Friday, October 22, 2010

Language is a Living Museum

Is it hard to see that this country needs to have its own National Language Institute to train Papua New Guineans as linguists and literacy workers to serve as custodians of our Indigenous languages and as a special task force responsible for shouldering the national burden of eradicating literacy? We no longer can afford to lose many more of our languages. We are struggling with the slow pace in eradicating literacy. Language and literacy are the two sides of the same coin that we have not invested enough resources to develop.

The National Language Institute can serve other purposes as well. It can serve as the central point in facilitating research, development, symposiums, translations, and publication of such data that pertains to the status of language, the linguistic properties of our languages, and the evidence of the intellectual or epistemological foundations of our languages and cultures. The Institute can also serve as the center of cross fertilization of languages and involved in developing policies that concern themselves with language, literacy, and culture.

I am not the first to call for a National Language Institute. In the 1980s and 1990s, prominent linguists, the late Professor Otto Nekitel, and the then UPNG Vice Chancellor Joseph Sukwianomb made impassioned plea for the government to set up the Institute to no avail.

The difficulties we have in saving moribund languages, increasing our literacy rate, and poor protection of our biolinguistic diversity necessitate the establishment of a National Language Institute. This should also be one of the medium term goals of our national developmental plan. The Institute should to be set up as a fulfillment of our National Goals and Directive Principles, Basic Rights, and Basic Social Obligations.

In addition we need to create a law to protect our languages and enforce or reinforce the use of our languages in whatever form, medium, and where possible in our changing environment. Right now, even with a Language Policy in place no one seems to attend to it or own it for the greater benefit of all Papua New Guineans.

The importance of our national languages is taken on face value without there being any concerted efforts to see the development and protection of our languages. Our language diversity is closely linked to our biodiversity that without attending to the specific demands for protection, development, and sustainability we can lose cultures, knowledge, and people in this tide of modern changes on our shores in the form of economic development, negative social changes, media communication technologies, and the rush to modernize ourselves.

Papua New Guinea is a land of language diversity and biodiversity. An international scholar Tove Skutnabb Kangae (2003) observes that knowledge “about how to maintain biodiversity is encoded in small languages because it is their speakers who live in the world's biologically (and linguistically) most diverse areas.” The consequence of “killing these languages (or letting them) die is that we destroy the biodiversity in these areas.”

Linguist Peter Muhlhausler (2001, 135) argues that “our ability to get on with our environment is a function of our knowledge of it and that by combining specialist knowledge from many languages and by reversing the one-way flow of knowledge dominating the world’s education system, solutions to our many environmental problems may be found.”

We can also take action to slow the rate of language and biodiversity extinction, and better understand the needs and ways of the indigenous people’s knowledge systems. Muhlhausler (2001, 135) is correct in pointing out that to see the continued survival of our species we need to recognize the importance of “learning from local knowledge, such as learning from the insights and errors of traditional rainforest dweller or desert nomads.” Such knowledge is embodied in our Indigenous languages as uncovered by many linguists and researchers of Papua New Guinea languages.

Muhlhausler (2001, 136-7) observes that as “Enga are becoming dependent on foods imported in tins and containers, as their children have to attend government schools where they are expected to acquire nontraditional knowledge (which leaves little time or opportunity to acquire the full traditional knowledge), and as the habitat of much of the indigenous fauna and flora is destroyed to make way for coffee plantations and gardens in which introduced food is grown, as well as for roads, towns, and airstrips,” the language itself is under threat of losing the indigenous knowledge. He adds further that many studies on other Papua New Guinean language “point to very much the same development.”

Several international linguists observe that few studies have looked at interactions within or among language and of the functional relationships among languages. The study of languages at this dimension is described as linguistic ecology. Where indigenous subsistence activities are abandoned the “specialized syntactical structures and their associated vocabularies” are left to no use (Zepeda 1984). Nabhan argues: “In most cases, however, it remains unclear whether retention of lexemes associated with the knowledge and use of biodiversity has fared any worse than overall lexical retention within an imperiled indigenous language (Spicer 1986, Wurm 1991; Hinton 1994; Nabhan 2001: 146-8).

