Where Am I From?
The Papua New Guinea echo

A plane of weary & somewhat despondent equivalency

NT-abuse-of-teens-in-detention (ABC)CHRIS OVERLAND

I HAVE just returned from a week spent in Alice Springs in central Australia. I went there with some reluctance because I find the town profoundly depressing.

It is in this context that I am compelled to reflect upon the words of Rashmii Bell, who once again has favoured us with an intelligent and thoughtful article.

Alice Springs is full of indigenous Australians with nothing to do and nowhere to do it. Amongst those who live in what is called the "town camp", alcohol and drug abuse is rife and violence, especially against women, is endemic.

Most depressing of all, the children are often subject to sexual abuse, absenteeism from school is normal and effective parenting frequently non-existent.

These people are truly fringe dwellers in their own country.

Enormous resources have been and continue to be devoted to the remote indigenous communities in what have so far proved to be vain attempts to ameliorate the worst excesses of what are very dysfunctional communities.

Huge sums of money and vast amounts of goodwill have produced few positive results. There are large numbers of burnt out and despondent doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, child protection workers and police, whose idealism has been crushed under the sheer weight of their experience working in these communities.

I mention this because, as Rashmii rightly observes, Australia has a simply woeful record in dealing with its indigenous community.

The very recent emergence of evidence of the astonishing brutality in the Northern Territory's juvenile justice system [photo] is just the latest ghastly example of how badly we are doing.

The Australian Way, whatever it is, clearly is not doing much good for many indigenous people.

The granting of land rights, the issuing of formal apologies for past sins, the solemn intoning of acknowledgements of traditional land owners, the relentless promotion of indigenous culture and granting of large amounts of compensation have seemingly done little or nothing to help. 

Despite our manifest failures, however, I do not think that we can or should be disqualified from pointing out the failings of others, especially the venal, corrupt and incompetent Papua New Guinea government.

It is a government that is failing not merely one comparatively small part of the community, but the whole of it.

The Melanesian Way, whatever it is, is clearly doing no good for the vast majority of Papua New Guineans.

A major qualitative difference between the circumstances of indigenous Australians and Papua New Guineans is that the latter are truly in charge of their own destiny. The colonial past is but a distant memory for a rapidly declining number of people: most only know an independent PNG.

So, while I accept Rashmii's proposition that I and others can appear to be commenting from a "plane of superiority" about PNG, I am not sure we actually are doing so.

We are aware of our own foibles and failings which, I think, someone speaking from a "plane of superiority" would not be.

Rather, my impression is that we tend to comment from a "plane of weary and somewhat despondent equivalency", wishing fervently that PNG should not repeat the common mistakes and misjudgments that have blighted so much of the post-colonial world, let alone some of our home-grown disasters.

If our words are sometimes harsh, I hope that Rashmii and others will accept that our hearts are in the right place. 


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Cultures obviously change over time William but nowhere near as dramatically as western culture did with the industrial revolution, which was essentially the rise of money as culture.

Aboriginal culture in Australia is supposed to be the oldest culture on earth but it has always been a dynamic one constantly altering as people 'dreamed' new aspects of it.

I would bet, however, that the culture of any group in PNG a thousand years ago would have closely resembled the same culture just prior to European contact. Contrast that to the cultural change that has taken place over the last 100-200 years and you cannot help not conclude that it has been rapid, destructive and traumatic.

Lindsay F Bond

Where in the world were invaders celebrated for altruistic accommodation of original inhabiters (so-called first peoples), or yet are today?

William Robinson

The two resident philosophers (Philip Fitz and Paul Oates) speak as though change in a culture is a phenomenon/ revolution/ shock/ all of the above.

I cannot think of one culture/ society that has remained in the precise condition it was formed 14,000 years earlier.

Take any culture/society and build a 10m concrete wall around it and lock it up for 10,000 years, and I'll bet a slab of lamb flaps that it will have changed - for better or worse - but it will have changed.

Has human culture/ society remained steadfastly static since the dawn of human culture 120,000 years ago ?

With modern cultures, significant change is occurring daily, but the good thing about daily change is that it generally lasts just the day.

PNG has to change, regardless of the romanticism of the early anthropologists and their modern day followers.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The problem is Paul that few of the benefits of the modern world seem to get to indigenous and marginalised people. This is true in both Australia and PNG.

Also, cultural preservation doesn't necessarily relate to sitting around campfires yarning and hunting for food with a spear. It is entirely possible to retain strong cultural links and enjoy the benefits of the modern world at the same time. The people I work with in Hervey Bay are evidence of this. They live in nice houses, send their kids to school and involve themselves in traditional cultural activities.

Aboriginal culture, as it is in many parts of PNG, is a spiritual thing, not a material one. People drive Landcruisers to go and maintain their sacred sites - nothing wrong with that, they'd be dumb to walk.

John K Kamasua

And thanks to all of you our Australian friends and wantoks for helping us to echo our voices further.

For PNG talking and highlighting issues are even better than if we just remained silent and give free rein to those who are just hell bent of destroying this country.

A voice is better than no voice!!

John K Kamasua

Phil, just recently PNG appeared to be flushed with cash. As you correctly point out, a lot of money (or even a bucket full of it) is not necessarily a good thing. Or cannot be the answer to problems.

