Hungry for development
Papua New Guinea spirit

Oli kam, oli bagarap, oli go - thoughts on intolerance


I occasionally like to regress into my Irish half and observe the world from there.  The perspective is not, I suspect, much dissimilar to a Papua New Guinean one.

The Irish have the habit of doing things brilliantly and then screwing them up at the last minute.  Remember the Celtic Tiger and how it crashed so spectacularly?

I sometimes think they do this so they can philosophise about it later.  The way Australia perversely celebrates its wartime stuff-ups is probably because of its significant Irish heritage.

The Irish make great whiskey and fine black stout, not so much because they can make money out of it but because they like drinking it. 

They breed magnificent horses, not so much for racing them but simply because they like riding and looking at them.  My wife and I once kept Connemara ponies for this self-same reason.

My father, when he wasn’t drinking whiskey or stout or thinking about drinking them, was a very generous man. I once saw him take off his wristwatch and give it to another man who had admired it. 

He had that sort of human spirit which ensured that we continually teetered on the edge of poverty when I was growing up.

My mother, an English country girl, must have once been initially impressed by this equanimity but I think it wore thin in later years.  I guess he was just another Irish Paddy after all.

I’ve often wondered about ascribing traits to ethnic and cultural groups.  The Scots are supposed to be tight fisted with their money.  No sex please, were English is another one.

In the 1960s there was a common saying about highlanders in Papua New Guinea, oli kam, oli bagarap, oli go [they came, they destroyed, they left].  Americans abroad are loud-mouthed and wear big hats and bright shirts.  Australians are obnoxious and vomit in the pot plants.

You can’t do it anymore but once upon a time you could pick a person’s home district by the way they looked and spoke. 

Bougainvilleans were coal black, highlanders were squat and left an aroma of pig fat and kaukau farts wherever they went and Sepiks spoke Tok Pisin so fast it was sometimes impossible to understand them.  Kerema girls ….. well, we’d better not go there!

It was all terribly racist, sexist and every other …ist in a funny and largely harmless way.  Nowadays you’re only allowed to think it but not say it.  I’m not sure that we’ve gained much with this political correctness.

Funnily enough we’re still allowed to say nasty things about politicians and lawyers but I guess they’re not really ethnic groups, and they ask for it anyway.

There’s a big debate in Australia at the moment about ethnic and racial discrimination.  While it is laudable in many ways it also demonstrates that we’ve lost our sense of tolerance.

Intolerance helped keep the Bougainville crisis simmering along for years – redskins versus blackskins, you just have to read Leonard Fong Roka to see its destructive power.

There are places in Papua New Guinea, especially the highlands, where a word out of place will see your head cleaved with an axe and terrible violence wreaked upon your clan. 

That sort of thing is not dissimilar to a busload of people in Kenya being slaughtered because they couldn’t recite verses from the Koran.

In the eyes of those savages those innocent people were politically and religiously incorrect and had to be killed.  Religions are bastions of intolerance the world over.

Somehow, in our drive to create a tolerant world, we’ve managed to box ourselves into a corner and it all seems to be rearing back on us and biting us hard.  In trying to become tolerant we’ve succeeded in becoming much more intolerant.

People in Papua New Guinea are being told that they should be a Papua New Guineans first and Simbus, or Bukas, or Keremas second.  It’s marketed as the way forward - it’s where the future lies.

Perhaps that needs to be re-thought; perhaps it is really the wrong way round.

Perhaps people need to look to their roots and retreat back a bit to see the world.  Perhaps we need to become more Irish, or more Buka or more Simbu after all.

In trying to be just we’ve become much more unjust.


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Phil Fitzpatrick

Thanks Paulus, I couldn't have said it better myself. We certainly have a fatal flaw.

I was born in Oxford but spent a short time in Ireland when I was young, down around Waterford where my father's people live.

I can't remember where I saw it but there was a road sign with two arms on it, one pointing east and the other west. They both had the same destination and the same mileages. Sort of sums up Ireland.

Our perchance for lost causes is a defining trait I think. So is the fact that so many Irish doctors and nurses can be seen in all the hell holes of the world. Same thing with their missionaries.

There's something else to add to your list, after the Civil War in America an Irish brigade tried to invade Canada?

