Needed: A compact between govt & people
Put politics last: Let’s stop reversing evolution

Thoughts of then, now & cultural variance

Road building  Pindiu  Morobe District  1965 (Frank Haviland)
Road building,  Pindiu,  Morobe District,  1965 (Frank Haviland)


WARRADALE - In the late 1960s, as a young kiap based at Mt Hagen Sub-District Office, I was assigned to supervise work on a new feeder road.

It led off the Hagen-Togaba main road and heading north towards Bukapena in the Mul Council area, perhaps eight kilometres out of Hagen.

Part of the construction through a small hill had resulted in a cliff 10-15 metres high that had to be reduced to allow the road to be widened using the stock tools of the time - picks and long-handled spades.

Best practice was to dig the cliff away from top down to minimise danger. However the clan had decided to save time by undermining the cliff and letting it fall.

Despite my warnings a number of men continued digging below the cliff, displaying a bravado that trumped any appreciation of risk.

The inevitable happened when without warning some 35 tonnes of heavy red clay collapsed. All but one of the men jumped away, but this poor fellow disappeared under an enormous pile of earth.

I was standing just four metres away when the fall occurred and with a number of other men jumped forward to frantically scrape the away clay with bare hands. We knew exactly where he had been standing.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man raising a pick. We didn’t know if the victim was two feet under the clay or two inches. I screamed and managed to stop the pick falling.

While we continued the rescue, grief stricken men gathered around, wailing, pulling their beards and swaying to and fro in desperation.

All I could think about was how long the victim might survive. Finally, I don’t know how much time had elapsed, we found and freed him. Two dozen men grabbed at him to hold and comfort him.

My thoughts of rendering first aid went nowhere. The clan manhandled him into a Toyota Stout to take him to Mt Hagen Hospital. To me, it looked like they were competing to hold him. He was a young man, his face contorted by pain, fear and shock.

A dozen of them jumped on the Stout to accompany him. I joined them and for the first time was able to see his injuries. The crazy angle of his leg showed he had a badly broken femur.

He gestured to his leg, which was obviously causing him excruciating pain. I yelled at the driver to stop the vehicle and used some men’s belts to fasten spade handles around the leg as a crude splint.

The resultant pain caused him to lose consciousness, which convinced the others he was dead or about to die. The grief and wailing intensified.

Upon arriving at Mt Hagen hospital (our first son was born there four years later), the victim was rapidly admitted and treated. I was still there two hours later when the sound of wailing and keening became audible in the distance and gradually grew in volume and intensity.

The entire clan group, consumed by grief and covered from head to toe in mourning clay, had jogged into town.

They were convinced their clansman was dead and it took some talking for them to accept he was alive, being treated and would be fine. Eventually, most of the clan went home, the police, alerted for fear a tribal conflict had erupted, stood down, and life returned to normal.

I was transferred to Baiyer River not long after, and did not see the victim for many months. It was at the Mt Hagen Show and he saw me in the throng to tell me he had not been compensated for his injuries.

The hospital had done its best but his leg was severely impaired, which would have lifelong consequences for him. The Australian Administration did not have rules about compensation for injuries incurred on self-help projects so, other than telling him to take up his case with Sub-District Office, I had nothing to offer him.

If a serious incident like this took place in an Australian context, people would feel empathy, offer support, rally around to do whatever they could, but there would rarely be an open display of the raw emotion and communal grief I saw that day, and on many other occasions in the Highlands.

Different cultures express grief, be it individual or communal, in diverse ways.

In Western societies, when a catastrophic accident occurs, the grief of family tends to be private, inward-focused and restrained and the grief of friends and workmates doesn’t typically display strong outward emotion; perhaps some public tears or halting words to express shock and sympathy.

I contrast that with what I know of how grief is expressed in Papua New Guinea where it is collective, strongly expressed and infectious. It’s almost an expression of, ‘What happened to you happened to me, and I feel your pain and distress’.

Those of us who have witnessed such spectacles don’t easily forget them. Many of us will recall our own strong emotions at the very mention of them.

My explanation is that Western societies are nowhere near as ‘tribal’ in our social structures and practices. In truth, particularly in cities, few Australians know the neighbours in their own street.

Contrast this with PNG, where in the clan structure one is an integral part of the community where care for others is an integral responsibility of membership.

As Martyn Namorong has pointed out in arguing for a new PNG Constitution, Melanesian society is pluri-national – a land of different and once empowered tribal nations. The tribe and clan are still meaningful structures for perhaps 85% of the population.

It is a source of great argument, but I believe future historians will judge that Australia granted independence at an appropriate time but critically failed to grasp that the Westminster parliamentary system was just one option and probably not the best.

