‘Legend of the Miok Egg: A True Enga Family Tale’ by Daniel Kumbon and Johannes Kulimbao Kundal, paperback, independently published, $26.24. Available here from Amazon Australia
FOREWORD - As an Australian who has enjoyed a long association with Papua New Guinea I tend to assume that I know a lot about the people and their cultures.
It is only when I read books like this one that I realise my knowledge is limited.
While I may know the technicalities of many of the varied cultures it is their lived experience that I lack.
Without actually living within a culture, as opposed to merely observing it, understanding can never be complete.
One of the main reasons why this is so is that as an observer I tend to use my own cultural traits and norms to interpret what I am seeing and hearing.
This becomes even more complicated when such cultures have been subjected to outside influences, such as missions or the influx of people from other places outside the area.
These hybrid cultures, which are now common in Papua New Guinea, are extremely fluid and variable depending upon the underlying strength of the traditional culture and the depth of the influences impacting upon it.
This works both ways of course. As I use my own cultural traits to misinterpret what I am seeing so do the people I am observing use their own cultural traits to misinterpret the outside influences impacting upon them.
It is only through accounts like the one in this book that the contradictions which such conflations produce become apparent.
The book, in effect, becomes a useful substitute for the absence of a lived experience.
In the early part of the book, for instance, the narrator, Johannes Kundal describes how he and his wife, Rose, adopted six children when they were unable to have more children after the birth of their son, Ishmael.
Each adoption is a story in itself and illustrates the way Engan extended families relate to the care and fostering of their children.
Gifting a child to a couple unable to have children is a common form of adoption in Enga Province and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea but is not a common practice in Australian culture.
Contrasted with the way complex child custody matters operate in my own culture the Engan approach seems decidedly casual but remarkably effective.
Rather than grappling with cold and unemotional legalities the Engan approach takes the welfare of the child and the community as its first priority.
If Johannes and Rose had had to deal with the same issues in my culture it is highly unlikely that the outcomes described in the book would have come to pass.
And yet, upon reading the rationalisations that came into play and how they were worked out I have been able to interpret them in their correct context.
Further on in the book other situations are described involving his family with equal detail and are just as enlightening for non-Engan readers.
A major theme is the positive impact that Christianity is having on the age-old problem of tribal warfare.
I have read and edited a number of autobiographies by Papua New Guinean writers in the last ten years or so but this one is by far the most frank and open. Johannes has to be commended for his courageous account.
As he says in the book: “I have held back nothing. When I talk about my own son, Ishmael in this account I hope young people will not make the same mistakes and ruin their lives.”
From a stapled together A4-size manuscript the editor Daniel Kumbon has taken Johannes’ story and created a fascinating and highly readable account of a life and career in Enga Province that should stand as an example to young people there and elsewhere in Papua New Guinea.