A VIDEO clip of dance groups participating in a recent provincial cultural show triggered past memories.
Growing up, I remember participating in singsings in my village. They lasted three weeks.
The first week was night dancing, typically a youth affair and less formal. We locked arms, formed a big circle and danced into the early hours of the night.
This transitioned into two weeks of daytime singsings, the entire community participating. Now there was a significant and different tenor. Fully decorated, we stood in a long line and danced to the beat of our kundu drums until dusk.
Body decoration for the singsings took several hours to apply and provided an ideal opportunity for the elders to remind us about the deep-rooted rituals, rites, norms and behaviour that governed our lives.
As we danced, the elders sat in front, gazing at us and reviewing our performance. Their observations and comments ranged from light-hearted to disheartening.
All the while, they re-affirmed our inherent leadership qualities, fighting skills and, at times, predicted the potentially ill-fated outcome they may await some of us.
The entire singsing series was a celebration and expression of our community identity. We danced, laughed, experienced sheer enjoyment and feasted on slaughtered pigs and possums.
More important than fun and joy, these events reiterated values based on sacred thoughts and concepts. They gave us a sense of our autonomy, peoplehood and identity. They provided the social and cultural glue that held us together and provided an internal combustion that drove our external behaviour.
In the last 40 years, however, the singsing events and the expressions of cultural identity have taken on a different meaning.
The shows are now sponsored by institutions like provincial governments and schools. The ceremonies are packaged, coached and staged. They are rewarded with cash and other prizes based on performance criteria arbitrarily established by committees.
These committees usually consist of PNG’s educated elites and some members of the expatriate community. Their judging is based on the staging and the optics of commercial appeal.
And so the events have become marketing opportunities for the hospitality industry. The participants willingly oblige and perform for an audience whose values and understandings are different.
The schools are part of this change by encouraging one-day cultural experiences. This is based on a misguided notion that wearing bilas for a day somehow will substitute for the daily hands-on participation in the community.
Without daily community engagement, the children end up spending the remaining 364 days watching videos and occupying in activities other than cultural engagement.
Cultural expression needs to be based on values rooted in a way of life, norms and practices. Values provide the compass that drives our behaviour and measures who we are.
Traditional singsing events embodied the authenticity of the Melanesian way of life.
They were about accepting ourselves and embracing virtues like hospitality and friendship, welcoming and feeding strangers, respecting mothers and sisters, promoting peace and harmony, listening to elders, exercising humility and kindness, loving each other, making individual efforts and encouraging collective success.
Above all, they would appreciate and reinforce the spiritual context from which the Melanesian values drew strength. All these virtues ran deeper than tribal boundaries and language groups.
The true keepers of our cultural treasures are our people - families, parents and elders - not government-mandated programs, schools, museums or the hospitality industry.
We need to teach our children the same time-tested truth and wisdom our elders taught us to help preserve the uniquely Melanesian well-being, peace and harmony of our community.
From this firm footing, we can be discriminating in choosing the external values that presently we are unwittingly chasing after.
Joe Herman grew up in Enga and now live in the city of Seattle in the United States