Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mateship goes way down under

Storyboard was shocked to read the announcement on the front page of The National (Friday 25th June) of a woman taking over from a man as prime minister of Australia. “What happened?” echoed his article in the same newspaper the same day, which ran, “Whatever happened to the sentiments of mateship?” Even Steven’s Window when visiting the storyboard that day sounded mournful about the pace at which the word was and is diminishing, and that seems to be fast.

The people of Milne Bay – men, women and children, in towns and villages – who lavish the word as consistently as “goodie” or “how” might probably be the only custodians left of the Australian word. That is quite possible, even at the likely risk of the lexicographer lifting the mighty pen to strike out the word entirely from the Australian Dictionary.

It could happen. And it could happen in the manner the word history might, officially, be changed to herstory. Indeed, the women are on the rise: in Australia, as much as elsewhere. Come to think of it, those proud men in PNG politics must consider themselves fortunate they haven’t started shedding tears yet. What if, in the next elections, almost all of them found themselves sobbing and guffawing at the same time?

And the women’s story is not at all new. They started to climb the social ladder a long, long time ago, back in the days when, in the Western sense, they had been hounded and rounded up to be burnt at stakes in full view of the public with them rotten eggs and tomatoes thrown at them and all on account of expressing thoughts and opinions that were contradictory to the “norms” and “values” of the big Book written by men. In the PNG environment, they followed the men who walked in front carrying nothing but spears while they (the women) struggled with loads of firewood, bilums of taro and kaukau, and babies on their backs. Any protest or disagreement to all this arrangement in social behaviour resulted in the recommendation of the stake if not bruises and black eyes to nurse for days on end. It took the women centuries to change the world view about their status. Many lost their battles, big or small; but a lot left some lasting impressions on the minds of their male peers. Today, they are here to testify to that.

Some thoughtful analysts around the academic shopping malls might disagree, and might suggest that what happened at caucus level in Australia last week was purely coincidental, quite exemplary of the normal processes in democratic power play and should not, therefore, pose as sufficient indicators in feminist thought and practice, least of all be taken as issues of gender. Granted. But storyboard is of the opinion that just as the word “mateship” threatens to go walkabout, women themselves could be bracing for that giant leap in the opposite direction. Whatever else happens in Australia remains to be seen. Meantime, one cannot help but recall Germaine Greer who, in an abstract of her book, “The Female Eunuch”, made the interesting remark that: “In admitting women to male-dominated areas of life, men have already shown a willingness to share responsibility, even if the invitation has not been taken up.” By that, she probably means that whether or not they are invited, women already are taking that step further.

For our literature students in Papua New Guinea opting to base their theses on the problems of mateship or women issues, incidents such as this make a good starting point for a treatise. For their benefit storyboard is only too willing to offer an illustration of power play between men and women in a village setting, and as well indicate how women read what men write and vice versa. The illustration comes in the form of a lengthy quote of Gilian Gorle’s treatise, titled: “Translating the Female Voice in Russell Soaba’s Maiba.” The quotation starts at the part of the novel where three women of rank have already spoken:

“A fourth woman whose voice is noteworthy has even less personal identity and less to say. Unlike Elder Neville’s wife, who can at least be identified through her marriage, this one is entirely anonymous. Yet her words distinguish her as an important individual who challenges the conventional male wisdom and suggests an alternative approach. She only speaks once, during Cephas’s address to the crowd and the warriors who have assembled to fight Doboro. Asking who they are to be forced out of their own houses, Cephas continues:

“Are we like the shellfish susuba to sit back in our own houses and watch ourselves pushed out by that other shellfish with claws, the gumaga? Well, are we, People of Makawana?”
“No!” reply the People. “But let us be the gumaga instead.”
“What about kaitore?” comes a voice from a woman in the crowd. All cast stares at her. “Yes, what about kaitore, the other shellfish with much bigger claws which comes silently, without warning, upon one dark night, and when the morning comes the gumaga is no longer there?”
“That’s woman talk,” the people shout the woman down. “Let us be the gumaga instead.”
“Gumaga forever!” roars the crowd. “Forever gumaga.”
“Down with susuba! Down with kaitore!”
“UP WITH GUMAGA!” (pp. 95-6)

The rapid silencing of this woman’s unpopular view is unsurprising in a community that tends to denigrate female opinions. Yet the authorial tone indicates that her perspective deserves consideration, despite its unpalatability to a crowd wanting conventional war. The woman’s strategy is too far-sighted for an over-excited rabble content with simple formulae.”