Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Writing Through Independence

Provincial flags outside the National Library, Port Moresby.

What has Independence done to me as a Papua New Guinean, a writer, and scholar of indigenous cultures? Surely, this question must be asked by many conscientious Papua New Guineans.

Papua New Guinea as a postcolonial nation struggles to free itself from a colonized history, more particularly from the neocolonial practices and influences of its former colonizer. Achieving political Independence has never freed Papua New Guinea completely from Australia.

Australian influence in Papua New Guinea is deeper than perceived at the political level. Australia continues to play a major part in the economic, social, and political development of Papua New Guinea. The relationship between Australia and Papua New Guinea is often tested, but always maintained through diplomatic dialogues and other political processess.

Early Papua New Guinea writings tackled Australian colonialism with ferment and nationalist fury to the extent of achieving Independence without bloodshed. The literature of that period is fueled by such political necessity.

After Independence Papua New Guinean writers disappeared, except for a few committed ones, who continue to write.  Two notable figures of the period are Russell Soaba and Paulias Matane, who continue to write literary and non literary works beyond the 2000s. Soaba continues to write and teach literature at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Paulias Matane continues to write non fiction works after he moved away from the Aimbe fiction series. His interests in writing led him to publish many non fiction works throughout the years, even after becoming the then Governor General of Papua New Guinea. Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane also assisted many Papua New Guineans to publish their books. He continues to impress all of us.

These gentlemen are, to many of us, the younger generation, embodiment of a legacy that refuses to go away. They used their writing to speak about their conditions before and after Independence. Reading their works helps us to understand our own lives.

The writings of the 1980s to the present are about this neocolonial presence, dependent relationship, as well as about the lack of critical reassessment of the changing experiences in postcolonial Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinean writers are concerned with diverse issues of identity, social change, economic change, cultural change, the movement between village and urban areas, experiences of growing up, adolescence, education, unemployment, wantok systems, and conflicting cultural situations. Their writings are about the contemporary experiences, the traditional cultures and customs, and immediate past they seemed to have lost in the transition from a stone-age culture to one of electronic media networking. The mundane to important events in the lives of Papua New Guineans are concerns of contemporary writers. Literary expressions are inspired from the personal experiences of writers and anecdotes of other Papua New Guineans. This experience of Papua New Guineans is similar to those of other Pacific Islanders as already noted.

Literary culture developed in different phases in Papua New Guinea. The first phase characterizes dissent, protest, and anticolonial resistance. The period between 1968 and 1975 marks this phase. The second phase, between 1980 and 2000, covers the village pastoral and sociological literature. In this phase Papua New Guineans wrote out of the need to assess their conditions of living, of existence, to make sense of the world around them, and to revive the experiences of an earlier era.

Writing struggled to survive against polarized national developmental priorities and civil conformity since Independence. The third phase is a combination of the previous phases and the independent emergence of new voices of a new generation. The third phase, between 1990 and 2000 came about as a result of Papua New Guineans reading the works of earlier writers and seeking out avenues to speak for themselves, about their experiences, and their visions for a democratic society. The later category makes use of new literary structures, both appropriated and experimental in style, to represent their experiences as Papua New Guineans.

Papua New Guineans re-imagined themselves in their writings. They create various discourses about themselves. Papua New Guineans realize the process of rethinking and re-evaluation of some of the inherited values or those created by Papua New Guineans need urgent critical attention. The methods and procedures used for investigating and conducting research of Papua New Guinea cultures need to be reframed so as to produce a balanced critical reading of Papua New Guinea literature. Papua New Guineans need distinctive signposts to navigate through the many inroads created in their lives. All these are politically invested. The localized struggles and their responses to the globalized economy make them more vulnerable than is imagined. Accepting the passive, non active, unquestioning life is a form of conformity and cultural paralysis. Papua New Guineans can articulate their experiences in radical and progressive ways.

Papua New Guinea is a hybridized postcolonial society with a fusion of diverse cultures, modern global influences, and the result of a synthesis of multicultural experiences. Questions of nationalism after Independence are raised every so often, suggesting that, perhaps it has served its purpose at the time of its emergence. Constant internal conflicts, uncontrolled social disorder, cultural conflicts, violence, ethnic differences, stagnant views, and rampant corruptions, poor governance, and massive squandering of royalties from its mineral and natural resources often stun the growth of nationalism. Nationalism, in most cases, is evoked by elites as the self-appointed guardians of their people’s interests. Nationalism is not what it claims to represent in Papua New Guinea as it fails to eliminate the ethnocentricism fueling regionalism within a national boundary.

