TUMBY BAY - The republishing of Bomai Witne’s 2014 article on how difficult it is for many Papua New Guineans to distinguish how much their cultural perceptions belong to tradition on the one hand and colonialism on the other prompts my further exploration.
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 past realities.
As Bomai notes, children’s knowledge of their ples tok (tribal language) is so bereft 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 (decoration) whose practical function 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 practised each day.
And, while the Christian missions had made significant inroads, many people were still able to distinguish between their old and new beliefs and accommodate both in their daily lives.
In the same way, modern economic practises were not well-entrenched, and their impact was 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.
But they didn’t do this in any meaningful way.
For instance, they could have properly funded the national museum and art gallery and extended like services to regional areas for instance but they didn’t.
Instead, they extolled modernity and largely neglected traditions. For many politicians, the collections in the national museum were an embarrassment; a painful reminder of a primitive past. Such sentiments continue to this day.
Those administrators and leaders could have supported PNG writers, historians and anthropologists so traditions and heritage could be preserved for posterity. There was action at the time, but it wasn’t designed to be sustainable.
They could have mandated the teaching of culture and tradition in the schools especially attuned to regional customs and practise, but they didn’t do so to any great effect.
They could have set up linguistic programs to encourage the preservation and use of regional languages and, for that matter, the dying lingua franca Hiri Motu, but they didn’t.
That none of this was ever done, or done with little effect, is now, as Bomai Witne laments, to the detriment of modern day Papua New Guineans.
One could now ask whether these unfortunate oversights are redeemable at such a late stage.
It would appear not if 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’ or ‘irrelevant’ as home-grown literature.
Its mind is firmly fastened on economic matters – material matters - to the exclusion of just about everything else.
If an endeavour cannot demonstrate an economic return, preferably quickly, it fails to attract their support.
They seem unable to connect arts and culture to economics, even though such connections are known to be significant.
When it comes to potential money spinners like tourism, their minds turn to luxury resorts rather than the enmeshing cultural experiences that many overseas visitors seek.
The PNG government is not alone in this of course. In many parts of the world the Disneyland mentality prevails and the arts and culture suffers.
One day in the not too distant future a Papua New Guinean child may ask their parents, “Who am I”.
In a nation that has even lost track of its own history, the answer will be interesting.