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The state of writing in PNG today – the way I see it


PAPUA New Guinea’s writers patiently wait their turn to one day hit the limelight. Surely it will happen.

We have already witnessed so much raw talent emerging from sport, music and other artistic pursuits that our writers must one day achieve success after being exposed on the national and international stage.

Our government has built modern stadiums and training facilities and provides cash incentives for athletes who win gold medals – the type of support required for success.

The PNG Hunters have lifted rugby league’s profile Queensland’s Intrust Super Cup competition – a prelude to delivering an even bigger international presence. Much new talent has been exposed and contracts are already being signed with other Australian teams as well as the English Super League.

When CHM Super Sound started recording songs in Rabaul, previously unknown local artists exploded onto the music scene and continue to jam the airwaves with new releases, capturing and captivating national audiences.

Our artists and carvers have long occupied an important place in the public and private galleries of the world – recognised and applauded for the power and beauty of what they produce.

Such achievements promote pride and unity and embellish the PNG brand in the eyes of people everywhere. They contribute to the government’s hopes to make PNG a prosperous middle income country by 2030 and a world leader in sustainable development.

But too often the writers get overlooked. In fact, they are mostly overlooked.

I believe our poets, journalists, essayists, commentators and authors can also contribute towards archiving the government’s objectives particularly in terms of education, communication and the preservation of our rich cultural heritage.

I am not a singer, I’ve never been a good sportsman nor am I a businessman. I can write. But there is little or no government support for that.

If it wasn’t for PNG Attitude, the Crocodile Prize and the new McKinnon - Paga Hill Fellowship - Francis Nii, Martyn Namorong and I would not be attending the Brisbane Writer’s Festival and establishing contacts with our Australian counterparts.

Since its inception in 2011, the Crocodile Prize has exposed, recognised, rewarded and – through Pukpuk Publications – published PNG’s writing talent. Generous cash prizes have been forthcoming and hundreds and hundreds of books of PNG writing have been distributed throughout our country.

The depth of talent is evident in the five thick anthologies of PNG writing produced each year since 2011.

Accompanying this resurgence, we have seen many full length books appear: novels, collections of poetry and short stories, children’s books, political tracts and travel memoirs.

More than 40 titles have been published by Pukpuk Publications in just a few years. But sales are not encouraging. Distribution, the last link in the chain before purchase, is almost non-existent.

If one or two copies of my three books on Amazon are bought in any month, it gives me a sense of having produced something worthy. But nobody in PNG can make a living from writing where literacy is low and a reading culture not fully established.

At the same time, I detect sophistication in the writing style of a younger generation of writers as evidenced by articles and essays published in PNG Attitude. I suspect many of them have attended international schools in PNG or attained their education overseas. The fluency of English spoken by such people is also obvious on NBC, FM radio stations, TVWAN and EMTV.

But, as it is, the state of PNG literature is very poor. Not enough people are reading and writing. The schools are not encouraging students to read and write. There are few libraries. Hardly a bookshop. Few properly trained English teachers. University students struggling to write essays.

These are all nagging concerns of me and my colleagues as we prepare to attend the annual Brisbane Writers Festival next week.

I have a proposal.

On 11 December 2013, Australian and Papua New Guinean ministers agreed that Australia would undertake an assessment of its aid investment in PNG. They hoped this would better align Australia's aid to address constraints to sustainable economic growth and equitable development in PNG.

It was noted that, even though PNG’s economy had grown strongly, the resources boom had not led to sustained development outcomes. PNG continued to lack proper infrastructure and its health, education and justice sector services were poor, hindering economic development and social stability.

I would suggest that, through its annual aid package, Australia consider improving the literacy of Papua New Guineans by recruiting Australian English teachers and lecturers both as contract officers or volunteers and placing them in high schools, secondary schools and universities.

I know that in my own province of Enga, students get good marks in all subjects except English. How can a teacher who cannot comprehend English teach the subject to students in educational institutions in the province?

A recommendation made at a ministerial forum in 2012 stated that Australia should focus its investment in literacy, technical skills, better quality tertiary institutions and an enhanced teaching and health workforce.

“Australian Aid should support improvements in the quality of education by investing in teachers and school infrastructure enabling more school leavers to be literate and capable of engagement in the cash economy,” it said.

Taking this recommendation into consideration, would it be hard for Australia to recruit English teachers from its own country and place them in PNG schools? Their pay could be drawn from its annual aid funds intended for ‘literacy and better quality tertiary institutions development’.

Good English teachers are what Papua New Guinean students desire most. If they can master the English language, they can read and write more fluently and publish more books, some of which might prove to be national or international best sellers.

And there will be more educated people in the country who will want to buy and read more books written by other Papua New Guineans.


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Paul Waugla Wii

There were two groups of English speakers in Australia even in the 1990s. The majority spoke this type of English that we refer to as standard or learned English while a handful particularly in the outback communicated in a variance of English that I personally found repulsive.

If you wish to speak, read and write in a manner that is worthy in the eyes of the custodians of the English language, you have to go to school and be exposed to the language.

And yes, Mr Kumbon you have a valid point there. School children in PNG, unlike elsewhere in the world, are only exposed to English in the classroom and therefore the competency of the teacher can and does have a bearing on their learning in the long run.

