Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Our Knowledge System

The article was featured in The Weekender of The National newpaper of Papua New Guinea. Friday 19th March 2010, p.5. Photo credi: The National newspaper.

PAPUA New Guineans are great story tellers. People spend more time talking than reading or writing. No matter how hard I or other literate people push people to make reading and writing part of our culture Papua New Guineans will depend on storytelling skills to get around.

We often hear the expression: Hau yu tromoi tokpisin em yu yet nau. (The way you use your Tok Pisin is up to you) It means the way in which you use language, how you talk, what you say, and to whom you say it, matters a lot in getting the results you want. Speaking is privileged more than written expression that most Papua New Guineans would rather talk their way through an issue rather than communicate on paper.
The more we keep ignoring the importance of writing our stories on paper the more we move away from recording valuable linguistic and cultural knowledge in a permanent form.

We need to encourage our young people to record the stories they hear from their parents, grandparents and relatives. I have no doubt this is already happening with many Papua New Guineans.

Recently I came across an archive of material which I had asked students who passed through the University of PNG to write down about stories and cultural knowledge from their area. These original materials remain unpublished all these years that a sense of guilt on my part began to bother me. To settle this I will include some of these in my column to highlight the value of stories in our communities.

The first piece written by Lyne Kuraiba is about the ways in which knowledge is preserved in the east coast area of New Ireland province and the Sina-Sina Yongamugl area of Simbu province. Lyne writes that in her mother’s area of Sina-Sina Yongamugl, the weather is predicted on the basis of observing the sky in the night. If people see a single star in a cold night it means the weather will remain dry and sunny in the ensuing days and weeks.

Lyne’s mother’s people also observe that the appearance of a green grasshopper at night means good fortune will follow soon after. Another cultural observation of the people is the smell of bedbugs indicating that visitors are expected to arrive in the village soon. Lyne describes how her mother’s people know that a gift of pork meat is on the way when they have the tip of their toes dug into the ground when they walk. This cultural knowledge system may seem ridiculous to those who are not from that society, but these stories provide explanations regarding cultural experiences that form the cultural logic informing the members of that society.

In traditional societies every action taken is in response to an event that is of significance to that society.
“In my father’s area of the east coast of New Ireland,” Lyne writes, “one common practice of recalling knowledge is the tying up of a betel nut tree trunk. When one sees the trees being tied up with knots then surely the trees are preserved for special occasions such as feasts, initiation, etc.”

The betel nuts are then left to reach full maturity before they are harvested for personal use, trade, or gifts to friends and visitors. People in that community know and accept that practice without questioning or breaking the taboo.

“Similar to that is the tying up of tanget (cordyline terminalis) leaves.” Lyne continues. “When a tanget leaf is being tied up by someone, then this normally means danger or that something has gone wrong.”

She gives the example of a son leaving home after an argument with his father. After some time the father discovers that a tanget near the house is tied up. This is read as a message that the son has vowed never to return to his family. He considers himself an outcast. To reconcile the difference and unite the father and son, the father must kill a pig and have a feast to bring his son back into the family.

Such knowledge remains culturally bound. It gives us all the more reason to document their practices. PNG is a fast changing society and efforts to have our cultural knowledge systems documented in any form should be encouraged. I know it is easy for me to say encouraged, but it is difficult to do everything possible to preserve our cultural knowledge.

It is easy for me to encourage students to write down the traditional knowledge and ways of knowing inherited from their parents, but the challenge with this kind of approach is to find the funds to publish the original materials produced by our students as part of their learning experiences.

Our young people bring with them a plethora of stories drawn from the rich diversity of PNG cultures. I am mindful that these stories become corrupted through a process of cultural centrifuging. Efforts to authenticate their originality can be futile. The moment a story is told, it is fresh, original, and has the power to affect its listeners. It must be written down at the precise moment.

I am insisting on the writing down of these stories to preserve their cultural authenticity and their symbolic power. A handful of local publications such as PNG School Journal, Young Life, Lost in Jungle Ways, Zia Writers of Waria, and Oxford Pacific Series feature writings and artworks of our local writers, artists, and young people, but the circulation of these publications is limited. More local publications are needed to meet the increasing reading demands of PNG children.

Perhaps we should start thinking outside of the box now. Dependent on books with no local content or authorship can lead us to ignore our own stories, histories, and knowledge systems. Should we continue to think of ourselves as incapable of writing books about our people and for our people? No I don’t think so.

Email: steven.winduo.manui@gmail.com; blog: www.manui-manui.blogspot.com

The Passing of a great Melanesian

This tribute was made to the late Dr. Bernard Narokobi on Friday 19th March 2010. front cover of The Weekender in The National newspaper. Photo credits to Staff of The National. Thanks to Margaret Daure for editorial.

