An entry in The Rivers Prize
IN 1932, JUST AS THE Sydney Harbour Bridge was being opened with some crazy guy on horseback charging the barriers to be first to cut the ribbon, the Leahy brothers became the first outsiders to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown.
They trekked the foreboding and formidable hinterland of the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The highlanders found them weary, lost, undernourished and wanting of feminine companionship.
After the enterprising highlanders discovered their faeces smelled just like their own, they gave their sisters and daughters to them, who in turn spawned tens more families and tribes, urban and rural dwelling.
Today the Leahys, Taylors and Foxs are part of the history and business diaspora of this great and wonderful country.
In a short time, Papua New Guinea has been caught up in the jet stream of modernity. Today Papua New Guinea children are just as capable of dissecting a complicated digital mobile phone as any other child on the planet.
On the other side of the world on any given day, sons of Papua New Guinea are flying for foreign airlines and landing massive jetliners in ports and destinations that our parents never heard of.
Papua New Guineans are among the most blessed people in the world. They are blessed with closely knit families, who live in tribes and who share their joys and misfortunes together as community.
Their value systems have been complemented by Christian missionaries who have instilled the fear of God and the brought understanding and clarity to their own creation stories and spirituality.
When Christian missions came, they taught that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Man was created by God in his own image. He was the pinnacle of God’s creation, to be at the apex of all creation and created beings, great and small, bright and beautiful. Man was called upon to dominate the world, multiply and fill the world, and multiply, we did.
Then came the day, when man decided he was also going to create man.
After demystifying the mysteries of outer space by landing on the moon, plying unfathomable oceans to find there was no edge, conquering the sound barrier, breaking down organisms and reducing matter to its finite cellular and molecular form, the day came when man dared to emulate God and said; “let us make man just like myself”
Here is where our story really begins.
The weekend Australian newspaper of 12 October 2013 reported a story of a Queensland couple sueing an IVF clinic and its doctors because they got three babies instead of two. They are sueing for this ‘accident’ involving an unwanted baby, and the measure of the damages ($510,400) is the cost of raising the accidental and unwanted child.
At the heart of this legal suit is a contract that the couple allege the IVF laboratory breached; that they signed up for only two babies but the IVF Laboratory delivered three.
The first reaction of many Papua New Guineans would, understandably, range from sympathy, utter disbelief to downright indignation. How dare the couple sue for a precious gift from God.
They have been blessed in addition to what they have dreamt, hoped or even asked for. God exceeded their wishes abundantly.
After trying naturally and not conceiving for many years, some would say God, through modern science, answered their prayers, and more. Any normal couple would be grateful, you would think. But obviously not this couple.
These mistakes do sometimes occur with IVF clinics planting more than one, or in the case of twins more than two, fertilized eggs, hoping for success. Many couples experience miscarriages and pregnancy becomes an elusive achievement.
In certain cases embryos divide to produce multiple babies where only one fertilised egg was requested and placed. In all cases doctors advise participants of the risks associated with the process.
The unnamed Queensland couple today have three healthy and happy three- year olds. Their birthing was unremarkable. Although born prematurely and spending two months in hospital, it is unremarkable. A high percentage of babies in the world today are born prematurely.
The mother is well. All went fine for them. However, with the onset of parenthood and having counted their blessings, the parents are still upset; upset enough to sue the IVF clinic that created their babies. Why? Because they didn’t get what they ordered.
Deep within our beings - and you don’t have to be Papua New Guinean to feel it, but especially if you are a Papua New Guinean - it seems all so very wrong.
It offends us in deeper places; we intuitively know it, but may not always readily articulate it. If you find yourself somewhat disturbed or challenged by the actions of the Queensland couple, I felt the same way when I read the story.
We live in an age and at a time when individuals can very much get what they want.
You can tailor your lifestyle - from a designer home, to the car of your choice. You can even pick the partner, husband or wife of your choice with the aid of a vast array of online dating services.
If you don’t like your gender, you can get it changed just as you can change your name. If you don’t like the clothes you wear, you get a tailor to fit out a new wardrobe. At a time when humble cooks in a kitchen have become television superstars and celebrities, you can eat what you want from a huge range of choice, upmarket restaurants and fast food outlets to DIY cookbooks replete with gourmet suggestions.
