By Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard
“Happy as a pig in mud” is a much misused expression, but nothing could describe me more accurately in my current situation. There are millions of pigs in Papua New Guinea, whole economies of them, and they are all happily wallowing in the cooling, disguising mud of their homeland.
As happy as they might be, none is happier than me.
Returning to live and work in Papua New Guinea after 33 years away punctuated by only a couple of brief visits, I find a country which in many respects is what it was the day I left it with deep, deep regret in 1977.
In many other respects, it is what I dreamed it would become and what I found hinted at during my brief visits. In some other ways, if it is a dream, it has the quality of nightmare.
Looking beyond the fact that it is a country so outrageously beautiful, where every prospect doesn’t just please, it challenges the frantic eye and overloaded mind for description, it continues to be a country where people -- most people anyway -- are warm and friendly, whose first impulse is to welcome the stranger and issue the challenge: can you contribute?
I say that, then I must immediately qualify it. Too often, the people of places like Papua New Guinea -- smaller countries populated by people of colour -- are labelled on one dimension by westerners as “peaceful”, “smiling”, “welcoming” as though they are all one of a kind, millions of commercial cookies stamped out of the same shallow dough. Or they are labelled as violent, devious, and possibly murderous. Add that other label so popular today: terrorists. Poisonous dough, poisonous cookies.
Either way, the simple label is a kind of racism. It doesn’t see past the obvious and often least important aspect of the person.
How can you describe 5 million (or is it 7 million?) people in a word? Particularly when you can divide those all those people by language and culture into 800+ groups (or is it 900+ according to the latest research?) with those cultures representing the gamut of human cultural variation? And when you can divide them again between mountain and coast, land dweller and sea dweller, by gender, patrilineal and matrilineal social structure, and so on and so forth.
And education level and life experience and achievement in the western sense.
When I left Papua New Guinea all those years ago, most Papua New Guineans were at or near the beginning of their western style career. Mass higher education was in its infancy. The University of Papua New Guinea in the national capital, Port Moresby, and the University of Technology in the second biggest city, Lae, had been in place for 10 years or less, the culmination of an education boom that had begun about 15 years before.
Until the two universities began delivering graduates in numbers, from around 1971 or only four years before independence, there were few Papua New Guineans with tertiary education outside teaching, public administration or technology diplomas.
There were also relatively few Papua New Guineans with experience of the world beyond their country’s borders.
Running up to independence, people were hungry for knowledge. A discussion with a westerner would too often turn into a lecture as they milked his or her mind, hungry for content and context. There were lots of good ideas and good thinkers around, some great ones -- think of Jarrod Diamond’s quest in “Guns, Germs and Steel” built on a question posed by Yali of Madang, a man sidelined by the Australian administration as a cultist -- but often lack of content, context and simple life experience could cause a promising debate to fizzle or ideas to run into a dead end with sad results.
Not so today! Thirty-five years on from independence, Papua New Guinea and its people have their own experience, their own knowledge of the world, their own education and a growing army of gray-headed sages who have been there and done that -- often ploughing a virgin furrow in a lifetime of western-style work building a new nation.
Today, Papua New Guinea is a country bubbling with lively thinking and action backed by local and global knowledge and experience which in many cases reaches far beyond that of former mentors. It is full of women and men who confidently look the world in the eye and offer to take it on. It has people asking hard questions, who don’t squib debate. They still seek the outsider’s thoughts, but now it is not to fill essential gaps in their knowledge, rather it is to feed into a vast cauldron of ideas, opinions, knowledge and information they have surging around in their minds.
Then they are turning those ideas into action.
That intellectual energy is part of how I dreamed this country would be when I came back. I have dived into this intellectual cauldron and I’m loving it. I’m feeling so stimulated my head could explode.
The nightmare part is the talk of corruption and the apparent grounds for it. The newspapers, radio and television carry a litany of complaints. They ask: where did the money go?
Even in the national capital, the roads are dreadful; throughout the country, public health and education services have declined dramatically compared with before independence, public servants complain that they haven’t been paid, villagers complain that they aren’t receiving royalties or compensation payments while foreign mining, timber and fish companies plunder their traditional resources and report huge profits.
There is the spreading rash of oil palm plantations -- I was told four years ago that they were barely profitable except for the giant food corporations which demand the oil for the food they process in other countries. Encouraged and supported by government, the plantations are gobbling up more and more land daily, it seems. Promises to the local landowners I have hard about sound about as substantial as pie in the sky.
And then there are guns everywhere, crime like you wouldn’t believe in the national capital, HIV-AIDS, a mighty population explosion that is already stretching the limits of the land and sea, and, of course, climate change with its threat, already being realized at places like the Cartarets Islands in Bougainville and the Duke of York Islands off Rabaul, of inundating low-lying islands and vast areas of the coastal plains.
Talk of the environment leads me back to the dream.
Lacking what they saw as effective government action, the Cartarets Island community is taking action itself, with its own organization, funds and energy, and support from the Catholic Church and from a slew of NGOs and some governments in the most distant parts of the globe. They are slowly, gently and with every consideration for culture and tradition, transplanting themselves and beginning a new life (for to most Papua New Guineans, the land is life itself).
Similarly, in West New Britain, a group of villagers has banned fishing on some reefs they traditionally own to allow the fish to restock. Rising population and improved fishing tackle were resulting in fish stocks being decimated. Now these people have decided they will go without themselves to ensure their children have fish in the future.
These are just two cases. I know of many more.
These are the kinds of people I am among and to whom I want to offer whatever contribution I can make.
Now please excuse me, it’s time to roll over -- this little piggy thinks the next wallow looks too inviting to be true, and must investigate.
This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.
Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.