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A dismal account of life in a remote PNG village

A death in the rain forest coverPHIL FITZPATRICK

A death in the rainforest: how a language and a way of life came to an end in Papua New Guinea by Don Kulick, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2019, ISBN: 9781616209049, hardcover, 275pp, AU$30.03 from Amazon Australia.

TUMBY BAY - What happens when the equally strange worlds of a remote Papua New Guinea village and an anthropological academic are brought together?

The anthropologist is ostensibly recording the reasons for the demise of the isolated language that the villagers once spoke.

Languages, like many things that no longer have a useful purpose, have been disappearing ever since humans occupied the planet. They are matters of regret but hardly earth-shattering. So why is the anthropologist interested?

The usual suspicion that the anthropologist’s motive is to write a book and make a lot of money is not really relevant in this case because the conventional concepts surrounding books, money and profit are not something with which these villagers are overly familiar.

Just as they are puzzled about what the anthropologist is doing in their village so is the anthropologist puzzled about the villager’s attitude to him and the way they treat him.

It all makes for a confusing mixture that is probably not going to turn out well for either of them. Unfortunately, these things never do.

Which is why the largely predictable dynamics as they evolve in the book contain the most interest. Everyone loves reading about personal drama.

As noted above, the book is ostensibly about how a localised village language is dying but this quickly becomes of peripheral interest. What happens between the anthropologist and the villagers is much more interesting.

In that sense it is a refreshingly frank book about the anthropological process and all its pitfalls.

This anthropologist has a sense of humour that is self-deprecating and wry. That’s not something that is common to the profession. Usually they take themselves far too seriously.

Unfortunately it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the book is also an unrelentingly critical and dismal account, not only of the people of Gapun in the Sepik but of Papua New Guinea in general.

In many ways it reminds me of Colin Turnbull’s 1972 account of the displaced Ik people in Uganda, described in his book The Mountain People.

Unlike Turnbull, however, this author eventually terminated his research after life in the village became too dangerous for him.

“I grew tired of ‘sleeping like a pig’, as the villagers like to say. I grew tired of falling asleep from exhaustion with one ear cocked and one eye open, ready to flee into the bush at the slightest sign that the village was under attack.

“I grew tired of the isolation, weary of worrying that the blast of a gun might rip through and light up the thick tropical night, sick of thinking that I might lose all my work and that I might not be able to get out of the village, or that I might be killed.”

Of Papua New Guinea in general he suggests that its future “may have more in common with a place like Somalia than it does with Australia or the European countries that Gapun villagers fantasize they one day will find a road to become like.”

There are many people who will disagree with this last sentiment but it must be acknowledged that it is a widely held view about Papua New Guinea’s future, particularly in places outside the country. This book abundantly reinforces this dismal view.

With this in mind one has to ask what was the point of the author’s extended research and the writing of this book. Why, for instance, is learning about different cultures of value?

It’s something that has exercised his mind too and he addresses it in the latter part of the book. 

Talking about the Gapun villagers he says: “They do not feel that their role in life is to teach other, usually more privileged people, anything at all. And they resent – rightly in my view – the idea that their lives should be displayed like a tattered chart, or dissected like a high school bullfrog, for the edification of earnest Western liberal humanists who feel better about themselves if they convince themselves that they know more about the world.”

He also raises the question of “whether we actually ever do learn anything, no matter how well taught, or dearly bought, the lesson might be.

“As the dark, cold clouds that seem disconcertingly similar to the ones that enveloped Europe in the 1930s appear again on the horizon and edge ever more menacingly into our lives today, one might begin to despair about whether knowledge about anything these days, is of any use at all.”

This last view is one that strikes a chord with many people today, especially those of older years. What is the point about worrying when nobody wants to listen and seem incapable of learning from the past?

One might ask what chance does a Papua New Guinea, already well on the way to descending into Somalia-like chaos and dysfunction according to the author, have in a world like that?

It’s a depressing book that even the author’s humour can’t leaven. Read it at your peril.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

You have to be careful about broad generalisations about culture and language.

Extrapolations that turn into generalisations are a problem in western thinking about other cultures.

Kulick's theory doesn't work that well with large language groups like the Enga where there were physically isolated groups speaking the same language for instance.