Daniel Kumbon

Rashmii, I don't think there are many suitably qualified Papua New Guinean English teachers in the country to go round to all the overcrowded High Schools, Secondary Schools and Universities/colleges.

I don't know about other provinces, but in Enga the students desperately require English teachers. Iam sure Australian English teachers would lift the standard of both written and spoken English levels in the province.

Our newly formed Enga Writers Association would benefit greatly from committed contracted or volunteer English teachers if such a scheme was in place.

Rashmii Bell

Good article, Daniel.

My only thought is that instead of Australian teachers, why not employ suitably qualified Papua New Guineans who have received their education in similar settings and are as equal proficient (or more) in English?

Of course, the expectation would be that the Papua New Guineans must be paid the same salary their Australian counterparts would be under the Aid scheme. It's what's fair and right.

Philip G Kaupa

Daniel, you saw it very well... All the best of luck to you and your team to Aussie. We will wait in hope for some deliverance.

Jimmy Awagl

Advantage of Purchasing Books

Books are bank of knowledge
They are readable
It’s an intellectual contribution
The writer’s thought expressed
Their experiences recorded
Written in a contextualized manner
Through the use of words
As a life time record
Setting is entirely PNG
Characters are PNG names
The local authors are considerate
To contribute immensely for PNG literature
Their writing is their talent
Could be a hobby
To make money
Money is employment
Buying books is employment
In order to keep writers busy writing
The trend will nourish PNG literature
Literature is nation building
Readers will discover the unknown
Because of contextualize relevancy
Can captivate and motivate
Can expose local knowledge
Preserve the cultural heritage
By recording the past recounts
As a medium of communication
Between the writer and a reader
Why not buy a book
And educate another Papua New Guinean

arthur williams

Hi Daniel.
Shall never forget a local mother in Cardiff proud of her child's achievement in English. She said, “If yous speaks good English yours kids speaks it too!”

Seriously though I believe your proposal is worthy of consideration by the Government especially the Department of Education.

In my College days in the 1960s and being in Wales that had just seen the first ever Welsh Nationalist MP elected we were asked to write a thesis on Bilingualism. I will never forget investigating the then hot topic and indeed it remains so to this day. One expert had researched the topic and his conclusion, that I appreciated but which my Welsh lecturer disliked, was that monoglots achieved higher marks in their language than did bilingual children in either of their languages.

I tend to still agree with that and can see why when some schools in Wales teach through the medium of Welsh from Grade 1 to Grade 12 quite a large number of the students from those schools are never able to practice Welsh at home because either one or even both parents do not speak Welsh at all or may not have fluency in Welsh so prefer to use English. Two of my grand children experienced exactly that problem. I believe the same applies throughout rural PNG where the language at home is either Tok Ples or perhaps even Tok Pisin if one of the parents comes from another language tribe. Poor little Passingan or Mary has a real problem in practicing his English skills apart from school time.

Can never forget being with a two elite university graduates from my wife's island and was amazed to hear them speaking in Pidgin. Were they perhaps intimidated by me being a first language English speaker and so scared to show their personal skills in my language? I don't know.

So your proposal could be deemed to failure because the children despite being exposed to well educated English speaking teachers would be up against the problem of their not hearing English away from their school's ethos.

Alas it seems the only answer to the problems you have highlighted is the passage of time. The government's Free Education policy has meant many more children are being exposed to English than ever so that even if they fail to continue into secondary or tertiary education they are taking that language skill home with them. This should eventually benefit future generations and lead to better English language usage.

One way of enhancing their language skill is to have available a well stocked and well managed school library. I cried when I went home to Lavongai in 2007 and saw the run down, empty shelved Taskul Government station school with rat droppings and cockroaches feasting on the scattered remains of a basic reading room. We managed to get it repaired and with help from Kavieng Rotarians obtained some books for it and a few other libraries. However what was given so generously was a mere drop in the ocean.

In 2008 the provincial library in Kavieng, that should have been a centre for literacy of both adults and children, was staggering to an unfunded decay with some books on its shelves having been there from the 1970s. I see from a recent press report that the government is hoping to try to reopen the now closed provincial libraries but ignoring those provinces which have never had a library.. Every year we see 'National Book Day' that to outsiders would suggest our educationalists and MPs really care about the language skills of the next generation. But it is mere window dressing. The deterioration of this vital aspect of English language improvement has been neglected for far too long by all governments as they cater for prestige projects or funds from DSIP disappear into corrupt pockets.

The advent of the mobile phone and social websites seems to be making the language problem worse rather than better. Recently one of my grandsons text my daughter but she and I were hard put to understand the meaning of his sentences or rather part-clauses. Perhaps I am wrong then in claiming a future for traditional libraries. Rather PNG should be embracing the digital age and using solar power to get children reading far more proper English in their rural schools and/or homes with cheap computers.

Back here in Wales the education authorities are also worried about the poor standards of both oral and written English and don't forget they have first language English teachers in their schools. It has reached such a state that nearly all students in vocational and technical college are forced to improve their skills in English and Maths. Indeed in England it is compulsory to resit both subjects if you fail to get a pass in your initial secondary school examinations at Grade 10.

It seems to be a universal problem so anything that can improve it in PNG should be considered.

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