Friday, March 16, 2012

The Second PNG Writer: Ahuia Ova

Ahuia in later years at Kilakila
 (courtesy of Eric Johns, PNG History Through Stories Vol.2)

The emergence of indigenous literary traditions across Oceania goes far back to the early introduction of European technologies, ideas, writing instruments, literacy, and print media in the 1880s. Reverend W. G. Lawes, who settled with his family in Hanuabada in 1874 translated the four gospels in Motu. The translation of the gospels was completed in 1885. Lawes held the view that to establish the Christian church it was important to develop the abilities of people to read Christian literature.

By 1920s a reasonable number of Motu Koitabuans knew enough English to communicate with the missionaries and the administration officials. Many Papuans, however, were uninterested in using English to capture their experiences or to express themselves in writing.

The English language was viewed as an uncultured language with the power to corrupt the cultural and social fabric of the Papuan society. According to Nigel Oram “the Hanuabada Council deplored the education of women because it enabled them to arrange their own marriages through correspondence and it also enabled married women, to write to men not their husbands.”

The Papuans were suspicious of the power of the Western language and cultural tool as an instrument of cultural obliteration. Learning to read and write in English or vernacular was considered dangerous to society. The Hanuabada Council held the view that women with the knowledge of writing were dangerous to the continuity of the Koita traditions. The fear was that the new tool and language would undermine tradition, traditional authority, family values, social cultural morals, and time tested indigenous values of their societies.

Against this backdrop, Ahuia Ova, a Koita man wrote his memoirs in Motu. A Hanuabada clerk, Igo Erua, translated the memoirs into English. The memoirs were published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1939 as “The Reminiscence of Ahua Ova.”

The Ahuia Ova episode set in motion a series of interesting relationships between the Papuans and the colonial administration. Ahuia Ova had acquired quite a reputation as the friend of Lieutenant Governor Murray and a host of other Europeans. Among the Motu and Koitabuans, he was feared, revered, and disliked because of his negative actions and attitudes to other Papuans.

“His early knowledge of the taubada’s [European’s] language,” according to contemporary Hanuabadan writer, Lahui Ako, “was due largely to his daily association with the Catholic mission that set up base next door to Hohodae. In his early years, his errand running for the fathers and nuns, and the odd jobs here and there with the mission enabled him to get a head start in learning English from the Catholic taubadas [Europeans]” Fellow Papuans saw Ahuia as a spoilt ‘native’, a betrayer, untrusted, double-tongued, and as someone who did not belong to the Motu Koitabuan societies.

Ahuia Ova maintained a close relationship with the Europeans. He spoke English with ease and comfort. In return the administration appointed him as the village constable, court interpreter, and village councilor. Ahuia was a very close friend of the Lieutenant Governor that at Murray’s funeral Ahuia took the honor of reading Murray’s eulogy.

Ahuia in traditional dressing, which he burnt later.
(courtesy of Eric Johns, PNG History Through Stories Vol.2)

Whether Papuans read what Ahuia wrote remains to be seen. Following the publication of Ahuia Ova’s memoirs: “a great deal of biographical material [was] published about him.” Ahuia’s story is one that is a reflection of the kind of Papuan, the colonizers wanted to churn out from instituting the learning of English to absorb the cultures of the Europeans at the expanse of forsaking the indigenous cultures and political structures.

Ahuia Ova’s act of writing memoirs can teach us about writing under difficult conditions in the colonial period. Ahuia’s close association with the European officials could have also exposed him to reading the official government newspaper. A close friend of Murray and by proxy to F. E. Williams, the founder and editor of The Papuan Villager, Ahuia must have read the newspaper. Williams also had access to The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute and could have helped in getting Ahuia’s memoires published there.

In 1929, South Australian Rhodes Scholar, F. (Francis) E. (Edgar) Williams, the government anthropologist founded The Papuan Villager (1929-1942), a monthly newspaper in simple English. According to Michael Young and Julia Clark in their book Anthropologist in Papua: The Photography of F. E.Williams, 1922-1939: “The idea was to publish reading matter for adult Papuans that was interesting and informative. He envisaged that eventually it would be written entirely by Papuans, but to his continual frustration he and a small group of regular contributors, mainly government clerks and mission teachers, had to write it. The [Papuan] Villager was distributed free to schools, but the majority of subscribers were Europeans (230 of a total of 307 in 1931, for instance).” Williams felt The Papuan Villager would help increase the knowledge and understanding of the English language, a process that would eventually bring the Papuans to participate in a meaningful way in the colonial environment.

We do know now that the “Papuan Experiment” had failed, especially F. E. Williams’s project to inspire Papuans to write in The Papuan Villager. The only contributions Papua New Guineans made were imprecise 2-3 lines of folktales, which must have been written in sloppy English and provided smug amusement for the European readers.

It took another 29 years before Papua New Guineans saw Kiki: Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime, the autobiography of Albert Maori Kiki published by Cheshire in Melbourne in 1968. This autobiography ignited in other Papua New Guineans the burning desire to use writing as a political tool to speak against the colonisers. Thus began the famous, literary renaissance of the later 1960s and 1970s, leading to the Independence of Papua New Guinea.

It took almost 68 years since Ahuia Ova’s memoirs before fellow Hanuabadan, Lahui Ako, published his autobiography: Upstream Through Endless Sands of Blessings (2007) and a unique photographic account of A Logohu in China (2007).

Word is that Lahui Ako has written the biography of Ben Moide, which should be published by the UPNG Press and Bookshop this year.

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