Like most of these things there is probably a mix of different reasons between the cultural groups about why they developed different languages and cultural practises

What might be true about the Gapun isn't necessarily true about the rest of PNG.

I still think it's a good book but with a very dismal take on the subject.

In the above review Professor Davis says: "Long before Tayap began to wane, he writes, "the twentieth century crushed the life out of everything that people in Gapun”— and most everywhere else in PNG — “had ever believed or accomplished.”

That's pretty dismal. Whether it's true or not is another matter.

Robert Forster

John Mackerell's comments that Kulick had concluded PNG's many languages were primarily used to underline the presence of a separate ethnic community and emphasise its identity.

This is interesting because it runs counter to the common assumption they were the result of unusually severe cultural isolation.

If correct this means that the rapid adoption of Tok Pisin was a response to social disruption triggered by an involuntary lift in mobility and not, as previously supposed, a singular signal that a mix of grateful people, previously trapped in a narrow environment by the uniqueness of their language, were urgently embracing a welcome new ability to communicate more easily among themselves.

I was familiar with only two local languages. Iu Wei in the Wahgi Valley translates as "True Talk" or "Our Talk" which appears to reinforce the Kulick theory.

Gendekar, which is spoken by the Gende people of Bundi translates (I think) as "We are good" which implies that those who speak it are special - which appears to back his theory too.

If Kulick is correct, and PNG's people traditionally volunteered to heavily flag a multitude of fragmented identities, a new, more pessimistic, slant is thrown on the slog that is the now decades long quest to persuade the speakers of 800 mutually unintelligible languages to join together in a single, more socially and politically cohesive, national identity.

John Mackerell

I did not find this book depressing. As an account of the humanity of the people of Gapun, and of the author, I find it uplifting.

I post here a review from this weekend's Wall Street Journal.

As a young anthropologist, in 1985, Don Kulick traveled to the most remote reaches of Papua New Guinea to study how a language dies. Motivating his quest was a haunting consensus then emerging among linguists that fully half of the world’s 7,000 languages are teetering on the brink of extinction. As he made his way across the vast mangrove lagoon at the mouth of the Sepik River, wading through malarial swamps to reach a narrow slit in the jungle that would be his home for many months, he was acutely aware that every fortnight, somewhere in the world, some elder carries into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue, and another language is lost. His destination was the village of Gapun, home to just 130 people, 90 of whom were fluent in Tayap, one of 600 extant languages kept alive by fewer than 100 speakers.

Papua New Guinea, a nation the size of California with a population of 8 million, has more than a thousand distinct languages—not dialects, but actual languages, 350 of which have never been spoken by more than 500 people. In a mountainous land of dense jungles where neighboring peoples share common myths and religious beliefs, agricultural practices and hunting technologies, language alone allows for differentiation. Isolation is not a factor; the highest linguistic diversity in PNG is found in areas where people readily get around by river. Language permits people to self-identify as distinct cultural entities. Thus the study of language, as Mr. Kulick discovers, provides the ideal conduit to culture.

Altogether, Mr. Kulick would spend three years in the village, returning time and again over nearly 30 years, his departures rivaled only by his arrivals for pure drama, intrigue, danger and wonder. The result is perhaps the finest and most profound account of ethnographic fieldwork and discovery that has ever entered the anthropological literature. To his immense credit, Mr. Kulick refuses to embrace the postmodern conceit that anthropology is part of the colonial agenda, yet another way of subjugating a people by recording their knowledge, and that the very presence of the Western scholar in the field is an exercise in power, a tool of oppression. Such thinking regrettably provoked the “wave of recriminations,” as Mr. Kulick writes, “that paralyzed a whole generation of my younger colleagues and drove them to stay at home and study only people like themselves,” or even worse, ruminate incessantly over the practice and fate of their discipline. The entire purpose of anthropology, as Ruth Benedict wrote, is to make the world safe for human differences. At a time when the voice of anthropology has never been more essential, it has been rendered largely mute by ideological contortions, self-flagellation and identity politics that academic institutions today indulge to their shame.

