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Privilege, tokenism & acknowledgement: a cautionary tale


BRISBANE - Lola Olufemi, women’s officer of Cambridge University’s student union, was amongst a group of students who recently, co-signed an open letter to the university’s English Department criticising a prescribed reading list dominated by white male authors.

The letter requested the ‘decolonisation’ of the English literature syllabus by giving the same moral and intellectual consideration to include black, minority and ethnic authors.

The London Telegraph gave front-page coverage to the letter, singling out Lola Olufemi’s photograph from amongst the collective petitioners and reframing the story to suit the newspaper’s right wing agenda.

As a result of the press coverage, Ms Olufemi endured a torrent of racist and gendered abuse.

Co-signatory, student Isadora Dooley Hunter, said, “People react negatively because it makes them feel uncomfortable but you need to make people feel uncomfortable for them to address their privilege.”

Privilege - a notion so universal, and discussed and debated at the turn of each second.


In Papua New Guinea, the lack of personal finance, absence of benefactors and the lack of an influential network enabling access to donor-funding are significant factors hindering the development of a thriving public literary culture.

Despite this, though, there is an awe-inspiring number of indigenous writers. They scramble to be published, their endeavours largely unrecognised nationally.

One result of this is that the authorship of the literature that is available in Papua New Guinea is predominantly Caucasian.

This applies to stories about our history not just contemporary affairs. In the context of the nation’s war history, including the notorious Kokoda Track Campaign, the stories have been and continue to be told by white male authors.


Earlier this year, I was invited by the Kokoda Track Foundation as a volunteer, to deliver a work which I believed would contribute to the glacial increase in the number of published writings by Papua New Guinea’s women writers.

I saw this as an opportunity to make visible the position of Papua New Guinean girls and women in transcribing our nation’s history.

It was a mammoth task which I developed from a sparse brief provided by the Foundation. There was also an abbreviated timeframe: just two days assigned for me to deliver a workshop then gather content in Kou Kou, Oro Province.

The outcome was to produce a children’s story on Kokoda, a task I completed well ahead of schedule despite the short time frame.

The Foundation was aware of and confident in my ability to do this as in May this year I had delivered a gender-equality themed book workshop to students of Sefoa Primary School, also in Oro Province.

And this project had come straight after the Foundation’s observation of the successful publication of My Walk to Equality.

So, at the end of all this, the children’s book was recently published. It was my work and I’m proud of all of it - from research through every developmental step, including the workshop, to providing the book with its title, ‘Butterflies along the Track’.

As a Papua New Guinean woman writer, this opportunity was one I valued and naturally I strove to maximise both my own experience and the elevation of the Papua New Guinean voice, particularly that of girls and women, it offered.

I tried as best I could to capture that authenticity as well as the narrative of the Kokoda Track Campaign in ‘Butterflies along the Track’.

Subsequently I was upset and offended when it was claimed the story was written by school students and that I was attributed the role of “co-author” and thanked for my “artistic guidance”. Offensive and also grossly inaccurate.

There was my title on the book’s cover with no space afforded for my name. I felt exploited.

I also felt that the Kokoda Track Foundation had somehow misappropriated my intellectual property and talent to suit its agenda. It was such a far cry from the mateship between Australians and Papua New Guineans that the book sought to commemorate and celebrate.

Instead I felt that ‘Butterflies along the Track’ had become a by-product of the subtle flexing of white privilege publicly paraded as ‘development’ in PNG.


My experience begs several questions. Would the same outcome have transpired if an Australian writer had led the project? Would an Australian writer have done what I did on an unpaid voluntary-basis? Would an Australian writer accept not having their authorship recognised on the front cover, alongside the badge of the organisation that commissioned the work?

It has not evaded me that speaking out like this will influence my future literary collaborative work with some organisations and institutions operating in Papua New Guinea.

That is a price I must be prepared to pay for my revelation of how this project was wrought.

I feel I ran into a notion of ‘privilege’ in bilateral relations that excluded me and paid higher tribute to the better endowed social entrepreneurial desire to further a presence in a developing nation.

With the wisdom granted by hindsight, I take full responsibility for my naivety in acting only with good faith as my guide.

I accepted ad hoc processes, lack of expertise and other flaws because I was confident in my ability to deliver. My failure to demand a contractual agreement outlining the specific terms and conditions of my work was a lesson learnt the hard way.

In saying all that, however, I have consistently acknowledged and publicly expressed gratitude to the Kokoda Track Foundation for providing me with the opportunity to travel to and spend time with the people in their communities.

It was work which created in me much joy and to which I remain committed.

As a Papua New Guinean with much privilege, it was a small contribution to my people.


And so I move on. In future, I hope that social enterprise organisations engaged in similar projects in PNG give full consideration and respect to collaborative process and, most importantly in the case of literary projects, ensure that a tangible contribution is made to creating a sustainable, locally-driven literary culture.

And where acknowledgement for PNG authorship is due, attribute it freely. It means so much.

I would advocate organisations championing Papua New Guinean writers, and there are precious few of these, seek direct donor-funding to deliver book projects. This would be particularly beneficial to redressing the lack of publishing opportunities for Papua New Guinean writers,

The efforts, freely given, of Pukpuk Publications since 2011 has been a boon for Papua New Guinean writers, but how hard it has been to create sustainability in the absence of whole-hearted institutional support. You see, these innovators were not in the club either.