PNG went on a spending spree, on the sports complexes and stadiums (ironically some of them still have temporary structures) after costs were exaggerated or inflated, other transport infrastructures (costing the state a fortune (with the cost of some of them alleged to have been inflated above normal) to cater for the middle man.

The Aborigine problem is quite different to the "PNG problem."

Ours is related to wilful and corruptly destroying our institutions and systems through outright corruption.

Paul Oates

While I understand and empathise with your sentiments Phil, most people have to be realistic and decide what is possible and what is not.

Most of us would like to sit around the camp fire and share yarns but realise that without our modern world's benefits, most of us wouldn't last too long if we did. If we were then to depend on how we could hunt or grow all our food and look after our families I can't see that cultural regression becoming too attractive.

Can you preserve a culture without turning your back on the benefits of modern civilization?

Therein lies the dilemma.

Philip Fitzpatrick

One of the things that I have brought away from my experience working with Aboriginal people is that if you destroy, intentionally or otherwise, a society's culture you will inevitably destroy that society.

This has pretty much completely happened in Aboriginal societies but there is also an element of the same thing in Papua New Guinean societies.

In my own country of Eire the old Celtic culture was severely damaged by British invasion. That, I think, provided a large part of the resistance to British rule. A revival of sorts has occurred in Ireland since independence but a lot was lost and a lot had to be re-created in a form that may not be consistent with the original.

The irony of this cultural destruction by colonialism is that it wasn't necessary. Ireland would have done quite well without the British and, no doubt, Papua New Guinea would be a different place if the German, British and Australian annexations hadn't taken place.

The only sin of Australia, Ireland and Papua New Guinea and all those other colonised places prior to colonalisation is that they were exploitable by greedy neighbours and capitalist orientated states.

When you say that people trot out the old argument that if it hadn't been us it would have been someone else who took over and they might not have been so sanguine. That has some relevance I suppose but if those invading entities hadn't been what they were they wouldn't have done it anyway.

When you look at modern day Papua New Guinea you can see the full blown effects of colonisation in the towns and urban areas but out in the sticks there is something resembling the old pre-colonial Papua New Guinea, sadly without its broader cultural base.

That part of Papua New Guinea is the real Papua New Guinea and it is well worth saving. The other, in places like Port Moresby, is a dysfunctional hybrid mess.

I know which Papua New Guinea I prefer.

Paul Oates

Phil, I suspect what all people want is an identity they feel happy with. The problem in today's society is that the traditional identity of tribal people doesn't mesh with today's values or today's population pressures.

The second question is far more easier to understand and explain. Our political leaders are in fact not leaders at all. We don't as a nation really want leaders since they are people who want to get thing done. Now why do I suddenly feel a waft of some distant memory floating past?

It's far easier to elect politicians who spout BS but in fact have no or little idea of how to actually lead since they have never been in circumstances where they actually have to lead people through deeds as well as words.

It's far easier to quote financial figures and not be held responsible for actions. i.e. 'What are you doing about this problem of etc........?

'Well last year we spent $500 million.'

'Yes, but what did you achieve with this money?'

'Err Exactly what do you mean achieve? I've already told what we have spent.'

Emi no komput Aiting

Philip Fitzpatrick

When I returned from Papua New Guinea in 1974 I got a job with the South Australian Museum working with Aboriginal people in the remote Pitjantjatjara lands.

The Museum made the mistaken assumption that if I had worked in PNG I was ideally suited to work with Aboriginal groups. I must admit I thought the same thing until I actually got on the ground out in the desert.

The two peoples couldn't have been further apart. In terms of polarity I gauged myself and the Papua New Guineans at one end and the Aborigines at the other end.

I worked with tribalised men who still actively retained all of their traditions and were practising them. They were a coherent group that felt at one with their environment and I enjoyed working with them. But they were a threatened species.

Within a generation they were mostly all gone and their traditions with them. What replaced it was horrifying and was very similar to what you have described here. A people without a cause or a soul.

Over the years since I've watched bucket loads of money being pumped into these places to no avail. I even watched some of the old men desperately try to bring back the old ways but the younger generation wouldn't have a bar of it.

The government was taking desert nomads whose soul material wealth consisted of a woomera and a few spears and putting them into prefabricated houses and they wondered why they burnt holes in the floor and smashed the windows to let the desert air inside.

We in the west seem to have developed this attitude that everything can be solved with money. Throw enough of the stuff at a problem and it will fix itself.

This has been the most significant element in how Australia deals with its indigenous people. They don't seem to realise that they don't want our money, they want something else from us. What that is cannot easily be put into words.

In all my years working with Aboriginal people, and I'm still at it, I've never understood what makes them work and I doubt whether anyone else does, including themselves.

Bu Aborigines, even though they come from the same stock, ain't Papua New Guineans, far from it.

Rashmii's comment about Australia and PNG having become despondent in their relationship struck me as being very true.

Our relationship with our indigenous people probably doesn't even exist.

`Robin Lillicrapp

Yes, our words may be somewhat critical but hope is alive for the emergence of a more reasoned and optimistic leadership; here as well as there.

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