In the engine room of the Constitutional Planning Committee in 1972 was a young Papua New Guinean lawyer from Wautogik Village, an Arapesh community of the East Sepik Province.

The lawyer, Bernard Mullu Narokobi, had just graduated from the Sydney University, Australia a year ago in 1971.

Born in 1945, Bernard Narokobi, who was educated in PNG and Australia, played a prominent role as the legal officer from the Public Solicitor’s Office to advise the Constitutional Planning Committee on the development of the Papua New Guinean Constitution.

The Constitution was submitted to the Chief Minister, Michael Thomas Somare in Aug 13 1974.

The Constitution became operational on Sept 16 1975, when Papua New Guinea became an Independent State. Without the Constitution, our nation would never have been born.

Dr. Bernard Narokobi passed away at the Port Moresby General Hospital on Tuesday March 9, 2010.

He was believed to have died of heart failure associated with his diabetic condition.

I pay my respects to someone who in my lifetime stood tall and carried himself with the highest degree of human dignity, wisdom, and Papua New Guinean values that all citizens young people, men and women, leaders, nation builders, students, teachers, and ordinary folk should consider the ideals of a true citizen of this great Melanesian nation.

His life is exemplary to many of us who want to serve our country without making a big deal about what we want to do to help our people.

Dr. Narokobi’s influence in the legal system, politics, and ideological development of Melanesian Ways, remains truly monumental and inspiring.
After PNG gained independence, Bernard Narokobi held several jobs, including serving as the legal advisor to the provincial government in his home province of East Sepik, he also worked as a private lawyer, a lecturer in law at the University of PNG and had a stint as an acting judge in the PNG National and Supreme Courts.

He also published a number of papers and articles, which are scattered in various journals and several books, including: The Melanesian Way, Life and Leadership in Melanesia and Lo Bilong Yumi and a short book of fiction entitled Two Seasons.

The late Dr. Narokobi was like the un-diminishing morning beacon of light raised on the hills of Wautogik to shine out its steady and assuring beams into the Ocean to guide the lost fisherman back home, to the roots, to our ways of life, our ways of knowing, and to the laws in our society that guide us onward.

His life was the embodiment of the ideals he believed in and inscribed into the constitution and the philosophy of Melanesian Ways.
The late Bernard Mullu Narokobi served as a Member of Parliament, Government Minister, Attorney General, Opposition Leader, Speaker, and the PNG High Commissioner to New Zealand.

Two occasions that the late Narokobi surprised me, even though he was a busy man and one would have thought he had no time for the little man.

The first occasion was in the PNG High Commission Office in Wellington, New Zealand in 2006. Never mind his busy schedule that day, he made time to meet me, when I traveled from Christchurch to make a courtesy call to the High Commissioner.

The second occasion was during the funeral service of the late Paschal Waisi, who had worked with the late Dr. Narokobi to develop the course Melanesian Philosophy at the University of Papua New Guinea. He turned up before anyone else to pay his last respects to the one person who taught Melanesian Philosophy at the University.

Dr.Narokobi’s philosophies, ideas, way of life, and simplicity rubbed on many of us, who held him higher than some of his contemporaries.

He was in the league of grand chiefs, influential statesmen, philosophers of eminence, and the conscience of a postcolonial nation.

For many of us now, whether we are political leaders, public servants, academics, students, or ordinary Papua New Guineans, we will have to live with the ideas and philosophies of Narokobi.

He lived a simple, everyday life without the pretense that many of his contemporaries exhibit on occasions to separate themselves from the common men and women on the streets of Port Moresby or in the thousands of villages in our country. His life is exemplary to many of us who want to serve our country without making a big deal about what we want to do to help our people.

At this time of his passing the sadness of loss casts its shadows over us in many ways.

How many great men and statesman of unblemished and impeccable record do we have? How many among us are as great as the man whose life is a public life, yet whose virtues and philosophies of life are grounded in the traditions of our people and those of the modern world that we have borrowed from the Western world, but which we now come to regard as our own?
In his own words, we regard such a lifestyle or way of life and ways of knowing, the Melanesian Way.

I pay tribute to the late Dr. Bernard Mullu Narokobi, a person of high intellect and moral standards, someone whom I have long admired his life and work, as a member of the Wewak local community in the East Sepik province that Mr. Narokobi had represented in the National Parliament as a politician, and as a student of Melanesian Philosophy and Constitutional Law.

Dr. Narokobi was more than the titles and offices he held. His life was lived in the way he imagined it to be—a simple, yet complex life, one imbued with the solid idealism grounded in the foundations of the Melanesian Way of life.

