookshop to arrange the publication of his MA thesis.

The book was published and released recently. It is entitled Looking Through Ancestors’ Eye-Holes , a title resonating Russell Soaba’s masterpiece poem “Looking Thru Those Eye-Holes”. In his own words Waisi explains that he had written the book about the epistemological system of his own people by looking through Lau’um eye-holes.

“This book is on epistemology, mind-body-spirit, and social ethical forms of the Lau’um people, West Sepik…The aim of the book is to expose the Lau’um epistemology, mind-body-spirit, and ethical forms of life… The study concerns itself on the nature of knowledge in Lau’um… The second issue is about preservation. Modernity entices the hearts and minds of the Lau’um people to move away gradually from their traditions…The book selects and explores the main cultural forms that are influenced by modernity. It discusses the experiences of the Lau’um culture heroes and heroines. It reveals the main elements of Lau’um pingis (wisdom). It reveals the body-mind-spirit and social ethical relationships. The book aims to encourage a productive engagement with the Lau’um epistemologies, spiritual, social, and ethical dimensions of living.”

Waisi’s book is one of the new books published by the UPNG Press and Bookshop under Univentures. The book has 117 pages and is printed in the United States under an arrangement of the UPNG Press in partnership with Masalai Press of California. The cover work is impressive and should catch the eye of the reader.

I know that the late Waisi would have been the happiest man to see his MA thesis converted into a book. In PNG, Waisi is probably one of the few individuals who converted his academic research done as an MA thesis. What if all Papua New Guineans published their MA theses? Would it create a body of knowledge that is indigenous? I left that to the better judgment of our indigenous scholars.

Steven’s Window pays tribute to a friend, colleague, and indigenous scholar who may have left us, but we will continue to remember him because he left us a book to read about his own people and about himself. Even in death the late Waisi is asking us to look through the skull of the dead, the eye-holes of our ancestors, to see the kind of society or world we are carving for ourselves. We need a serious re-evaluation of ourselves, our decisions, and our visions. Are we moving away from PNG or indigenous Melanesian Ways in a radical way on a one way train or are we merely paying our 2 hours of respect to the dead and our ancestors? Whatever it is, one thing is for sure, our people have lived on the Island of New Guinea for more than 50,000 years. We have plenty to write about to teach the world why we have survived for so long.

Looking Through Ancestors’ Eye-Holes (2010) is a post-humous publication. I think the author would have agreed with me, if he was alive, that we need more Papua New Guineans to convert their MA and PhD theses to books for the sake of developing understanding of our Melanesian societies.

More important to this issue is that indigenous scholarship and publications are absent in the discourse about our societies, knowledge systems, and peoples. We need to publish more books written by Papua New Guineans.

One way of developing an enlightened understanding of ourselves is to read the books written through sustained research and scholarship by our own sons and daughters.



  1. This is amazing. I definitely want to look into this book further.

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