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Tourism and tradition – can they co-exist in a modern PNG?

Enga dancersNATHAN LATI | Edited extracts

THE Engan dance, the Mali, is one of the traditional rituals that is gradually dying away due to non-recognition of its significance in the modern and traditional contexts.

Previously, the Mali was hosted for reasons that cannot match today’s purposes. Furthermore, the importance of the Mali from both modern and traditional perspective is not understood by majority of the Engans due to the current trend towards modernity and the weakening of culture, tradition and custom.

Currently, the Mali is one of the major tourist attractions in Enga and has gained popularity at the annual Enga Cultural Show with its Sili Muli, an all women Mali dance group.

However, there are shifting cultural factors that have influenced Engans to overlook the significances of the Mali and interest and eagerness to participate and learn has been minimal among youth with the Mali losing its purpose and authenticity.

As a unique tradition, the Mali needs to be maintained and preserved through promotion and creating awareness and interest to rejuvenate and protect it from losing its values.

Enga Province has minimal economic activity and the support of the provincial government is required in funding awareness, cultural promotion and preservation through tourism activities.

There are possibilities to encourage the younger generation to learn how to preserve and sustain the Mali and to understand and value the cultural and traditional aspects of Engan life. Thus we may help maintain and sustain the Mali from dying away silently as a result of modern influences.

It is interesting to see, through the influence of the one language spoken throughout the province, that the customs practiced in traditional societies are same throughout Enga. However, religion, education, employment and rural to urban migration have much influenced the Mali.

Although there are some Mali dance performances with contemporary costumes, the authenticity of and pride in the Mali dance seems to have lost its value. The same detrimental factors can be seen in the other cultures and traditions of PNG amid the 800 plus language groups - they are dying away in a similar manner.

Akii Tumu’s book, ‘View of The Enga Culture’, states that, in the past, most Mali singsings took place to gather people to discuss upcoming feasts or exchanges, but today they are held primarily to raise money for public facilities, to celebrate holidays or other important events. This commercialisation with contemporary costumes imitates the authentic Mali dance but is of no substance in terms of its cultural values.

Today, most PNG societies seem to have an oral tradition as an historical source but the reality of traditional ways of life are dying away as we shift our focus to modernity and development.  The concept of imparting skills and knowledge, learning and imitating traditions  and customs  from great tribal or clan ancestors seems not to exist these days.

The children live far away from their villages, parents and families and are unable to participate in village cultural activities – they do not learn and understand them. The loss of the vernacular language is also an important barrier as most people now communicate in English, Pidgin and Motu.

The opportunities to teach traditional customs to the younger generation are narrow, leaving a gap which needs to be helped if it is to be revived and sustained.

In Enga, the way of doing things which were passed down the generations are at risk in these days when everyone’s focus is on modernity. Thus the Enga traditional dance, which followed the same pattern of sharing, teaching and imparting knowledge to preserve the values, genealogies and narratives which were the basis of its existence, is losing its influence and, without great care, may be lost forever.

The Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority (PNGTPA) identifies cultural tourism as a significant source for national tourism growth due to the authentic cultural experiences that are PNG’s biggest selling tourism product.

The UN World Tourism Organisation has stated that cultural tourism accounts for 37% of global tourism and forecasts a growth rate of 15% per year. This is particularly true for PNG where travel statistics show increased arrivals in the months of July to September as a result of cultural festivals staged in various parts of the country, especially the Mask Festival, the Mt Hagen Show, the Hiri Moale and the Goroka Show.

Cultural festivals, village tours and stays that are worked into travel itineraries always prove attractive for tourists and are a common feature in many successful tour operators’ packages.

PNGTPA’s major challenge in cultural tourism has been in aligning the modern or Western concept of tourism as a business with the Melanesian cultural practices of shared resources and land ownership.

Hence, PNGTPA works closely with tour operators and tourism associations to help reinforce, support and preserve the local communities and their culture. Partnerships in tourism are vital for PNG especially in the preservation of culture and natural resources.

PNGTPA’s most successful partnership projects have been the Surf Management Plan headed by the Surfers Association of PNG. This project aims to ensure that the village communities where surfing tourism takes place receive shared benefits through fees and that rules are implemented to limit the number of surfers so the environment.

As a passionate observer of cultures and traditions of our country, I am always interested to learn and discover more about the various cultures and traditions of PNG. I am eager to learn in detail about our cultures in their full contexts and whether they are still practised.  Sadly, the traditions have changed and contemporary culture has dominated what used to be our authentic way of life.

