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Heritage, culture, Christianity & change

Bomai Witne - "It is a challenging time to assess whether and how we want to keep a link with our tribal heritage. Some of us are struggling"

| Published in PNG Attitude, 24 December 2014

GOROKA – What did I inherit from my tribal and national ancestors who migrated here some 50,000 years ago and what did I inherit from colonialism?

I have to find answers to these questions and the answers are hard to find.

I was born in Imil-Tomale, a remote hamlet, under the shade of pandanus trees and clothed with soft and tender leaves.

My mother named me Dominic immediately after my birth. I found out later that I was the namesake of the husband of the woman who assisted my mother to give birth to me.

Naming a child is an important tradition in the Bari tribe in the Kerowagi district of Papua New Guinea. Every name has a cultural story attached to it.

The name Dominic was later confirmed when I was baptised in the Catholic Church a few years later.  However, for some reason, my father registered me at school under the name Dick, which I use now.

I am still interested in why the change of my name occurred.

I was born on the tribal land of the Bari-Kirigauma and grew up speaking Bari. I learned Tok-Pisin and English when I attended school.

My mother shifted from dressing me with tender leaves to nappies and clothes.

My parents dressed me in traditional regalia from time to time and the primary school I attended encouraged traditional dressing once a week.

I remember listening to nighttime stories from my fathers and uncles in the men’s house where bamboo flutes were heard before dawn of day.

The men’s house had rules for the elderly, the young and small boys. Women would sometimes take their husbands’ food to the men’s house where it would be shared with other men.

Hard working young men and boys would be given a bigger share and lazy ones would be given little.

This was a way to encourage hard work, challenging young men and boys to avoid a similar embarrassment in future.

The stories of hard working and good people in the community dominated night time stories in the men’s house.

At other times, they would talk about how they defeated the enemy and how many people they had killed in that war.

They would also talk about how they were defeated and how many of their men were killed and the property that was destroyed.

I rarely saw my father sleep in our family house. I observed the rules in my mother’s house.

My mother and sisters would only sit and move in certain areas. The places in front and at the back of the fire were reserved for food storage. Mothers and girls were could not walk over these places.

Apart from the men’s and women’s houses, there were no institutions where culture and tradition were taught.

I realise now that my people did not have a systematic way of teaching and preserving their traditional way of life.

Few traditional customs were taught in school, apart from dressing in traditional regalia once a week.

The teachers did not explain why we were told to dress this way once a week. I just thought it was a school rule to follow.

Usually boys would wear laplaps, towels, bags or anything that resembled a kondai (loincloth). Girls had their own way.

Bomai witneThis might have been the beginning of school children moving away from dressing in traditional regalia and parents’ preservation of it.

When I went to school and met different people, my world view and the way I saw myself and my culture changed.

I used to think that Catholicism was the only religion but now I know it is a Christian faith among many others and is part of the broader religion of Christianity among other world religions.

The village kids I went to school with joined other Christian churches and began to condemn traditional cultures such as the way people dressed.

I saw some of them become pastors and talk to me like experts who know all about the Bible and venture into preaching about hell and heaven.

I did not know what I wanted to become but continued to do well in school.

The primary school, universities and the organisations I’ve been associated with have had a lot of influence in shaping my thoughts and the way I perceive and do things.

And right now, I’m confronted with the challenge of taking my children to the village this Christmas.

I am taking them to see their grandparents and the mountains, rivers, gardening land…. the entire place where I grew up as a child.

I am interested in how their grandparents and the people in the village will react to me and the children.

The children are conversant in Pidgin, but this still presents a communication dilemma for their grandparents who speak little Pidgin.

This reminds me of what the linguists having been saying. “Culture is transmitted well from one generation to another through effective use of a language”.

If this is true, my children represent modern children not acculturated in their own tribe.

They will probably not deepen their misunderstanding of Yuri and Bari culture if they do not speak the people’s language and are not encouraged to visit them.

I guess, the same is true for many Papua New Guineans and their children.

It is a challenging time for Papua new Guineans to assess whether and how they want to keep a link with their tribal heritage. Some of us are struggling.

The architects of the PNG Constitution had the wisdom to see such trend and had made an attempt to establish a philosophical foundation in the national goals and directive principles.

However, the different layers of government, from local level government to the provincial and national governments and their institutions, have taken a piecemeal approach to understanding and using the national goals and directive principles.

There is a lack of political will and commitment to institutionalize and give effect to these goals and principles.

It appears that most politicians at the different levels of government in PNG don’t understand their existence and importance.

And local level government presidents and councillors and some national MPs are amongst the most illiterate.

There are many reasons why.

The national school system has a bigger role to play in building these understandings into the school curriculum and making them a compulsory subject. This will require teachers to be educated as well.

Political parties have a role to give prominence to the goals and principles in their party policies to guide their plans and strategies.

This will require the ruling government not to discriminate between political party members in the disbursement of development funds.

Christianity has far reaching influence in PNG and most of what it preaches and stands for is consistent with the national goals and directive principles.

But pastors, priests and lay people must educate themselves well to share with others and give prominence to the philosophy of national goals and directive principles.

I attended a church retreat last week where Fr Franco Zocca affirmed that God is the giver of life and everything around it. If that was not enough, he sacrificed his son Jesus for mankind.

What does God wants from us this Christmas, as we remember and celebrate the birth of His son?

Fr Franco offered some answers to my question.

He referred to the Bible and highlighted some things that Jesus wanted for mankind as individuals and as members of family, clan, tribal or other groups in today’s Papua New guinea.

