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03 April 2018

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Don’t get lost in translation

The biggest hurdle that PNG must overcome is not a cultural one but merely one of translation.

When I arrived in PNG I had a basic understanding of Melanesian but it was nearly two years in the bush that gave me better communication and translation skills even though I worked hard at it.

The central issue relates to culture yet if we take a far more broader view of the issues involved, there are many similarities that exist between PNG and so called western culture. Why? Because we are all humans and most tend to think in parallel concepts.

If you start out drawing comparisons between traditional PNG cultures and western cultures it’s a fair bet you will identify differences. Sometimes these are glaring differences. This then tends to create a barrier for those trying to manage to make a change and understand new cultural concepts.

In other words, if you start out looking for contrasts you will inevitably find them.

If however you start out looking for similarities, the reverse can also be true. Looking at the similarities can help in making a cultural change if that is required.

As an example: If you look at the western concept of money as in cash then clearly the equivalent in traditional PNG ‘money’ in the broadest sense of the word is not there. However if you look at wealth per se, then the concept of wealth and wealth transfer is just as important in traditional PNG culture as it is elsewhere.

If you look at the principle of laws and policing, traditional PNG cultures often had very rigid laws and very ridged ways of enforcing them. It’s all about understanding the concept rather than looking at the method.

If you look at wealth creation, PNG’s climate caused wealth to be built up in notional manner rather than large amounts of physical commodities like metal coins or bank accounts. Yet wealth is wealth. Clearly you can’t acquire real wealth without working hard and looking after what you have.

The concept of cargo cults and later money cults is nothing new and isn’t restricted to PNG. Australians like everywhere else in the world are susceptible to being conned by charlatans and criminals. Greed knows no cultural boundaries. You only have to go to a club with rows of poker machines or visit the horse races to see how westerners will chance their wealth on being able to out think the odds. Sori tumas! Las momo kani!

Just look at the world's Stock Exchanges to see greed and corruption in full swing. A visit to Chicago's grain exchange can see people betting on harvests that have yet to be planted. How;s that for an equivalent cargo cult?

During the recent global financial crisis many lost a lot of wealth as a few made a lot of money at their expense using the global stock markets. This type of cargo or money cult has been going on for centuries. The so called ‘South Sea Bubble’ hundreds of years ago was a classic example.

So if you look at the broad concept and intentions and merely translate the methodology, PNG culture has many similarities with many other cultures including western culture. You just have to be careful not to lose sight of the concept and not get lost in translation.

What might help many PNG people move forward is an education process that translates the equivalent western concepts into their home grown perceptions.

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