Thursday, October 14, 2010

Real community living in a living community

by Geoffrey Heard

I’m walking up the road to take a picture of the sunset. A hundred metres along, I’m greeted by a couple of women sitting at the roadside gossiping. “Boina ravien, Geoffrey, yu go we?” (Good afternoon, Geoffrey, where are you going?) they say, the greeting in the Tolai language and the remainder of the sentence in Tok Pisin -- the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea. Everyone here knows I speak only a few words of Tolai beyond the usual greetings, so apart from when they're pulling my leg, they speak to me in Tok Pisin or English.

I explain that I am going up to the church to take pictures of the sunset. Which church, they ask? The Catholic church, I reply. There’s a good view from our United Church, says one. There certainly is, I agree, but there’s a strategically placed coconut palm that’s part of the view from the Catholic church which will enhance the picture. Oh, that’s important, they agree. And what are they doing? I ask. We chat back and forth for a few minutes, then: “Io rou!” (You go!), they say.

And off I go ... for another 100 metres where I repeat the process at a cluster of roadside stalls. The dozen or so people there include a couple of strangers, so explanations about me and my presence in the village are added on.

This is life in paradise, aka Vunakabi Village, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, where I am holidaying. This is life in paradise, aka Vunakabi Village, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, where I am holidaying. Having spent the Australian winter working on a way back to Papua New Guinea with some sort of employment attached, I’ve decided on a holiday. I need a change of scenery from Melbourne and a warm temperature top-up!

I’m staying with my adopted son, Bale (pron. Barlay), and his wife, Roselynne, and immediate and extended family (Gilbert and Sullivan’s Sir Joseph had nothing on Bale et al -- I share paternity with the other Dad, ToPiamia, now in his 80s and a good friend, and have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren here, to say nothing of sisters, brothers, and cousins you can reckon up by dozens and dozens), and slowly, slowly, I am learning to live in an open way in a close knit community again.

It’s not as easy as you might think.

I’ve spent far too long in Australia and in crime-ridden Port Moresby -- I’ve gone private. In Australia, we know little or nothing about our neighbours and reveal correspondingly little of ourselves; in Port Moresby you keep private so the rascals don’t find out what’s behind the fence (Going up the hill to take some pictures of the sunset, eh? That means the house will be unoccupied for at least 40 minutes ...).

Here in Vunakabi, I am reminded daily of the way you need to be open in a village where everyone lives cheek by jowl, everyone knows everyone else’s business (most house walls are literally sieves), everyone works their small subsistence holdings close together, and everyone relies on everyone else. I’m relearning how positive and facilitating that can be.

People still have secrets, of course, but the greater part of their lives is an open book to their neighbours, relatives and goodness knows who! The linkages among the Tolai people stretch across their territory, the Gazelle Peninsula, home to about 200,000 people, across Papua New Guinea, and around the world -- wherever Tolais live.

Ordinary privacy is by consensus -- manners, if you like; people are aware of stuff but they don’t talk about it and they don’t throw it in others’ faces.

My family’s house happens to be on the main road and since it includes a little store, it is something of a focus. In the morning, we sit out in the sun for a little while until the old joints get mobile, then move into the shade (it’s heating up to 30-32 celsius), munch our breakfast, drink our tea, and exchange greetings -- and information -- with everyone who comes within range.

“Boina malana!” (Good morning!) we call. Then a bit of back and forth, and finally: “Where are you going?” Now -- it is pretty obvious where they are going. We are talking to a woman carrying a bag on her back with half-a-dozen young banana plants sticking out of it, on her head she is balancing a garden spade, by her side is her child with a little bag, a banana plant and a bottle of water, and they are walking down the hill in the direction of the family garden.

But we do not presume, she can tell us if she wishes: “We’re going to the garden to plant bananas”. We inquire about her family’s corn, sweet potato, beans, betel nut, and a number of other crops, and exchange a remark or two about the prospects of rain -- we’re having a drought in green Rabaul. “Io rou!”, and with an answering “Io!” off they go.

But this information extends far beyond the commonplace, the here and now, and the immediate environs.

