AS A well-travelled visitor to Papua New Guinea, reasonably fluent in the lingua franca and part of the old colonial push, I’m often assumed to have an understanding of the country and its people.
This is thought to be an asset given most Australians’ ignorance of or apathy towards their nearest neighbour.
The same assumption of wisdom is often made about my many years working with indigenous Australians in the outback.
Perhaps I have unwittingly corroborated this view by writing about various cultures and how they interact. I’ve never sought recognition as an expert but that seems to have happened. I’m not alone in this respect.
The truth of the matter is entirely different.
This came to me when I was reading the artist and writer Kim Mahood’s new book, ‘Position Doubtful: Mapping Landscapes and Memories’, about her lifelong experiences with indigenous people in central Australia.
She makes the point that in attempting to view cultures from two angles, your own and those of the other culture, you run the risk of seeing neither clearly. I agree with her.
After more than 40 years working with indigenous Australians, including fully initiated tribal people, I still can’t say what makes them tick. Of my experiences in Papua New Guinea I can confidently say the same.
Among other things, this is the reason why I’m an advocate for governments and other agencies to let indigenous people run their own affairs.
They know what they want and need and are best placed to decide how things should be done, even when what they do sometimes seems wrong and misdirected.
I take a jaundiced view of do-gooders who think they know best.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved. But we should stand back and be enablers rather than directors.
I think we have largely done this with the Crocodile Prize and I think Keith has largely done it with PNG Attitude.
In both cases the aim has been to be supportive by providing mechanisms for Papua New Guinea’s writers and commentators.
Here is a blog, please feel free to write for it. Here is a literary competition, have a go and see what you think. If it works you might like to keep it going; if not, don’t worry.
I would be the first to admit that a hands-off approach can be frustrating at times and the temptation to take over is great but, I would reiterate, we don’t fully understand the motivating forces that operate in Papua New Guinea.
Standing back approach is not abrogation. We see what we see and we make up our own minds about it. Sometimes we are wrong and sometimes we are right and sometimes we are neither.
Mathias Kin is close to publishing his history of Simbu Province from a Papua New Guinean perspective. Some of the excerpts I have read are perplexing because they don’t gel with my own understandings.
Nevertheless, my instinct tells me that it would unwise to be too judgemental about what he says.
When I was in Noosa recently I talked to both Daniel Kumbon and Francis Nii about our shared history. They were both young lads when Australia administered the country.
Their perceptions of what happened then and the fear that kiaps and police engendered in their people, for instance, differed markedly from my memories.
It was a clear indication of our differences and the folly of ever claiming to be an expert on either of our cultures.
Experienced, yes; expert, no.