It is important that we give some thoughts to language and biodiversity in our country. The world of the indigenous people is viewed through their language, which Nettle and Romaine (2000, 14) describe as a window, a living museum or monument that losing one language we also lose one culture: “It is a loss to every one of us if a fraction of that diversity disappears when there is something that could have been done to prevent it.”

Instead of depending on international organizations and institutions to document, study, and translate our languages we need to set up our own National Language Institute.

Discussions are taking place among various stakeholders and interested parties along this line of thinking. What is needed is political action and will to see that the National Language Institute or PNG Institute of Languages is set up for the people of Papua New Guinea and their descendants in the future.


Friday, October 15, 2010

Activities of Our Ancestors

This week I am inspired to write about the origin of domesticated plants in New Guinea after learning of the significant discovery by archaeologists Prof. Glen Summerhays of the University of Otago and UPNG’s Dr. Mathew Leavesley, at Kosipe archaeological site. Congratulations to both of them as well as to Herman Mandui from the National Museum and Art Gallery for a spectacular job. The UPNG students who worked with them deserve praise for making the discovery of the century.

The discovery is significant enough to warrant an extended story about the activities of our ancestors. It is our ancestors’ story as much as it is ours. There is more we need to discover about ourselves. I have always been a keen enthusiast for the peopling of the Island of New Guinea and the domestication of plants. The island of New Guinea is truly a world of its own basked in the mysteries of this world.

Domesticated plants in New Guinea were introduced from the Southeast Asian train. The traditional food crops introduced from Southeast Asia include starch staples such as Colocasia esculenta (Taro), Dioscorea alata (Long Yam; Greater Yam), Dioscorea esculenta (Common or Round Yam; Lesser Yam); from Tropical South America the introduction of Ipomoea batatas (Sweet Potato) from Southeast Asia the introduction of Musa (Eumusa Section) or the banana. Two of the secondary crops introduced from Southeast Asia are the Psophocarpus tetragonolobus (Wind Bean) and the Lablab niger (Hyacinth Bean).

The entry of these crops, with the exception of sweet potato, to New Guinea together with domesticated animals is thought to have gone back to more than 50,000 years. The entry of the sweet potato is so recent and is dated to the arrival of European colonialism in island Southeast Asia, which began in the early 16th century. The introduced plants were domesticated together with plants indigenous to New Guinea.

According to the archaeologist, J. Golson of Kuk fame “agriculture could have begun independently of Southeast Asia” since the “starchy foods….could have been the staples, with edible grasses and leafy green vegetables providing minerals and fats; Pandanus trees supplying fruits or nuts rich in proteins and fats, together with other unlisted nut and seed bearing trees; and sugar cane an fruits as intermittent energy sources.”

The following food plants are indigenous: Starchy food such as Musa (Australimusa Section) or banana, Dioscorea bulbifera (yam), Dioscorea hispida (yam), Dioscorea nummularia (yam), Dioscorea pentaphylla (yam), Metroxylon spp. (sago); edible grasses such as Setaria palmifolia (for shoots) or Fox-tail or Bristle Grass; Pitpit (Tokpisin) and Saccharum edule (for inflorescences) or Pitpit (Tokpisn); Leafy green vegetable (Kumu in Tokpisin) such as Abelmoschus (formerly Hibiscus) manihot or Aipika (Tokpisin), Amaranthus spp. (native spinach; Amaranths Coleus); Coleus sp, Commelina spp. Oenanthe javanica; Rorippa sp (Native Cress), Rungia klossii, Solanum nigrum; Nuts and fruits such as pandanus spp. (Screw Pine; Pandanus) and Rubus rosifolius (Native Raspberry). The indigenous plants were either domesticated or were naturally growing or transplanted in gardens from the bush.