I wanted to meet a man whose acquaintance I had made in an Australian/western environment. So I was thinking about it in Australian mode -- it was my private business. BUT after a couple of failed appointments, my family gently prompted me and I talked to them about it. Immediately “my” business became “their” business and they brought to bear their vast web of information and linkages (there was even a family connection -- slight by western standards, practically immediate by Tolai standards), and the young woman across the road worked at a place where this bloke often called. Difficulties explained, problem solved.

Stuff can be simple when you know what is actually going on.

The advent of mobile (cell) phones has added to the information flow. I was heading off to a distant part of the district, the Gelegele area, to visit a couple -- former colleagues. I was to catch the bus to Kokopo, no sweat, I did that all the time, then wait at the Gelegele bus stop -- no signposting, simply a mango tree outside a vacant lot adjacent to a certain store in Kokopo.

Next day, I was waiting at the Gelegele bus stop in Kokopo with a bunch of green bananas in hand and a bagful of other gifts from the market over my shouder. I was obliged to introduce myself and my mission to several kind strangers concerned about my welfare. Not a lot of white-haired white men are found at the Gelegele bus stop (I had become a familiar sight at the Vunadidir/Kerevat stop outside the Echo store), much less with a bunch of green bananas. Then a PMV (Passebger Motor Vehicle -- in this case, a ute with seats in the back) pulled up. “Hello Geoffrey,” said the driver, a total stranger, “jump in front.” Turns out someone from Vunakabi had seen me, phoned home to ask what on earth I was doing at the Gelegele bus stop with a hand of green bananas, they in turn had then phoned their son’s future father-in-law who lived at Gelegele, and he had called the bus driver. Tolai express all the way.

You can look at all this in different ways. Many westerners would consider the level of questioning and the calm expectation of answers intrusive, an invasion of privacy, but here in Rabaul/Kokopo, you learn to expect such questions and you know you are actually participating in an exchange of information with people who are interested and expect you to reciprocate.

In addition, it seems to me that there is a different understanding of what is public and what is private. Sitting in a “haus win” (open shelter) at the market, I’ve been involved in a number of conversations and discussions with strangers in the past few days. Some of the talk is jsut chat and gossip, some is deeper -- land ownership, climate change, and cultural preservation and adaptation have all come up.

In Australia, two people sitting among strangers in such a place will discuss quite personal matters and be deeply offended if someone contributes to the discussion. “Mind your own business!” they are likely to snap with adjectival reinforcement. But in Rabaul, any discussion in public is pretty much open slather, nobody would think of discussing in public anything which is really, seriously private.

At the same time, there are matters people know about which are not discussed or even hinted at in the normal course of events -- an absolute necessity in villages where houses with plaited bamboo walls are built cheek by jowl. A hilarious example of this breaking down occurred many years ago when school students in their middle teens (14-16) were given an essay to write for an external examination. ‘A night to remember’ was the topic. Students told startled examiners more than they really wanted to know about sex in the village! Maybe the fact that the essay was assessed externally had something to do with their openness.

Peyton Place, eat your heart out.

And mention of Peyton Place (a best selling ‘tell all’ novel about the scandals in small town America published in the 1950s) brings up the negative side this. I’ve talked about the Tolai people here, because I am living among them and experiencing the benefits of that. But a similar situation exists to a greater or lesser extent in most other communities throughout Papua New Guinea -- it’s just not generally as extensive as it is among the Tolai because they are such a big, single group.

I say I am living in paradise in Rabaul, but yes, the Tolai community has its quota of criminals, charlatans, confidence tricksters, thieves, thugs, murderers, and corrupt individuals. It is not without corruption in its politics and administration -- a corruption that often relies on this web of linkages, information, and knowledge, loosely known as the wantok system. But even as the corrupt exploit the system, others monitor what’s going on through the same connections.

On balance, I suspect the good is winning over the bad in respect of political corruption. It might well be that the Tolai people, so long leaders in so much of Papua New Guinea’s development, will lead a swing of the pendulum against corruption throughout this nation. It would be fitting. ###


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

The opinions and comments in this article are his own.

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