The same government has failed to understand and accept our own Indigenous society on its own terms, so perhaps the lack of imagination in the early 1970s was not surprising.

Nor did the Constitutional Development Committee under Fr John Momis seriously consider a more traditional system of government.

So what’s the moral here? Just that when a ‘lapun bipo’, an old colonial you might say, starts reminiscing, the thoughts drift and weave from what was, what is and what could have been. That’s all.

Perhaps if those cultural differences had been better understood and valued, PNG might be somewhere else.

But there’s no reworking the past, we can simply hope for the future.


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Garrett Roche

My initial response to this item was trying to figure out which road Jim Moore was referring to and what clans were involved.

Between Hagen and Togoba there are at least two roads heading towards Bukapena. One road branches off the highway near Keluagi and goes through Moika and on towards Bukapena. Another road branches off near the Primary Schools at Keltiga and also heads towards Bukapena. Both roads go through an area inhabited by the Jika Mukuka clan.

Pena Au a former member of the House of Assembly was from that clan. And the current member Paias Wingti is also from the Jika Mukuka clan. Perhaps Jim was referring to the road going near Pena Au’s area.

Jim Moore goes on to discuss the appropriateness of the Western Parliamentary system for an independent PNG.
In my experience in the Hagen area, the pre-independence system of Local Government councillors was quite effective and in many ways linked in well with the local culture and customs.

The local government councillors were generally close to their people and did not become a separate elite group. Councillors such as Komp De, Minimbi Ken, Wamp Wan, Jika Rumints, Ulga Ugl, Truga Kuri, and others were well respected.

In my opinion it was not Independence itself but the later introduction of Provincial Government that caused the Local Government Councils to lose their power and influence. And Provincial Government itself later lost power to the centralising National Government.

Provincial Government may have been an attempt to bring politics to a grass-root level, but by weakening the already existing Local government Councils it ultimately led to a more centralised civil service. Tinktink tasol.

Paul Oates

Not necessarily Phil. I have experienced contact with many cultures as have you. Look at our own multicultural society that accepts cultural links and ethnicity, provided it isn't forced down everyone's throats.

The trick is to find a happy medium without 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater'. That's the reason it takes a long time to work it out but there's always a chance it will go too far in one direction that some don't like.

Look at the UK at the moment and the chances are it may split up after 300 odd years. When tribalism becomes fanatical, there's always a chance that it will become dangerous. Just look at Africa or parts of Asia for example.

You only have to look at those who take the State of Origin a tad too far and see how easily emotions can quickly boil over, especially if there is envy over a perceived split up of wealth and resources. Just look at how our politicians are currently using tribalism over the pandemic as a powerful lever and political tool, aided and assisted by the media who are supposedly only trying to sell more papers and programs.

If there was ever a time when we should all be pulling together in the one direction it's now. Diseases don't discriminate about which tribe you owe allegiance too.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The thing is Paul, a "unifying single system of government" will ultimately destroy the "many different tribal cultures and perceptions."

Paul Oates

It's taken me a long time to actually 'get' (an understanding) of what the problem was leading up to PNG Independence.

The going thought process at the time was the Westminster system works for us and is working for us. Therefore, impose this obviously working system on a people and their many hundreds of cultures as a unifying force.

After control was transferred and the obvious cracks started to appear, by simply pointing out that by adhering to the accepted system, the problems should right themselves. Those that stepped out of line should be identified and shamed into accepting what the system was and how it should operate.

Guess what? It doesn't work when the majority of the people involved a. Don't understand the Westminster system and never have, and b. Find it mostly is in diametric opposition to the basic cultural beliefs of the majority of those who are supposed to operate under it (i.e. either everyone accepts a decision after however long the preceding discussion takes or there is no decision.)

Hence we finally get to the situation that we have today in PNG where the Parliament is actually run on communal village lines and the PNG Constitution is not in step with the nation's cultural perspectives.

Where to from here? Well that suggests a major political upheaval and a drastic realignment of policies and perspectives to readjust the nation's system of government. And that is exactly what happened in those nations that also went through hundreds of years of 'readjustment' before the end result was what was basically thrust on to PNG by the nations who had control of the country, (i.e. the UN, and the newly independent African and Asian nations and Australia).

What will happen in the many intervening years of 'readjustment'? Just look at the history of those nations who have gone through the same process.

With all the best intentions, and there were and still are plenty of those in abundance, there is no way to fast track a unifying single system of government over many different tribal cultures and perceptions.

Understanding the problem is the first step along a very long road.

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