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Strength in diversity: Why PNG is better together

Leilani and schoolmates - all bilased up to celebrate Papua New Guinea culture

BEN JACKSON | Sun Earth Sea Blog

PORT MORESBY - “Even the word ‘country’ is difficult to grasp in a group of islands where there are hundreds of different languages and thousands of dialects, and where communication and trade through transport are difficult, inaccessible to much of the population.”

There is still an element of truth to Gay Davidson’s words from The Canberra Times of 16 September 1975.

Papua New Guinea’s infrastructural challenges have changed shape, but remain present, as do the complex and tense issues of land ownership, tribalism and ethnicity.

However, having being in amongst the people of Port Moresby as they celebrated 43 years of Independence last September, it is not difficult to understand PNG as a country .

A majority of people here identify strongly with the ancestral cultures of their mothers, fathers and grandparents, but they simultaneously see themselves as Papua New Guineans.

Diversity, though sometimes divisive, is often a great source of pride.

The Papua New Guineans I’ve met are immensely proud that their country has in excess of 800 languages, more than any other nation in the world. They are inquisitive and excited about sharing different ideas about culture, food, dress and customs with their compatriots – and with visitors too.

The celebrations at Paga Hill and the recently reopened Ela Beach were vibrant, open and safe – three words not usually associated with Port Moresby.

At the Paga festival I was approached by a man selling flour-battered prawns who thanked me for bringing my family down to join in the occasion.

I told him that it was us who were thankful for being welcomed and apologised for the shellfish allergy that prevented me from sampling his wares.

In the two weeks around Independence Day, my daughter Leilani has been constantly singing PNG’s national anthem O Arise, All You Sons. She even sang it before falling asleep at night.

The last verse is: “Shout again for the whole world to hear - Papua New Guinea / We're independent and we're free - Papua New Guinea.”

In 1975, Papua New Guinea became independent and free, however, it’s easy to forget that in order to gain Independence, the people of Papua New Guinea had to first be deprived of their sovereignty – most recently under the colonial administration of Australia.

Australian’s shy away from viewing our country as a colonial ruler. We prefer to think of ourselves as being on the other end of that stick. The territories of Papua and New Guinea seem to exist in a place and time period that is not considered by many as part of our broader national identity.

I would wager that future Australians will similarly reject the detention and inhumane treatment of innocent people as an element of ‘Australian-ness’ – but nonetheless these past actions will remain forever as historical fact.

But despite all the baggage of the past and the present segregation that exists, I am continually amazed and overwhelmed by the way Papua New Guineans embrace Australian expatriates as members of their family – like cousins that have come to visit for summer holidays.

In the lead-up to Independence Day, Leilani learned a traditional dance for a class performance at their pre-school’s celebration.

My colleague and good friend Maggie, who has girls aged a year either side of her, was delighted when I asked if they had any customary outfits – bilas – that she could borrow for the big day.

We were duly provided with a bilas-for-dummies package which included a grass skirt, headdress, armbands and detailed instructions for the Motuan tattoo designs of Papua New Guinea’s Central Province. Maggie only demanded one thing in return: “take lots of photos!”

This was not just a loan of items – it was Maggie and her family delighting in the opportunity to share their culture with our family.

When I showed Maggie the video of Leilani and her class performing, she immediately recognised the song and choreography from Bougainville, the autonomous island region closer to the Solomon Islands than mainland PNG.

“Wow! That’s awesome,” she said, unperturbed and with a typically big smile on her face, “a Hanuabada girl doing a Bougainvillean dance – it shows our unity!”

In PNG we are reminded frequently of the challenges that come with cultural differences and the strength that can be found in diversity – they’re two sides of the same coin.

Whether the positivity we see on Independence Day can be eventually extended to the rest of the year remains to be seen, but I am certain that PNG is better together.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

I wonder whether Australia's apparent lack of interest in PNG has anything to do with a kind of shame over its past role as a colonial power.

It's possible I guess but I'm inclined to still think its a case of intellectual ennui and laziness.

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