Thursday, October 28, 2010

The ever desolate yet vibrant Waigani Campus

 If W.B. Yeats ever visited the Waigani Campus he would most certainly exclaim, “That is no country for old men.” And he would probably continue musing:

… The young
in one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - ….
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

The campus is indeed as desolate as Yeats describes that homage to Byzantium. It must be, at this time of the year. The exams have come and gone. And there are no more students left, apparently, to be seen around.

But its sudden moment of rousing awakening into the bustle and humdrum of academia is equally captivating. Things just happen as suddenly as they vanish. Posters with promises of easier access to education and protection for children, women and youth abound. There is sign of life after all. Who’s suddenly here, one asks in wonder. “The UN workers along with their PNG co-workers.” The whole place becomes abuzz with movement, with speeches being made, traditional dances being performed, and oh, yes, over in one corner, perhaps the Main Lecture Theatre, there is seen and heard the Governor of NCD and his colleague, Lady Carol Kidu. And then, of course, in the midst of packing up to leave for its respective destinations throughout the country the student population renders its support through the PA system with the announcement, “This is your last chance to know what the millennium development goals are for your village. Come and gather as much information as you can before you leave.”

In that short period of time a child from next door Waigani Primary school gathers sufficient information on literacy to enhance better performance in classes next year. Another from Pom Nats gets all that is rich and tantalizing just so as to become a member of this campus within a year or two. And yet another, looking somewhat groomed and dignified in posture, because this is the alma mater most talked about, knows that bringing an employer to the Waigani Campus at this time of the year is, as always, the appropriate thing to do.

Amid all that buzz and excitement is felt the poetic desolation of the place once all over again. Even in the speeches made by dignitaries visiting the campus at this time, there is a call for improvement in virtually all the areas that the academia might have neglected over the year. But that burnt out feeling of having so much left undone during the year becomes as much a concern for the campus community as the nation itself. Papua New Guineans must now begin checking their attitude department, not just their intellectual posture is what the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences is saying. She could be right. The buildings all around look as sad as ever, each wanting a reasonable looking “face lift”, and this desolate look of abandon becomes a kind of punctuation mark to that remark. But who is there who cares enough to attend to the needs of even the most rundown building on campus. Each building cries out for help.

Of course, when all this is over, and when the student population has left the campus, there will be a few contractors called in to do bits and pieces here and there. But whether our very attitude to what each building represents changes at all depends on what we have to treasure as good in terms of maintenance. The painter plays an important role in this. If a campus looks good then all that splendour in appearance is in turn attributed to the type of dedicated work the painter has done. Most classrooms have white boards that when written on refuse to be wiped clean. Is it the white board marker or the surface of the white board itself? Still the ink does not rub off, and you are using the correct marker, mind you, because our painter forgot to apply the necessary gloss over it. The urge to rush up to the accounts and collect that pay cheque before each Christmas and New Year break comes rather too quickly for our painter to look over the shoulders at the work done. Poor, old Waigani campus! Even the poet feels like guffawing instead of weeping.
And then it all happens. The forum area – once the arena of great oratories of those colonial and neo-colonial times past gone – bursts into life. A crowd gathers: there is much cheering and clapping, much hushed up awe in admiration, as a lone dancer moves in to do a solo with the tamure.

In a moment she becomes one with her art and the crowd that surrounds her.

O sages standing in God's holy fire…
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.

Little wonder therefore that that place is described, often with authority, as the premier University of the Pacific Region.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Here's the brief review of Maiba

 Maiba by Russell Soaba
Maiba: A Novel of Papua New Guinea* is, you won’t be surprised to hear, my book from PNG for the Read The World challenge. I ordered it second-hand and was surprised to find when it came that it was a print-on-demand edition (I’m sure it’s a second-hand copy rather than one printed for me, btw). Of course POD services — or indeed e-books — are perfect for this kind of niche literature. Because of the challenge, I’ve been browsing around for second-hand copies of obscure books from around the world, and they don’t normally come cheap.
The print quality, for the moment, is noticeably weaker; my Maiba is perfectly adequate but a bit cheaper-looking and more generic than a normal mass-market paperback. But if POD helps keep books available at reasonable prices, then a slight compromise on print quality seems a good trade-off.
I imagine that most of the people ordering copies of Maiba are teaching or studying post-colonial literature, and it does fit fairly neatly into that niche. If I had to identify a central theme I’d say it was about the conflict between traditional Papuan culture and modernity — or change, anyway. The agents of change aren’t actually particularly strongly present in the book; the action takes place in a somewhat remote coastal village where the lifestyle is still fairly traditional (as far as I can judge from my complete lack of knowledge), but the relevance and authority of that tradition is oozing away.
I imagine that tradition vs. change is going to be a frequently recurring theme in the course of this challenge; but then I suppose rapid societal change has been the experience of most of the world’s population for the past century or so. Perhaps it’s just more obvious to me when I’m reading a novel set in PNG than one set in Surrey.
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it, as a novel. It’s short — only 115 pages — and rather open-ended. But it is well-suited to literary tourism; it has plenty of local detail about landscape, food, local buildings, bits of folklore and custom. And it’s well written. Perhaps my only real problem with it is that I’m not a big fan of short forms of fiction.

