TUMBY BAY - During my short career as a kiap, I often pondered my presence in Papua New Guinea. What was I doing there and why was I doing it?
Kiap, didiman, tisa, kuskus, dokta, ansini, kamda* - I suppose we were all missionaries with the same message to sell.
The message? ‘We are culturally superior and we want you all to adopt our way of life.’
It was a fairly arrogant, even pernicious message. The longer I was in PNG, the more I came to doubt its utility.
We didn’t have to do what we did. And even if we had to, the way we did it could have been different.
We could have left the existing cultural structures in place and simply provided mechanisms to keep away the plunderers - the miners and loggers; the recruiters of forced labour - and those with imperial ambitions.
After all, Australia became a coloniser in Papua, which had been British, and New Guinea, which had been German, more by circumstance than intent.
We weren’t particularly interested in both colonies except as a strategic geopolitical buffer and a source of wealth for some.
But for Australia, these territories were costly to maintain and more of an albatross around our neck than a twinkle in our eyes.
And I think we would be flattering ourselves to claim that the colonised people actually welcomed us. They had little choice in the matter.
My experience among the Biami (Bedamini) of Nomad River in Western Province made that understanding crystal clear.
The Biami people didn’t want us there and they fought to keep us out at every opportunity.
And there are still little pockets of Indigenous people holding out against Western influence all over the world.
In our neck of the woods the people of Tanna Island in Vanuatu are a good example.
In the island’s high villages, the people stick to their traditional clothing of penis sheaths and grass skirts. They shun modern inventions and keep their children away from school.
Similar groups still manage to hide away in the Amazon rainforests and on remote islands in the Philippines.
I suppose it’s easy to argue that the westernisation of Papua New Guinea was inevitable.
If it wasn’t Australia some other colonial power would have been there. In fact, two colonial powers had been there.
Once exposed to the trappings of Western society, many Indigenous people wanted such goods for themselves.
When Graeme Pretty and Tony Crawford from the South Australian Museum went to PNG’s Southern Highlands in 1968 to collect artefacts, the people couldn’t wait to get rid of their stone axes and bows and arrows in exchange for Western goods.
Such was the alacrity of this desire, in his report on their expedition Graeme referred to the exchange as salvage ethnography.
Some of us sometimes think of our time in PNG as a noble cause but we seldom mention the destructive nature of our endeavours, well-meaning or otherwise.
That destruction is now visible to anyone who cares to observe the dysfunctional state of Papua New Guinea today.
Ask any woman in any street of the capital, Port Moresby, what she thinks of that wonderful Western import called alcohol.
Or ask any man what he thinks of the obese politicians living in their mansions on Touaguba Hill.
Ironically, it is only in some of the least developed rural areas that we can find what might have been.
People in those places living with minimal outside influence are, by and large, happy and content.
It’s all too late now of course. There’s no way of turning back.
And the past usually tends to be viewed through rose tinted glasses.
Nevertheless, as a grumpy old bugger with time on my hands to chew over the past, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that we could have done a better job in PNG in the time we had there.
A little more thought probably wouldn’t have gone astray.
More refined knowledge about the cultures in which we were embedded, better understanding of what the people really wanted and more astute consideration of what the future might hold.
We just weren’t up to that, I’m afraid
* Tok Pisin-English Glossary of Colonial Officials
kiap = patrol officer, district officer, government field officer
didiman = agriculture officer
tisa = teacher, education officer
kuskus = clerk
dokta = doctor, medical officer
ansini = engineer
kamda = carpenter