‘Fighting for a Voice: The Inside Story of PNG Attitude & the Crocodile Prize’, scheduled for publication within the next few weeks, is Phil Fitzpatrick's no-holds barred account of the first 10 years of this pioneering blog. The book of nearly 400 pages weaves into its story the fascinating and sometimes dramatic events of Papua New Guinea over the same period. To give you a taste, here’s an extract from Chapter 8, ‘Problems of transition, 2013’ - KJ
FOR the superstitious, the number thirteen is particularly ominous. Some hotels skip the number in sequencing their rooms, even floors. Linked with a Friday it is said to become highly dangerous.
Fear of the number thirteen has a name - triskaidekaphobia. For the Crocodile Prize, 2013 nearly proved disastrous. How Keith and I escaped catching triskaidekaphobia was a minor miracle.
The year began well enough. Keith noted that many of the articles written by people awarded writing fellowships were being picked up by other media. Pat Levo of the Post Courier was using them in his weekend literary section and Amanda Donigi was doing the same in her new women’s magazine, Stella. We were not concerned by the thought they were exploiting PNG Attitude as source of free copy; we were just happy to see some good writers getting further exposure.
Another positive event in the year’s early months was a victory for one of PNG Attitude’s most loyal contributors and supporters, Corney Alone. Corney had campaigned long and hard to scrap the outcome-based education (OBE) system and return to a more traditional objective-based curriculum in Papua New Guinea’s schools. Finally, as student performance measurements vindicated his stance, the Education Department abandoned the poorly thought out and badly implemented scheme.
In February, PNG Attitude reported the impending departure of Australian High Commissioner, Ian Kemish, who, Keith wrote, “(had) proved to be the right person in the right place at the right time for both Australia and Papua New Guinea.” Indeed, Kemish – who had been in Papua New Guinea as a school child - had also proved to be the right man on the spot for the introduction of the Crocodile Prize.
“His lack of arrogance, ability to go the extra mile, willingness to engage with ordinary Papua New Guineans wherever they were and coolness in crisis were all noticed and appreciated in Papua New Guinea,” Keith wrote. Within a couple of hours of the news spreading that Kemish was about to depart, the expressions of regret had already begun to pour in to PNG Attitude. One of them was mine.
When we were working to get the Crocodile Prize national literary awards up and running at the end of 2010, we were in desperate need of a strong, credible and resourced supporter in Papua New Guinea. Ian Kemish stepped forward with a commitment of finance, materiel and personnel. We did not know what Kemish had to contend with or argue against in throwing his weight behind a couple of blokes with no corporate or institutional backing who were trying to promote what they saw as a good idea. I can only assume that Kemish sniffed the air, rubbed his hands, rolled his eyes and decided to back his own judgement.
The result was a successful Crocodile Prize and hundreds of Papua New Guinean writers conveying their experiences, creativity and views on public affairs from a distinctly Melanesian perspective in the process gaining public recognition, publication and funding. Many thousands of Papua New Guineans now had the opportunity to read about their own country and its issues and stories as brought to them by their own countrymen and women. Keith and I were proud of this achievement and that pride could certainly be shared by Ian Kemish who was an Australian who understood Papua New Guinea.
Ian’s successor was announced a short while later by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She was Deborah Stokes, a senior career officer with the Department, most recently head of its international organisations and legal division. Her time in Papua New Guinea proved unkind for the Crocodile Prize and eventually ended in Ms Stokes mysterious and premature transfer after an imbroglio involving a proposed Australian diplomatic presence in Bougainville.
From the beginning, there was a sense of unease about Ms Stokes, who apparently had had no past experience of Papua New Guinea. PNG Attitude readers wondered about the selection criteria behind such an appointment. To top this off, Richard Marles had been replaced as Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs by Senator Matt Thistlethwaite, who also had no experience of Papua New Guinea. Marles’ tenure had been a disappointment, but at least he knew the place. In one fell swoop in early 2013, Papua New Guinea had lost contact with anyone in the higher echelons of the Australian government who had any association with the place. Keith Jackson and readers were scathing in their assessment. It seemed that a myopic Australian government – now led by Julia Gillard - was demonstrating its lack of interest in the region.
While these changes were taking place the new Society of Writers, Editors and Publishers (SWEP), under the leadership of Amanda Donigi, seemed to have the 2013 Crocodile Prize competition in hand and Bob Cleland, an ardent supporter of PNG Attitude and the Prize, began an innovative series of writer’s bungs in Port Moresby. The bungs were small groups of writers who were to meet regularly to read short samples of their own work and receive suggestions and comments. This was a common modus operandi of many writers’ groups in Australia and seemed to be a concept that would work well in Papua New Guinea.
The venue for the first bung was the Moresby Arts Theatre and members of the SWEP committee, notably Ruth Moiam, Steve Ilave and Regina Dorum, had arranged the venue, invitations, advertising and a light lunch. The meeting attracted 25 attentive and passionate participants. “From where I spoke, sitting on the edge of the stage,” Bob reported in PNG Attitude, “the affirmative nods, the smiles and whispered comments showed that the idea was being accepted. This was confirmed by several speakers in the open session which followed.”
Some participants spoke at length and raised interesting and relevant aspects of Papua New Guinean writing, including its linkages with social media. Bob was very happy with this first bung and impressed by the ability and “good Papua New Guinean common sense” of the writers. Bob Cleland is a fine man who is committed to Papua New Guinea. The son of a pre-independence Administrator, Sir Donald Cleland, and his wife Rachel, who had been a much loved and energetic force in colonial Papua New Guinea, Bob had served as a kiap for twenty-three years and was involved in the construction of the Highlands Highway, an experience chronicled in his book, Big Road.