Nathan LatiI have come to known that many young people cannot speak any native languages from either of their parents’ tribes and clans. Language is part of culture and tradition and to lose language is to lose culture and tradition.

Nathan Lati is Tourism Product Development Officer with the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority. He has worked with various organisations in business, humanitarian aid, project finance and logistics and in the United Nations migration division.


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Naith Lati

Thanks Daniel, you have valid commentary supporting such little things we are doing to show pride in our cultural heritage and values.

I'm proud to be from Enga and doing what I can for my people. The school curriculum integration is what we all were thinking about. Thanks to the people behind this concept.

Aimos Joseph

Kaimi, our traditions and cultures are dying. Only written pieces whether big or small will help. Joe Herman wrote another one like that too. Thank you son's of Pilikambi. Job well done

John K Kamasua

Martin has written a very good piece on tourism and tradition. My earlier comment relates to the creative industry, which in some sense is a sleeping giant, and its potential never utilized.

I hope people in the relevant positions of decision-making wake up to that.

John K Kamasua

The National Cultural Commission was recently jolted from its long self-imposed slumber, wasting precious time and opportunities and not doing anything constructive to bring out the creative and innovative energies as far as cultures and traditions are concerned.

It has been announced that NCC will become part of the National Museum and Art Gallery by the Government.

All I can remember over the years, is that NCC has held Mask Festivals in only certain and isolated locations of the country.

The creative industry is not very strong in this country, but if it were to be rejuvenated, it must start with the dances, arts and crafts, and way of life of the people.

I hope that under its new structure, ample attention is paid to kick-starting the creative industry - film, dance, songs, TV shows and so many other areas related to the work of NCC and its partners.

Joe Herman

Excellent article, Nathan. Perhaps we can figure out a way to
re-ignite the passion to dance for ourselves, not for the tourism industry.

Philip Fitzpatrick

That's good news about the books that Polly and Akii have prepared and so is the recruitment of the two teachers and the provision of the house. I'm sure Keith will give the books plenty of publicity when they become available. Its also nice to know that some researchers give back to the communities in which they work.

The preservation of culture is what was in Bob Cleland's mind when he decided to fund the heritage category in the Crocodile Prize competition.

Writing things down, sadly, seems to be the only way a lot of culture will be preserved.

Daniel Kumbon

Good article Kaim.

I have lived here in Enga all my working life and have witnessed our traditions beginning to be forgotten by our younger generation. They don’t know the special songs sung at singsings. They don’t know how to put on traditional bilas on their bodies either before a dance or to compose songs for the occassion. In fact people are not organising Mali singsings anymore like in the 60s - 80s. A contribution factor could be the destructive tribal wars, people fearing that revenge killings could take place on unsuspecting participants.

The Mali sinsing is only performed at the annual Enga Cultural Show hoping the best performing group could win prizes. But like you point out – this is commercialisation. There is no love and concern for the continuity of the tradition of Mali singsings which were so impotant in Enga culture. Many aspects of our rich culture like the Sandalu and Sangai are also beginning to be forgotten.
When I went to school in the 60s, I did not have the chance to be initiated into youth initiation ceremonies. Cultural education of children in the Hausman gradually stopped.

But realizing this trend, the man you mention Mr Akii Tumu who also co-authored the book Historical Vines with Professor Polly Weissner published by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC are writing Cultural Curriculum Books (based on Enga Culture) to be taught in Enga schools.

Professor Weissner told me last week the books are being printed right now. Two senior High School teachers from Enga have been recruited to teach Cultural Education as a subject in the schools here. A new duplex house for them has been completed on the Enga Cultural Centre grounds. Schools in province are aware cultural education will be taught to encourage them to embrace our rich cultural heritage.

I am sure the youth will find that Enga traditional teachings were very much like teachings in the Holy Bible and our own Mama Loa or Constitution. Traditional teachings were necessary to contain people within the accepted norms, standards and teachings of traditional society. And our cultural artefacts added special meaning as well as Mali singsings, tee or trade exchanges, courting sessions etc etc..

Professor Weissner, Akii Tumu, the Education Division and the Enga Provincial Government must be applauded for taking the important step now to ensure continuity of Enga’s rich and varied cultures. The Hausman where such teachings took place is no longer there. And this cultural education program taught in the schools will be its equivalent.

The students ought to grasp this oportunity with both hands.

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