"When modern man goes to extrinsic sources to understand his own existence and his own past, we Melanesians reach deep within to find and know ourselves..."
THE AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER on the Australia Day weekend of 26 January 2007 had an insightful cartoon of the unmistakably short, bespectacled and bushy-browed John Howard, prime minister of Australia, head slightly tilted to the left, looking up to a fluttering American flag, counting its many a spangled stars and singing “Twinkle twinkle little star / How I wonder who we are…”.
It was a telling caricature of not only the times we lived in post-Nine Eleven. In just a few wiggly lines, the cartoonist cleverly opened our eyes to take a rare glimpse of the heart and soul of a nation, its people and its destiny as perceived by its leaders.
It was a weekend that saw flags raised in almost every town in Australia extolling the virtues of Australian society and its values. Equally in just about every pub, many schooners and stubbies of beer were raised.
In city halls and malls, politicians and local government aldermen handed out Australia Day awards and medals in elevation of certain individuals in society as model citizens of that year. Some even became new citizens that day swearing to abide by Australian values.
A curious Melanesian visitor passing through Australia that weekend would have been excused for pondering about what exactly were Australian values. What exactly were those national values Howard was talking about as differentiated from private or individual values?
There is a prevailing view today that a nation has no values of its own; it merely reflects the common values shared and practiced by its citizens; some shaped by history with ancient origins while others by modern contemporary culture or religion.
Writers like Steven Covey of the school of effective leadership, take a more incremental approach and argue that values are more like mission statements, each deliberately laid out by leaders or chief executives of entities to guide policy or shape organizational behaviour.
Be that it may, we cannot deny the critical role values play in defining a nation and its people. They can set a people apart and gives them meaning, purpose and direction. It is the sacred place of noble design, the deepest well from which a people’s hopes aspirations and their loftiest dreams are drawn and crafted into attainable goals for the kind of future and society they envisage for themselves and their children.
They shape, drive and guide policy and lawmakers. As such, the contrary is true of a nation without values: it is bared of substance and soul and, like a rudderless ship, is cast upon the vagaries of internal politics, social expediency and economic self-interest. Without values a nation can have neither soul nor the substance of a vision for the future.
Equally sobering is the realization that a nation acting purely from imperatives of political or economic expediency, whether in internal policy translation or in reaction to external forces, may sometimes act in isolation of and or in diametrical contrast to the will and the sum of the collective values of its citizens.
When governments act against the moral and value choices of the masses, it is invariably characterized as ‘Big Government’. Big Government may yield in more social and economic disharmony, loss of confidence in government and loss of social cohesion in communities.
Most importantly it may result in loss of trust and confidence in an institution like democracy in ways more subtle than society can progressively measure.
In contrast to the idea of Big Government, democracy, an ideology initially designed, evolved and handed down from the Greeks and Romans, by essential character and definition is supposedly for and by the people; reflecting the will, intent and values of the people.
Governments which continue to ignore the values of the people tend to lose the heart and mind battle at the polls.
So on that January weekend, many speeches, both evocative and sentimental, were given by civic and political leaders of Australia. John Howard was no exception when he spoke imploringly of the values of giving someone a “fair go” and “mateship” as being the two important national values of Australia.
Now, if you were to stand back and examine Howard’s speech and his two national ‘values’ from a strictly Melanesian perspective, you would have to admit that a leader in Melanesia would be scoffed at for scraping the bottom of the barrel of virtue and daring to exemplify and extol these as national values in such a public gathering.
For the observant Huli man from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea or a Matu from Morobe, for instance, Howard was attempting to squeeze the sublime out of the mediocrity of what is common and banal.
Such exultation would be highly offensive to Huli and Morobe minds who are used to unraveling rich oratorical mysteries that encompass and betray a serious study in literacy, history, life, and relationships that are complex in earthiness and yet critical to the fecundity of life and survival of both man and his spirit.
Indeed the Huli and Morobe stride with such richness of elegance and eloquence that they would make both Longfellow and his Hiawatha weep with joy unbridled.
A Huli man who opens his mouth like an owl in vanity is quickly reminded of his place. The elders shake their heads or roll their eyes in distress and look up to the skies as if to blame God for the paucity and triteness of thought in utterances that are devoid of history, idealism and practical pragmatism, either to give or take life.
They would gather up slowly and deliberately in midstream, each clasping his straggling aprons of bilum, vigorously shake the earth off the dried tanget leaves covering their netherworlds and, in the face of the speaker, slowly retreat.
