Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Petal No More

Late Dr. Regis Stella.PNG writer and scholar
His father was killed during the Bougainville Crisis. After the Crisis his mother and sisters fled in-land and settled at a plateau on a rolling hill at Bana in the Nagovis area. They planted coacoa to regain their strengths and lives back. Last Christmas he returned to the village to put up his mother’s headstone.

On leaving the village to Port Moresby, the late Regis Tove Stella told his sisters that it was the last time he would return home alive.

Instead a few months later his body was flown back to his village to lay next to his mother. For two nights and two days the people from all over the area to mourn his passing.

On the week he died I did a book review of his latest book: Unfolding Petals: Readings in Papua New Guinea Literature, which would have been launched a day more if he had remained alive.

Dr. Regis Tove Stella was someone I shared part of my life with for the better part of our university years and later as a writer and scholar. Our friendship began 28 years ago at the University of Papua New Guinea. Our journey in those 28 years was one I would describe as the journey of a lifetime.  Our dream was to write the greatest book ever written by a Papua New Guinean.

The late Dr. Stella was born on 3rd of May 1960 at the Tearouki Marist Hospital in Bougainville. His parents Mr. Maurice Tove and Maria Nogo were proud parents with the arrival of their son in this Banoni speaking region of the Autonomous Region of Bougainvile. The village of Matsunke celebrated the arrival of one of their brilliant son and had now farewelled him forever.

He began school in 1968 at St. Joseph Murua Primary School. Later he was transferred to Our Lady Queen of Peace Haisi Primary School to complete Grade 2 to 6 between 1969 and 1973.  His Grade 7 & 8 was completed in Buin Provincial High School in the years 1974 & 1975.  Grade 9 & 10 was completed in St. Josephs Rigu Marist High School between 1976 and 1977.

In those days St. Josephs was one of the best schools in the country that saw its top students enter the University of Papua New Guinea to do Preliminary Year. The late Regis was one of those students who entered UPNG in 1978. After 1979 he withdrew from studies to seek employment in 1980. He began work with Tubu Advertising, a local advertising company in Port Moresby. From there he moved on to work as a Public Relations Officer with the Japanese Embassy in Port Moresby between 1981 and 1982.

Before re-enrolling at UPNG again he went back to Bougainville and took up employment with the then PNGBC in Buka, as a bank teller in the year 1983.

In 1984 he re-enrolled at UPNG. That decision to specialize in Literature was important to the late Dr. Stella because his interest was in writing. After his BA Honors degree in 1987 he took up a teaching job at Aiyura National High School in 1988. For his BA Honors sub-thesis he wrote about the forms and styles of Banoni Music—the first ever written by a Papua New Guinean.

In 1989 he was recruited as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Papua New Guinea at a time when the National Academic Staff Association was pushing for localization of all academic programs at UPNG. So began the next phase of his journey which saw him attend the University of Wollongong, Australia where he earned a Masters with Honors, under the supervision of Professor Paul Sharrad, a leading authority on postcolonial and Pacific literatures. His MA thesis was written on the plays written by Papua New Guineans.

He returned to UPNG, for a couple of years before taking up his PhD studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, under the watchful eyes of one of our former teacher at UPNG, Professor Bill Ashcroft, a guru in postcolonial theory and practice. His PhD thesis entitled “Reimagining the Other: The Representation of the Papua New Guinean Subject” was later published by the University of Hawaii Press under the prestigious Pacific Islands Monograph Series, put out by the Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Dr. Stella’s influence goes beyond the borders of PNG to cover Oceania as well. The following are his books:

  • Moments in Melanesia—important book in PNG high schools.
  • Gutsini Posa (Rough Seas)—first novel.
  • Melanesian Passages—co-written with Lynda Maeaniani, short story collection.
  • Mata Sara (Crooked Eyes)—second novel.
  • Unfolding Petals: Readings in Modern PNG Literature.
  • Reimagining the Other.

These works are monumental works that generations of Papua New Guinea will benefit from, but the man had lived a life without the riches and fanfare that accompanies great writers and intellectuals anywhere in the world. He was truly a man without glory to boast about or a man who fuzzes on the impossibles. He truly understood life and celebrated it without sharing a tear about the hangovers of yester years. He lived a life that is unassuming, often predictable, and most times jovial, especially when we shared a beer to share out notes on literature, life, society, university, and the world as we know it.

We took a road of writing and scholarship without knowing where we were heading to. Most times we depended on each other, our informal notes, and our professional mutuality based on common struggles and visions. I had him to bounce off a few intellectual tidbits and he had me to do the same. We were the same coin with two sides. He was reserved, but was a very hard working individual and a private person his whole life.

May God give the late Dr. Regis Tove Stella eternal life and rest for fulfilling what was expected him when he first arrived in this world in 1960.