The pattern of cultivation of these plants suggests that people in New Guinea were for the most part aware of the abundance of starchy food crops and plants that are easily cultivated to produce sufficient supply of protein and vitamins for their survival. This could explain their early horticultural activities around cultivated agriculture, and reliance of the forest, swamps, and grassland to sustain their livelihood. “It is a reasonable inference from archaeological record,” Golson agues, “that the human settlement of New Guinea began before agriculture of any kind was established in the island.”

“The early communities” Golson continues, “must have lived off the wild resources of the land” as indicated by in various ethnographic studies. It is important to keep in mind that the crop variations in time and space, varies greatly in New Guinea. Some of these plants were cultivated in different time periods and at different levels of topography and climates. The example of banana is that it can only grow at elevation of 2200 m where as sweet potato can grow very well at higher altitudes.

It is generally held that the history of New Guinea agriculture at large has been one of adjustments in response to a variety of circumstances, including the introduction of new plants. The New Guinea agricultural system, for the most part includes shifting cultivation to enable its tuberous crops to be cultivated.

According to Golson the persistence of shifting cultivation throughout the tropical world, under different climatic, physiographic, soil and vegetation regimes, serving a bewildering variety of cultivated plants. marks it out as a highly successful adaptation of forested conditions.

In agreement is the view that “partial or complete clearance of vegetation, burning the debris, the temporary cultivation of an assemblage of crops in the cleared area, and the clearing of further forest for new gardens while the old plot is abandoned to fallow under regenerating forest” helps regenerate the ecosystem (Clarke 1977; 1978; Golding n.d.: 44).

“The complex inter-planting of a diversity of crops,” Golson argues “reproduces the ecosystem diversity of the rainforest from which the garden is cleared, and to which it will shortly return.” The advantages of this polycultivation system is that “it supplies a variety of foods to diversify the diet, which comes to maturity at different stages during the life of the garden; it provides a continuous ground-cover that cuts down the need for weeding and checks erosion; and it reduces the threat from crop diseases and pests to which monocultural plantings are prone.”

Golson observed further that this forest fallowed cultivation is self-maintaining, has no need of external energy or nutrient sources, and produces a greater yield for every unit of human energy than other agricultural systems.

Tropical rainforest with its species diversity and high biological productivity, can flourish even on the poorest soil, because a large part of the nutrients is contained in the biomass itself and their recycling is rapid and efficient.

Agriculture in New Guinea began in the lowlands before entering the highlands.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Blue Eyed Angel of Kusaun

Yauwiga displays his medals of honor. Courtesy of  Bikmaus Journal published by IPNGS
 The only famous Papua New Guinean fuzzy wuzzy angel with a blue eye happens to be Paul Yauwiga Wankunale from Kusaun village in the Kubalia area of the East Sepik Province. I grew up marveled at this tall, well built, giant of a man from my area; legendary in his lifetime for his bravery in the Second World War, fighting alongside the Allied forces on Guadalcanal, Buka, Rabaul, Madang, Morobe, and the Sepik.

Warrant Officer Yauwiga was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, Bravery Award, and other such medals for his valiant war efforts. One such campaign is described in Lorna Fleetwood’s book, A Short History of Wewak: “On 27th March 1945 Yauwiga was with an Australian Infantry Brigade (A.I.B) party at Aravia. It was learned that an enemy party of about eighty Japanese was approaching their camp. While the A.I.B escaped with their codes and essential equipment Yauwiga took up a defensive position with just three rifles. He and two other soldiers managed to keep the Japanese at bay for fifteen minutes, exhibiting great bravery. In two years Yauwiga killed fifty-seven Japanese.”

Yauwiga lost a hand and both his eyes when holding a grenade used as a signal for Australian planes to drop supplies. No one showed him how to use it. He spent three months in a hospital in Canberra. He was given the eyes of a motor cycle accident fatality. One eye grafted well and Yauwiga became a very rare being, a Melanesian with a blue eye.