The range of modern gadgets at hand to lure us into believing we can live and relate in a virtual world community without leaving our homes or offices. The world has become a plantation of passivity, and its inhabitants reduced to mere pawns of account, invoice or billing numbers, vegetating and cogitating daily on a diet of digital screens, with their impersonal cosmology shaped by mind thieves and information predators who wage daily wars for the right to remotely thought processes and hip pockets.
The digital screens, large and small, have succeeded in creating a virtual reality, a reality that only exists in our minds. The essential tools of trade in the virtual world involve remote gadgets that give us an interposed digital identity, as opposed to one shaped by warm personal and physical interaction.
Baby food is instant, nappies are instant, coffee is instant, fast food is instant and, if you feel old or just appear old, or merely want to change the way you look and feel about yourself, there are syringes full of Botox and other chemicals, and learned surgeons with sharp scalpels that can make a few incisive nips and tucks in the right places, and voila, you have a new body, and wistfully, a brand new life.
It is the ultimate achievement of a society with all its technological, scientific and medical advances. No longer is the human body a mystery, or a subject of the puripuri man. We have been able to unravel the medical wonders of complex information systems that run parallel and interdependent with its other driven by the intelligence of the heart and the brain as the prime organs.
We have identified the essential information codes for each individual, our DNA, which ensures each one of us is an absolutely and frightfully unique creation and there is no replica or duplication.
Now there is an impetus to create scientifically and artificially another human being, whether in test tubes or invitro is man’s display of his scientific prowess, challenging previously held notions of a god and the creation story.
This could be the ultimate goal and the crowning achievement of humanists the world over - that man can replicate himself without the need for a family, a society or a god.
Family is at the heart of human institutions and society. It was the first human institution created. It is the basis of human identity and the deep well from which we draw our social connectivity, interpersonal relations and personal harmony.
It is where a baby is born and cared for, and it is where that tiny human learns its first words and takes its first steps. The family unit is critical to the rearing and nurturing process. The quality of this process determines the harmony of family, community and all other human endeavour.
In Papua New Guinea the mostly individualistic value system of the West is threatening the tribal and family based value system.
It is like sandpaper that is unrelenting in wearing down our old ways of keeping and strengthening our communities as closed self -sufficient and self -supporting groups. With advances in transportation and communication, we are being forced to define and redefine traditional family units.
Today we have so many cross cultural marriages that have become a positive aspect of modern PNG. It is the strongest glue in uniting us as a nation, but it comes with its own set of challenges to maintain family unity and cohesion.
The individualistic values that come with modernisation are forcing us to find new ways of keeping and maintaining individual, family and community harmony.
Papua New Guineans are battling every day to live with two value systems: that of the West and that which the village expects. Some constantly feel the pangs of being torn between two worlds, but choose to juggle life and making do as they go along, discovering and inventing their own rules as suits them.
Prior to the industrial revolution we know that most races did live in larger family groupings. Then with the advancement of industry and technology, the West redefined a person as a unit of labour, a critical component in the means of production. The person was already on the way to becoming a number. In this world, the extended family did not count.
Despite resistance by unions, society morphed around the romantic notion of modernism to refine community into nuclear family units that are effective production units to serve industry. Today the banking system of the West is designed to serve the individual and his immediate nuclear family.
Units in high-rise housing blocks are built for a family with two or three children at the most; no room for grandparents and extended family.
Farmland is reduced to a quarter acre block in the suburbs to house a family of two children and their pet dog, with no regard for their neighbours. The planning of cities and towns is based on individualistic notions not an altruistic idea of community.
Individuals and their bundle of rights are recognised by Western legal systems, and are celebrated in the United Nations.
Notions of community wellbeing based on individualism and individual rights are designed as aid programs and shoved directly down the throats of unsuspecting third world nations, whose individual and societal harmony is based on the embracing wellbeing of extended families, villages and surrounding tribal communities.
The West with its individualism has lost the strength and quality of what it is like to be family and community.
In striving to keep up means and modes of production, the West has reduced humanity to faceless numbers, or cold and unfeeling digits. The health of its economies is measured by unemployment numbers. Its cities stink of robotic individualism, and the people are barely held together by the steely hand of the law in their zombie like existences.
Individualism has given birth to police states where every individual is a potential terrorist and everyone is caused to live in suspicion of each other. There is little community and less harmony. Everyone is under by the strong arm of the law and sense of community is what is piped through television screens.
