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In the chasm of change: do its agents often feel alone?

Image - Graham Forster


NORTHUMBRIA - This photograph was taken deep in Papua New Guinea’s interior in 1974 – and it is a metaphor.

I was a bush administrator, a kiap, and I was on patrol.

The image underlines how young I was, and conveys something of my apprehension about the drop below.

But its underlying message is that I was alone, bridging two philosophical fixed points, and so in a cultural no-man’s land.

These contrasting pivots were the chasm that lay between two realities.

The global economic, political, and administrative ideals that my work required me to encourage isolated village people to adopt.

And the difficulty I had in helping them to understand, and accept, the radical changes their government wanted them to make to the way they had always organised their lives.

I tried hard to be successful but nothing could disguise the yawning gap between the rapidly expanding global culture I represented and the many different, long established cultures that faced me in the villages I visited.

When I first saw this picture I was surprised at how vulnerable and hesitant I looked as I crossed that bridge on the way to meet yet another group of people – on this occasion, four days walk from the nearest government station.

I cover this subject in my book length account of that period, “The Northumbrian Kiap”. https://rforster.com/shop/northumbrian-kiap/

I often wonder whether these observations are familiar to people who elect to pathfind radical change in other spheres today.

Instead of feeling tough and adventurous, do they sometimes feel they too are alone?


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Paul Oates

Hi Robert,
In bridging that cultural chasm, perhaps few of us realised that in order to do so, we had to evolve. This below the surface evolution, required us to accept and assimilate PNG and her people into our very psyche. We therefore became something different from what we were when we first arrived. The truth of that aspect only became clear when we returned to where we had come from and mostly found we didn’t fit in.

We were also looked on as ‘different and we were and mostly still are.

Kipling called this phenomenon, ‘betwixt and between’. We weren’t truly PNG but we also weren’t the same people as when we left from where we came from.

The real tragedy is that over the years, both PNG and the society we returned to apparently have never understood this aspect. The value of our experience and training was never utilised by either PNG or our society. We could have provided a really important bridge between our society and PNG yet this was mostly ignored. We few, who came and stayed and undertook these rather unique duties now sometimes feel alone. Therein lies the real conundrum. Unless someone had walked in our boots, they can’t really appreciate what it was like or how we evolved and what we evolved into.

As we who are left still standing, slowly disappear into a hazy mist of history that will no doubt be misunderstood and completely disappear over time, there is one conciliation we should be grateful for. The world of the PNG people we worked hard to help was, ever so briefly, a better place.

It is with some regret that most PNG people today, or most Australians for that matter, have no idea of what PNG was like prior to Independence in 1975. That period of our two nation’s shared history has apparently either been intentionally or unintentionally expunged from school curriculum's.

What Garry says is correct. Anyone who find themselves in a situation like we did needs a certain amount of bravado to keep going. Call it esprit de corps, self-belief, willingness to lead or just plain ego, it still was a significant factor in not giving up. Many who have never been in this situation will no doubt point a finger and say those who stayed became bigheaded. Perhaps that’s true? However, we either did what we had to do or gave up. There was no middle ground or safety net, just like that underneath the log that bridges the metaphorical gap.

Garry Roche

Robert, I remember myself apprehensively crossing a somewhat similar bridge in the Jimi valley in the early seventies.

My embarrassment at being so slow and nervous in crossing it was heightened by the fact that after I had reached the other side, a few six and seven year old children ran gleefully across the one-log bridge without fear.

On the broader questions you raise I can only say that looking back I am often surprised at the risks that were taken and while the isolation was real there was a certain outward bravado in putting up with the isolation.

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