Monday, August 1, 2011

UPNG 2011 and Wanpis

By Nou Vada
This week I scheduled an interview with Laken Lepatu, the charismatic Vice-President of the Student Representative Council at the University of Papua New Guinea. My questions to him were about the Student Allowance system that has been proposed by the Government, and why he thought it was necessary. Of course on campus a popular petition has been in circulation seeking signatures from registered UPNG students to petition Parliament to have the system passed in its November seating. 

“If the Government is really serious about obtaining the 54000 university graduates a year as it envisions in the Medium Term Vision 2010-2015, it must invest in its students”. Lepatu continued, “Students are state assets. The government must completely subsidize all the school fees for tertiary students for the year 2012 and onwards. The fortnightly student allowance of K13.00 must be re-introduced to help these students; these future leaders of the country augment whatever little rations they can afford with whatever little their wantoks assist them with”. The revelations are nothing new and have been stated and restated countless times by countless student leaders, nevertheless, the truth and more so the urgency in these statements do not diminish.
Laken described the scenario unapologetically, “It is necessary to have this thing in place. Many of us here on Campus come from the villages and it is very hard to support ourselves.”

The model student that Lepatu describes is as it happens, the protagonist in Wanpis, who starts out his humble journey in All Saints’, a boarding school in Oro Province. He has a step-sister in his village in Milne Bay and a mother, both of whom he leaves away from for 9 years as he attends two boarding schools in succession. After his last year of school he returns to find his mother has died, and his half-sister, a frail woman at just nineteen, fearful of the future. The protagonist never knows his father. And this is one of the silent, maybe subliminal themes that the story addresses. Only at the end of the book does the question of who the protagonist’s father is sneaks up on the reader. The result is a beautiful distortion of emotions that rush to you almost as an onslaught of loud, topical afterthoughts.

The 176 page book has 3 lengthy sections. Each can almost be read as a stand-alone short story. The section titles are Lusman, Split-yolk Nostalgia and Wanpis. These three almost short stories come together to form a novel that is philosophical and poetic and yet so honest-to-God. The protagonist’s rigid approach to an admirer of his, Sheila Jivi La, who is to later become his wife, is as comical as it is apprehensively helpless. Characters like Just-Call-Me-Joe (J.C.M Joe or Joseph Bikman) and Sophie, the white expatriate student who reviles her expatriate status and her whiteness are what could be regarded as unrounded characters – that is, characters not fully formed and developed, but in the attitude of the book, the reader is expected to leave bona-fide literary analysis at the door, that this is Papua New Guinea where you expect the unexpected, in the people and in their stories.

Just-Call-Me-Joe becomes a student politician, an undergrad revolutionary, one of the leaders of the Nationalist Black Power Student Movement, but at the end all he wants, all he ever really longs for, with all his revolutionary philosophies and his firebrand leadership is fame and fortune. Soaba presents UPNG as it was in the 1970s when Wanpis was written and as one who studies there right now will acknowledge, not much has changed. There are still student forums held at the Forum Square and there are maverick student leaders, maybe without (maybe with) the ambition distorted intents of Just-Call-Me-Joe. 

I met up with Laken fresh off a meeting with the Government. He was very local about the hardships that ordinary students face on campus. He told me about the 8% increase in tuition fees and the 21% increase in Board and Lodging fees that the students had to pay for this academic year and he stressed the fear that the school fee would indeed increase again next year. I asked why the SRC of UPNG was targeting the Government and not the UPNG Council. 

“The University Council pointed fingers at the Government.” 

According to Lepatu, it was the former Finance Minister and current Works Minister Hon. Peter O’Neill’s encouraging statements that prompted the SRC to act, not in civil disobedience, but in support of such an initiative hinted by the Minister on the 19th May edition of this newspaper where he was quoted as saying “Our economy is growing at 8% and we need quality human resource to put this economic growth into reality... I see no reason why, with such money, we cannot give back fortnightly allowances and subsidize school fees for students in tertiary institutions”.

After meeting with Laken, I stood around the Forum Square for awhile. This small arena has been the sight of many a powerful student rally. In Wanpis, the protagonist after walking back to school from Hohola where he falls from the door of a moving PMV, and arrives to find a student rally in progress at Forum Square. The protagonist of course is a freshman and finds the atmosphere tense. The tense atmosphere of student rallies at the Forum Square, with all its now-or-never sentiments and emotional flare is a uniquely UPNG experience.
Wanpis, in its first two chapters deals with UPNG and the hope and despair it can represent. These two chapters deal with the philosophical musings of someone who has come to University as an elite, a lusman still, but an elite. Wanpis deals with the UPNG experience of broadening one’s mind, engaging in drunken philosophical arguments with friends, fighting in the name of your race and ethnicity, on campus romance and the contemplation of leaving school – things all students at UPNG go through. At the heart of all this is the concept of the Lusman, someone who is on transit to somewhere, someone who is looking for his identity and the meaning of life, who has left his village beyond the hills of Port Moresby and has come to create a destiny and recreate a context for his past. The Lusman as presented in Wanpis is so much more than a mere description a student; it a body of philosophy that the regular UPNG student thinks, experiences and derives himself from and it is that thing a former UPNG student in the workforce misses and reminisces over; a split-yolk nostalgia of some sort. 

The Lusman of Wanpis is the student Laken Lepatu and like-minded student leaders have in mind to be the beneficiaries of these proposals the SRC is pushing for.