Listen up! Pre-colonial life can teach us a lot
20 September 2019
TUMBY BAY - The response of Papua New Guinea’s intellectuals to the celebration of its 44th year of independence have been very interesting if comments on PNG Attitude are any sort of guide.
On the one hand the response has been low-key and on the other it has generated a questioning of the whole concept of independence and what it means.
The muted response seems to be a result of the turbulent and disastrous O’Neill years and the uncertain expectations surrounding the Marape ascension.
In the case of Mr Marape, people appear to be holding their breath in the hope that what he has promised will come to fruition.
Their caution is tempered by the knowledge that O’Neill promised so much and failed to deliver on most of it.
By destroying optimism about PNG’s future, O’Neill effectively took the joy out of celebrating independence. Time will tell whether Marape can reinstate that spirit.
The questioning of the concept of independence seems to be tied up with a strident nationalism emanating from a few critics.
Corney Korokan Alone is one of them, but his insistence that PNG as a sovereign nation can make its own future without interference from outside influences is admirable but difficult to conceive.
Corney’s view is essentially a reaction to the hangover of colonialism and the insidious nature of neo-colonialism and he is striving to make the point that, for Papua New Guinea, independence means exactly that.
On the other hand, David Kitchnoge takes issue with the use of the word ‘independent’ as a description of PNG’s place in the world.
He maintains that the people of PNG have always been independent. As proof of this he refers to the systems of governance that existed prior to colonisation.
Although this point has been made before, it is well-worth revisiting. There is now an emerging body of literature from indigenous writers throughout the world exploring this same theme.
In Australia, two Aboriginal writers, Bruce Pascoe and Tyson Yunkaporta, have published books describing indigenous systems of land management and governance with the suggestion that they have the ability to solve many of the problems we now face.
Both books contain convincing arguments. Pascoe takes up the theme introduced by Bill Gammage in his book ‘The Greatest Estate on Earth’ and points out that the English colonists, and Australians since, were remiss in not acknowledging and learning from the practices of the Aboriginal people.
Much of Pascoe’s proof comes from archival sources, notably the journals of the early explorers describing what they saw.
Pascoe argues that disparaging indigenous lifestyles and practices was a method of asserting colonial superiority and justifying the seizure of land. Unfortunately this attitude precluded the adoption of sustainable indigenous methods and replaced it with many damaging European ideas.
Yunkaporta is more concerned with indigenous philosophical ideas and ideologies as they relate to governance and the way societies are organised.
One of the major points he makes is the relative absence of savage forms of violence and conquest inherent in Aboriginal society.
He puts the constant war-mongering among Western peoples down to the lack of community and the promotion of individualism, both tenets of capitalism, as well as the narcissism of ownership and the obsession with economic growth.
Both Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture’ and Yunkaporta’s ‘Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World’ make the point that indigenous systems require reconsideration and re-evaluation in these dire times and may hold lessons for the future.
As such, the ideas of both writers seem to align well with the thinking of commentators like Corney Korokan Alone and David Kitchnoge.
Whether politicians are prepared to take notice of such views is an entirely different matter of course.
I sometimes wonder if the use of commercial English has helped re-engineer the language due to the use of fast speed computer speak and mobile phone SMS.
Our not so distant ancestors habitually used expressions and nuances to convey ideas and thoughts without actually saying what they thought in concise and bold terms.
It's really a bit like Tok Pisin and the use of Tok Bokis. You can convey what you are thinking without actually saying it.
When I was a child, many Australians used sayings to convey meanings without actually saying something in plain speak. You might refer to something as being 'a bit like a dog's breakfast' when you didn't want to say the person's efforts were basically messy. The degrees of insinuation allowed thoughts to be conveyed without giving too much chance to give offence.
So maybe our views of today's modern English are coloured by our own modern and restricted vocabulary and usage? i.e. R U OK?
However, I do agree with Joe's point that there are many concepts and ideas that don't translate effectively between languages and language is the key to a culture.
I remember a German Agricultural Officer saying that the Tok Pisin term: 'Sindaun gut' doesn't really have an direct English equivalent. He reckoned the German word (phonetically pronounced something like Gumigulik - sorry it's over 50 years ago) and meaning a good state of mind was close to the Melanesian expression.
Any there German speakers out there who may care to comment or has what I've been saying, lost in translation?
Posted by: Paul Oates | 23 September 2019 at 08:52 AM
I really appreciate your comment Joe Herman.
Posted by: Michael Dom | 23 September 2019 at 07:40 AM
The Enga language has no word for female or male persons. A woman for instance, is broadly referred to as either enda or wanaku depending on its context.
The enda is a woman who is married into a tribe; my mother for instance. On the other hand, my sisters or girl cousins would be referred to as wanaku.
The two words are either roles or relational descriptions. There is no generic word to label both as female. Etanege, wife. Pimalenge, sister.
There are words to describe their relationship. eg wanege (daughter), etanege (wife) etc.
Simarlirly, akali or wane applies to males. Males in a tribe are akali but wane would be my sisters’ or girl cousins’ boys.
Children today are taught in schools that everyone falls into two gender categories: Either a female/male or girl/boy in somewhat linear manner. Embracing English has become a language of convenience. All the official forms are designed in this fashion to categorise them as male or female.
The unfortunate upshot of this is the loss of meanings and the cultural interpretation language represents. For instance, hearing enda or wanaku, the words invoke deep sense of flavour, bilum fragrance, taste and context in my mind.
In wanaku I picture prettiness, elegance, sisters, cousins and invokes tender relational image. The enda invokes images of women with missing fingers; wailing over losses; preparing sons to be men; custodians of ancient wisdom.
English has become a language of convenience. By embracing it, we are losing the cultural meaning indigenous language brings to bear. For instance, when I am completing a formal form, identifying by sex as female or male is gender generic.
My thinking, my dreams, and how I view the world is shaped by the Enga language. My translations in English is transactional and restrictive and limits experiencing the cultural images into English language.
Posted by: Joe Herman | 22 September 2019 at 03:11 AM
One of the points that Tyson Yunkaporta makes in his book is the lack of words in the English language to describe many things. That's a bit hard to take in at first, you'd think the English language has a word for everything.
Words that we don't seem to have are related to nuances in weather, seasons and environment. Other words we are missing relate to interpersonal relationships.
He says, for instance, that English has nowhere near enough pronouns. If you look at both Aboriginal and Papuan languages this becomes quite obvious.
This lack of words, of course, affects our view of our world and our relationships, often to the detriment of both.
Corney is right to be wary of Christianity. Like anything else it has its good and bad points and sometimes it is too easy to subvert the good points. Take everything with a grain of salt is good advice.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 September 2019 at 11:43 AM
My readings of the Nobel laureate, late Toni Morrison, James Baldwin works and the recent Case for Reparations author, Ta-Nehisi Coates who were and are keen observers of history and worldwide trends throws caution to the wind of amnesia.
I am comfortable with my view. I am also weary of my Christian upbringing to embrace, understand and appreciate the general good-will and forbearance in humanity
Posted by: Corney Korokan Alone | 21 September 2019 at 10:13 AM
The works by Pascoe, Gammage and others underscore the importance of recording and saving indigenous languages.
These are the repository of a body of practical knowledge and science that could be used to great effect to manage and regenerate landscapes and biodiversity.
In Australia indigenous knowledge of fire to manage and control vegetation has for instance been reintroduced in a number of instances to good effect.
Posted by: Daniel van R Claasen | 21 September 2019 at 12:21 AM