MARTYN Namorong is well-known in Papua New Guinea (and Australia) as a fearless social commentator.
When he publishes something on his blog or on Facebook, appears on television, speaks on radio or is quoted in the press, people, including the government, listen.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2011 Martyn was a medical school drop-out selling betel nut on the streets of Port Moresby. At some point he bought a computer and modem and read about the Crocodile Prize.
When we first read his essays and other writing, we knew we had encountered a special talent. Martyn then went on to win the inaugural 2011 award for essays and journalism.
I still remember his appearance at the awards ceremony at the Australian High Commission. He was late because he thought he had to wait in the visa queue instead of marching straight up to the entrance gate.
When he rushed down the aisle just as Keith Jackson was about to set aside his award, we for the first time observed a skinny, slightly dishevelled, unshaven young man with a colourful bilum over his shoulder.
Then as now, Martyn radiated a charm and confidence and – with many adventures as a writer already under his belt – he remains very much that extraordinary activist and writer in 2017.
This essay is the one that launched him on readers in Papua New Guinea and Australia as an important, courageous and perceptive Papua New Guinean voice.
In re-reading it today, one can’t help but think how prescient it was six years ago and how even more relevant it is today.
The political economy of everything that’s wrong in developing PNG
I WAS born in Baimuru, Gulf Province. In Papua New Guinea that doesn’t mean I’m from Gulf because my parents are from different provinces. My mum is from Western Province and my Dad is from Madang.
I regard myself as being from Western Province because I grew up there - mostly in a remote Rimbunan Hijau logging camp called Kamusi. I am thus, familiar with the languages, customs and oral histories of my mum’s people.
My introduction to the phenomenon of neo-tribalism was at high school in Port Moresby. The key question that arose being, “What does it mean to be a Papua New Guinean?” It is easy to identify a New Irelander, or Sepik or Engan but who is a Papua New Guinean?
The fact of the matter is there aren’t any Papua New Guineans. Every time someone asked me where I was from and I said Papua New Guinea I knew they were really inquiring about my home province. Today however, my notion of being from Papua New Guinea is not as concrete as it used to be.
In 2010 I dropped out of medical school because I had not performed well academically. I was hoping to return to university but for reasons unknown to me I wasn’t accepted back to repeat my Year 4 Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery.
While it was a testing time of my life it was also a time of huge change in terms of how I perceived myself and the world I live in. I always thought all my life that I was destined for great things and to make a difference to humanity.
Today, faced with the uncertainty about the future and the hardship of living in the city, I’m more concerned with being able to survive each day. I am more concerned about my own welfare than saving the world.
In talking about my situation I was hoping to give some context to the challenges faced by many other Papua New Guineans. And it is here that the dilemma faced by this nation lies - what does it mean to be a Papua New Guinean?
The system of education in this country is a failure trap. It is supposed to groom Papua New Guineans but all it does is it produces a lot of failures. In grade 8 ten thousands get thrown out, in Grades 10 and 12 thousands more fall through the cracks in the system. This is the failure trap.
Students spend much of their lives learning about ideas in arts, science and mathematics and are not prepared for both the cash economy and the subsistence economy. I regret going to medical school because now I am just an unskilled person.
I am definitely not skilled to survive in the savannah of East Trans-Fly nor do I have formal qualifications to be recognised in the cash economy. Thus by default I sell betel nut on the street like many other disenfranchised people.
Hundreds of thousands of young people around this nation are trapped like me. For some hopelessness and depression lead to suicide. I lost three of my colleagues from Year 12 who committed suicide within two years of dropping out of Year 12. A fellow medical school dropout is now a patient in the psychiatric ward.
I believe the mental health of many young people deteriorates once they are caught up in the “education trap”. There is an intense feeling of shame associated with loss of self-esteem once someone drops out of school.
As for me I tried to deal with my mental state by engaging with my former colleagues at high school and medical school. I figured from the suicides of my Year 12 colleagues that what they had done was go into a downward spiral by isolating themselves.
Many try to escape reality by resorting to drugs, alcohol and risky sexual practices. Others take out their frustrations on society through juvenile delinquencies, petty crimes, fights, sexual violence and other indictable offences. I totally empathize with all of them because I now understand what it’s like to lose everything, including one’s dreams and ambitions.
Many who do not understand the psyche of those of us being disenfranchised think we have an attitude problem. When reduced to the simplest elements there is an ‘I don’t care about anything or anyone including myself’ attitude among most of us.
Many males make wrong choices and become a nuisance/threat to society. They don’t care if the police or their rivals kill them nor do they have second thoughts about prison. After all once you feel like you’ve lost everything, what more is there to lose? It is suicidal behaviour.
That is why band aid solutions or knee-jerk reactions such as awareness activities on HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, toughening of laws or promotion of sporting activities have been categorically ineffective in curbing the chaos the Papua New Guinea.
The antidote to crime in this country is to enable everyone to earn a living so that they are able to meet some of the challenges they face in life and achieve personal goals. Obviously, some challenges are difficult for individuals to handle and individuals with mental health issues need professional help.
