IN Samoa there are many people who recall, with only partly contrived awe, that some of their early national missionaries were eaten by New Guineans.
While holidaying there recently, I gladly explained to a few people who asked me about this event that “we ate only the bad ones”. But maybe I should not have been so glib.
It’s a relatively inoffensive question, I suppose. However the agenda the query relates to – reports that PNG people are unbaptized, uncivilized, tribal cannibals – is a familiar frustration to many of us.
We’ve been independent for more than four decades and still we get these “negative images / printed in the media” about our far gone past.
But there’s still this hazy image projecting itself through the mists of time and into the casual meet-and-greet conversations wherever Papua New Guineans roam abroad.
The Western media tells lies about cannibalism in PNG. The guy who ate a new born baby was actually possessed by an evil spirit. The burning of Leniata in the centre of a town market place was not an act of savagery because she was a Jezebel and the whole community witnessed it, and besides she wasn’t eaten. Mt Hagen town will rise from the ashes and ruins and become the Turkey of the highlands. God wills it!
If such news stories capture the attention of international media and social network audiences, then it is little wonder the cannibalism question also pops up in the casual remarks of folks in more elevated circles.
Turnbull: “Hey, Pete, your people aren’t going to eat me when I arrive in PNG are they?”
O’Neill: “No way bro. You’re not that appetising.”
Turnbull: “Oh, that’s good, I suppose. What about those boat people on Manus?”
O’Neill: “Nah, we can’t eat them because Roy Trivedy is watching. And I tell you what, after this year’s election mess nobody will have an appetite to eat any foreign body, except in the nicest possible way.”
Turnbull: “Pete, you’re a master theft, I mean chef.”
O’Neill: “Watch it mate. You never know who’s in my kitchen cabinet and not even God knows what I might cook up for you. We’ve just had some tribal fights too.”
In truth, most people do know the truth about cannibalism’s long past demise in PNG but those newsworthy tidbits are still an awfully interesting story with which to strike up a conversation.
I often enjoy those little engagements.
That said, our cannibal past did leave a lasting impression in the Samoan psyche and provided my visit there with a distinct and juicy flavour.
While the recollection of historical misadventure may provide a morbidly fascinating anecdote today, it does suggest to me that not much is known about the broader evolution of PNG over a number of generations.
We can help cure this unintentional ignorance by engaging in small talk and transitioning to bigger things.
For example, we can turn the conversation to the Kumuls. Oops, scratch that! It’s rugby union not rugby league that dominates in our island neighbours. And we’re not really in that league, er, union.
PNG on the other hand hosted the biggest and bestest Pacific Games ever, in the whole wide world of sport, ever. Bigly.
It cost bucket loads of money and generated for us, now hang on, we’re still awaiting official confirmation of that and who got how much for what.
I’m sure it must have been up there in the millions for paying off the billions. But anyway, the important thing is we won.
And, in our chat, we can remind our friends that PNG created the Bank of South Pacific, even though we still have to fly via Australia with a transit visa to get to Vanuatu or Samoa to see their local branches.
That’s nothing to do with cannibalism, by the way, despite what you may think of airline food.
Despite our low currency exchange rate and sagging national budget, PNG is the largest economy in the Pacific. And size matters. Ask Pete, our most vertically challenged big-man ever.
And we do get lots of money. We don’t see it, but we know it’s there. Pete spends it for us and borrows it for us too. But so long as there’s a BSP branch nearby, we all good. We got this. We also got 300 LNG ships and counting – “Go tell a passerby / that here by Spartan law we lie”, and lie.
On one occasion, when I took refuge in the National Library in Apia, the same never-ending negative trope seemed to follow me upstairs to the Pacific Collection. There the small delight I had taken in correcting fake cannibalism news and providing much needed alternative facts ended abruptly.
Relaxing in what I had thought was safety and sanctity going about my favourite pastime of exploring for poems, I came across an exhilarating book that led to hours of rambling, frustrated thought.
When reading the foreword to ‘Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea’, I took a step 37 years back in time and arrived exactly at where I am today. Nothing much had changed.
But, having contemplated Ulli Beier’s words of 1980, you decide:
Political events have obviously made a critical examination of colonialism less relevant. Instead, there is already disillusionment with the national government; its conservatism, its easy acceptance of foreign business, its timid stand towards Indonesia, and the resultant “betrayal” of the West Irian freedom fighters. Above all there is disillusionment with the power-hungry bureaucracy and the increasing pompousness and Westernization of the so-called elite.
The writer’s position has become more difficult and more ambiguous since independence. In the late sixties the young angry writers were seen as natural allies by Papua New Guinea’s politicians. The writers then helped them to form public opinion and political consciousness and exercised some influence on the stance of leading politicians. But now the government is sensitive to criticism, and many leading politicians fail to distinguish between issues and personalities.
Writers on the whole have been tolerated rather than encouraged. There are few intellectuals in parliament, and the leaders of the nation are pragmatic men not given to ideologies. Many of the younger people have found the government uninspiring and mildly unsympathetic to their own aims and ambitions, but they have not espoused alternative political ideologies. Mostly the writers have seen themselves as social critics rather than political rebels.
During the years since self-government many of them have taken an unsentimental look at their own communities, both rural and urban. The unflinching way in which many have learned to look at themselves is one of the healthiest symptoms of Papua New Guinea society today.
At least Ulli ended his foreword on a positive note and one on which I hope the writers, poets, essayists and novelists emerging through the Crocodile Prize also keep heading towards. Moreover, I sincerely hope our new crop of political leaders hear our voices.
We are not the disembodied echoes of a senseless state; we are the independent voices of a free nation.
'Voices of Independence – New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea', edited by Ulli Beier, 1980, St Martin’s Press New York