Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ah yes, one bilum of a gift

                               "Long live the little tax payer."

For those of us who work for organizations dealing with arts and crafts, think of how often we take things for granted without pausing to think that we do so at the expense of someone else.

The number of trips we take overseas that cost thousands and in many cases millions of kina. Yet we pay no attention to the little people who pay for these things. One moment we are in Nicaragua, at another in Paris or London. And yet at another we find ourselves at Noumea Cedex, New Caledonia, not that we can read billboards in French but we jump on the band wagon nevertheless thinking we are riding back to the city while in fact we are travelling further and further out to the rural areas. Once out there, we will be lucky if we find someone who speaks English, just to tell us we are heading the wrong way. Back at home, Papua New Guinea, it is always someone else, a very small and insignificant looking fellow citizen, in fact, who had made the trip possible for us, to come all the way to New Caledonia and make fools of ourselves by travelling the wrong way.

The little people who attend to the job of paying for our trips overseas do so because our constitution tells them to. The particular line referred to in the constitution runs: “to contribute, as required by law, according to their means to the revenues required for the advancement of the Nation and the purposes of Papua New Guinea.”  That means we have that social obligation of paying tax. And we all pay taxes to ensure that Papua New Guinea is well regarded, here as much as abroad.

Of course, storyboard never had the luxury of enjoying such expensive trips overseas at the tax payer’s expense and all in the name of culture and art. But his payslip reports that over K400.00 is deducted from his salary each fortnight by way of tax to help fund such expensive trips for someone else professing to be an expert in literature, the arts and culture.

Sometimes, in the process of writing a short story, a poem or a novel, storyboard pauses and wonders who in the world he is doing that for. Other times some sort of inspiration comes to him: certainly these little people who pay taxes deserve a song or two of praise. Long live the little tax payer, is the song that comes to his mind readily.

“But what about that other tax payer,” storyboard asks suddenly, “now living in retirement?” Has he or she been honoured by anyone through some special mention or accreditation? Indeed, many have now filled the dome of lists of those wonderful, unheard of people who, at one time or another, did something good for others without ever asking for rewards.

Now storyboard has been walking to and from work over a certain route for many years. He would be that familiar sight for those around the neighbourhood, especially with the torn and weather-beaten bilum that he carried over the shoulder. So who would want to know anything else other than that familiar sight seen every day?

One evening, walking home from work, storyboard happened to stop by a local shop for a can of orange drink. As he came out, a “betel nut vendor” in front of the shop asked him to sit down with him and have a little talk, or rest a little, before walking the rest of the way home. Storyboard was reluctant. He just wanted to quench his thirst, preferably without having to share it with anyone else, and walk home. But the man insisted, so storyboard sat down.

“Come, yu mi sindaun na wetim misis pastaim (Come, let’s sit and wait for my missus.)”

So the two old timers just sat there, in silence: one, feeling guilty about not sharing his drink; and the other, well, who could tell what was going on in his mind. A brief conversation ensued. Was storyboard from Gulf, the man asked, to which storyboard nodded, “Yea, olsem. But actually, I am from Raba Raba in the Milne Bay Province.” Then the wait for the man’s wife was getting longer. Suspense began to build up. At which point the wife arrived from the back of the store.

“Come,” said the man to his wife, “bring the bilum and give it to my brother here.”

“Oh no!”

Storyboard was overwhelmed. He just didn’t know what to say. Why, this was a gift from a neighbour who sat there and sold betel nuts and cigarettes every day.

He looked at his old bilum and realized how torn and perhaps outdated it was. The man’s wife merely smiled and said, “Em bilo yu, bikos narapela yu holim ya em bagarap pinis.”

The cost of the bilum in Port Moresby ranges from K80.00 to K500.00, depending on the mood and quality of the art work. This is a commodity that is almost priceless for an average wage earner like storyboard. A gift given like this would not be forgotten for a long time.

The gift, of course, humbled storyboard enormously. All that irritation he felt about the fate of the little tax payer left suddenly. Perhaps in the next article he will tell us more about his gift providers.
 Acknowledgments: above photos, Russell Soaba; idea of bilums as a social science subject of study belongs to Nicolas Garnier, Visual Anthropology, UPNG; the article you are reading here is based on a true story.