* Or at least that’s the title on the cover; inside it’s called Maiba: A Papuan Novel.


Harry Rutherford's Blog

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The rural politician delivers more

So the rural politician delivers services to his people after all.

That is what storyboard discovered on the 8th September 2010 in Alotau town when his bag, reported missing in the Weekender article of August 13th (Literacy projects and rural politics ) was safely delivered to him. And who could be responsible for such a safe delivery of baggage to its rightful owner than our rural politician, the child prodigy talked about in that article. 
  When the bag was first discovered misplaced on 26th July our rural politician became aware of the presence of the Anuki Country elders as equal witnesses and decided then to observe the correct procedures in passing the bag to the owner through the rank and file of each village, starting from Woruka where storyboard witnessed a literacy and Bible translation book launching the previous day. Since the bag was discovered at that village, noted our politician, it had to be stored at that village and at the house, if any, of the clan storyboard comes from or is connected to in rank. A house and family was immediately identified and there it was that the bag was deposited for safe keeping until the owner came for it. What fascinated storyboard with that detail was our rural politician’s choice of listening to the advice of the elders which told him that the bag ought to be deposited at a household equal in rank to storyboard’s own. The household nominated thence belonged to the Bogerara clan, which is also storyboard’s family and rank in the village setting.

It is not exactly clear what part our rural politician played in the sudden disappearance or misplacement of that bag on the morning of 26th July. But the fact remains that the whole village was aware of the bag being left by the dinghy that storyboard boarded to travel to Alotau. Now in the Great Anuki Country it is common knowledge that whenever a secret gesture of malice becomes public knowledge it automatically loses its power as a scheme to wrong others. Thus, a magical spell cast on another loses it power the moment its source is discovered and made known to every member of the community, no matter how powerful that magic, art of witchcraft or sorcery might be. The public is the healer for every individual careless enough to become a victim of such mysterious powers which indeed seek to influence, dominate and control.

Viewing the whole business of storyboard’s missing bag from that perspective, it would seem that our young politician would be classified as the sole perpetrator revealed in the nick of time. Bravo, we might say, we have one under our control; he won’t bother us anymore, and that sort of thing.
But there was something else in play here which storyboard found fascinating; and that is the young man’s ability to politick successfully in that rural setting. In order to win favour or credibility from his potential followers and eventually voters he had to show or display through the language of maiba a thorough understanding of the social structure of which he was a product as much as member. Once the bag was stored at its delegated homestead it meant that several clans and family members would attempt to claim it starting from the top down, if storyboard was not there physically to retrieve it himself. Several clan members had offered to claim the item on behalf of the storyboard - all of whom were denied possession by the clan house at Woruka. Finally, it was the clan of our young politician which was given the opportunity to do the bidding; and he, our rural politician, being in charge, sent it straight away through a contemporary of storyboard to Alotau.

By now we can see that almost every clan had its turn in bargaining for the ownership of the bag. A few had even suggested tearing open the bag to share its contents among their families. These were families closer to storyboard who were, would one believe, his first cousins. They were reprimanded, of course, when storyboard got to Tototo. In the bag were a change of clothing, a digital camera, a mosquito net and toiletries and a few packets of coffee, coffee mate and some biscuits and sugar.

When storyboard went home (8th to 14th September) he heard so much discussion at various points and villages along the coastline of the Anuki Country on the fate of this poor misplaced little bag from the urban areas. And each word uttered had a lot do with what belonged to whom and what did not. “Are we thieves, people of Anuki?” was the resounding rhetoric heard over and over.

Then on the 13th September, the morning storyboard was leaving Besima Bay for Alotau, he noticed the dinghy loaded with a variety of raw sea food and vegetables, including mats, clay pots and so many other little gift items. He looked questioningly at those who came by to see him off and among them was our rural politician, standing a little aloof but content on being an observer from afar. His wife, who is also a relative of storyboard’s, quietly made her way to storyboard and explained that all that was loaded on the dinghy as infrastructure was to be distributed equally to those that deserved them, “especially our relatives in towns and cities who have less to eat than those of us in the rural settings of the Great Anuki Country.”

But, of course, storyboard knew where all that oratory was coming from. The rural politician certainly delivers more.