In The Bishops’ Progress: An Historical Ethnography of Catholic Missionary Experience on the Sepik Frontier, Mary Taylor Huber notes: “the major figure in Wewak and its immediate hinterland in the first years after the war appears to have been Yau[w]iga…who was also a war hero, and whose decoration ceremony in 1948 was witnessed by some 30 Europeans and 80,000 natives from near and far.” Yauwiga’s war exploits is an exemplary military valour deserving far more attention than is observed.

Yauwiga was more than a war hero to his people. He was a catalyst of many transformative changes in East Sepik right after the war. Yauwiga’s contemporaries Ludwig Somare Sana and Pita Simogun were articulate leaders in their epoch, taking the bull by its horns to wrestle it until it came under their feet.

Yauwiga succeeded in destroying the practice of sorcery in Nagum Boiken villages. In each village a two-to-three meter deep hole was dug where all the powers and sorcery tools like plants, bones, lime, ginger, stones, and other items of sorcery were buried. Only the old men opposed him here and there. But Yauwiga made the refractory ones stay the whole day long in the hot sun until by evening they showed some pliancy.

Father Andreas Gerstner, the Catholic missionary anthropologist, in charge of the parish covering the immediate hinterland of Wewak records his admiration of Yauwiga as a messianic figure: “this unusual man…undertook a war against old heathen spirit cult and has had up to now wide success. Beginning in 1947 and then up to February 1948, he has already undertaken one reform expedition to his own people, two in the Wewak region, one in Boiken region, and one on the island of Kairiru. On each of these trips he stayed three to four weeks. Delegates from many different villages accompanied him. After arrival in a new village, Yauwiga would first give a speech. He asked all the men to give up their spiritual and magical paraphernalia and whatever other things were known as causes of conflict and feud. He said, ‘So long as you keep the old things, you think only of them. You threaten with sorcery, quarrels, and fighting. A new time has come for us. We will better ourselves and follow the whites of the Administration and the Mission.’”

Was this Yauwiga’s way of avenging the rebuke and shame he received during his initiation into the maiye sorcery society? It is said Yauwiga had failed his assignment, as an apprentice maiyenduo, to bring back to normal senses a young woman victim of sorcery, who was still in a state of trance. He went against the rules and code of the maiyenduo society, resulting in his rebuke and banishment.

The knowledge of maiye saved him during the war. It earned him the reputation as a one man army. Yauwiga used the maiye knowledge to ambush and kill many Japanese during the war. He was invisible to his enemies because he used the maiye spells and powers to great advantage.

In the film Angels of War, Yauwiga speaks proudly about his bravery.

In the first years after the war Yauwiga advocated bisnis with a campaign for reform of village society. Yauwiga had the support of his people who worked on a variety of projects, including salt extraction, a coconut plantation corporative, and a sago-processing operation. It is said Yauwiga purchased a saw mill from the government.

Yauwiga had a vision for the future of the Sepik District. He organized the Boram school in Wewak. The Boram school was his brain child, inspired from the discussions he once had with wounded soldiers from Samoa and Fiji he met in the hospital in Canberra. Elders from Kreer village gave him land to build the school, with the help of his own people from Kusaun, Porombe, and Ulighembi.

The famous pupil of this school is our Prime Minister Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare.

Yauwiga died in 1982. He was given a military service and buried conspicuously on his land at Marinumbo.

Yauwiga fought for his country.

He had the vision to develop his people through education, through various business ventures, and developmental activities. Given the atmosphere at that time Yauwiga had the leadership persuasion that is poorly acknowledged and given recognition for its accomplishments.

Yauwiga’s individual gallantry in World War II, his post-war visions, and pioneering leadership legacy is best honoured if a foundation or scholarship is set up to continue his dream.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Learning Within Prison Walls

The inmates and the CIS officers at the Buimo prison outside of Lae welcomed me as an old friend in my visit to their space last week. I was there to facilitate a workshop on proposal writing and basic report writing. The workshop is a joint project involving the Bible Society of PNG, the Correction Institution Services and the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat of the Department of Education.

