BRISBANE - Some months ago, I observed with a heavy heart the online dissection of an issue concerning talented and accomplished Papua New Guinean women, Ngaiire Joseph and Florence Jaukae Kamel.
As screenshots flooded social media, the perspectives of the international vocal artist and the globally renowned bilum weaver, artist and entrepreneur became fodder for public commentary prosecuted by Papua New Guineans.
Most alarming were the allegations of bullying and threats of violence that surfaced.
And overshadowing this was the futile trope of what is a ‘real’ Papua New Guinean.
It is a point I’ve visited on several occasions in my writing, including in this personal reflection. Short on rational critique and big on anonymity, the tendency of many Papua New Guineans to pounce on this premise of being ‘real’ as rebuttal in argument lies somewhere between the four corners of inane, comic, bitter and aggressive.
Ngaiire’s credibility for inclusion in matters PNG was obliterated on the grounds of her being a member of the diaspora. Deemed as not being a ‘true’ Papua New Guinean, inflammatory chatter raged whilst little attention was given to the true circumstances. Ngaiire was met with unwarranted hostility and atrocious online ridicule from her PNG compatriots.
It was even more galling that such brusque and divisive dialogue should come not just from PNG people but from a self-appointed white ‘supporter’ fuelling destructive prattle amongst the very people from her enterprise seeks to ‘support’.
It was just one example from a gallery of cases highlighted in the newly-launched PNG podcast, ‘Who Asked Her’. In its second episode, creator and host Elvina Ogil is joined by guests Dru Douglas (fashion designer/entrepreneur) and Wendy Mocke (actor/writer).
Underpinned by Ogil’s essay featured in the ‘My Walk to Equality’ anthology, the discussion centres on observations of the perceived cultural appropriation of the bilum and the repercussions to their public advocacy on this.
Another case in point was my own experience in 2017 with the Kokoda Track Foundation and the DFAT-funded ‘Kokoda75’ commemorative children’s book project in which my authorship of the children’s story ‘Butterflies along the Track’ was erased, and then my name suddenly being used in the marketing of the book - two amongst a handful of practices I found questionable.
Nearly 12 twelve months on the KTF continues to ignore my public requests to acknowledge in PNG and Australia this exploitation of indigenous intellectual property: a paradoxical action of a “not for profit” organisation that prides itself on being there to “help” PNG.
Seemingly, there is a disturbing trend of such PNG-focused non-government, not-for-profit organisations that, when held to account for what I and many others see as exploitative behaviour, clutch at strings of, variously, unresponsiveness, ignorance, arrogance and indignation.
This is especially so when questions are raised by Papua New Guinean women of the diaspora.
If we are all equally committed to the task of nation-building, then there is cause to examine why some Papua New Guineans persist in trying to suppress or otherwise demean the voices of the women of the diaspora who speak out against the subversive tactics of white women.
The sparring between domestic and diaspora feeds into the tiresome yet too common trope of ‘developed’ nations that Papua New Guineans are desperately in need of “saving”. This too often seems a convenient excuse for inserting themselves into decision-making networks within PNG and featuring centre-stage on influential platforms all to accommodate some burning personal ambition. Meanwhile, Papua New Guineans continue to lag behind to an extent where it sometimes seems to be the objective.
It is important to understand the way in which Papua New Guineans may unintentionally facilitate this cycle, a topic recently addressed by journalist and PhD candidate Ruby Hamad.
Her stellar opinion piece offered thoughts on how ‘strategic tears’ are used by white women to silence women of colour. This observation resounded with much clarity as I reflected on my own experience and those of others.
Hamad’s referred to “the trauma caused by the tactic many white women employ to muster sympathy and avoid accountability by turning the tables and accusing the accuser”. This sharp insight illustrated the anxiety and despair I have experienced due to the onslaught of online criticism and ridicule I endured from fellow Papua New Guineans following my expose of the KTF ‘Kokoda75’ book project.
Hamad went on further to describe that “tearful displays are a form of emotional and psychological violence that reinforce the very system of white dominance that many white women claim to oppose”.
In my experience, the cases described in the ‘Who Asked Her’ podcast and Ngaiire’s own circumstances reveal how disappointing it has been that white Australian men with structural power have failed to intervene to resolve these cultural and personal clashes.
Moreover, the colonialists’ project continues through such men facilitating the advancement of their female white counterparts at the expense of Papua New Guinean women. Seemingly it is as Hamad proposes, that the legitimate grievances of brown and black women are no match for the accusations and please of white damsels in distress.
The unfortunate reality is that the onus is on Papua New Guineans to resolve this predicament. If we await redemption we will only be confronted as the white women flounder and continue a-dated, crippling narrative of PNG that, if it was ever true, is not rue now.
It must fall to Papua New Guineans – not outsiders - to acknowledge, embrace and support at all times the ever-changing notion who and what is a Papua New Guinean.
This happens to be a point which indigenous Australian Stan Grant’s essay explores in ‘Griffith Review 60: First Things’, an exposition which I had the opportunity to listen to along with Professor Marcia Langton and playwright Nakkiiah Lui as an all indigenous Australian panel at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival.
Grant’s ‘My grandfather’s equality: confronting the cosmopolitan frontier’ punctuated the trio’s discussion about their identity as Aboriginal Australians moving around domestically and internationally and how they are perceived by fellow indigenous and white Australians.
We want to be who we want. Papua New Guinean women, in all our versions and wherever we are globally, should be encouraged and supported by fellow Papua New Guineans and especially when holding white Australian women to account for misinterpreting or misrepresenting who and what we are. We should also be supported in our challenges to any of their questionable entrepreneurial conduct in PNG.
This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. Purchase of a copy of Griffith Review 60: First Things First and attendance at the Sydney Writers Festival 2018 session ‘Recognise: Stan Grant, Marcia Langton and Nakkiah Lui’ (Carriageworks venue: Everleigh, Sydney) was undertaken as literary activities of the fellowship. The fellowship commenced in mid-March 2018 and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by fellowship recipient, Rashmii Bell, may be found here or via Twitter: @amoahfive_oh