The rare commodity that is grassroots knowledge
15 February 2016
ON A bright sunlit morning in 1969, I was walking down from my house on the hill to the station office and airstrip below.
A couple of children from the village further up the hill were happily gambolling along with my dog a few steps ahead.
I stopped abruptly.
The little poppet in the tiny grass skirt put her hands on her hips and stared up at me. “Wanem samting?” she demanded.
I looked down at her and smiled. “Maski, mi tingting tasol, yumi go.”
I’d been idly thinking about an upcoming patrol. There was nothing unusual about that: I toyed around in my head with routes and logistics before most patrols. What pulled me up was the realisation that I had been doing it in Tok Pisin.
It was a one man patrol post and apart from the odd pilot and the occasional visit from the Summer Institute of Linguistics people up the valley I hadn’t spoken directly to another European for several months.
We were fairly isolated. There were no roads; the surrounding mountains were too steep. The only vehicle on the station was an ancient 135 Massey Ferguson tractor that we used to cut the grass on the airstrip.
We had no electricity and our only contact with the outside world was via a cantankerous AWA transceiver.
I mostly spoke to the station clerk in Tok Pisin; we only mixed it with English when things got technical. I conversed with the police, the two school teachers and the aid post orderly in a mixture of Tok Pisin and fractured Hiri Motu.
At the weekends we played soccer on the airstrip. In the evenings I read books and listened to a scratchy shortwave radio. Occasionally the teachers and police came to the house for a barbeque and a few drinks. It was all pretty friendly and laid back.
In modern parlance, I was well and truly embedded in the station and local community. This didn’t particularly bother me. I was quite happy. The prospect of visitors from outside never enthused me. In many cases they were an unwanted burden and the quicker I got rid of them the better.
There was nothing unusual about this situation. Many young patrol officers spent a term or two on remote outposts by themselves. It was part of the learning process, a kind of acculturation. A few individuals couldn’t hack such insularity and bailed out, but by and large it was a common experience.
And in most cases it had a profound effect; it certainly did for me.
It shifted my view of the world and demonstrated there were alternatives to the rushing and brash cacophony that passed as society in Australia and the rest of the developed world.
It also taught me self-reliance and, in certain ways, a disdain for the myriad support mechanisms that surrounded people and were taken for granted in more ‘advanced’ societies.
In short, it taught us to march to the beat of a different drummer.
It was also the profound adjustment to another way of living that caused so many of us problems as we tried to settle back into Australian life when we eventually left Papua New Guinea.
When you hear the old kiaps and other expatriates who worked in the bush lamenting the fact that no one wants to listen to us, it is this intangible knowledge they are talking about. It is knowledge that can’t be taught and has to be experienced to be appreciated.
It is also the crucial factor that has been missing from all those advisors and consultants who have worked in Papua New Guinea in the years since independence.
And, dare I say it, it is the thing that’s missing from many of Papua New Guinea’s elite who grew up in the cities and towns.
Having spent time in the PNG bush albeit only three years, I to understand the 'intangible knowledge' that was shared by my wantoks. I think the world could be a far better place if we had the wherewithal to share that knowledge and understanding.
Posted by: Phil McCabe | 16 February 2016 at 05:57 AM
I liked your post Phil especially noted the 'intangible knowledge' bit.
I am proud to have been in PNG 5 years before I-Day and allowed to remain for another 25 thereafter.
Sadly you say how nobody wants to listen to you and I can tell you it's even worse up here in the northern hemisphere where even PNG's whereabouts are a mystery to the majority.
I can almost see my friends and relatives switching into – 'sleep mode' if I as much mention anything to do with those thirty years of my life. Even my youngest daughter, who lives here with me, was rudely told to stop talking about her life in PNG to another lady.
Yet for all the sophistication of UK life I have to temper my feeling of being somehow superior because of having had that other life, which gave me that intangible knowledge, compared to the average mere mortals who surround me. I thank God and Canberra for the opportunity.
Just an example of coping: I ring my doctor for an appointment and often get asked, “Are you Ok to see such and such a doctor?” Ol man!!, after most of my life on an island with no doctor ever for its 20000 citizens I am happy to be seen by any one of the medics at my surgery.
Likewise with opticians or dentists – hell we didn't have one for 500 kilometres from the island. Didn't even have barbers..still cut my own; though miss the little triangular shape thingamajig from Hong Kong which helped trim it after a bit of dexterous scissoring.
I arrived a wet behind the ears city guy in 1970 and left in 2000 having been: kiap, trader, lay-preacher, parish manager, cattleman, agriculturalist, Assembly Member, Councillor, banker, post-master, airlines agent, croc-skin buyer, rubber-buyer, marine-products buyer and father of 7. That's a bloody long CV.
Even if I haven't got any moss it means atleast I do have some of that intangible knowledge.
Sori nogut mi gusai tumas!
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 15 February 2016 at 09:42 PM
People in the village and rural areas have a peculiar way of dealing with outsiders, even today.
If they sense that you are in the area to just get what you what and leave quickly, they will only give you the superficial and trivial of what you want to hear or record.
But if they see and feel that you are really genuine and can build rapport with them, and are willing to spend a bit more time with them, they will tell you more...knowledge, leads to other sources of information, what really tickles, etc etc...
Posted by: John K Kamasua | 15 February 2016 at 01:48 PM
My kiap was also my rugby coach. He was the last Aussie kiap at our station. We lowered the Aussie Flag and handed it over to him. As the PNG flag was being hoisted, my kiap gave it a firm salute. Much tears were shed. Always remember as it happened yesterday. Thank you guys.
Posted by: Joe Herman | 15 February 2016 at 11:50 AM
Em tasol wantok. You've effectively explained and 'pinged' the issue that sticks in our craw.
The issue is the lack of understanding. Without the practical experience, Canberra decision makers these days aren't even aware of what they lack.
How many written 'snow jobs' have I received in a steady and predictable continuum of:
1. Thanks but we really do know what we're doing,
2. Thanks but you should trust us,
3. No thanks, we're on top of everything, and finally and effectively,
4. Pull your head in!
Meanwhile our relations with our nearest neighbour and good friend are constantly being either ignored, swept under the mat or allowed to atrophy.
I'd imagine anyone who has also tried to provide some helpful suggestions about our relations with PNG would have received exactly the same reactive brick wall from those who might either feel professionally threatened or feel their highly paid employment was at stake.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 15 February 2016 at 06:47 AM