IF you were to take seriously PNG's Minister for Sports and Having Fun, Justin Tkatchenko, you'd think the Fifth Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture, recently held in Papua New Guinea, was a major debacle.
The organisers were disorganised and the festival was a national embarrassment that needed a total revamp, he told Radio Australia and any other media outlet that would listen, including Facebook which listens to everything.
“The Cultural Commission, which came under the Ministry of Tourism, was warned by our prime minister' and by myself as the event minister, about the seriousness of ensuring that this particular event is a success,” Tkatchenko said.
While admitting to a few problems, Dr Jacob Simet, chairman of the Festival Organising Committee, refuted Tkatchenko’s claims – which observers analysed as being related to some internal power struggle - saying the two-week festival was by far the biggest ever in terms of scale, duration and the number of participants.
"Some of the delegations have been taken aback by the way we tried to get them to see parts of our country like Kokopo, Alotau, Hagen and Wewak (where there were subsidiary festivals) because they know that Moresby is not Papua New Guinea,” he said.
Dr Simet urged the critics to provide alternatives instead of speaking for the sake of talking.
In the midst of this mud throwing, prime minister Peter O’Neill straddled an uncomfortable barbed wire fence.
All major events must be organised according to the highest international standards, he said, commending all participants but leaving the organisers out of the praise loop. He added there were positive and negative aspects that must be taken into account and that organisers of future national events must learn from the experience.
Spoken like a true politician and thank you gentlemen.
Australians Helen and Paul Dennett, who provided the first-rate photographs for this story, were among the enthusiasts.
So was Lucie Lehmann, a US-based writer and traveller who publishes the Bird in Paradise blog and who attended the festival in Port Moresby.
“I don’t really know what I was expecting,” Lucie wrote, “but I do know that I simply wasn’t prepared for the breadth and calibre of the artists and performances we saw there, nor for the warmth of the Papua New Guineans.”
Lucie continued, and I’m going to quote at length because she brings some outstanding powers of description to her experience:
In meticulously constructed long houses and other traditional dwellings specially erected for the two-week festival, men and women mostly in their 50s and 60s hand chiselled totems and life-sized sea turtles or ferocious crocodiles, while in smaller huts identifying their province or nation, mostly younger women and girls wove baskets and bags from bark fibres dyed in bold colours, or made handcrafted jewellery from shells and beads.
Look in another direction and you might have seen a group of men working on beautifully detailed sand paintings, utilising carefully ground sandstone and other colourful local rocks that produced richly pigmented dust.
The men – mostly community elders, I found out from talking with one of their wives – sprinkled the dust onto wood glue that had been spread within the borders of carefully executed drawings. Every drawing told a story, and every man there was working hard, not to promote his art individually, but to keep his village alive and preserve a way of life that fewer and fewer of the onlookers had any direct connection to.
That particular group came from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they had begun their own community project to teach the next generation of males to eventually take over the responsibility of keeping the sand painting tradition alive, thus also providing a badly needed source of income for the physically remote villages.
Crime, which contributes to Port Moresby and PNG’s bad reputation, is, according to many locals, simply a function of their being very few opportunities to make money honestly in a country where education is limited and most well-paying jobs are held by Australians and Asians from Malaysia, China and Indonesia.
We spent three hours at the festival, not nearly enough time to have spoken to or even seen all of the craftsmen and women who were there. But what I did see, both in the respectful, yet joyful, demeanour of the crowds that watched the artists’ work and in the artists and performers themselves, was a fierce pride for this region of the Pacific, a pride forged out of something far more tangible, self-reliant and ancient than what passes for national identity in most countries these days.
Just like at any state fair, this festival had stages set up across the grounds, and at any given moment there were several dance troupes performing in competitions, all of the dancers in costumes that featured some of their region’s most notable and attractive materials, usually flawless shells and impossibly long, glossy feathers that came from Birds of Paradise and other exotic species.
Thousands of families roamed the festival, and no one seemed immune to the power of what we saw in the hands and faces and feet of some of the most dignified people I’ve ever seen.
Contrary to what I’d expected, I not only felt safe, but welcomed, as one of very few white people there and thus the object of countless smiles and questions. When I told people who asked that I had come from the US many expressed delight that someone from the US would want to visit PNG and their festival, a reaction most Americans traveling abroad these days don’t often experience.
The brilliance of the Melanesian Festival is that it is intended for a local audience and is meant to instil pride in the peoples of PNG and other Pacific Island locales. I felt so fortunate and privileged to be able to experience it, and judging from the comments and reactions of others as we watched the artists at work, it achieved its goal in a brilliant fashion.
Hmm, something to think about there, eh Mr Tkatchenko.