In continental Europe the Celts stopped the Romans in their tracks. They made it to the doorstep of Rome before starting to argue among themselves. The rest is history.

Paulus Ripa

Phil, I would have to agree with Fr Garry that it is crucial that we recognise that all of us have varying degrees of racism and we need to channel this in a positive manner in which we can be proud of our tribe, then our province and region, then our country and lastly we are indeed citizens of the world.

Parents need to recognise that unconsciously they may pass on some traits to their children without realising it. Religious intolerance against other non Christians is a phenomenon we have to guard against.

The cooperation amongst the Christian churches in PNG is, as Fr Garry mentions, much greater than in other countries.

The feeling of camaraderie amongst the Christian health workers is fantastic; in recent years the doctors in the Rural and Remote Medicine Society have been working very well together in joint training programs with UPNG.

At a medical meeting once I saw Fr Jaworksy (surgeon in Kundiawa) and Jim Radcliffe (surgeon in Kudjip) spending a lot of time with each other when once it was unthinkable that Catholics and Nazarenes to be seen together.

As for the Irish, I have always had a fascination for them, probably due to being educated by Catholic missionaries of Irish extraction.

In high school one of them used to tell us of the potato famine and play songs by the Irish Rovers whose lyrics were rather mournful and tragic.

The whole Irish history is somewhat tragic; and I think sometimes epitomises those of us who fight for lost causes. From the battle of Clontarf in 1013 where Brian Boru defeated the Vikings, but couldn’t save himself from being killed, to the English dominance, the battle of Boyne and the flight of the wild geese, to fighting in every army but their own and the potato famine.

They couldn’t even get their Independence act together properly and manage to assassinate Michael Collins.

One writer described them as “they fought for freedom with both pen and sword” (for their huge contribution to English literature) whilst General Lee in the American civil war paying tribute to the Irish Brigade as “Fighters in every land and clime – For every cause but our own”.

Recently I came across and article describing the actions of the an Irish regiment in the General Santa Anna’s Mexican army fighting the Americans in Texas showing the same degree of tenacity despite the certainty of a battle already lost.

Even Che Guevara’s world view was said to be largely influenced by his Irish ancestry.

All in all I think the Irish influence in the world is hugely disproportionate to their size.

Paul Oates

Chris, I'm amazed that we never met. Send me an email via Keith to see if we did?

You and I seemed to work for the same organsation or was it the same 'regime'.

"Are you a team player?" equalled (will you do what I want without any question even if you know better because of your prior and relevant experience). Now what were some other gems of the time? 'Organisationally demonstrative' was one I seem to remember.

To adhere to rules and regulations is not the same thing as PC social engineering where often the incompetent are promoted due to their political leanings and not based on merit and experience but in order to fulfil a political agenda and a falsely imposed percentile grouping.

But how do you tell someone about a problem when they are part of the problem?

I have always tried to explain that the so called 'western view' was not always right just as the PNG way was not always wrong. The answer is to take the best of both cultures and use it successfully.

Garry Roche

Being Irish myself, I cannot resist a comment or two on Phil Fitzpatrick’s input.

I personally think there is a bit of racism in all of us. We may be prejudiced against a particular ethnic group, we may think that our own ethnic group is the best ever.

I have heard some Western Highlands students lamenting that “Ol Hagen Sentral student ol I tink ol I moa yet” (Hagen Central students think they are special).

Admitting that we all may have some racism is, I believe, the way to begin overcoming it. And developing respect for all individuals is a positive way to overcome racism. The challenge is to have a rightful pride in your own culture and at the same time not to belittle other cultures, and not to judge them before you truly understand them.

I would also comment on Phil’s remark that religions are the bastion of intolerance the world over.

A bastion is a stronghold, a fortress. It has to be admitted that currently religious extremism is seen to be the most common cause of violence in the world.

A recent study has concluded that religious extremism has replaced separatist movements and ethnic tensions as the major cause of violence worldwide.

At the same time we must acknowledge the fact that in many parts of Papua New Guinea religion has been a positive factor in bringing unity where there was tribal tension and warfare.

