Christianity seems to have failed us badly
After the gold rush, the funerals

The long tradition of orators & wordsmiths

Road opening  Jimi  1970 (Tom Webster)
The Jimi people gather for a road opening in 1970. There will be many speeches. They will be long (Tom Webster)


TUMBY BAY - Older Papua New Guineans will recall the role of oratory or speech-making by clan and tribal leaders.

Many kiaps and other field staff will also remember those times when hundreds of people gathered to hear the words of these important people, not least because they were expected to take part and contribute.

As a young cadet patrol officer I can recall the daunting experience of having to stand in front of these large gatherings to deliver a speech in my rudimentary Tok Pisin. Thankfully my audiences were understanding.

As my proficiency in the language improved, I became more confident and actually planned what I was going to say.

As did, of course, the Papua New Guinean speakers who practised and practised their speeches until they sounded just right.

It may have seemed those speeches were off the cuff but they were the result of much refinement.

With the necessity of an interpreter to turn the talk into the local vernacular. I could eventually spin out my contributions to over half an hour, which was probably the minimum expected.

Some of those old orators could rattle on for hours with the advantage of clan histories and family genealogies to work through.

The oratory tradition goes back into the depths of time in Papua New Guinea and the rest of the world.

In the West it has antecedents dating back to the Roman conquest of Greece.

The art of oratory began to flourish when the Romans adopted the Grecian tradition and reached its zenith in their senate.

That same tradition was later reflected in the dramatic works of William Shakespeare and others. The monologues and soliloquys in those plays follow a direct line from those early orators.

Shakespeare’s perfection of the language of these speeches has never been bested. He was a master wordsmith - a writer who applies craftsperson-like skills to the use of words.

Wordsmiths are different from the writers who throws words at the page hoping they land in some sort of logical sequence or writers whose words flow directly from their brain with no intermediate pause for thought.

Such writers sometimes come up with brilliant pieces of work but this success is more often a matter of luck than anything else.

A wordsmith, on the other hand, has a reasonable idea whether what they have written is good or bad or somewhere in between.

In this class conscious world where work is divided into professions, trades and menial labour, the wordsmith sits in the middle as a kind of artisan.

For the wordsmith, crafting a written work is very much an art form. Like painters or sculptors, they touch and retouch or cut and smooth and generally arrange things until everything looks and feels right.

For the painter or sculptor every brushstroke or tap of the chisel is significant. Each has to be considered and even tested until the desired effect is achieved.

For the wordsmith each word one has to be placed exactly and fittingly, until they all fit together perfectly.

If you are creating a painting the colours and patterns have to be harmonised so they enhance the whole picture. It’s the same with the style and narrative of a story or poem.

How a painting finally looks is a statement of its many parts. How a story or poem works is also a function of its many parts.

For a painting, the ingredients are the colours of different hues, the types of brushes, spatulas and other instruments used to apply the paint and the material on which it is applied.

In a written work, the characters, narrative and scenarios are the raw materials.

While the Western literary tradition has a direct link to earlier orators so too has Papua New Guinean literature. The differences between the two are just a matter of elapsed time.

It would be very interesting to compare the areas with a strong oratory tradition to the areas from where much modern day Papua New Guinean literature has emerged.

It is entirely possible that a strong linkage could be established.

As an example, perhaps the prolific wordsmiths of Simbu owe their skills to traditions of oratory inherited from long ago.


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Baka Bina

Not all village men were orators. The few that were grew into the job by working at it. They learned stories and they spoke a few words at the actual events.

Most of their speaking were done when they told their stories beforehand to a small group of listeners. These were dissected afterwards to see what the message was.

The orators in Goroka had to know stories - a great many of them - and the traditions and the histories around them including the movements of families and people.

They would have a memory that remembered all these and at gatherings they use these knowledge.

They talked about mountains and rivers and the names of the different taros or yams and the different colours of these plants.

A listener taking their story at face value would miss it altogether. They would in fact be talking about the subject at hand under the cover of yam yarns with mountains and rivers.

People listened to them, worked out who was the subject by identifying the 'hait nem' [hidden identity] of the person and, once that was known, the story would unravel to see if they were pleased or displeased with the event at hand.

There were some great orators that the kiaps used in Goroka. Soso Subi and Atau Waukave were two that come to mind. Atau used his oratory skill to be a councilor for my people for a long time before his demise.

Most of their oratory was 'tok bokis' [metaphorical] and historical and in these sessions they infused their stories with these messages. They were also quick thinkers.

Phil Fitzpatrick thinks that Simbus are good orators. I agree. Most of the Simbu language is set up for oration. It is a bit different for other languages.

Also it is my impression that the Simbu people are fast thinkers and quick learners. Throw in a few memory chips and, yes, they have the megabytes for it.

I hope they share that with the few of us that want to ride on the coat tails of their repute.

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