Friday, April 19, 2013

New Cultural Dialogue


In the last few weeks the issue of understanding ourselves and our ways had dominated the discussions that I had in both my professional life and in this column.

The importance of understanding our ways begin when we return to what we know and lived as Papua New Guineans. Only then, do we begin to make sense of ourselves. Without which we will remain sterile in the fast changing world of global influences through imported cultures, ways, technology, and those things that are the products or results of global cultural movements.

In a small classroom that can fit about 30 students a seminar on cultural studies touches on the importance of framing the problem of Papua New Guinea ways. The discussion is led by two students who are completing their fourth year of studies in Literature at the University of Papua New Guinea. 

Their journey began with an innocent entry into the academic corridors of learning behind grey walls of UPNG’s hard-knock learning environment, where leaders are made and young people are formed into responsible citizens—all contributing to the national development through the various careers that their lives took them to.

The discussion leaders show air of confidence, take up their positions on campus with accorded respect often coming from their junior colleagues, and in their out-of-classroom conversations, they often talk about their important to not-so-important acquaintances in government, public service, private sector, and community.

Who would not be impressed with the two students taking up the challenge to impress their cohorts that serious consideration of their views is expected? Yes, their discussion is on understanding who they are in this world. One would talk about the importance of understanding one’s own kind and the other would talk about the processes for undertaking that important cultural lesson.

They made reference to a book: Reframing Indigenous Knowledge: Cultural Knowledge and Practices in Papua New Guinea that I edited some years ago. The UPNG Melanesian and Pacific Studies published the book after a conference on Reframing Indigenous Knowledge. The idea of reframing indigenous knowledge and methodology was inspired from the work of a Maori scholar, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, whose words open the introduction of the book.

Tuhiwai Smith writes: “Framing ‘the… problem,’ mapping it, describing it in all its different manifestations, trying to get rid of it, laying blame for it, talking about it, writing newspaper columns about it, drawing cartoons about it, teaching about it, researching it, over and over…how many occasions, polite dinner parties and academic conference would be bereft of conversation if ‘indigenous problem’ had not be so problematized?” (1999: 91).

The first student wanted his fellow students to read the book Reframing Indigenous Knowledge as a way of gaining more insights into the various discussions people have on culture in Papua New Guinea. 

The quality of contributors include: Peter Baki’s Promoting Indigenous (Traditional) Knowledge and Skills in the Education System, Lynus Yamuna’s The Vision & Mission for the Centre for Melanesian Studies at the University of Goroka, Julie Foster Smith’s An Accidental Pragmatist: Crossing Boundaries of Dominant Cultural Practice, Paschal Waisi’s Lau’um Pingis (Epistemology), Sam Kaima’s Kwa-ak: Wantoat Witchcraft, Sorcery and Dispute Settlement in Wantoat Morobe Province, Alice Street’s Multiple ways of knowing and versions of sik in Modilong General Hospital, Madang.

As if it was important the student introducing the book broke off to announce: “I have spoken their names aloud I am sad to say the following have passed on: Lynus Yamuna, Paschal Waisi, and Sam Kaima. Their pioneering work will remain important to us for many years to come.”

The same student continued announcing the list of contributors to scholarship on cultural knowledge systems in Papua New Guinea.  Tom Hukahu talks about traditional astronomy in Papua New Guinea, Soikava Pauka discusses the secondary school students’ traditional science beliefs in Papua New Guinea, Prem P. Rai and Simon Saulei talk about the establishment of a database on traditional medicine in Papua New Guinea.  All these people have one thing in common: their interests in traditional knowledge systems of Papua New Guinea.

One of the most empowering and dynamic discussions in this book is Sakarepe Kamane’s discussion of eco-linguistics and environment knowledge in the Zia community of Waria, Morobe District. Kamene talks about the inter-dependence and co-existence of language, cultural, and environmental knowledge of his people. The Zia culture is rich, dynamic, and is entrenched deep in the way of life of the people.  The Zia people are proud people.  They are willing to go with the change.

We need to read Catherine Levy’s essay on recording traditions, especially for cultural awareness and self-respect, Naomi Faik Simet’s discussion of dance as a traditional knowledge: The Pikinamp of Chambri, and Don Niles’s encapsulating Indigenous knowledge through chanted tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands area.

There is the last chapter by Masio Nidung on the impact of organic law on Provincial and Local Level Governments on traditional copyright issues. All the contributors to this book have illustrated that Papua New Guineans must document their cultures for others to read and value what they have.

The students continued with their seminars, until one of the students interjected with a remark that took the seminar leaders off-guarded.

“I remember our second year course on Literature and Politics we learned that nationalism is a defense of a nation’s cultural inventions. Nationalism vindicates it own inventions by politicizing its culture. A nation is denied of its identity once culture is separated from it.”

In response, one of the two seminar leaders equipped, “Precisely our point. You must read what our writers have written in order for us to have a conversation, a dialogue, an agreement as to where we are and what we must do to move forward. At least that’s what I learned in the four years I have to subject myself as a student under the influence of some of PNG’s legendary writer scholars here at UPNG.”

Eureka! Eureka! Bravo! The students seemed to have heard their lecturer utter.

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