Saturday, April 30, 2011

A teacher's castle and estate

At a UPNG book presentation. From left: Mairi Mehutu, Dr. Nicholas Garnier, His Excellency Alain Waquet, Ambassador of France, Hon Minister of Education, James Marape, Pauline Riman, Storyboard and Professor Ross Hynes, Vice-Chancellor of UPNG.
A teacher’s classroom is his castle and estate, so to speak. Like an eagle in the light of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s literary metaphor, he keeps territorial watch over that classroom. It must be clean and tidy at all times. And it must be inhabited by children eager to learn.

The teacher goes missing and the classroom along with everyone in it gets thrown asunder. When that happens, all the policies, reform bills and related directives imposed upon such a little place from those higher up the bureaucracy may not work.

For one thing, the teacher’s absence will be the cause of such reforms not being properly implemented. Then we will have the obvious: questions surrounding the OBE and what it proposes to do or how it really could work if our teacher did not go walkabout. Then again, we hear the teacher himself complaining that he does not have the material which could enable him to stay back and keep his classroom in order.

The moral of this little story? Give that teacher a good book and he will certainly remain in his classroom and share some of the excitement he sees in that book with his pupils. He will not, if he is based at Kwikila, for example, go to town in search of his fortnight pay.

So what appropriate material can we offer to make that teacher’s job a little more exciting?

Dr. Nicholas Garnier of the Visual Anthropology section of the Anthropology and Sociology Division of the University of Papua New Guinea believes he has the answer. His oft-mentioned publication, Twisting Knowledge and Emotion: modern bilums of Papua New Guinea can do wonders in keeping both teacher and pupil in the classroom the best part of each school week. And the only way this can be done is to supply the Education Department with copies of this book to be distributed free of charge to all the lower secondary and primary schools throughout the country.

Last Thursday (21st April) a special ceremony was held at the University’s Council Room to observe this presentation. 3,000 copies in all were presented to the Minister of Education, Honourable James Marape, under whose directives the books will find their destination at possibly all the schools in Papua New Guinea. Also present at this occasion were His Excellency, Alain Waquet, the Ambassador of France and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Papua New Guinea, Professor Ross Hynes.

Speeches made by these dignitaries touched on the need there was for reading material to be made readily available to schools, to make things easier for teachers and pupils to grasp the significance of new reform programs such as OBE. Such gestures in free distribution of material to schools, pointed out Honourable James Marape, enable UPNG to stand out as the leader in new reform initiatives.

At the launching of this same book by Dame Carol Kidu at the Parliament House at 12 noon 31st March 2010, Dr Garnier on behalf of the stakeholders, the publication sponsors and printers, along with the contributors and a women’s bilum organization from Morata, made the promise that 3,000 copies would be donated to the Education Department for distribution. That promise was fulfilled last Thursday. The remainder will be sold in the hope of regenerating enough to cover print costs of similar publications in the near future, this time on the theme of vernacular architecture.

This is a lovely publication. Its glossy pictorial content coupled with poetries of relevance to the bilum as a separate art form, and a supporting treatise on this popular art by Dr Garnier himself makes the book all more exciting. What rural school teacher would dare take a trip to town on a payday with such a publication around? And with a few more yet to come sponsor and stakeholder alike will feel the gist of this raison d’ĂȘtre in book production for our schools at all levels. The teacher too will be reluctant to leave his work station.
Dr. Nicholas Garnier, author of Twisting Knowledge and Emotion: modern bilums of Papua New Guinea.
None of these success stories come to our reach without the enormous amount of work put into them by various individuals here and there. Dr. Garnier’s bilum project has been ongoing for many years, with everyone from virtually all walks of life participating. He finds a willing collaborator in storyboard who considers a privilege to work with him. And that instance of team work proves exciting, all the more so because neither one (due to linguistic hang-ups) can easily understand the other. And yet the work that they produce appears monumental.