No one lives as community any more in the developed West.
For all its celebrated advancements in technology and science, the West appears to have lost family cohesion, communal harmony and its ultimate humanity. That is a strong and sad indictment, and I make the call as a modern Melanesian village man.
We ought not to be surprised in downtown Papua New Guinea by the news that a couple in Queensland, Australia, decided to sue an IVF clinic for giving them an extra child.
As individuals living in the world of instant everything, they may feel justifiably entitled to what they contracted and paid for, and the law should vindicate the assertion of their rights to monetary compensation, notwithstanding that their own bareness and deep yearning for fulfilment has driven them to this.
A child in the traditional PNG context is valued differently to Australia today (where the child seems to have been reduced to just another mouth to feed, clothe, house and educate).
Yes the couple may have a point in the context of an individualistic Western nuclear family. There is the constant pressure of low wages, mortgages, healthcare, food and a diminishing social safety net without a caring extended family or tribal community, or traditional lands to fall back on.
There is something to be said about PNG’s traditional family units, large though they may be. There is something to be said about our tribes, and about traditional land ownership. There is also something powerful to be said about community welfare, community rights, and community harmony.
We in Papua New Guinea sometimes do not realise how fortunate we are that we retain our old ways, and that there is strength and power in our old practices and our values. There is nothing wrong with our families, our extended families, our tribal communities and our ownership of land and resources.
We are rich beyond compare, and we have not even begun to understand and take advantage of how strong and how powerful we are as a people of strong family and community values in a modern setting.
Our city and town planners with bits of paper from foreign universities do not understand who we are. They plan modern cities and towns like white men with individualistic values that have delivered us crime and dysfunctional places.
There is more order in some Melanesian squatter settlements than in the planned suburbs of our cities.
It all begins with the way we live as community, the way we birth, rear and nurture our children, and what value we place upon them.
The writers of that article in the Australian newspaper asked:
“Aren’t all children miracles? What message does this send to the couple’s three year old girls, that the unexpected arrival of one of them prompted a lawsuit?”
I don’t think any parent in any society has the right to condemn a child, any child born anywhere, to live with the stigma that he or she was an accident or an unwanted baby.
In this particular case, all three children will live without knowing which one of them was the unwanted one.
If this is where scientific, technological and medical advancement of the West-man playing God has taken us, then we in Papua New Guinea, late entrants to Western civilisation, must be more critical and wary of the individualistic designs and value based systems constantly pushed upon us through foreign aid and other contraptions.
The United Nations and its agencies promote individualism and individual rights. The pursuit of individual rights has probably caused it to lose sight of the need to balance the interests of community.
The individual must be defined by community, where everyone has a place and every place has a person, and not the other way around.
We must recognise that our traditional tribal communities and extended family systems are our strength and build our nation on these pillars.
Our families, whether monogamous or polygamous, are part of our traditional values that have sustained us for over 70,000 years.
They need to be carefully balanced against foreign aid-driven programs, deliberate initiatives at work today to socially re-engineer Papua New Guinea society through the narrow prism of individual rights where they be gender, child or adult.
The latter rights do not exist in a vacuum as we are led to think, and this is the folly into which our entire political leadership is entrapped by Aid donors and delivery agents like NGOs.
The individualistic machinations of the West translated into narrow aid paradigms derive no legitimacy or resonance from Papua New Guinea family, community or even national values. We are landowning lords of our own manors. We are not peasants or serfs in service of others. We are not poor people. We all have an identity and our places. Every one of us has a ples.
Our customary land ownership is our strength and we must take advantage of modern technology to survey and register them so as to minimise disputes.
Our lands and our family and community values make us a people hard to beat in the Pacific, or anywhere on the planet. We are a lucky country. We are a lucky people. The question is, for how long will we remain lucky?
That is the challenge for us Papua New Guineans, to offer alternative models of progress for our people that reflects us and our traditions, our family and community values, so that the world can see, feel, and taste the unique flavour of Papua New Guinea.
For now our individual and community harmony depends on the value choices we make today, and it begins with the way we value, rear and nurture our children- our hope for a brighter, better and harmonious future. God forbid that we should treat our children as anything less than precious gifts to be cherished with joy and gratitude, by family, community and our government.