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Misinterpreting PNG: rhetoric, exaggeration & inequality

Dr Paige West
Dr Paige West - two decades listening to myths promulgated by visitors to PNG

JOSIE KRITTER | The Catalyst | Edited

COLORADO, USA - Papua New Guinea is often seen as one of the world’s last unexplored frontiers and stereotyped as tribal, underdeveloped, and primitive, says Dr Paige West, Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College in the USA.

Dr West has spent the last two decades working with the people of PNG and her goal is to shed light on a vibrant culture, the effects of decolonisation and their conservation efforts.

She said that Melanesian culture is widely misunderstood and tends to be seen through a Euro-American and Australian lens.

Dr West explained how much of the information filtering through to the world outside comes from “surfers, photographers, economists, and conservationists.” Over the years, she has interviewed and observed each group, along with the indigenous people, to capture a full understanding of where the misconceptions about the country come from.

Dr West explained how surfers acted like it was “the wild, wild west.” In an interview, one said, “One minute you can be in the water right alongside [a local], and then the next they can be slitting your throat.”

She noticed that, as she continued to interview the same tourists over the years, their stories became increasingly “savage” and always emphasised the uncivilised nature of the indigenous people. In contrast, Dr West has found the exact opposite.

“The surfers eventually stopped coming back as the novelty of the ‘savage’ wore off, and they found that they were just regular people,” she said.

The photographers often claim that they are “capturing a dying culture” with their photos of tribal ceremonies and villagers. Dr West explained how this is also misinformation.

From an anthropological perspective, she said the culture we see as Papua New Guinean was created by westerners. Many of the images that come out of this region of “primitive people” are often either staged by the photographer or portray a single, special day of the year when they dress up in traditional attire to celebrate a holiday.

For example, photographer David Kirkland produces stunning photos from this area of the world but they are often terribly inaccurate representations that maintain a visual trope for capital gain. Dr West implored the audience to support local PNG photographers if they truly wanted to see what life was like there.

The issue with economists, Dr West explained, is that they see “money as a means of corruption” for a society “not ready for modernity.” Because of this bias, West found many entrepreneurs in Papua New Guinea struggling to get bank loans to start up their businesses.

In classic colonial style, the world still views these people as infantile and unable to take on the modern world. With their tradition of collective land use, the capitalist economy model that much of the rest of the world uses is not as effective there and results in the industrialized world viewing them as underdeveloped.

In reality, while there are large amounts of poverty, money is fully understood, and there are growing cosmopolitan areas. Simply put, they cultivate a different lifestyle.

Conservationists are another group spreading misinformation. Dr West recalled meeting with representatives from ExxonMobil to plan out where a biodiversity offset fund would be spent after the company’s pipeline was installed.

At this point of her presentation, she began to get emotional as she explained how the representatives dismissed the local scientists’ plans and proceeded to make racially charged comments at the meeting.

Although the Papua New Guineans had PhDs, they were not seen as “capable” of handling the $100 million set aside for the fund. Luckily, this issue was taken to PNG’s parliament and resolved and the scientists of the island were able to allocate the funds properly.

Dr West emphasised repeatedly that “international development was in the business of misinformation.”

The idea of Papua New Guinea as an endless frontier is a dangerous myth that breeds gentrification. In reality, it is a vibrant culture with a strong government that just so happens to have its feet in both modernity and tradition.


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mathias kin

Good on you Dr West. You told the story well except the last line.

Gabriel Ramoi

I like Dr West. I wish there were more of them so they can tell the PNG story to their own people in a PNG-centric view.

Arthur Williams

Strange attire or dwellings make for better photos than people in 2nd hand clothes and corrugated roof houses. A few sample video clips of ‘natives’ will confirm this.

Quite a few, as Dr West suggested, open with semi-naked people doing traditional dances. During the video you can often see normal semi-permanent or even permanent homes in the distance.

The Trobriand Islands thrive on their very short skirted bare breasted nubile young dancers so that it is hard for westerners to imagine them dressed in normal working clothes in their schools, offices or laboratories.

Mind here in Wales we love to push the image of the bed sheeted Druids parading among our Standing Stone circles. Actually the tradition had almost died out until at the end of the 18th Century efforts were made to re-establish Eisteddfods. Welsh nationalist and tourists love them. Just as overseas visitors expect to see a gang of Morris dancers and a maypole in every English village.

Yesterday was Commonwealth day and I noticed the PNG High Commission was at Westminster Abbey wearing a smart black skirt and jacket. Near her was a grass skirted gent from one of the neighbouring island states. The temperature was around 10C!

Mind you the expats in PNG had a reverse take on native costume when Saturday nights they would dress up in silly westernised clothes unsuited to the equatorial climate of the country. This included formal footwear and even long gowns for the ladies that dragged in the mud on the way to the chosen home for the ritual Dinner Party.

Meanwhile, due to the humidity, their men were sweating in long trousers and long sleeved shirts. A sort of poor man’s Raj ritual, satirised so well in Garry Luhrs’ ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ tales at www.exkiap.

In 1974 when I wrote to my parents of my intention to marry a Lavongai young woman back came Mum’s most informed National Geographic query, “Does she wear clothes?”

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was wondering about that too Ed - "strongly" corrupt and incompetent perhaps.

I'm not sure about the 'breeds gentrification' either. Is the reporter talking about some sort of elitism? As I understand it the word 'gentry' is a pejorative term applied to snobbish people with aspirations to nobility.

And surely PNG still is tribal, as it is underdeveloped in more than just an industrial sense.

I can sympathise with the notion that assessing somewhere like PNG in western industrial terms is problematic but this has been used as an excuse by successive PNG governments to divert their failure to provide basic services to their people for a long time now.

I think Paige West (or the reporter) has a bad case of rose-coloured glasses.

Ed Brumby

Ref last para: ' ...with a strong government..' WTF???

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