Here are a few amusing instances. Now we all know that for a clock-conscious culture where Nicholas Garnier comes from Papua New Guinea is the worst place to be in. But for true-to-reputation modes of ceremonial protocol, Papua New Guinea remains the most glorious and memorable. Both men are perfectly aware of this. Thus, upon the hour that the presentation of books to the Minister of Education will take place, the venue changes from Ulli Beier Cultural Centre to the University’s Council Room; His Excellency the Ambassador calls that he will be some 15 minutes late; and the Minister also calls that he will be 30 minutes late.

To top it all, the icing comes during the ceremony itself. Storyboard opens the proceedings by being a keynote speaker and not an MC which is what his collaborator probably meant by saying, “You will be first speaker.” The Vice-Chancellor, noticing that slight misgiving, perhaps, offers to take up the task of being the MC for the occasion. Alleluia. And all this is happening on a pleasant Maundy Thursday afternoon! And the rest of the guests including the young journalists from Post Courier are probably thinking, “What a stupid old man you are, storyboard!”
But it was a lovely day. We would like to use occasions such as this to speak in praise of those wonderful people who work as teachers within the rural areas of our country. Where they are life is hard, but they keep on hacking away, in both experimenting and implementing the new reform policies that come upon them more as challenging surprises than as duties for them to perform. Given the appropriate teaching material they shall treat the classroom as their castle and estate.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A lahi dairi for Ulli Beier

Something we have to do lest we forget.

It is the sorrow of the lonely and the burning of the dead. When a member of the community passes on we hold the ritual of emptying the house, bringing out all the possessions and where possible burning the clothes that won’t be worn any more. A head dress, a dancing gear, the bagis and musical instruments, all distributed among neighbours or burnt. And then, when the spirits are appeased, we carry on with life.

Motsy David, a lecturer in Theatre Arts at UPNG along with storyboard feels that we must do that in honour of Professor Ulli Beier. Ulli Beier was the first Professor of the Literature Department of the University of Papua New Guinea. He is survived by wife Georgina and sons Sebastian and Tunji. But he is also friend and family to many Papua New Guineans.

Now there are so many things that can be said about Ulli Beier, here as much as elsewhere in the world. But storyboard has his own story to tell about the man.

He was not quite that man that a student would look at from a safe distance and say, “That’s professor so-and-so” and then get scared of walking up to say hello or talk to. He was so down to earth that a student would hardly believe he was a professor at all. But his name rang loud and clear at literary and art festivals and conference tables throughout the world. Whether it was Lagos or London or New York, or somewhere in mid-Europe, people knew who Ulli Beier was, what he was really about.

In 1977 storyboard found himself in the studios of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos, being interviewed by newscasters there about literature in Papua New Guinea. As much as the names Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe, and counterpart names such as Vincent Eri and Albert Maori Kiki, the name Ulli Beier kept coming into the mind as a reminder that his influence in virtually any literary and artistic albeit cultural setting was enormous. Who could do without a name like Ulli Beier in the academia or the book publishing world, particularly in the 60s and 70s?

In December of the same year storyboard again found himself walking within the grounds of the Sydney Opera House in the company of random site-seers when one of whom asked if he knew Ulli Beier. Yes, said storyboard; as a matter of fact he sent me here, to represent PNG at the 42nd P.E.N. International Congress. A further exchange revealed that the man was from Harper and Row Publishers reputed to be the biggest American publishing house then. He also was interested in “work” by Ulli Beier, meaning literature written by Papua New Guineans under the entrepreneurship of Beier. But his request came too early perhaps at around that time because Ulli Beier himself was in the process of discovering the so-called finest writer in Papua New Guinea.

Some six years later storyboard, again, found himself at a little place called John Hay Library, belonging to Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island (USA), where he came across a fine volume of folk poetry from Papua New Guinea. The editor? Why, Ulli Beier, of course. It was the finest little publication storyboard had ever seen and to own it would mean luxury in the Western world. Made of tapa cloth in design as cover, all art work carefully done by Georgina Beier, it contains works by Albert Maori Kiki, Allan Natachee, Kauage, Jakupa, Akis and some of the earlier and most unheard of names in PNG literature, not to mention a few familiar ones from Ulli Beier’s creative writing classes of the 60s. Now John Hay Library is famous for the rare books and manuscript category of cataloguing, and finding Ulli Beier there meant that he had had quite an impact even around that area of New England. The other possible places of rarity as far as books are concerned would be Yale and Princeton if not Harvard. But that was it. The man was there, already, and represented by a highly affluent book binder around New Jersey/Connecticut area.

