It has been claimed that the comment referred to in this piece, and which motivated it, was made by an impersonator - but this and other responses are legitimate and make worthwhile points, so are being retained - KJ
A SHORT while back I was somewhat affronted by a question cum comment, ‘What do all you lapuns in Australia know and care about Papua New Guinea?’
I was glad to see Phil Fitzpatrick’s quick short form response: ‘…because many of us devoted significant periods of our lives there.’
That seemed to be the end of the matter: a pertinent question asked; a response offered.
On reflection, however, I believe there’s more to be considered.
I realised that it was not the question that Sonja asked that provoked me, but the apparent sarcasm with which it was delivered – as judged by the ensuing responses from Sonja and others.
I don’t know Sonja, and I daresay that there are plenty of other Papua New Guineans who share her view of us lapuns, so I’m in no position to ascertain the reasons for her apparent cynicism.
I would like to know why, nevertheless.
That aside, the question remains: what do we lapuns know about PNG?
At one level, a fair bit; judging from the articles and commentaries from my colleagues on PNG Attitude.
As obvious as this sounds a great deal of our contemporary knowledge comes from channels like PNG Attitude and other PNG-related blogs where we keep up to date and learn from respected Papua New Guinean contributors and our lapun colleagues.
We certainly wouldn’t learn or know much if we relied on the Australian news media.
Some of us would claim this is backed up (and influenced) by the knowledge we gained during years of experience of living and working in PNG.
But there’s a deeper element in Sonja’s question and which may be the source of her apparent cynicism: what do we mean by ‘know’?
The French, in their typically elegant manner, resolve this question by using two different words: connaitre - to know/know about, and savez - to understand.
And if we reframe Sonja’s question to: What do we lapuns understand about PNG, there’s a fair case to be made that we may well understand far less than we know.
In the Pauline sense, we may have lived ‘in PNG’, but we were never ‘of PNG’, and we interpreted much of what we saw and experienced through a Western intellectual and cultural prism – and continue to do so.
This certainly does not delegitimise our contributions to the debates and commentaries about PNG affairs: our views remain valid, informed and enriched by our individual and collective experience and, above all, they are well-intentioned, they are observations from friends.
We can but hope that Sonja and her ilk will bear this in mind.
Why we care is a somewhat more complex matter.
The fact that we devoted a significant portion of our lives serving in PNG goes only part way in explaining why we care in the way that we do.
I spent the majority of my working life in academia in various parts of the world and, while I have fond memories of most of that time and retain some connections with former colleagues, I care only marginally, if at all, about what’s happening in the colleges and universities in which I toiled.
PNG remains, as Trevor Shearston put it so eloquently, ‘in the blood’.
For the past 30 plus years I’ve been trying to understand and explain to myself why I do care so much about PNG. I gave up a long time ago trying to explain to others who had not served in PNG.
Some of the reasons and explanations I’ve canvassed include the following.
Firstly, when I first arrived in PNG, I was, at 20 years of age, young, naïve and immature - in a physical and cognitive developmental sense, and in the ways of the adult world.
Those early years of service were, then, my rite of passage, my initiation, if you like, into adulthood and, as such, have left a deep, lasting intellectual and emotional attachment to that time and place and the people with whom and for whom I served.
Secondly, my motivations for going to PNG were, at their core, idealistic.
While a sense of adventure, doing something quite different from my peers and escaping the routines of suburban Australian life were also contributing factors, the opportunity to do some good for others was certainly one of my primary motivations – even if they were tinged by more than a semblance of paternalism.
Thirdly, and as arrogant as it sounds, I thought that, through teaching young Papua New Guineans, I was helping in some small way to build a nation and help PNG acquire political and economic independence.
Those latter thoughts were rarely, if ever, at the forefront of my mind during the nearly 10 years I spent in PNG: I was too engrossed in the daily grind of my work, study and social pursuits to pay any overt attention to them.
And it was through those pursuits that I forged numerous connections and friendships with Papua New Guineans and, through them, acquired a modicum of understanding about the Melanesian way of life.
Until the election of the Whitlam government, I shared the commonly held but misplaced view that PNG’s political independence was probably a decade or more away.
When it came, and like many others, I accepted the TE Lawrence view of the world which, in modified form, circulated throughout Konedobu at the time: ‘Better that they do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their country, and you are to help them, not to do it for them. Actually, under the very odd conditions of Papua New Guinea, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.’
And that remains my view today.
So, like my lapun colleagues, I have observed PNG’s progress and development closely, with fluctuating surges of pride, joy, disappointment and occasional despair.
I have felt so because I did play a role, however small, I did forge connections and friendships and I continue to do so, and I continue to want the very best for the people of PNG.
That’s why I care, Sonja.