Then someone, as if to embellish the magnitude of the moment, invariably cries out and challenges the speaker as to where and how he derived the authority to defile the privilege of the podium of such a place as this with his adolescent mutterings.
What shame! If only he could melt into the earth, but the earth refuses to open up and swallow him. He looks up, but the heavens merely rain a thousand beads of sweat upon him.
In his heart the silent hand of truth moves, coalescing all manner of form, shape and substance of things to reveal to him a new and painful understanding of his own world. Things are not always what they seem.
It is likened to a little bird in the cusp of a man’s hand. It may be chirping away, but the Huli know that the little bird is neither dead nor alive. The hand that holds it carries with it both life and death, and so it is the man who stands in the midst of multitudes and opens his mouth.
With timeless metaphors and multilayered paradoxical and parabolic discourses of truth, like an onion or a babushka doll with its real core found in the next layer, or a maze in mosaic manner laid, each word he carefully spins by masterful hands into a loom of beauty that tantalizes the ears and intoxicates the mind.
He takes you on a journey with a lilt in his voice, a little hop and a skip in his stride, eyes darting first to the left then to the right; he lifts his spear, like the mast of a galleon’s flag, and plants it firmly on the ground in front of him.
There you are, astride with him, on one leg teetering gingerly on the cusp of one word and the thread of a single thought. Only the learned know where in a few lines and a singular breath he has taken you. Only those who have eyes can now see, even fleetingly, the hand that holds the past and plays the future.
When you, and thousands alike, are held enthralled, transfixed and mesmerized by the agonizing beauty of eloquence, there is neither want for food nor drink, for you know your soul is feasting on the very marrow of life itself and every word uttered is like a solitary rock on the great stream of life.
Every man, woman and man-child who live to face another day shall take away their fill to ruminate over on their journey back, across the rivers, ravines and misty ridges that fade to cloudy ranges, to talk about around the fires for days and years to come.
As Melanesians, as Pacific people, we take for granted all forms of common human interaction (even giving someone a fair go or showing kindness and consideration of thought through difficult times) that Howard talked about. These are part of our cultural heritage and tradition.
Our very existence as a people depends on hospitality, sharing, caring and dealing with an even hand. These virtues are part of the essential nature and fabric of our societies and there is nothing unusual or extraordinary about them. They are as old as the mountains that grant us perspective by day, and the stars that chart our courses by night. They are like the constant ebb and flow of the waves, and the rise and fall of the tides. They are likened to breathing in and breathing out, and are as common as coconut palms swaying in the evening breeze on some lonely sun-bleached island in our Pacific paradise.
In all seriousness, we would not for one moment even consider making them our national values or celebrate them as our own unique virtues, nor would we dream of distinguishing ourselves as a people by our hospitality or common gestures of social kindness and fairness that have sustained our societies for centuries and shall continue to do so for generations to come.
It is therefore understandably difficult, and in a sense offensive to the sensibilities of Melanesian and Pacific minds, to comprehend why what we consider commonplace and universal would be sanctified and extolled as a nation’s core values or some special virtues that deem a people worthy of peculiar distinction.
Melanesians are an ancient and deeply spiritual people, steeped in a higher consciousness of their own history and place. When modern man goes to extrinsic sources to understand his own existence and his own past, we Melanesians reach deep within to find and know ourselves.
Archaeologists and anthropologists are only now beginning to understand and validate extrinsically what each of us from our various islands, language groups, villages and tribes already know intrinsically of ourselves.
We are whole, vibrant societies, complete with own culture, identity, government, laws and spirituality. We possess an extraordinary prowess to assess and self-assess, to morph into or around calamity, and to change alike and thrive in modernism without completely losing ourselves.
We know that we did not just sail in yesterday from somewhere, nor is our existence a matter of social or historical aberration. We are not an accident, nor are we a scar or some nondescript pimple upon the face of planet earth. We did not emanate as a synthesis of the big bang theory.
We are a deliberate people with societies underpinned by very strong value systems passed down through generations for thousands of years that make us who we are. We are defined and our every conduct is measured by these timeless values, and how we live with our land and surrounding environment.
We derive our validity and life force by our very existence since time immemorial as Melanesians and as Pacific people. We are earth people. We are the keepers of the earth.
In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, for example, our proud agrarian culture of over 7,000 years rivals the agrarian sophistication of Mesopotamia and its Fertile Crescent, popularly deemed by modern scholars as the cradle of modern civilization.
