SELECTED BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
This is an extract from ULLI BEIER's memoir of Papua New Guinea, ‘Decolonising the Mind’, published by the now defunct Pandanus Books at the Australian National University. Ulli Beier passed away on 3 April 2011, aged 88 - PF
THE CREATIVE WRITING CLASS attracted some of the brightest and certainly the most politically conscious students.
They were not literati; they were not discussing style and form. They were disinterested in literary trends and fashions. They used literature as a tool.
They were aware that they were the first generation of Papuans and New Guineans who could talk back at the white man. Ever since the Germans, the British and later the Australians had ruled the country, they were expected to take orders and obey them.
They had never been credited with the intelligence to form an opinion of their own. They were considered uneducable by most early administrators and missionaries, and it needed a courageous man of strong convictions like the Rev Charles Abel even to insist that Papuans could be trained as carpenters!
Now, there was a group of young men and women who sympathised with the aspirations of PANGU Pati, who were trying to define themselves as Papuans and New Guineans and who were anxious to interpret their own history and their own culture in their own terms, rather than have it interpreted – and often denigrated – for them by white people.
Their motivation was not too dissimilar from that of the African négritude writers of the forties and fifties, but they were less romantic and more down to earth than their Francophone colleagues.
They were all very idealistic – at least in those early days. John Waiko refrained from taking a lucrative job in Port Moresby after completing his MA degree in Canada and spent two years in his Binandere village instead, in order to persuade his people not to sell their forest.
John Kasaipwalova broke off his studies at the university in order to form the Kabisawali movement in the Trobriand Islands.*
Arthur Jawodimbari went to Nigeria to study drama at the University of Ife, so he could develop professional theatre in Papua New Guinea. Rabbie Namaliu and Leo Hannet became vocal supporters of the independence movement.
With the exception of Russell Soaba none of them made a career as a writer, but all of them made distinguished careers in a great variety of fields: Leo Hannet became Premier of Bougainville, Rabbie Namiliu became Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Jacob Simet became the Chairman of the National Cultural Commission, John Waiko became the first indigenous professor at the University of Papua New Guinea, Arthur Jawodimbari became the Director of the National Theatre Company, John Kadiba became a lecturer in an Aboriginal college in Darwin.
Kumalau Tawali got sidetracked into Moral Rearmament, John Saunana became a Cabinet Minister in the Solomon Islands, Russell Soaba a lecturer in English at UPNG. Kaka Kais played a leading political role on Manus Island.
Their venture into creative writing made all of them more aware of their culture; it helped them to acquire a strong sense of identity and a vision for the future of Papua New Guinea….
The political and economic developments in Papua New Guinea, the sense of disillusionment and a general feeling of helplessness have crushed some of this enthusiasm and idealism in recent years. In Papua New Guinea now, life has often become an issue of mere survival and, as a result, a sober pragmatism has now replaced their earlier hopes.
* Kabisawali was a political/cultural movement that tried to replace the local government structure introduced by the Australian administration. John Kasaipwalova persuaded the people of the Kabisawali movement to plant surplus yam again so that they could revive the traditional feasts and dances. The young carver Valaosi created an innovative series of relief panels which illustrated the history of the movement.