WHILE the author of the winning short story in the 2012 Crocodile Prize never again graced the competition, the author of the winning essay, Emma Wakpi, continued to offer some great reading, including a contribution to My Walk to Equality.
And, like Martyn Namorong’s winning essay in 2011, Emma’s thoughts continue to resonate and are as relevant today as they were when the essay was written.
Her theme is one that has been discussed, perhaps less eloquently, by many of the writers appearing in PNG Attitude or contributing entries to the Crocodile Prize.
And this is the problem and effects of integrating old, and often restrictive and damaging traditional beliefs and customs, into modern Papua New Guinean society.
The dilemma of how to sort out and retain the good bits and discard the bad, dysfunctional bits that continue to haunt society.
Upon returning from overseas, as an intelligent woman Emma saw the way many of these traditional ways inhibit equality of the sexes and create fear among Papua New Guinean women, including herself.
Beyond that she also sees how these beliefs are holding back Papua New Guinea as a nation, and impeding its progress towards modernity and a better life for both men and women.
I WAS once told that often beneath the veneer of great beauty and wealth of Papua New Guinea are hidden insatiable debaucheries that destroy. They are manifested in various forms that seem harmless at first but which eventually, if not checked and corrected, will overpower and devastate.
It’s five a.m. and we’re landing in Port Moresby. I look out of the plane window and watch the wakening sun tinge the rising mist a soft gold. I am home after two weeks of workshops in Manila.
As I get up and collect my gear I remember the chivalrous gestures of strangers there; men who opened doors for me, who got up to offer me seats on public transport, male friends who grabbed shopping bags from my hands, carrying them for me - acts that seemed as natural as breathing to them but which made a world of difference to me, giving me a sense of worth and security.
Their courteous recognition gratified and prompted me to also want to treat others with respect. The pleasure which this memory evokes makes me smile and it gets broader at the feeling of belonging that is washing over me as I am surrounded by familiar imagery and faces. Going through Customs I grin at my wantoks, say a good morning and make my way outside. However once outside I lose the grin and file away the memories, for I must now contend with the dawn of my reality.
The light hearted, carefree feeling is slowly rising up out of me like the mist clearing on the tarmac and wariness sets in. My mind and body move into auto pilot.
Careful Emma, smile briefly at those guys, say a quick good morning - keep your eyes down, walk steadily, act like you know the place - it’s your territory, stride confidently but ooze humbleness - pretend you’re brushing lint off your shoulder and steal a covert glance, to make sure no one is following, none look too threatening, okay breathe – walk – smile - you’re fine, you’ve reached your destination – you’re safe.
Until I have to detach myself from that secure zone and stealthily make my way to another. “Welcome home,” I whisper to myself, “This is your life.” I love my country, I love my people, but I am haunted; and I am wary oh so wary.
There is a menacing overbearing presence that haunts my being every time I step away from my safe zones of home, family, friends and work. Its clammy tentacles reach out and tunnel deep into my heart and mind and it tries its best to strangle any goodwill I might have toward the faceless populace surrounding my peripheries. Sometimes it’s very obscure, at other times it screams its presence - it wants to possess me, infiltrate my very core and define me by its standards.
It not only haunts me. The entire nation groans and is slowly suffocating beneath its smothering presence. This haunting seems to be rising from within the core of Papua New Guinea, surreptitiously extending its tentacles into every aspect of society and manifesting itself in various forms; whole mountains are being unceremoniously hacked to pieces, river systems defecated upon in the name of prosperity and local people elbowed aside and ridiculed as uncivilised, then officiously patronized through ‘programs’ and ‘projects’ and other various handouts to placate dissenting voices that might have echoes of truth.
It causes the country, pregnant with untapped intelligence and aptitude to prematurely abort its potentials and to term them ‘failures’ haughtily condemning them to the fringes of society. Law and justice are also slowly being strangled by the grip of these clammy tentacles and the nation is slowly being brought to its knees.
There has to be a way to exorcise this ‘haunting’ before it casts me forever into the abyss of despair and chokes the life out of this nation.
How can I fight an enemy I can’t see and can’t understand? I know it manifests itself in various forms and it that have me hacking away at them but where is its source and how can I clearly identify it in order to exorcise it? The only clue that I have is that it seems to be reverberating from within the core of this country - its people - including me.
As I step out of my safe zones, I fight the fear within me and rather than rushing past the faceless mass, I now force myself to take the time to look, listen and mingle. As I do this, I notice that amid the war cries, screams and moaning echoing around me a soft hypnotic chant weaves itself in and out of every society and ethnic group within this country. It is so glaringly obvious, it goes unnoticed - the haunting is me – it is you; us…
Imprinted deep within my psyche are a set of beliefs that if allowed will ply me until I manifest its decrees with detrimental consequences to myself and the society at large. Throughout this vast country there are core beliefs that seem to be common to all, whether educated or not – from highlands to coast to islands, whether male or female, young or old.
The haunting chants out incessantly from within us. Men are of more value than women – true, true, true. Animistic beliefs are real – true, true, true. Might is right and Big Man mentality rules – true, true, true. Fatalism is a way of life that cannot be changed – true, true, true. Promiscuity and lies are a way of life – true, true, true.
And I listen, and you listen and we allow it to possess and hypnotise us, becoming slaves who stomp rhythmically to its chants until we are jarred awake by some incident that pricks at our conscience. Yet the wave of the chant carries us forward in a death grip marching us toward the precipice to throw us into an abyss of hopelessness that is the manifestation of these chants – AIDS, violence, drug abuse, political upheaval, tribal warfare, police brutality etc., etc.
I realise it is futile to hack away at the manifestations that the haunting produces if I don’t address the root beliefs ingrained in me since birth. I must dig deep into the recesses of my heart and mind and pry away the grip of the cursed chant – I must uproot it in order to exorcise it. I cannot let a belief system that is destroying me and my country dictates my life. I have to think for myself and question whether what is ‘pasin’ is really right.
I must sing a new song of hope and strength – my war cry, ‘men and women are of equal value – true, true, true; science and education will enlighten – true, true, true; humility and integrity will achieve respect – true, true, true; where there is a will there is a way- life can get better – true, true, true; family stability and unconditional love can birth a fulfilling life – true, true, true!
Until I am sure that I have dealt with all these issues that haunt me, I cannot point fingers and lay the blame on others because how I live and interact within the greater society contributes to its overall wellbeing.
Jarred from my death march I fight to break free. I’m struggling against the masses and at times almost trampled underfoot but continue to elbow through, and will do so until I die. I cannot accept this reality and march with the horde – life is too short and I don’t want to live it out in fear and despair. I must fight.
As I resist and raise my war cry against the chant I hear faint echoes of it rising up from every direction. Struggling to catch a glimpse I find faces among the throng and as we sight each other, understanding dawns and strength is garnered anew and we turn back to resume our stance and to struggle on. I will continue to raise my voice against the chant and keep forging my way, I glimpse hope….
Beliefs beget behaviours resulting in the consequences for the society we live in today. I am told that my country is a beautiful and wealthy country, rich in culture and natural resources. What really lies beneath its surface?