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PNG memoir by Trish Nicholson tells tales of the unexpected

Women from the Middle Fly regionKEITH JACKSON & PHIL FITZPATRICK
| The Australian

Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals by Trish Nicholson, Matador, 288 pp, $27.99

IN the decades following independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea was awash with foreign advisers and consultants. Even the most remote provinces attracted them like sharks to a dive-cage.

These latter-day ­colonialists carried minds and briefcases bulging with the latest management theories and acronyms to foist on their unsuspecting hosts.

Australia might have departed PNG in a hurry but it left the government of Michael Somare with a straightforward, functional and efficient administrative system. This had proven itself, especially in the rush to independence, and the new nation’s public servants felt comfortable with it.

But the kumul flag had no sooner risen than, kwiktaim, there was an onslaught of the latest whiz-bang ideas delivered through training courses, workshops and seminars, laced with the occasional trip to Australia to generate excitement.

Ends and means were confused, as were the PNG administrators, who struggled with newfangled systems and often untested ideas. In just a few years, this motley mob of imported bureaucrats and their increasingly eager PNG cronies managed to turn the public service into an impenetrable mess of red tape, an entanglement so hardy it persists today.

Along the way, a burgeoning cabal of predatory politicians and senior public servants discovered that chaos was useful if one wanted to rort the system for personal benefit. The fate of the nation seemed sealed.

It was into this quagmire that Trish Nicholson stepped in 1987 “with an open mind and no specific expectations”. It was her first overseas assignment and provided an escape from an fragmented administrative career in Scotland, where she worked in various regional government roles after gaining a master’s degree in ­social anthropology.

On her arrival in PNG, Nicholson was ­assigned to the Department of Personnel Management and dispatched to distant Vanimo in Sandaun Province in the northwest, abutting the Indonesian border.

Here she was offered a characteristic welcome to the Land of the Unexpected by being confronted immediately by the wantok system, the network of clan relationships that is a social safety net and a burden affecting every corner of Melanesian life, as she observes in her engaging memoir Inside the Crocodile:

There appeared to be no limit to what you could legitimately demand of your wantok: a dip into his pay packet, the new watch he just bought from Steamies, lodgings for an indefinite period, and a share in whatever resources he may have access to at work … Everybody complained about wantokism in the public service yet no one could avoid it.

Nicholson kept a daily journal during her five years in PNG and this along with an ­unusually perceptive eye guide a lucid, candid and entertaining narrative through a series of adventures, challenges, barriers and hurdles that would represent a lifetime’s ulcer-inducing travail for your typical public servant.

Fortunately Nicholson was resilient and possessed a well-developed sense of humour, useful traits for anyone working in PNG then and now. She also was quick to learn the lingua franca, Tok Pisin (Pidgin English), and to comprehend its nuances:

Kilim is just a fight … With kilim tru your blood is drawn or at least you get a black eye, a broken nose or a spear wound. Kilim i dai describes a serious injury, and only with kilim i dai pinis are you actually dead.

While Nicholson describes PNG as she experienced it 25 years ago, she would find the country just as wacky now. The frustrations are the same and so are the tests; often enough the only relief comes from the friendliness and charm of the people. Bad things and good things continue to be done. But the author came away intact and optimistic. Most of us do.

Expatriates have been associated with the workings of government in PNG since 1884, more than 130 years, which includes 40 years of independent nationhood. Recently Prime Minister Peter O’Neill announced that, starting next year, he would ban expatriate consultants and advisers from government employment.

Among other things, he thinks these people are too expensive and suspects some may be spying on his government. Mostly, he believes their presence is making Papua New Guineans lazy. He says senior public servants bring in consultants when they can’t be bothered doing the job themselves. The implication is that ­advisers do more harm than good.

Nicholson endorses O’Neill’s view in several ways, not least in her observation that much so-called development in PNG seems to be focused on the constant application of new systems and processes. She also advances the significant argument that women in PNG are a largely wasted resource in a nation that was recently identified as not achieving even one of its ­national development goals.

Inside the Crocodile is a captivating travel memoir. It’s also a well-crafted insight into the official mechanisms and cultural characteristics that drive and sometimes blight a remarkable country.

The book is a good read with a serious edge that will be of special interest to people with experience of PNG and those who wish to learn more about our fascinating neighbour. Above all, it is an alluring and accurate account of a country important to Australia and that most Australians know little about.

Keith Jackson publishes the PNG Attitude blog and Phil Fitzpatrick is an author. Both worked in colonial PNG and have maintained close links with the country since. They co-edit The Crocodile Prize Anthology, an annual collection of the best Papua New Guinean writing, now in its fifth year.


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