Yet, at a time when prestigious events such as the Brisbane Writers Festival and Sunshine Coast Writers Festival have enthusiastically welcomed and endorsed the inclusion for Papua New Guinean writers, publication opportunities at the domestic level remain scarce and there is no systemic effort being made to change that.


The moment to appropriately acknowledge my work passed on Kokoda Day, 2017. I declined offers to edit or make adjustments to ‘Butterflies along the Track’. I just couldn’t bring myself to it.

Subsequently, I withdrew from an agreement with the Foundation to produce a gender equality themed children’s book. It was disappointing but the collaboration was over.

Somebody said something like this once: It started with warm invitation and ended with cold, complicated farewell.


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Baka Bina

Can our local work be taken with impunity?

This recent claim isn’t the only one.

In the 7 July 2017 edition of the Post Courier, it was reported that a Mr Noah Kagai, a maimai from New Ireland, lost his work Wowora, Origin Myth of Malanggan that is now on Amazon.

A quick look up on Amazon shows the work without the name of the author on the cover.

Phil Fitzpatrick says he has lost work and there are many other cases.

At our workplace, we lose claims to work-related publications because these belong to the work and we need to ensure that bosses acknowledge the work that we put in.

The claim by Jordan Dean is endemic in work places. My push to writing on things outside of workplace started because my workplace writing was given over to a consulting firm to put together in a procedural handbook for a substantial sum and with no acknowledgment of the work I did.

They were paid for reorganizing the whole content of my work and for doing the content page.

There are legends and stories taken from traditional settings and published without due acknowledgment. What can we do to protect our work from being taken? The article does not suggest how though it does state in retrospect something should have been done.

For those of us recording and collecting stories, we may be getting local legends that belong to that particular location and people and that recognition is surely due to them.

If we are working with groups that progress literary endeavors, we have to remember that the work coming out from a particular engagement belong to the group.

This piece is troubling but the organisation had costs engaging the writer to be involved in an endeavor and there might have been desired outcomes.

The questions to be asked are: Was putting together a publication part of the outcomes? What were the content of the publication and were there any other persons or group contributing towards the final outcome?

Currently NGO’s have a platform supported by a massive Ausaid funding to work in literary work at where it matters most, early childhood learning. Papua New Guinean writers, illustrators and book creators need to talk to these NGO groups for active participation and to bring out local content, pictures and books. We need not be acrimonious.

We can take a lesson out of this piece and authors, illustrators and publishers must progress engagement with NGO’s including Kokoda Track Foundation, World Vision, Child Fund, Oxfam, Save the Children etc.

Winifred Kamit

Rashmi , i agree with Jordon Dean that you will be smarter the next time around given this experience. The practice of not giving credit to those who actually do and produced amazing things like you described you did , are done, if they can get away with it , by individuals, organisations headed by men and women of all races .Like Jordon alluded to , you will be smarter next time and negiotiate terms and conditions on arrangements like this to protect your work and " intellectual ' rights. Wishing you every success !

Deborah Shinn

I am thinking about setting up a group called 'Let women of colour write and have a voice' to curb all the oppression we've been getting for the last 2000 years.

Oh and great article Rashmii!

Jordan Dean

Give credit where it belongs. I've written and edited several policies but on the acknowledgement, my name is no where to be found. Credit goes to professor so and so, who at the very least, changed one or two words only.

I know you'll be smarter next time round Rashmii.

Lindsay Bond

Rashmii Bell writes on “Privilege, tokenism & acknowledgement: a cautionary tale”. For folk not familiar with Rashmii’s Sefoa reference, when at Martyrs Memorial School in 1966, the young Prince Charles “stayed with the boys at Sefoa Garden House, slept with them, ate kaukau.” One of those boys (students) was the now Rev’d Lucas Bejigi, until recently priest-in-charge at Sefoa.

Significant for the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF) is a linking of the words Kokoda and Tufi, the latter being a premium tourism venue for access to visual delights of coastal and underwater 'diversity'.

Sefoa is sited similarly to Tufi, but at a peninsular with no mechanical aid for visitors who choose to climb the step incline from the boat landing, thus somewhat out of reach.

The climb, considerable as it was for Rashmii, is less an encounter than the ‘slight’ with which she was later confronted and of which rightly tells in forewarning to followers.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Even as a white male writer I've been 'done over' by organisations similar to the one alluded to above. It is not such a rare occurrence as one might imagine.

On one memorable occasion a children's book I had authored was taken over and with a few minor alterations published under another writer's name, basically done so they didn't have to pay me. Ironically, I wasn't expecting any payment anyway.

One of the organisations that took us for a ride was Buk Bilong Pikinini. That was unexpected and came out of left field.

While most writers quickly realise they are not going to make much money the compensation is seeing your name on the cover of a book and knowing that people are reading what you have written. When the latter is taken away it can be soul destroying.

With respect to reading lists I don't see anything wrong with people reading white male authors. Some of them are very good and unlike the general populace usually support unpopular but right causes.

The trick is balance. If a reading list is going to have white male writers on it there should also be indigenous and female writers.

I'm thinking about setting up a group called 'Leave White Male Writers Alone' in an endeavour to curb all the flack that we've been getting lately.

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