THERE’S a growing amount of literature that documents Papua New Guinea’s rich cultural heritage, much of which is on the periphery of vanishing.
Like many educated Papua New Guineans, I take pride in my origins and find time to go home whenever the opportunity arises: to sniff the pure air of rural village life and all there is to cherish.
Tarawai is my island home, and what is happening there is a case study for what I believe is taking place in many parts of today’s Papua New Guinea.
There is rapid change in rural areas, perhaps it is a blind quest for western materialism.
Tarawai is a three-hour boat ride from Wewak, the capital of East Sepik, and things are very different than they were in my youth.
Back home recently, I missed the gentle sounds of the night that I was once so used to. I was greeted by the drumming of small power generators that buzzed well into the night, consuming the sweet melody of insects and other nocturnal creatures.
The houses are now fully visible at night with illuminating fluorescent tubes. Tea or coffee is served in bright cups as discussion settles around politics, small business and the ever-increasing fuel prices for boats.
Television sets and DVD players appear to the delight of kids who swarm around the screens, pushing and shoving for a space. Others who don’t make it early enough for a good spot stand to watch a ninety-minute movie. What a sacrifice!
Early next day, I visited relatives and friends to see how they were doing. I was overwhelmed by the sight of half-a-dozen new permanent and semi-permanent houses that replaced the thatched-roof ones.
It was good to learn that many Tarawai islanders have secured rewarding careers all around Papua New Guinea and the boom in permanent housing is testimony to that.
Tarawai does not have big swamps where sago leaves can be harvested for a house. Morota (woven sago leaf) sheets used for thatched huts come from neighbouring Wallis Island. In the past these were traded through barter; today a sheet goes for K2.
The expansion of our tiny island community also signifies another thing likely to pose a threat in the near future: a population boom. Unplanned marriages, the lack of family planning and utter ignorance have contributed to a soaring population.
Houses and small family hamlets are taking shape in areas which people once just regarded as ‘bush’. Land boundaries once preserved for gardening are now slowly transforming into human settlements.
In the evenings, after watching the red glowing sun gracefully descend beneath the western horizon, I searched for my friends to share a few stories about the day’s events.
But it seemed this was a waste of precious time, time to be spent on Facebook, phone chatting and even phone flirting.
They offered me a fake chuckle, a nod and were quickly once again glued to the luminous screens of their fancy phones. Only the crouching figures of the elderly could be seen in the moonlight, sitting or sleeping on woven mats. No more fireside stories, I realised.
While I took in all this in a positive way, it is my greatest fear that we may lose what is left that makes us ‘Tarawai islanders’.
To deny people access to development is not on my list of recommendations. But having a strong connection with nature and traditional village systems, I believe is required to maintain a strong sense of who we are and to preserve our heritage.
Blending western ideas with local knowledge is perhaps not realistic but to me that’s what we could do to balance the equation. While we welcome new ideas to improve our lives, we also need to embrace whatever indigenous knowledge and systems stand out as noble and useful.
Seeing my little cousins with phones, I asked them if they knew how to make bilums or arm bands. Only one looked up at me and nodded a confident ‘yes’.
I left the house whenever there was a movie session to contemplate what I could best do to attract kids to my drive to retain what is truly Tarawai.
This mission is of course exhausting and seems idealistic, yet I’m beginning to realise that one option is to record what is still alive in the form of literature.
That, at least, is a starting point.