For individuals, Jesus, the son of God, wanted people to live a happy life without fear or favour. Jesus always told his followers, “Do not be afraid for I am with you.”

Individuals must strive to live happily with dignity, guided by principles of honesty, transparency and accountability.

We must have the strength to stand up for what is morally and legally right for ourselves and the community.

In such pursuit, we find the joy of being truly free from all forms of suppression. This is also a universal human right, the freedom of individuals.

According to Christianity, Jesus wants to exist in the hearts of people who live a righteous live, a life free of self-suppression and depression.

I recall a signboard placed at the roundabout in front of Parliament House at Waigani - “When the righteous rule, the people rejoice. When the wicked rule, the people suffer?”

These words remind Papua New Guineans and our politicians of the need to toil with honesty and dignity and to promote freedom of thought and expression among individuals to allow them to speak freely about the evils and corruption in PNG, instead of politicians - like the Speaker - shifting blame to innocent carvings in Parliament House.

The teachings of Christianity promote PNG’s cultural heritage of a peaceful community.

They discourage tribal warfare, payback, sorcery accusations, torture and killings. They call for people to live in peace and harmony and to use their goodness to create a better society.

Communal peace and coexistence provides a basis for interaction through sharing, caring and reaching out to the needy. It raises individuals and the community to realise, understand and value the potential and contribution of each member.

We have to stand up in the midst of all our challenges and always take a position for common good.

Corruption and abuse of position to acquire illegal wealth has become a norm in the public and private sector workforce in PNG. It starts with our political leaders and ends in the village.

The people of PNG are the victims of these unlawful and corrupt practices.  All Papua New Guineans must make a personal effort to improve the way we approach work and our obligations to other people.

My father used to tell me that he toiled using a spade and axe and the blisters on his hands healed and grew tough. The people with whom he shook hands knew his worth by the callouses.

He told me he was putting me through school so people would know and respect my thoughts and my deeds.

My Christian affiliation reaffirms that Jesus is the best teacher. His teachings and ways of life promote the teaching of our forefathers.

We Papua New Guineans face many challenges which require us to discern the noble heritage of our tribal and national forefathers and uphold those ideals that are consistent with our current values and laws and throw out those that are inconsistent.

Bomai Witne is a lecturer in political science at the University of Goroka. “I am a Yuri and Bari man. I strongly believe in the power, truth and spirituality of my ancestors”


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Bomai Witne’s 2014 article explaining how difficult it is for many Papua New Guineans to distinguish how much their perceptions of their culture, language and heritage is owed to ancient traditions on the one hand and colonialism on the other is well-worth thinking about.

It seems that the link with the past for many people, particularly children, in modern day Papua New Guinea is growing more and more tenuous as the years go by.

If the experience in other cultures is anything to go by, there will come a day when culture and tradition in PNG will have morphed into an entirely artificial creation bearing little resemblance to older realities.

As he notes, children’s knowledge of their ples tok (tribal language) is so bereft that they can’t communicate with their grandparents in the village.

At schools during significant occasions and celebrations they are dressed in traditional costumes and bilas (decorations) whose practical functions and meaning escapes them.

It seems that the preservation of culture and tradition was not something that significantly exercised the minds of PNG’s founders nor the outgoing Australian administration.

To a certain extent this is understandable because back in the 1970s most traditions, including languages, were largely intact and still practised on a daily basis.

While the Christian missions had made significant inroads back then many people were still able to distinguish between their old and new beliefs and accommodate both in their daily lives.

In the same way the inroads that modern economic practises were making were largely benign and could be accommodated alongside traditional concepts of community and the common good.

Over the ensuing years, however, the pervasive influence of the churches grew and a new form of brutal economics based on greed and individualism came into play.

If it had been possible to predict these future trends maybe the administrators and leaders of the 1970s could have made plans to counteract the more dire impacts.

That they didn’t do this in any meaningful way is perhaps now a moot point.

They could have properly funded the national museum and art gallery and instituted extension services in regional areas for instance but they didn’t, even though they had the legislation to do so.

Instead, they derided traditions and extolled modernity in its place. For many politicians, including the chief minister, the collections in the national museum were an embarrassment and painful a reminder of a primitive past. That sentiment still persists.

They could have supported PNG writers, historians and anthropologists so that traditions and heritage were preserved for posterity but they didn’t.

They could have mandated the teaching of culture and tradition in the schools especially attuned to regional customs and practise but they didn’t.

They could have set up linguistic programs to encourage the preservation and use of regional languages and, for that matter, lingua franca like Hiri Motu but they didn’t.

That none of this was ever done, or done poorly, is now, as Bomai Witne laments, to the detriment of modern day Papua New Guineans.

One could now ask whether this unfortunate oversight is redeemable at such a late stage.

It would appear not if the recent efforts by Papua New Guinean writers to gain support from the government is any indication.

The government just doesn’t want to know about anything so esoteric. Its mind is firmly fastened on economic matters to the exclusion of everything else.

If an endeavour cannot demonstrate an economic return, preferably in the immediate term, it will fail to attract their attention.

They seem unable to connect arts and culture to economics, even though such connections are known to be significant.

When it comes to such potential money spinners as tourism their minds turn to luxury resorts rather than the enmeshing cultural experiences that many overseas visitors seek.

They are not alone in this of course. In many parts of the world the Disney Land mentality prevails and arts and culture suffers.

One day in the not too distant future a Papua New Guinean child may ask their parents, “Who am I”.

The answer will be very interesting.

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