Love peace; seek harmony – win gold
For I too am a Papua New Guinean

We are all the same, just different – if you see what I mean


PAPUA New Guineans are different from the rest of us, both within themselves and as a whole.

For most of my life I’ve believed that - colour, cult and creed notwithstanding - all human beings are basically the same.

The obvious corollary from this being that everyone should be regarded and treated the same.

This belief has served me reasonably well because it has made life a lot less complex. I haven’t had to configure into my behaviour such preoccupying aberrations as racism and bigotry, for example.

My belief is a kind of riff on the old nature versus nurture argument. You are what you are either because of your inherited genetic makeup or because of the way you have been brought up and the environment in which that has been done.

Most right-minded people think that it is not a case of either-or but a combination of the two that determine a person’s character. Our physical appearance might be due to our genes but our essential character is due to our upbringing and experience.

It is a useful take on the subject because it allows for both flexibility as well as rigidity in our individual outlook.

It is solely for the reason of nurture that I think Papua New Guineans are different from the rest of us.

We, on the one hand, have developed in a largely homogenous way while Papua New Guineans, on the other hand, have developed in a largely insular and inward-looking way.

We are more interested in the here and now and the future while Papua New Guineans are more conscious of the past.

While I acknowledge that this is a sweeping and possibly dangerous generalisation, I don’t think either of the concepts is better than the other. On the contrary, the difference bestows an atmosphere of lively fascination and attraction and probably explains why I like Papua New Guinea so much.

So what has made me think of all this hypothetical doggie do?

It’s a combination of things.

The first is because I’ve been thinking about writing the last book in the Inspector Metau trilogy.

The second is because I’ve been editing and publishing a range of new books by both Papua New Guinean and Australian writers and noticing some especially interesting differences in subject matter and style.

The third is the fact that my books, both the ones I write and the ones I publish, seem to sell much better in Papua New Guinea than they do in Australia.

And the last is because there have recently been some very interesting debates on PNG Attitude that seem to highlight the differences I allude to above.

In particular I’ve noticed the well-meaning but impractical advice being offered both by Australians and the so-called educated elite in Papua New Guinea.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

Just recently readers have been debating the problems and merits of the bikman tradition and the way politicians seem to think that getting elected to parliament is a legitimate way to become a bikman.

In doing this they erroneously equate wealth and power with bikman status. And we all know what sort of harm that kind of conflation has been doing.

Some of the Australians and the educated elite argue that the bikman system is an anachronism that should be abolished in a modern PNG. They can’t understand why people keep electing these crooks and carpetbaggers to parliament.

What they don’t seem to understand is that Papua New Guineans still need the bikman in their lives. The bikman has long been an integral part of the PNG psyche and the need is still there.

It’s just that they can’t seem to tell the difference between a real bikman and the new, uglier version on offer. Ground hog day election after ground hog day election bears this out.

That people are now carrying (litimapim) these garlanded arseholes around on obscene elevated litters points to the increasingly desperate hunt for good leaders.

Unfortunately sticking monkeys up on pedestals doesn’t magically turn them into leaders.

Talking about magic brings me to another example.

My second to last book, The Floating Island, is about the mysterious tokai of the New Guinea islands during World War II and involves shape-shifting and invisible islands.

Most Australian readers I’ve spoken to have found the theme a tad too fantastical for their tastes and have not recommended it.

Papua New Guinean readers, on the other hand, have taken the subject matter in their stride and seem quite comfortable with it.

Why the difference?

Well, among other things, it has made me realise that I’ve been writing books for a Papua New Guinean audience rather than an Australian one for some time now.

(It has also reinforced my view that Papua New Guineans should be reading books by Papua New Guinean writers or writers with experience in the country where possible.)

Again, we come back to nurture. The magical and spiritual is ingrained in the Papua New Guinean psyche, educated elite and simple villager alike and there’s no reason to avoid this fact.

There is a general view now current that sorcery is bad, if not evil, and there is certainly evidence to support this contention.

The obvious solution is to stamp it out.

But is this a solution and, indeed, is it viable? I think not.

It is too deeply ingrained. And, besides, it makes life interesting and can explain a lot of life’s imponderables, just like religion. And there have been far worse atrocities committed by religious fanatics than ever by sorcery or magic.

Where the problem lies, as in the case of the errant politician posing as a bikman, is in the creation of modern aberrations of sorcery.

Banning sorcery won’t work but revitalising and promoting good sorcery, like traditional healing, and discriminating against bad sorcery, like witch burning (which is essentially murder) might help. It’s called fighting fire with fire.

Like I said, Papua New Guineans are different from the rest of us, and Papua New Guinean problems need Papua New Guinean solutions, even if we don’t fully understand them.

The Catch 22?

You need good leaders to do this. Where they might come from is too hard to contemplate.

But it seems to be getting awfully close to the time to bite the bullet.


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Peter Kranz

Very interesting Phil and this debate is close to my family right now. I realise you are talking about cultural difference, not basic humanity.

After all, we all share the same DNA and all experience the basic realities of the human condition - love, hate, lust, generosity, family, the imperative to survive and grow (although I find it hard to understand how anyone with a basic sense of humanity can justify death, atrocity and torture in the name of religious belief, whether this be due to a twisted interpretation of Islam or Christianity or an obsession with sanguma).

But of course all cultures have their unique approach to life based on tradition, belief, shared experience and imagination. This is a bit like the decoration on a cake. Underneath are the same basic ingredients, but on top is a glorious cacophony of different interpretations of how to deal with life.

I have just had a very personal experience of this. Rose had a difficult reaction to her chemo today - sweating, pain and panic. I was about to call the ambulance and take her to hospital, but Mana said "No, I can deal with this. Get me some ice and cold water."

And so she spent half an hour rubbing ice on Rose's forehead, massaging her body with cold water and singing Kuman songs. After a while Rose got up and said "I'm OK, what's all the fuss about?" And she was OK.

Now a scientist or academic might wax lyrical about psychosomatic conditions and the power of TLC, but I reckon it was the cool touch of home and family and the reassuring music of Kuman singing which helped her. I couldn't do this, but Mana knew how.

So deep down we are all human, but when it comes to our culture (kastom) we all have amazing and important differences. And no one can say any approach is more important than our neighbours.

Bessielah David

This is an interesting insight that I never thought to consider. I suppose it's just the way we (PNGns) are.

Interesting use of the idiom "fighting fire with fire" - I reckon this will work and this would seem sooner than expected.

Great insight, Phil.

Garry Roche

Phil Fitzpatrick writes - "We are more interested in the here and now and the future while Papua New Guineans are more conscious of the past."

This reminds me of the contrast between Pidgin and English in the description of the past and the future.

Taim bipo - is not the future before you but the past behind you.

Bihain taim - is not the past behind you but the future before you.

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