PORT MORESBY - “Papua New Guinea, mmm, is that somewhere in Africa?” said my new friend from Gambia after I introduced myself over dinner.
At the same table were colleagues from Thailand, Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria; all of us attending a three-week technical program on green energy and technology in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I wondered if my Gambian friend had difficulties with geography during his schooldays, since I was quite good with the atlas and could name the capital cities of a hundred countries before I finished primary school.
Anyway, he had a master’s degree in public policy and I didn’t, so he wasn’t academically deficient.
Perhaps his ignorance was because PNG isn’t a rich and powerful country and not big in the mass media.
There are perceptible differences between us and Africans. For example, I’m light brown and don’t have a soccer-ball shaped face. Better looking than an African, right?
But then, history tells us that the island of New Guinea was named after Guinea in Africa. So I don’t really blame him for the misunderstanding.
In fact, his was a common mistake. Several of the people I came across during my time in Malaysia thought Papua New Guinea was somewhere in Africa. But they knew where Australia, New Zealand and Fiji were located.
I explained what we all know - that PNG shares a land border with Indonesia and is just above Australia.
“Ah, rugby league,” my Gambian friend remarked after getting his head around it.
Yes, rugby league. The State of Origin game is broadcast in over 90 countries. Australia has also given us Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, Crocodile Dundee and Waltzing Mathilda. It has television channels that are viewed in Asia and Africa. That’s how far propaganda can go. Don’t get me wrong. I love Australians, especially Jessica Mauboy.
It may interest you that Malaysia once faced a similar dilemma. Their prime minister at the time was annoyed that other world leaders had no idea about Malaysia but knew Singapore, a tiny island state off the southern tip of Malaysia.
So in the 1990’s the PM decided to build the tallest twin tower in the world. These days, Malaysia is a popular tourist destination and one of the top 30 richest countries. You should have ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ on your bucket list of places to visit someday if you haven’t been there already.
Back at the dinner table I told my friends that Port Moresby (where I live and work) has a population of almost a million, almost the size of Auckland and much bigger than Cairns. I also repeated Peter O’Neill’s words that we have “world class” stadiums, a “world class” games village and a “world class” aquatic centre.
When I said PNG has a population of almost eight million, my friend was like ‘wow, that’s a big country!’ Gambia has a population 1.8 million.
We’ve hosted several international sporting events and major conferences in the last two years and in November will co-host the rugby league world cup with the APEC meeting to follow next year. We need that infrastructure that meets international standards.
Perhaps, we should build the tallest tower in the Pacific region and really show that the economic giant of the south-west Pacific has awoken from its slumber.