In order to bring meaningful and sustainable change in the physical and social settings of this nation one has to liberate its people from the education trap. I’m referring to every Papua New Guinean, be they in the urban or rural areas.
A married man in a village who cannot sustain his family within the subsistence economy will commit crimes to make ends meet. Likewise a man in an urban setting would do something similar.
Young women who are unable to participate in either economy are vulnerable to prostitution and suicide. Uncertainty about the future creates negative sentiments, thus manifesting in the kind of law and order problems faced by the country.
The solution is not necessarily to ‘teach a person how to catch fish’ but to give them a net. I believe it’s now fair to comment that microfinance institutions in Papua New Guinea have failed in providing people with that net.
Politicians, churches, NGOs and business interests have been excellent distributors of free handouts instead of the ‘net’. The net I’m referring to is the ability to trade goods and services and/or labour.
Our rural people need efficient and affordable transport networks to move goods to local and global markets and to access services. Our urban people need jobs or financial assistance to start small businesses.
Earning an income brings enormous benefits to the individual and their community. People who have money are less of a burden to others as well as to the state. For example, people with money are able to send their children to private schools and seek healthcare at private hospitals, thus easing the pressure on state health and education facilities.
People with money are more likely to have access to technology that makes life easier and more productive. A villager with good income can send his children to school and should they fall into the education trap he is able to bail them out by sponsoring them elsewhere or making them partners/employees.
Unfortunately, there is too much hypocrisy and tokenism from all parties involved in aid and development. People want to be seen to be trying to address issues without actually doing anything of substance. That is why the news media are full of stories about conferences, symposiums, summits, workshops and forums where everyone spends huge amounts of money on stipends, venue fees and accommodating guests.
Worse still are donor projects that are handed over to communities only to disintegrate with time. If a classroom is built or a water supply project carried out or a road built for that matter, what happens with regard to their long term maintenance? Communities where people don’t have income generating opportunities cannot possibly guarantee the sustainability of donor projects.
I believe change is driven by innovation and innovative people are empowered people. When my home village of Malam, in the Morehead LLG area of the Western Province was being built at a new site, it coincided with a period in 1995 when the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) was buying acacia seeds at K80-K100 per kilo.
Many villagers decided to use some of their income to buy corrugated iron sheets for their houses. All the villagers had no problems paying school fees and airfares for students to fly to high school.
Today Malam people are very proud of their village, which has a main street down the centre lined by flowers and trees. Many homes, of course, have metal roofs and villagers exaggerate, saying pilots of aeroplanes get confused about whether they’re at a village or government station.
Self-generated changes address the needs and aspirations of individuals and communities and are more profound in how they inspire and motivate the people.
Malam is also where a CSIRO project funded by AusAID flopped. The villages of Malam, Kwiwang and Bensbach were chosen as sites for the distillation of essential oils from two plant species found in the savannah. The projects were doomed from the start.
Firstly, no management structure was put in place to manage the project once the donor pulled out.
Secondly, markets were inaccessible and there was no distribution network created. There were also other various technical flaws that made the project resource/labour intensive and inefficient.
People became disillusioned and gave up production altogether. All production equipment has been dismantled and is rusting away in tall grass. Imposed change can be positive but is usually temporary if individuals and communities aren’t empowered to take ownership of the new developments.
I don’t believe handouts solve issues but simply cover them up for another time. This has been so profoundly manifest in my life that I now tell people, “I don’t need your money; I need an education and a job”.
Perhaps more irritating for me is that some people think they know what is best for me. While expert advice is valuable, an expert who is not fully versed on the unique circumstances of each case is not in a position to give a fully rounded assessment.
The CSIRO are experts in the sciences but failed the villagers in the economics of the project. Likewise a full assessment of a project would not only address my points but various other issues I may not fully understand.
I don’t dream anymore, I am grounded in the reality. I grapple with the facts as they are. Perhaps there are too many visionaries and dreamers and no one is there to deal with the reality of life in Papua New Guinea.
Even the vast majority of people who are trapped like me do not wish to deal with reality. That is why fast money schemes continue to thrive and voters are gullible about politician’s promises.
Bill Clinton is famous for saying that his number one campaign issue was the economy. In developed countries growth and employment are at the heart of government policies. If we are to become a fairer, wiser, healthier, happier society by 2050 we need to remove impediments to income earning opportunities for all Papua New Guineans.
By addressing the bottlenecks that prevent everyone from meaningful participation in income earning opportunities we will also address issues such as law and order, food security, HIV/AIDS, and all the other social problems.
I have deliberately said nothing about what the government should do. All I can say in reference to the government is that it must implement all that it has been planning to do.
There are so many well-meaning plans that are gathering dust on the shelves of state agencies. This nation is being governed on an ad hoc basis with decisions being made solely for perpetuating the survival of the ruling class instead of addressing fundamental issues that affect the nation.
I must conclude by thanking Dame Carol Kidu for the Informal Sector Act that protects me at my roadside buai market.
This is a classic example of giving people the opportunity to be self-sufficient or in my case relatively autonomous.
I have bought an internet modem that I use to access the internet, mainly to publish my blog and to communicate via email as well as on social network sites such as Twitter.