He was interested in books as much as art and wood carvings. But his interest in that category of art far exceeds an anthropologist’s vision of discovering a new idea, a new race of people altogether, and defining these. No, Ulli Beier did more than that. He did not just discover the Papua New Guinea mind, and a creative one at that. He found a new definition that far exceeds any dimension of art, Western, Oriental or other. It was a separate world altogether where both entities merge to form that new definition, that new meaning. For all art is an endless search of new discoveries and meanings. In Papua New Guinea Ulli Beier found his art and set his mind at rest.

Peter Trist’s email to storyboard Tuesday 5th April reads in part: “Ulli died on Sunday 3rd April, 2011 after a long illness. He was 88 and lived a long eventful and productive life.

He often spoke of you with warmth and affection and followed your career with much interest.”

When storyboard was completing his matriculation at a Melbourne high school in the late 60s one of his ambitions was to meet this great professor of literature in person. Providence had been kind. Ulli Beier joined the faculty of the University of Papua New Guinea at around that time, and also at a time when the colonial world doubted if a “university” would be established in the Territory. But what that doubting world quite overlooked was the fact that the new school, under Gunther’s Vic-Chancellorship, was actually in the process of recruiting the best there was in the world. And that is how Ulli Beier came to Papua New Guinea.

At the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies John Kolia, a naturalized citizen and under Ulli Beier’s directorship in the late 70s and early 80s, wrote so many good stories about the simple yet believable lifestyle of the locality that surrounded him. Among those writings was a careful mention of the scared essence of lahi dairi, a certain kind of communal gathering that signifies the sorrows of the lonely and the burning of the dead. There is a bit of feasting involved in this all on account of saying good bye to the ones gone and celebrating the notion that life must continue.

We at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences which houses the Literature and Language, Journalism and Creative Arts, Political Science, the Anthropology and Sociology and the History, Philosophy and Gender Studies strands, along with Modern Languages, do believe sincerely that a lahi dairi is in order, shortly, and in honor of this great professor of literature who at once decolonized and accommodated the minds of both sides of the world. 

A lahi dairi will be held in Ulli Beier's honour at the University of Papua New Guinea at a date to be set immediately after the University's graduation Day (29th April). There will be an entire afternoon of memorial service, speeches, an exhibition, poetry recitals, short drama sketches, food and drinks, commemorating the life of this great man who lived (and still does) among us.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Aioni, Ulli, and kagutoki

He was a great man indeed, a friend, mentor and adviser to those who have become wise in the world of arts and letters. His contribution to the development of PNG Literature and in particular his leadership in decolonizing the mind on both sides of the world will not be easily forgotten.

Evidence of his leadership can be seen in the great men that surround us today and they are all leaders in their chosen fields of vocation in PNG, among them prime ministers, academics, writers and artists.

Aioni, Ulli.

From the ridges
echoes are distant strangers
in the harbour

not even poem bridges
fly midnight winds
of escape

my songs are ancient dreams
of another place
another time

and were those songs
not what we enjoy now?
Photos, this & above: showing the Ulli Beier Castle and Estate, otherwise known as the Ulli Beier Arts Centre, built by the University of Papua New Guinea writers and artists in his honour long after he had left PNG to live in Australia.
 Aikaikaivem, Ulli; always a friend.
The modawa tree, fenced in, yet symbolic of those good things in life that we often discard or choose to do without; and yet look how they survive. The Anglicans in Papua New Guinea speak of this species of the rosewood tree in reverence and with a greater sense of respect because it represents those beautiful things we sow, as farmers would, and then watch them grow, survive for centuries. Thus, our tribute to Professor Ulli Beier through whose influence in the written word Papua New Guinea finally gained its political independence from Australia. Adieu, Ulli.