Literature and politics have a unique relationship to each other. So long as literature continues to be useful to people it maintains its political function. It is difficult to resist viewing the political and ideological overtones present in Papua New Guinea writing. No writers are free of the social, political, economic, and cultural influences of their societies. Writers are creatures of their societies. Hence, a writer’s work carries with it the social and political value and responsibilities of his or her society.

Happy celebration to all Independent Papua New Guineans.

Serious Literacy Crisis


Early Childhood Learning at UPNG on a bus tour.
“Where psychological and depoliticised “social” and “cultural” approaches to instruction alike lack an explicit analysis of contemporary material conditions and social relations of power, issues of “transfer of training” tend to be treated as educational anomalies to be solved by better and more precise instructional technologies and “methods,” when they may be curricular artefacts and products of selective cultural traditions that are less than optimally connected in practice with these conditions.”
I like this citation from Luke and Freebody’s book on constructing critical literacy because of the thoughts I had right throughout the National Literacy Week in the first week of September 2012.
Apart from closing the Literacy Week at Waigani Primary School I also attended a conference on literacy at the National Library site between Wednesday and Thursday of the same week. What stood out for me in both events was that the importance of literacy in this country is often down-played, undermined, and delegated to others. Who are these others? Obvious answers are churches, NGOs, CBOs, and other development partners. So the question that begs the answer is: So what is the National Government’s role in dealing with the issue of literacy or illiteracy?
The cooordinating agency of the government is the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS). This agency is struggling to deliver the government vision and realize the full potential it was envisioned and created for. The NLAS was moved around and housed in many different locations without having a home of its own. Right now the NLAS is adopted into the Office of National Library and Archives, a perilous position, which many of us question its logic and output strategies.
I think, and I am blunt about it, the NLAS needs to be reinvented under a new organizational structure known as the PNG Institute of Language and Literacy. It should have a statutory function with its own budgetary allocation and sufficient resources to carry out its roles and functions. With such an establishment it will have a more fully developed organizational structure, core staff, researchers, student interns, and inter-institutional capacity to train, offer worshops, and advance government policies on literacy and language preservation.
Papua New Guinea must have the PNG Institute of Language and Literacy because many literacy programs and instructional approaches attempt to provide generic textual tools and practices for what are emerging as definitely nongeneric heterogenous learners, places, conditions, and times. The point here is that the establishment of such an institute will enable the government to tae control of the issues and challenges of literacy or illiteracy, instead of passing the buck to non-govenmental organizations and churches.
How much control is there, for example, of early childhood learning and high cost private tuitions and schools where issues of literacy are taken head on by providers of literacy education?
The contrast seems more to do with promotion of literacy, but at the cost of ignoring the prevailing tendencies, conditions, and difficulties of learners. The development of a National Institute of Language and Literacy would make the social and economically marginalized communities to participate in the national and political economy in the same way as those in the social and economically well-off bracket of society.

Is there a neutral playing field in the debate on literacy? Many scholars of literacy and cultural diversity have pointed out that the environment in which literacy is taught is never a neutral playing field. The social nature of literacy is “constitutive of and by material relations of discourse, power, and knowledge” (Luke and Freebody 1997: 3).

The inequality in learning environments and the conditions that are present for literacy activities are themselves the manifestation of the power relations that determine the outcome of literacy. Luke and Freebody (1997: 3) point out: “By arguing that the context of literacy instruction are not “neutral,” we argue that in contemporary conditions the contexts of literacy events are not necessarily “level playing fields” where all learners have comparable access to resources, whether construed as access to representation systems and mediational means, linguistic knowledge, and cultural artefacts, or in terms of access to actual financial capital, institutional entry, and status.”

Given this view, our perspectives of literacy or the practice of it are influenced by how we see what literacy is. Literacy is a socially constituted human activity and thereby in dealing with literacy we must keep in mind that the social “is defined as a practical site characterized by contestations over resources, representation, and difference. These disputes over material and discourse resources are disputes over how and which forms of life are to be represented, and whose representations of whom are to “count” with what material consequences for literacy learners” (Luke and Freebody 1997: 3).

The debates over the provision of literacy have become the unresolvable challenges that practitioners and theorists face.  Luke and Freebody (1997: 3) point out that these are “the basis of many of the political arguments in education, and, not surprisingly, they are at the heart of flare ups of “literacy crisis” in popular press, from debates over phonics and basic skills to debates over censorship and literary content, or, to take a current example, debates over the relationship between school literacy and the practice of new workplaces and technologies.”

The discussions I have constructed here are also non-neutral in the sense that we have a serious crisis at hand in Papua New Guinea. Ignoring it only increases the impossibility of decreasing illiteracy as the ultimate goal. Every few years insteading of being comforted by the knowledge of a reduced illiteracy rate we hear about another goal set to reach.