A year ago I facilitated a writer’s workshop. Out of the writer’s workshop the first anthology of prison writings is ready to be published. The book is a rare work as it brings together the writings of prisoners and warders who attended the course. In this year’s workshop I worked with them to come up with a tentative title for the book. The book is the first of its kind in the country.

Seeing the participants from the last workshop again was reassuring in a lot of ways. Since the first workshop a lot has happened at the Buimo penitentiary. There was a mass break-out, the former commanding officer was replaced by a new officer, one of the participants had passed on, one was shot during an escape operation, some were released, and some have a couple of months before their parole. Buimo prison is located on an ideal spacious landscape with a relaxed atmosphere. At least that is the first impression one gets on a visit to the prison site.

It was easy also to get to know the participants on an individual level. As individuals they displayed their intelligence, creativity, and cooperative spirit. In knowing them as individuals I realized that sharing with them my knowledge and skills of writing was one small way of skilling them to organize their own lives. Through the practice of organizing themselves they will take control of their own lives. I shared my knowledge of writing with prisons, warders, and others as a fulfillment of a higher calling.

Inmates like Apollo Kesu, Malum Nathan, and several of the CIS officers like Jill Tulo and Arnold Juvai make working in prison very rewarding. Our learning environment was more than just a workshop environment. We started off a day with fellowship before moving into the training sessions. I appreciated the mornings of fellowship with beautiful gospel music and inspiring choir performances.

In each session of the workshop we learnt to adjust to the flow of things in the classroom and in the prison environment. By noon on Thursday a new development occurred in the main prison compound. The inmates had staged a protest against the authorities in prison. It was revealed later to me that the inmates have been living in overcrowded conditions and wanted to get out as quick as possible. The prisoners took the liberty to register their complaints by hijacking the officers during a lunch hour. This strategy was a new dangerous development in the prison system. Something is not right.

We waited in patience for any changes to the situation. Nothing changed in the afternoon. Most of our participants belonged to the main compound of the prison. They were disallowed from returning to the workshop. It is not in our favour to complain. Most of the things that I wanted to cover were done in the morning session. I have to make adjustments to the program for the next day.

Teaching in a prison environment requires a lot of patience, respect, and understanding. Transmitting useful values to help people live a purposeful life is a challenge. So many people take life for granted. Many people live a life imprisoned by negative values and false sense of themselves. The obvious display of this crisis is evident in the way people disrespect others, ignore basic rules of cohesion, and break the laws that govern our conduct, behaviour, attitudes, and collective will to create a better world for ourselves.

The Bible Society of PNG runs the prison literacy project in several prisons around the country. The project has helped many inmates to see light at the end of the tunnel. The prison literacy project is led by Doris Omaken and assisted by Jill Pijui. They are supported by Augustine Huaembukie in Lae. I became part of their team because Doris and Jill were at one point students in my class at the University of Papua New Guinea. The important reason for working on this project with the Bible Society of PNG is that the work we do is one little drop of water in a bucket of developmental challenges we face as a people, a nation, and a Christian country.

The Bible Society works in partnership with the Correctional Services, the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS) and other stake-holders such as the University of Papua New Guinea and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). This work is supported by international charitable organizations associated with the Bible Society of PNG.

The government must not turn a blind eye on the importance of this rehabilitation work. It has the potential to transform troubled individuals with burdens to become better and productive citizens after they are freed from the penitentiary. The prison literacy project is a beacon of hope and courage. The hope is that inmates will find a new path, direction, or destiny. The courage is that it takes few courageous individuals to work with people the society considers dangerous.

My hope is like that of the prisoners and CIS officer during the recent workshop. They want classrooms to learn in and a multi-purpose resource centre. These particular needs were expressed in some of the proposals written during the workshop. Instead of spending money on high powered firearms for the CIS the money should have been used for the purposes expressed above.

The final point I now make is that we all must do our part to help others who need our help most. We must do our part in supporting organizations and groups working in literacy programs within the walls of PNG prisons.