IF YOU DON’T KNOW where you’ve come from, how on earth can you expect to know where you are going?
Late last year I visited a village at the northern end of the Yuat Gorge. While the people are not in Enga Province, they are probably the most far flung Engan outliers in the highlands.
I asked them how they came to be so far away from Wabag and living in East Sepik Province.
None of them really knew. The village and surrounding hamlets had been in their present location for nearly 50 years and, apart from an old man, no one in the settlement was over 45 years old.
I knew how they came to be there because I had read Jon Bartlett’s patrol report. I explained their history to them.
When they lived further upriver in the mountains, their parents and grandparents had run afoul of a megalomaniacal luluai and tultul from a nearby clan group. Don’t know what a luluai or tultul is? Better ask your grandparents.
These venerable gentlemen, who had been appointed by the kiap at Kompiam, thought that their brass badges of office gave them open licence to lock people up for no reason whatsoever and then assault their wives and children.
The kiap at Kompiam was two days hard walking away, so the clan elders decided their best option was the age-old highland underdog strategy of looking for greener and safer pastures. Hence they came to their present location.
Jon Bartlett mentioned in his patrol report that, when he came across them in 1971, the clan elders had their Village Book with them.
In the days of the kiaps every village or settlement had a special navy blue Village Book in which important information and events were recorded.
When I asked them if they still had it they shrugged. The old man, who remembered fleeing downriver with his parents as a child, thought that someone had thrown it in the river after independence.
The reason I thought of this visit I made last year was the recent news that Jack Karukuru had passed away. Jack was one of the first Papua New Guinean kiaps and was a very famous man.
Yet very few people, apart from some other old kiaps, seem to know much about him.
I mentioned this to a friend who is also an ex-kiap and who spends a lot of time in Papua New Guinea. He nodded in agreement.
When he was a kiap he knew the local member of the House of Assembly, who is long deceased, very well. They were good friends. He was a man who never had much money but did much for his country.
When my friend recently went back to the village area where his friend lived and mentioned his name he was met with blank stares. “Wasn’t he once a big man or something?” someone asked.
Colonial history is easy. There are dozens of books on the subject and, if they are inadequate, there is the vast resource of old patrol reports.
History since independence is an entirely different matter. Sometimes it is almost impossible to collect anything at all.
The lack of these records owes something to the parlous state of publishing in Papua New Guinea and, perhaps, also to the scant attention history is paid in the universities. None of them, as far as I am aware, teach oral history skills.
It occurs to me that in future years the historical period between 1975 and the present is going to be a big blank.
Sure, there are government and parliamentary records and a smattering of useful media records, mostly related to national events, but those memories of the nitty-gritty of life in the era are exceedingly thin indeed.
And even those national records are very vulnerable and fragile.
The National Archives needs lots of help and, if any historian wants to scare themselves half to death, they should visit the Post-Courier archives. Talk about a fire trap!
If that old building ever goes up in smoke, which happens a lot in Moresby these days, the one and only complete set of that newspaper, including issue Number 1 from the 1950s, will be gone.
If the government is serious about improving education standards it will not only have to improve literacy and numeracy but will also have to cultivate the study of local history and culture.
Unfortunately, you can’t buy pre-packaged PNG history off the shelf from overseas. People in Papua New Guinea are the only ones who can write it.