Our ancient methods of crop rotation, irrigation, mulching, composting, fallowing, shading, silviculture and other methods of soil enrichment and preservation are of world renown.
The multi billion dollar Australian sugar and banana industries, for example, owe their prolific varieties and hardly genetics to Melanesian people of Papua New Guinea who cultivated them for several thousand years before European settlement in Australia. The west has adopted some of our agrarian methods and written textbooks about them while we still quietly practice and subsist by them to this very day.
Our Lapita and Obsidian civilizations, dating back over 6,000 years, are in the process of being discovered and talked about by other people.
Unfortunately there has not been any sustained or systematic study carried out across Melanesia for the purpose of locating our agrarian civilizations in terms of other comparable civilizations existing at that same time in the Middle East, Asia and Southern Americas.
Wwe intuitively know this ourselves, however, and yet, in true Melanesian nature, opt not to parade ourselves as objects of zoology or relics of laboratory anthropology but rather live our lives, as we did for thousands of years just humbly chewing our betel nut and looking on as the world fusses by.
As science for the time being has it, we have been living in Papua New Guinea for at least 70,000 years, about the same time certain Aboriginal people are thought to have migrated to the continent of Australia when these two land masses were still supposedly joined.
The Aborigine came through what is now Papua New Guinea to go on to Australia to evolve as an inhabitant of a dry and arid contingent. Those who remained or arrived in later waves in time became known as fuzzy haired people of darker pigmentation- Melanesia.
Thus the connection between the Melanesian and the Aborigine, particularly the northern sub-tropical and savannah dweller, is closer and stronger than is probably realized. Our ancestors probably shared one raft, saved each other from drowning and fished and hunted together for survival.
Our traditional societies have been held together with complex value systems interwoven over time into a culture of sharing and caring, barter, trading and fair exchange of goods, which ensured to this day that our societies stood the test of time and endured the rigours of modernism and its almost sub-human and capriciously utilitarian mode of existence called individualism.
We are an ancient and yet transient people, embodying the past and living the future. We are time travellers who, like birds, have flown from the past since the beginning of time and space and have never ceased flying. We live the essence of this every day of our lives, a people of history living today in yesterday’s future.
In the Trobriand Islands of Eastern Papua, better known by some as Malinowsky’s Islands of Love, being served a meal of yam and fish cooked in coconut juices in a Lapita pot is a daily ritual for some. Yet this relic of pottery has travelled hundreds of nautical miles, and literally fed toddlers and tribes along the way for thousands of years.
The hands that felt the loamy texture of the clay from which it was molded have long gone to join the ancestral spirits in some far away land where the birds sing a different tune. The fires that lit its kiln have long gone cold. Still generations of our people have traded this pot and have eaten from its depths, as we do today.
The taste and fragrance of foods cooked in the boughs of mother earth itself is like feasting from the hand of God himself. A cast of thousand iron, copper or aluminum pots cannot match the earth’s own yield, reflecting our own fragrance back to us, feed us while we live and ever so ready to take us and hold us in the depths of its womb, when we die.
More recently, in the last 500 years, it was our forefathers who found many a European explorer hungry and lost in our waters with their strange looking tall ships. We either sequestrated them, or in most cases happily provisioned them and sent them on their way.
The Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish had prolific charts of our waters well before Captain Cook’s great-grandmother was conceived. The Chinese trade in our birds of paradise plumes and trepang caused them to sail our waterways with their Macassan intermediaries in the early 1400s, well before most Europeans had any idea the world was indeed round.
In the first century after the death of Christ, the Arabs invaded northern India with Islam and took it across Siam just shy of our doorstep. Whilst Indonesia remains the largest Islamic country in the world, had the constant Hindu and Muslim frictions not occurred within India to distract the Muslims, a greater part of Melanesia may well have been Muslim, at least the islands and coastal parts of today’s Papua New Guinea.
We are not less, nor are we more. Rather, we are we, an ancient people of families, tribes, villages and islands, who bound together, are nations, and we have taken our rightful place among the great fraternity of nations.
We are Papua New Guinea, we are Solomon Islands, we are Vanuatu, we are Fiji, we are Melanesia, and we the Pacific people.
At the same time custom dictates that we acknowledge our brothers and sisters living under sufferance in Torres Strait, in West Papua and New Caledonia, and our Polynesian cousins to the East and our Micronesian neighbors to the north.
As inclusive people by nature, we are also embracing of others who have come to live and love our islands and have made them their home.
The Pacific is our home, our heritage, and our inheritance. It is our past, our present and our future.