The soldiers who taught soldiers democracy
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Time to despatch this inferiority complex


UNTIL RECENTLY, most Papua New Guinean societies were characterised by a patronising culture where questioning authority was unheard of.

Our big man culture fostered a deep-seated mentality where no member of the community was bigger than the one individual figurehead.

This person, usually the tribal chief, would generally be a law unto himself, and anyone who was seen not to be acting in accordance with his wishes was made to face drastic consequences - and even death.

Such a culture suited our traditional enclosed societies at that time. I use enclosed for want of a better word to describe social groupings whose political, social and geographical boundaries were relatively limited.

Tribal and clan hostilities, mostly over geographical territory and land ownership, were common occurrences then, and so it made sense to organise ourselves in the manner we did.

There was a great need for an individual figurehead - the big man - who was allowed to rule almost like a dictator for the greater good of individual tribes and clans. Such a system ensured social order prevailed within our little tribal nations at that time.

Then came the intruders with their salt, axe heads, laplaps, firearms and a new belief system.

They used these basic yet powerful tools with great effect and slowly went about creating a new layer of social structure within our traditional cultures and imposed themselves right at the top of the power pyramid.

They assumed our social, political and economic powers and also attained recognition and acceptance of their own status as the new ‘powers’ in our social hierarchy.

And our awestruck ancestors were too naïve to resist this social imposition in a similar fashion to the Maoris of New Zealand.

So we ended up accepting their ways and allowed them to conveniently substitute themselves as the authority in the new social order. The development of derogatory phrases such as yesa masta, bos boi, kanaka and so on in the colonial era are symptoms of this rather arrogant imposition.

Because of our traditional big man social structure, it is in our subconscious mind to be a submissive people and the intruder simply played along this existing cultural reality to impose himself and caused us to submit to him.

The acceptance of this new power has sadly remained in our collective national intuition to this day.

And this is where the problem lies for us in so far as dealing with the neo-colonialists goes.

Most indigenous Papua New Guineas are too scared to challenge their expatriate colleagues in rational debate in many formal work environments in our country. And if a fellow indigenous person is brave and intelligent enough to do so, they turn around and see him or her in a negative light and brand him or her a ‘bighead’. If this isn’t self defeating, then I don’t know what is.

My experience so far is that this problem is deeply rooted among Papua New Guineans, and unless we break free from this repression of inferiority complex we will never get anywhere.

We should respect people’s position and authority but should not be afraid to stand up and hold our own in rational discussions regardless of who we are talking with.

I acknowledge that the yesa masta mentality has its roots in our traditional big man culture. But times have changed and our social hierarchy has also changed.

The new big man in our mindsets today is not the same big man of our forefathers. He is not the great warrior that defeated our enemies and protected our tribes to warrant our unequivocal admiration, respect, trust and submission.

We must move on and move away from this delusion that someone is right simply because he or she has different looks than us and, therefore, appears to us to be the big man.

Our inferiority complex is ironically being reinforced through our education system. We are being taught predominantly about the arrival of aliens as ‘the’ history of our country. And it is not.

All our history textbooks are filled with sketches and photographs of steamships, bearded missionaries and ‘discoverers’ and their flags and maps.

But where are the stories about our true heritage? Why can we not learn our true history about how our ancestors lived for thousands of years before the intruders arrived?

Why can’t we teach our children about how good we have always been as architects, builders, agriculturalists and seafarers before the outsiders arrived?

We are a country of indigenous people and we must know our own indigenous history first before learning about how other people illegally intruded into our lives and caused us to unnecessarily submit to them.


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Barbara Short

Phil Fitzpatrick just told me about a forthcoming book - The Flight of Galkope by Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin - which hopefully will be published in September.

It tells about the history of the Galkope people from Chimbu. I hope many other similar books will appear in the future.

You need to go to the National Library and ask the librarians for help in finding relevant material for your own home area.

Extracts of Sil Bolkin's book have already appeared in PNG Attitude - KJ

Francis Hualupmomi

David - An interesting analysis. This could be a theoretical framework for students of pure politics who are interested on how culture shapes PNG politics.

I also admire your point about not being afraid in debating issues with expatriates. This is a predominant culture in PNG, especially in work place and academia. An attitude change is required.

David Kitchnoge

Barbara - Thanks for pointing me to where I could find materials about some of our own indigenous history.

Barbara Short

Thank you for this interesting essay, David. Over the years 2006-09 I compiled the history of Keravat National High School - TUUM EST- and I wanted it to be the true history of this school and its students during the period 1947-1986. So I often thought about the things of which you speak.

Many people wrote articles for this book and I tried to include the memories of staff and students. I didn't want it to be a history book just about the white man bringing education to PNG. I wanted it to be about the students as much as the teachers.

This history book mentions the missionaries bringing formal education but acknowledges the informal education as well. One man wrote back to say he was using TUUM EST for his family history study. For some families it speaks of three generations of their family and their life at Keravat.

When I taught history in PNG back in the 1970-80s some of the history teachers were keen to teach real PNG history and some excellent books were written on the history of the country before colonisation.

Many of us collected oral history stories and produced small booklets which we duplicated for our students.

Some stories of your true heritage are there in the university libraries and in the oral history passed on through the old people of the tribe.

But I would hope that many more stories will be collected by the PNG historians of today and in the future.

So many of the white man's books on PNG are more on the life of the white man during his time in PNG. Now it is up to the universities to produce historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, sociologists, etc. who can work hard at compiling this indigenous history that you speak of.

Australia is also a young country. We can look back at the early British governors of our country and notice their good points and their bad points. The same goes for PNG. You can look back on your early indigenous leaders and recall their strengths and their weaknesses.

At the moment I'm researching my early family history in the Maitland region and reading about the aboriginal tribes of that region and how they lived back in those times.

There will be a lot about the early people of PNG in the early writings of the early explorers. You need to use these records to understand your country's past.

Now there is a good hobby for you!

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