While Bob was taking this initiative to promote and improve writing in Papua New Guinea, Martyn Namorong won an award for excellence for anti-corruption reporting. His success was reported by Radio Australia:
There were also positive things happening in the most unexpected of places. The Crocodile Prize was beginning to look as if it would sprout branches. Writer Jeff Febi wrote the inspirational story of 38-year old villager Joe Yagama:
In 1991, while still in Grade 8, Joe dropped out of Kundiawa’s Catholic run Kondiu Rosary High School. Like many young and vulnerable people, he roamed the streets until 2005, when he got a job as a kitchen hand at the Airways Hotel in Port Moresby. After nine months and numerous secret lessons from other kitchen staff, he managed to grace his boss’s radar and was promoted to trainee pizza chef.
In 2008 his success at Airways enabled him to secure a new job at the Shady Rest Hotel in Moresby. But after only a few months he found himself on the streets again – thanks to workplace lies, deceit and jealousy. But fate wasn’t finished with Joe yet…..
He applied for and was offered a position with Kutubu Catering Limited – the company that fed the entire Oil Search Limited operations in Kutubu and the surrounding project areas. He was posted to drilling rig 103 where currently he is night chef – a position that requires him to manage the camp at night apart from his kitchen duties. He has handled things well despite the camp’s mix of international inhabitants and their demands for peculiar dishes.
What interests me about Joe is his recent revelation during a casual chat that he is sponsoring a literature competition at Giu Primary School in the Sina Sina-Yongomugl district of Simbu Province. Joe stated that through the competition he aims to “motivate and spark passion in students from this rural school to focus on achieving and aim high”.
It turned out that Joe was having trouble gaining internet access to PNG Attitude, which was sad to see. His dilemma reflected our concerns about many rural people missing out on what was an open and uncensored source of news, information and commentary. The consolation – for Joe and everyone else - was the rapid expansion of digital services, especially telephony, in Papua New Guinea.
Among the articles on the blog that drew more anguished responses, two types tended to attract the most: articles from the tabloid press canvassing subjects like sorcery and cannibalism; and hyperbolic reports of ‘stone age tribes’ written for the faithful by missionaries whose Christianity was of a fundamental disposition.
In 2012 there was an account of a so-called ‘ritual widow-killing’ that angered many Papua New Guinean readers. The article claimed that this custom, of dubious authenticity, was alive and well in the New Guinea Islands. A perusal of church blogs, especially the American fundamentalist missions like New Tribes, gave the impression that hideous pagan rituals and customs were rife in Papua New Guinea.
A common claim was that church evangelists were venturing into areas where no European has ever been. These ‘pioneering treks’ were closely followed by the discovery of licentious behaviour that could be subsequently ameliorated through the power of prayer. One would be hard pressed to find anywhere in Papua New Guinea where Europeans have not been before and the only conclusion to be drawn was that the missionaries were very gullible or, more likely, lying. The motive for this deliberate deception was presumably to encourage recruits and to raise funds, most probably from the insular American bible belts.
Papua New Guinea is largely a Christian country and the mystical and colourful rituals inherent in Christian practise have wide appeal to a people traditionally saturated in magic, sorcery and ritual. Only among the educated elite does secularism reside, and even then there is frequently acceptance that traditional and modern religiosity can cohabit. Any writers who attack Christianity in Papua New Guinea do so at their own risk. The only other topic that assures such a virulent reaction is homosexuality.
However, these risks have not deterred everybody. A number of the most popular, innovative and influential writers on the blog, such as Martyn Namorong, Michael Dom and Leonard Fong Roka, are secularists, although they are rarely overt and don’t go out of their way to be offensive to Christians. Instead, they tend to point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies in a more gentle way. It is a wise approach that is informed by the Melanesian spirit of non-confrontation and acknowledgement of the right of people to believe whatever they want.
Religion can have great value as a support and guiding light in the troubled passage through life; and life can be exceedingly harsh in Papua New Guinea. An atheist might believe the world would be a better place without religion and the seemingly never-ending and destructive wars that rage in its name. But, in a place like Papua New Guinea where the people have been failed so dramatically since independence, it must be acknowledged that, if anyone deserves to the gift of hope, it is them.
The Christian churches do not have squeaky clean hands when it comes to corruption and greed. Some church leaders have been guilty of the same bad behaviour as many politicians and public servants. But it must be acknowledged that the churches, especially the large established ones, provide much-needed essential services such as education and health that the government has consistently f ailed to deliver. There are many dedicated church people who work hard, unselfishly and with great dedication in Papua New Guinea and, a contribution that tends to be inadequately acknowledged.
Until the government wakes up to its responsibilities to the people and establishes equitable services and opportunities, the established churches will fill a crucial void. One day Papua New Guinea, like many western countries, will be in a position to decide where religion fits into its society. The time is not now but PNG Attitude and other similar blogs have a role in exposing the unscrupulous religious carpetbaggers who ply their trade around the country. PNG Attitude also provides significant coverage of church issues and activities, especially where these are consonant with the people’s welfare.
'Fighting for a Voice' – Contents
1 – Papua New Guinea rediscovered
2 – Connecting with the new PNG, 2006
3 – The arrival of PNG Attitude, 2007-08
4 – Smartening up & toughening up, 2009
5 – Welcome to controversy corner, 2010
6 – The first Crocodile Prize, 2011
7 – Battling the bureaucracy, 2012
8 – Problems of transition, 2013
9 – Back on track, 2014
10 – The end of the beginning, 2015
Prominent PNG Attitude contributors