Also to be noted is the fact that PNG may be one of the few places where several Christian denominations have united to form a company to proclaim the Christian message through print media and other means. I refer to Word Publishing, the company that owns and publishes Wantok newspaper and was established by Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and United Churches, and others.

In addition, the Melanesian Institute, based in Goroka, is also perhaps somewhat unique in being again established by Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, United and others.

The Melanesian Institute is a research institute. It also provides orientation courses for expatriate personnel who come to work with the various churches. It has been operating since around 1969.

This practical ecumenism was achieved through dialogue and openness. No doubt it became possible also because there is less antagonism among Christian churches than there used to be, and many churches do now officially accept the right of each individual to follow her or his own conscience.

There is clearly an urgent need today to dialogue especially with Islam. And it is quite obvious that there is a need within Islam for dialogue between Sunni and Shiite.

Recently Fr Franco Zocca has written about relations between Islam and the Christian churches in PNG.

If the Christian churches in PNG have been so forward-looking with practical achievements like Word Publishing –Wantok and the Melanesian Institute, perhaps they can also be very forward looking in developing dialogue with Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism etc and thus overcome intolerance.

Chris Overland

I think that Phil has made an important point.

Political Correctness requires that everyone accept and believe in the truth and validity of one idea or set of ideas. It is entirely intolerant of other views and thus is a form of authoritarianism.

This does not mean, of course, that the ideas are inherently wrong, simply that those who hold them find any other view either intolerable or inconceivable or both.

I worked for a few years in a large government organisation which became intolerant of any views that did not accord with the prescribed departmental "world view" as reflected in its policy documents and, especially, as espoused by its powerful CEO.

She busily replaced most of the executive leadership with those who shared her ideas. Anyone else was sidelined, displaced or sacked.

Pretty soon this organisation rapidly deteriorated from one in which ideas about the best way to proceed could be contested (at times, pretty hotly too) to one in which it was important to "toe the line".

Group think set in with a vengeance. Decisions about the allocation of resources were made in accordance with the prescribed policy priorities without much regard for needs elsewhere or, in some instances, the binding legal conditions attached to the funds.

Failure to conform was punished. As I soon discovered, even pointing out that there were legal constraints on what could be done with some resources provoked considerable hostility. I was not a Team Player!

Needless to say, the capacity to make intelligent decisions rapidly diminished as there was, of course, only one right way to approach any issue.

Four increasingly dysfunctional years later the entire edifice imploded when a change of government ushered in a new regime and an Auditor General's report highlighted the fact that up to $60 million had been improperly allocated to fund something other than the programs intended.

The CEO was abruptly sacked and, with her gone, there was soon an exodus of her former acolytes to pastures new although some, perhaps not surprisingly, seemed to happily accommodate themselves to the new and hugely more pragmatic orthodoxy.

This experience left me with a permanent scepticism about rigidly applied "policy driven" decision making and endless ideological waffle about how bureaucracies (as distinct from governments) can and should be instruments of social change even if the masses, as it were, neither knew about nor necessarily approved of those changes.

Like Phil, I believe that in our collective anxiety to appear tolerant we often are actually making ourselves effective prisoners of special interest groups pushing ideas nominally based upon some notion of "fairness" or "equity", but which somehow always end up with the taxpayers being required to ante up a pile of cash.

I don't like political correctness in any form but I do like the idea that we should, within reason, tolerate the sexual preferences, religious beliefs, vegetarianism, clothing and music choices and various other foibles of our fellow citizens provided they do no harm.

Paul Oates

I enjoyed your conjecture Phil. It raises a very good point. It's almost as if those who promote their politically correct world are actually afraid of accepting diversity.

Can you have a national identity and still retain your own distinctive one?

Well clearly you have. You recognize your Irish heritage and yet still are an Australian with strong links to PNG etc.

I too have a Celtic background and have visited my ancestral home in Cornwall a number of times.

I've stayed in the house my ancestors lived in and visited their graves in the country churchyard. But I'm still Australian and sang Waltzing Matilda in the local pub with the locals while I drank their excellent beer.

You don't have to lose your identity to believe in and support your nation. It's the same as some of us 'lapuns' can still be Australian but have very strong ties with PNG.

It's just a state of mind rather than becoming 'stateless'.

Mathias Kin

Phil, I well thought of piece of writing. Good read.

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