As an ethnographic fieldworker, Mr. Kulick has no qualms about asking the Gapun people about their lives or expressing his interests in their origin myths and folk tales, ritual practices abandoned in the time of their grandparents, or the syntactic intricacies of Tayap, a language they are in the process of abandoning. His account of learning an unwritten language from scratch leaves the reader dazzled by the wizardry of linguistic scholarship. Tayap turns out to be an elaborate synthetic language combining different morphemes, words fused to words to create new words of extravagant complexity. Just finding someone in the village willing to sit with him for hours, tolerating his ignorance, sharing the names for objects that any child would know, was a challenge. The language itself proved exceedingly difficult; after 30 years of study Mr. Kulick could fully understand Tayap yet still failed to speak it beyond a few stock phrases. That he even tried to do so speaks of a reserve of personal discipline, commitment and courage that would be tested every day in the field. Writing with verve and simple elegance, without a hint of bravado, he describes the ritual humiliations of fieldwork, including a regular diet of grubs and palm starch the consistency of “gummy mucous.” (The first words uttered by a Gapun child, we learn, are not “mama” and “papa” but some variation on the phrase “I’m sick of it, I’m leaving.”)

Within the village Mr. Kulick becomes a master at overstaying his welcome, hanging about until no longer a presence, at which point the real life of the people unfolds. His goal is to learn not why a language dies but how it dies. Language death is not a natural event. What, he asks, transpires in a community that causes parents to stop teaching their mother tongue? His task as an ethnographer is to see what lies beneath the surface of things, even as the people all around him are equally engaged in taking his measure. Within days, he is designated “Saraki,” the name of a founding ancestor, and told that he has returned from death to open a road for them allowing their black skin to crack open like a crab’s shell that they might step out soft, white and rich, with immediate access to all the money and goods that white people have. A ceaseless cycle of giving is the glue that ultimately binds him to the community. He provides rice and betel. They ask for a submarine, even while telling of tunnels running beneath graveyards allowing local people in death (and even in life) to travel to Rome and become white.

Within days of arriving in Gapun, Mr. Kulick is swept into a millenarian fantasy of reciprocity and exchange that will color his every experience in the village. When Europeans first penetrated New Guinea, they were as exotic as extraterrestrials, with clothes that locals took to be skin, out of which they drew precious objects, magical and rare. Who were these creatures? Why have they come? What can they give us? They sought explanations in myth, later finding correlations with biblical accounts, creating portraits of a land where all goods originate, where people go in death, where everything is white and heaven and earth come together in a celestial realm of power, glory and wealth. Out of this came the “cargo cults,” the notion that if believers perform certain actions in the proper way the heavens will open and a world of abundance will unfold. Bizarre as they appear, cargo cults reflect, as Mr. Kulick writes, an undeniable truth, a “rock-hard realization that white people have too much stuff. And because they have so much, they have an obligation to share.”

Before the colonial era, all socially valued knowledge was encoded in the traditional language, Tayap. Tok Pisin, a pidgin spoken throughout PNG, arrived in Gapun in 1916. Associated with the power of the white colonial regime, and all things bountiful and desirable, it was seen as the language of modernity, even as traditional life was shattered by the arrival of Christian missionaries, the violence of war, the growth of a plantation economy that lured men to the coast where Tok Pisin was the language of choice. Parents over time unconsciously favored Tok Pisin, even as they criticized their children for not speaking their native tongue, and then mocked them when they tried to do so. In 1985, when Mr. Kulick arrives in Gapun, no child under 10 speaks Tayap. By 1991, teenagers switch from Tok Pisin to Tayap just for laughs. “A language dies,” Mr. Kulick concludes, “by contracting, by having its layers of complexity peeled off like an onion skin, getting smaller and smaller until there is finally nothing left.” Long before Tayap began to wane, he writes, “the twentieth century crushed the life out of everything that people in Gapun”—and most everywhere else in PNG—“had ever believed or accomplished.” Languages, like cultures, are not destined to fade away, as if by natural law. In every instance they are driven out of existence by identifiable forces. This is, in fact, an optimistic observation, for if human beings are indeed the agents of cultural destruction, then surely we can be the facilitators of cultural survival. It is upon this positive note that Mr. Kulick concludes his astonishing account.

—Mr. Davis is a professor of anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

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