BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
‘A Thousand Coloured Dreams’ by Josephine Abaijah and Eric Wright. Available from Emporium Books at www.emporiumbooks.com.au. $A29.65 plus postage and handling
I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT of myself as being reasonably enlightened. Every so often something crops up to bring home the truth and remind me that this isn’t true. It is part of the aging process I guess; the more you know the more you realise how much you don’t know.
In retrospect, it would have been useful, for instance, to have been a lot more mature and knowledgeable when I first went to Papua New Guinea. The Australian administration, however, was looking for resilience and strong legs ahead of independent thought.
It is now sometimes embarrassing to think about what I inflicted upon those poor buggers who came within my personal and administrative purvey. Josephine Abaijah’s book is an uncomfortable reminder that our comforts and good memories came at the cost of some considerable discomfort and loss of dignity for many Papua New Guineans.
Josephine was good at wrinkling this sort of stuff out of the colonial woodwork. Of course, being Josephine, she often overdid it and exaggerated in her quest to stir the pot; she often saw shadows when they were simply not there.
Despite this unfortunate predilection, she, nevertheless, pointed out many of the absurdities and inequities of colonial rule, especially the cult of the superior and the inferior.
In those times when an Australian said “G’day” to a Papua New Guinean it was very subtly nuanced and not like the same greeting delivered to a fellow countryman.
Although the receiver might have accepted it as a bland gesture the implied message, “Listen, I’m prepared to treat you on reasonably equitable terms if you’re prepared to play the game strictly my way” is the undertone they both understood.
And, of course, that attitude hasn’t gone away; you see it in our relationship with PNG all the time, albeit toned down; now it is a more refined form of condescension. In PNG Attitude it is sometimes apparent in the knowing advice given on how to run the country, well meant but still with those old superior colonial undertones.
When I pointed some of these things out in a book a few years ago I copped some considerable flack from the elder colonials. Treating your fellow man as an equal was just not done old man. My attempt was fairly subdued; Josephine, on the other hand, was relentless and her book is no different.
Try this description of betel nut: “When chewed with peppermint and lime, it makes the tongue loose and the body warm. It also causes cancer of the mouth. It makes the colonials very angry when the rich, red juicy bolus is spat upon their walls and floors.
“The ubiquitous graffiti of Papua, it enhances nature, defiles the rich and comforts the poor. As it costs nothing to produce and can be bought, sold or stolen, it is probably the only substantial Papuan industry that does not earn money for foreign business”.
Exposing people to uncomfortable truths doesn’t sell books. This might explain why A Thousand Coloured Dreams hasn’t had more currency and exposure.
The book was first published in 1991 and then republished in 2001 as part of the Pacific Writers Series. It is still possible to buy it. While it predates the inception of PNG Attitude it is well worth revisiting. It also sits comfortably with earlier works like Michael Somare’s Sana and Albert Maori Kiki’s Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime – books that young people in PNG should still be reading.
But let’s get to the nitty-gritty - was Josephine Abaijah in thrall to the late, left-wing activist Dr Eric Wright, her advisor and mentor? The answer is patently in the affirmative and is reiterated constantly throughout the book.
Why this was the case is also made clear, she was in love with him and needed him in her life. As she constantly points out, she was always just a simple Papuan kekeni (girl) after all.
If you believe that last statement you might also be inclined to believe, as the Australian administration of the time had it, that Eric Wright was a left wing activist.
Neither assertion is close to the truth. There was nothing simple about Josephine and Eric was simply an intelligent and eccentric pragmatist. But he did occasionally wear colourful Hawaiian shirts and sandals, which everyone, especially the Australian administrators, knew was a badge of the leftie.
That Josephine was a sweet innocent from the village is even harder to swallow. In those days she was driven by her anti-colonial and pro-Papua sentiments and she had a singular agenda that nothing was going to stop come hell or high water.
There is a neat little cluster of her vitriol around page 238 where she gets stuck into a District Commissioner, his wife and a touring VIP for no other reason than the fact that they were in the same place as her.
“Mr DC was the overlord of all material things emanating from the colonial authority” and his wife was “not a woman to be trifled with, as she could be a source of danger to anyone who circled in her orbit” and “could dispense social justice with Belsen-like efficiency”.
The hapless VIP was one of those “thick and heavy” on the ground “particularly during southern winters” come to see “the last living museum and the first open zoo” of PNG.
“Mr and Mrs DC had given the best years of their lives to serving Australia’s interests in primitive Papua and New Guinea. As rewards, they had lived fully, loved conservatively between tours and official duties, entertained important people and looked forward to a generous golden handshake when they left the country”.
These sorts of comments are probably a clue to why she ultimately failed in her political aspirations and why her movement, Papua Besena (Papua family), foundered; she was just too prickly for ordinary folk to cope with; moderation was not a word in her vocabulary.
The deportation of Eric Wright by the Australian administration on the very cusp of independence, purportedly for organising a guerrilla force to fight for Papuan autonomy, didn’t help either.
That shouldn’t detract from her achievements, however; the world and PNG needs people like her. She was, at the time, the perfect counterfoil to the deeply conservative politics of the emerging PNG.
And, of course, the aims of Papua Besena are not dead by any means. There are many Papuan people who still think Papua would be better off separated from New Guinea. Its new wealth from hydrocarbon discoveries might even make that viable. Josephine came back in 1997, I wonder if she can do it again?
The book is largely peopled by characters that are claimed to be fictitious. I suspect this is one of those necessities that writers dealing with recent events in PNG are wont to adopt.
I think you can safely assume that, apart from the names, they probably represent real people. It is hard to believe, for instance, that the father of her first child, conceived overnight in a refuge village after their Land Cruiser became bogged on the flooded Rigo Road, would not be able to recognise himself.
Josephine recorded many ‘firsts’ in her lifetime. She is dismissive of many of them, however, because she sees them as such simple things; being the first Papuan girl to graduate from high school, for instance, was no big deal to her.
One of those ‘firsts’, inherently obvious but not explicitly described in the book, was her emergence as one of the earliest of that new breed of Papua New Guineans existing successfully in the wider world beyond the village. In this respect she joins historical figures like Michael Somare.
These sorts of people are too numerous to count nowadays and they are the hope for PNG’s future, but in the 1960s they were few and far between. In this sense, and particularly because she is a woman, she was a true pioneer.
Josephine maintained that she never took any bribes and remained true to her ideals – although she did become Dame Josephine Abaijah; I’m not sure if that counts but it must mean something, perhaps a mellowing of sorts.
Josephine’s parents had 13 children before her mother’s fallopian tubes were tied, involuntarily as Josephine would have it. They then adopted four more children.
She estimated that her parents would eventually have between 50 and 100 grandchildren; the beginnings of a veritable Abaijah tribe. If they all carry even a hint of Josephine’s acerbic take on life they will, very soon, be a force to be reckoned with indeed.