WABAG - An assignment given to first year trainees at Enga Teachers College on literature and its importance for primary school children, prompts me to reflect on a recent literary tour of Australia I undertook with three colleagues.
I wondered if teachers in the field were promoting literature. Did they have access to libraries stocked with books appropriate to their readers?
The Papua New Guinea government is spending millions of kina on its tuition free education policy each year.
It also supports sports, music and other major events. It has built modern stadiums, training facilities and provided cash incentives for athletes who win gold medals at Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
The PNG Hunters have lifted rugby league’s profile on the international stage through the Queensland Intrust Super Cup competition. Many players have signed lucrative contracts.
EMTV’s Vocal Fusion has captivated audiences nationwide as a new wave of young men and women explode onto the screen. They have won cars and cash through their singing and signed contracts to produce albums.
All this is very good since it portrays PNG as a successful nation.
But the government seems not to understand that its writers – poets, journalists, essayists, authors - can also promote unity and help to change the mindset of the people.
In my views, all citizens should be treated equally to achieve the government’s ambitious Vision 50 goals which seek to include PNG in the top 50 human development index rankings by 2050.
The government hopes PNG will be a prosperous middle income country by 2030 and a world leader in the promotion of responsible sustainable development.
Literature can play a major part in achieving these objectives in terms of education, communication and the preservation of PNG’s rich cultural heritage.
While some people aspire to be professional singers, sports stars, entrepreneurs or successful in the professions, others strive to be successful writers.
But in PNG, our writers seem to have been supported only by the voluntary Crocodile Prize organisation and its offshoots like Pukpuk Publications and the McKinnon-Paga Hill fellowship scheme.
Former PNG residents Keith Jackson and Phil Fitzpatrick established the Crocodile Prize in 2011 and other initiatives like book publishing, writers workshops and fellowships followed in its wake.
Other generous companies and individuals also came on board with sponsorships - Ok Tedi Mining, Kina Securities, PNG Chamber of Mines, PNG Ministry of Tourism, Paga Hill Development Company, SP Brewery, Cleland Family, PNG Association of Australia, Ian Kemish and Roxanne Martens and others.
My spirits lifted when I won a prize the Crocodile Prize competition and went on a literary tour of Australia in 2016 with three colleagues – Francis Nii, Martyn Namorong and Rashmii Bell.
We attended the annual Brisbane Writer’s Festival, met Australian authors and media personalities and visited organisations like the New South Wales Writers Centre in Sydney.
Since its inception the Crocodile Prize had exposed raw talent from most parts of PNG. Generous cash prizes of K5,000 were paid to winners in different categories of writing. The depth of talent became evident in six published annual anthologies of essays, poems and short stories.
Over time, some stunning novels, memoirs and collections of writing were published including three remarkable novels – Fitman, Rightman and Cooks by Francis Nii, Man of Calibre by Baka Bina and Sibona by Emmanuel Peni.
Immediately after our Australian tour, Rashmii Bell edited the stupendous collection of women’s writing, My Walk to Equality, and I chimed in with Survivor - Alive in Mum’s Loving Arms, which also drew much praise.
We saw a Papua New Guinea literature beginning to flourish but there was no national program to support it and, while the Crocodile Prize continues as a literary competition, there has been a weakening of the momentum that was evident even just a year ago.
Many Papua New Guineans can write but a major obstacle remains writing fluently in the English language itself. I believe if people can master that, they will read more and their writing will improve.
Right now, the state of PNG literature is poor. Literacy seems to be stuck at around 60%. Few schools have libraries and public libraries in towns and cities are scarce. Even university students struggle with their writing.
During my Australian tour, in an ABC radio interview, I proposed that the Australian government could lift the standard of English in PNG through its aid program. My cue for this was a 2013 PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum which agreed Australia would undertake an assessment of its aid investment in PNG.
They hoped this would better align both governments' priorities and position the aid program to address key constraints to sustainable economic growth and equitable development. It was noted back then that, even though PNG’s economy had grown strongly, it had not led to sustained development outcomes.
And so it proved, PNG went on and failed to meet any of its millennium development goals, being placed 156th out of 187 countries. The poor quality of education was a major part of this failure.
I suggested during the ABC interview that, through its annual aid package, Australia could consider improving the literacy skills of Papua New Guineans by recruiting Australian English teachers and lecturers as contract officers and volunteers and place them in situations from upper primary schools to universities.
A teacher who cannot comprehend English cannot effectively teach the subject. That is the dilemma confronting most PNG schools today.
Good English teachers and well-stocked libraries are what PNG students urgently need. These things are a launch pad for literate population and writing our own books is a stepping stone to a well-educated and higher achieving population.
UNESCO says that book publication is an important metric in determining the standard of living and education of a country. There are no records to show how many books PNG has published, although I know that over 40 titles have been published through Pukpuk Publications in recent years with no support and little encouragement from the government or from major NGOs.
I am the author of four of those books, which are available for purchase on Amazon.com. If purchases are by somebody out there in the world, it gives me great pleasure and a sense of having produced something worthy.
But nobody in PNG seems interested. Only the UPNG Bookshop sells copies of my books. One cannot make a living from writing where there is no reading culture and little encouragement of writers.
My fourth book, Remember Me, was launched recently by Education Secretary Dr Uke Kombra in Kundiawa during a Crocodile Prize presentation. I intend to launch two other books in Enga, the province of my origin.
I know some PNG-authored books would make perfect reading material for schools. One of my own books, I Can See My Country Clearly Now, is about my journey from birth to PNG’s independence and includes the knowledge and insights I gained from my travels and experiences in many countries.
I would encourage the government to buy books written by PNG authors and place them in educational institutions throughout the country to promote intellectual development, love of reading, pride in country and social cohesion.
The Enga provincial government headed by Grand Chief Sir Peter Ipatas has been promoting education for the last 21 years, so education here is indeed important. Enga Teachers College must continue its good work to pass on important knowledge emphasising that literature is key to the success of children in adult life.
But it’s time that this college as well as other educational institutions in PNG began to stock their libraries with suitable PNG-authored books.