Milky Pine Power

Young Milky Pine (Alstonia scholaris)
The importance of plant names in the local language is an example of a complex structure of  meaning. Different plants are used for specific purposes in our traditional societies. The same plant known by a common name can have sacred names to different people. Most often these sacred names are linked to myths, rituals, and spiritual powers. Many people know the general names for plants, but different species have a different name or an additional word to indicate colour, wild plants, domesticated plants, or cultivated. 

Where plants have medicinal and ritual values they may have sacred names known only to those who claim ownership of the plant and its powers. The tanget (Cordyline fruticosa), for example, is generally known in Nagum Boiken language as hawa. This name includes the cultivated ones, which are red in color and appears in long and short round leaves. The green wild ones are also known as hawa. To differentiate the colors, the Nagum Boikens name the green wild hawa as ofui hawa and the domesticated red one as kli hawa. The hawa is an important plant used in medicine and rituals. It carries secret names known only to people who use the hawa for its spiritual power. For example, the kli hawa used by a family in Ulighembi is known by two names: Haiwanka and Yarawali. These names are linked to the original two brothers who began the practice of maiye sorcery. The evocation of these sacred names with the use of hawa for protection purposes is restricted to the family with the right to these names. 

The names of plants have deep roots in the customs, ritual, cosmology, belief system and history of a people. Most plants have a spiritual connection or are linked to the gods of these plants. Learning the local names of these plants helps us to understand their importance in traditional medicinal practices in the indigenous cosmology, and in the psychological practices of the people. It is easy to overlook the significances of each plant in society. 

Medicinal plants are connected to the belief system, the mythological cosmos, and the cultural practices of the Nagum Boikens. The use and adaptation of plants in various rituals and human activities are necessitated by circumstances that are necessary for the survival of the people. In Kemabolo village of Rigo district, Central province, for example, where much of the environment is dominated by savannah kunai grass (Imperata cylindrica) and kangaroo grass (Themeda australis), with scattered growth of eucalyptus gum trees, and a small growth of insidious forest along the water course, the incidence of snakebite is relatively high.
More than five plants (Semicarpus sp, Passiflora foetida, Hyptis, Piper betle Samanea, Carica papaya) are used as medicine for snakebites. The high number of usages of many plants for one purpose in one area alone suggests that protection of these plants is high in the conservation psychology of these people. There is also the suggestion that people in this area have a vast knowledge of using different plants to cure snakebites. On the other hand there is the possibility of borrowing of knowledge from other others to supplement what they already have on medicinal plants that can cure snakebite.

Take for example the Milky Pine plant common in many lowland coastal areas. The Alstonia Scholaris (Common name: Milky Pine) and Alstonia Spectibilis (Common name Mountain Milky Pine) are used for variety of illnesses around the country. In Waria, I collected both species, which were considered very highly by the medicine men. The Ino (Alstonia spectibilis) and Nungwa (Alstonia scholaris), both were used for bronchitis and asthma. Nungwa (Alstonia scholaris) was considered very strong in its use for sexually transmitted diseases and malaria. 

In Kemabolo the Mountain Milky Pine (Alstonia spectibilis) is used for treatment of asthma, beside its use in gardens as shade trees for banana trees. In parts of Morobe, Alstonia spectibilis is used to treat malaria, fever, and stomachache. The bark, latex, and leaves are used. In Normanby Island and parts of Central Province the plant is used to treat coughs, applied to coughs, and used as poison antidote (Woodley 1991: 19). The chemical component of the plant is that the alkaloids ditamine, echitamine, echitenine and alstonamine are present (Woodly1991: 19; Manske, 1965). The plant is a chemically active plant. The chemicals present in Alstonia spectabilis are also present in Alstonia scholaris, which has additional alkaloids echitamidine, picrinine (Manske, 1970) and picralinal. 

Ellen Woodley reports that the Alstonia scholaris is widely used in Papua New Guinea against malaria. The plant is used for abdominal pains in the Sepik and the Northern province, for cough on Normanby Island and for gonorrhea in Milne Bay. Other uses reported are for asthma, hypertension, lung cancer and pneumonia in Manus, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippine (Burkhill 1966; Warburg 1899, Steenis-Kruseman; Woodley 1991: 17). These two plants are impressive in their medicinal properties and in their usefulness to many people in the country. The Nagum Boiken name for Alstonia scholaris is hembe, which is used for asthma, fever, and for hair dye.

Plants such as Alstonia scholaris (Milky Pine) or Alstonia spectabilis (Mountain Milky Pine) must be properly researched on for extraction of their medicinal products.UPNG researchers Gelenta Salopa and Prem P. Rai of UPNG in collaboration with Han Wohlmuth of Southern Cross University, Australia, reported in 2009 at the UPNG Science conference that the Alstonia scholaris had the potential for full development.

My view is that there is a need for research and product development of medicine derived from our local biodiversity. Investment in product development should be our next phase of national development. We need to develop our own medicinal products from the natural environment we are blessed with. We can do it if we work together.

The important message I want to bring across here is that we must do everything possible to preserve the traditional knowledge systems of our communities. A shift of paradigm in research and product development is needed for PNG today.