Right now the priority for the government should be to set up the PNG Institute of Language and Literacy as a constructive way forward. The current government could take on board the proposals and suggestions of the NLAS Taskforce to begin with.

We need to get serious about what we are doing or not doing to address the problem of illiteracy and dying languages in Papua New Guinea.

Help With a Bridge

Grade 9 Students of Jubilee Catholic Secondary School 2012

On Sunday braving the gusty wind the parents of Grade Nine students at the Jubilee Catholic Secondary School gathered to hear the concerns raised by the Principal and the Deputy Principals. The parents sat on the terrace, which is an awkward space between the classrooms, to hear out the teachers’ concerns regarding the students’ general academic performance, lack of discipline, lateness, noise, enforcement of reading habits, and other related matters.

The parents were then directed into the four classrooms where their children take their lessons.  The parents introduced themselves. The class pastoral teachers were there to coordinate this part of the program.

The parents were then asked to nominate a chairperson, a deputy chairperson, and a treasurer. The committee that was appointed was immediately task to raise funds for the school next month towards the building of the school hall. The hall will gather for multiple activities of the school such as the school assembly, sports activities, graduation, and other academic related activities.

Here is a school with a need. It is working with its parents and guardians to raise funds to construct a multi-purpose hall for its students. Jubilee Catholic Secondary is not waiting for government handouts or cooperate sponsorship to assist the school in building a multipurpose hall, classrooms, and teacher’s houses.

It’s such a shame that the government and cooperate houses around it or next to it are giving their backs to this wonderful school with a very high reputation as a top school with high turn over in national selections every year. Do business houses have a cooperate responsibility towards the neighbourhod or surrounding communities? I wish. At least a bridge between the school, across the drain that separates the Jubilee Catholic Secondary School and the MVTIL and a host of business houses should have been built to allow the safe flow of students on their way to and from school every day.

Without a bridge the students have to descend into the drain to cross on rocks placed between the dirty water. It is a dangerous spot and has been a site of many conflicts between the students and opportunists who charged them to cross the drain when it floods. The drain itself has become a danger to the lives of the students. Students have experienced various kinds of assault and threat from unwanted elements operating in that spot. Many of the female students have had to endure assault from opportunists using the drain as a haven for criminal acts.

What parents cannot be affected by this threat and hazard to their children attending the school? The parents raised this concern with the school. The problems, as the parents found out, on raising this concern, was that the National Capital District authorities need to authorize permission for a bridge to be build and for financial assistance to go towards building this bridge. In every reasonable person’s view the NCD authorities, government agencies, and the business houses next to the school are neglecting their duties to the community where their business operate. It is not too much to ask for a small bridge to be built so that the school children of Jubilee Catholic Secondary, the public and uses of the medical centre on the same spot can use it without fear of intimidation, harrassment, or accidents. The danger possed to the school children and public using this drain without a bridge between the school and the business houses is that it raises legal concerns that cannot be ignored.

If parents and guardians are willing to raise funds to build a multi-purpose hall then what is a small bridge to them? It is a question that NCD authorities, the government agencies, and the corporate businesses operating in the precinct who need to answer as well. Do they promote values of responsible cooperate entities and agencies?  Do they have any obligations at all to the community?

 Mrs. Bernadette Ove, the intrepid principal of the school, was the first principal when the school began in early 2000s. She is still the solid pillar and leader of the school. She has worked very hard to see the school developed from what used to be the Hohola Clinic and WHO headquarters to what it is now: a top Catholic secondary school in the country. Mrs. Ove has led the school from nothing to something in the eyes of the nation, especially in the eyes of parents and guardians who had seen their children pass through the school over the years. Even those new parents and guardians with children who attend the school or will attend the school in future Mrs. Ove has proven to everyone that it is possible to build a school on the rocks of Hohola. It is possible to build a school on the rocky hills of Port Moresby without worrying about how it will develop.

The secret is: Prayer, faith, and spirit of the patron saint of the school. In prayer the needs of the school and its students are given to God. In faith the school is producing some of the best students in the country. In spirit of the patron saint the school is overcoming the challenges and short-comings of its short history, of being where it is, and what it can do with the geographical, economic, and political contraints it is presented with.

The school still uses the same old buildings for all its classes. It has no new classrooms even though the demand for enrolment every year had increased.  The school is creative in its use of space it has as was evident with the terrace between the two building blocks used as classrooms and offices.

During the National Book Week the school gathered in the open space under the sun to brave its heat and the gusty wind to complete the event. As the guest writer of that event I presented four of my books to the school.

The Jubilee Catholic Secondary School needs a stand-alone school library for its students.