Among the many inspirational lines of the late Narokobi, I would like to leave with the reader, a passage from his seminal book, The Melanesian Way (1980): “There are those who are so ill-informed, simplistic and narrow minded as to believe Melanesians have the choice between the so-called “primitive” past of our ancestors and the “civilized and enlightened” present of Western civilization. The choice is in fact more complex than this. The secret to that choice lies in the dual pillars of our Constitution. These pillars are our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now, enhanced by selected technology. It is my hope that we would not blindly follow the West, nor be victims to technology and scientific knowledge. These belong to human kind. They are no racial or national. It is the same with music and good writing. These are physically located in time, place, and people, but in their use and enjoyment, they belong to all. Thus it is with Melanesian virtues”.

Indeed, Dr. Narokobi’s legacy in Melanesia will remain, with us for a long time, as our guiding light.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Transforming Memoirs into Books

First published in Steven's Window, a column in The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea. Friday 12, 2010, p.5.

I read through my memoire I had written some years back. I am transported back in time and space. A memoire is a personal history or autobiography. I keep journals of my life for as long as I remember. I plan to publish some parts of my journals as a way of sharing my experiences with others as well as to inspire others to write. Writing a personal memoire is fun.

Many of us go through significant moments in our lives without ever recording them. These experiences remain in our memory until we cease to remember anything at all. Keeping a personal journal is one way of recording our thoughts, visions, plans, actions, reactions, and emotions felt at a certain moment in our lives. The memoire is also useful in capturing on paper an event or moments we want saved for a long time. Without a memoire we unable to have a total recall of the details of our experiences whether charged with positive emotions or negative outcomes.

As a writer I keep a journal every day. I write at least one to two pages a day. What I write in my journal is dictated by the events of the day or the events yet to arrive. I write before I sleep or as soon as I wake up early in the morning around 4.00am. At least I spend one hour between 4.00am and 5.00am writing in my journal. Without doing so I feel left out in the cold.

A personal memoire is like a friend or a confidant I talk with everyday. The best part of it is that the journal does not talk back or interrupt the flow of thoughts and ideas. It listens and records every word, thoughts, emotions, and ideas. The personal memoire is a personal record of my life. Keeping a journal is a therapeutic exercise in maintaining sanity, when the world is too difficult to deal with. The journal keeps a permanent record of visions, plans, and strategies of a person. A memoire is a book of personal memory.

At lot of what I publish were first written down as journal entries. Using these original thoughts I then weave them into the kinds of stories I want people to read.

I am now preparing to publish the journal I kept between September 2007 and May 2008, the time I lived and worked in the United States. It was also the time the US Elections Campaign trial was on. I followed with keenness the meteoric rise of the first black President of the United States of America. The race for nomination between the First Lady and now Secretary Hilary Clinton and President Barack Obama infected many of us at that time. For some reason I have always felt a pull towards the Democrats, even in the days when I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota between 1994 and 1998. To make sense of the man destined to be the first African American President in the United States I bought The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. I read the memoire with a sense of purpose and reflection on the future.

For the sake of making sense of my rumblings about keeping memoires and publishing it later, a sneak preview of my memoire is given below. At 10.00pm on the 24th of September 2007 I wrote:

“The first time I came to the United States was when I had turned 30. I was young, adventurous, ambitious, and excited about new experiences. I had always wanted to come to America since 1986. At the time I had written my goals out in a small pocket notebook which I carried around with me. Exactly as I had set myself out to do, I did. With goals in my pocket I became a success story.

Getting what I want or where I want to be begins with writing my goals down and working towards them. The goals I have written down in the past had all been achieved. If I didn’t have any goals I wouldn’t be here. I told myself that if I could be anybody I want to be I became that person. I told myself that I can do anything successfully and I saw that it’s done.

Now teaching in the United States was also a goal I had set myself up to do. Here I am teaching and enjoying my life as a scholar in the USA. I have now set a historical milestone in Papua New Guinea as the first PNG professor of English in the USA.

As far as I can see, this is the point in my life that has taken a giant leap. Working as a professor in the United States is the best break I needed to fully explore my full creative, intellectual, and academic training and life. Back at UPNG I felt useless and had no motivation to do much. My performance level was very low. I felt lazy and unproductive. I felt that I was losing my true self.”

I returned home after a year to the same de-motivating environment I had left behind. From the memoire one can revise and recast one’s plans and strategies based on the success and failures of yesteryears.

Now preparing the memoire for publication, I asked myself whether my personal memoire is of significant interest to anyone, but myself and my children. Most entries in the memoire are straight forward, but there are others too sensitive or unfulfilled wishes not ready for exposure and public scrutiny.

Those writing their autobiography or thinking about converting their personal memoire into a published book should consider such issues, questions, and short-falls before exposing themselves. Great autobiographies inspire and encourage readers to fulfill their own life’s journey.

Autobiographies and personal memoires help steer people on the right track without losing sight of their destinies. Papua New Guinean leaders must publish books based on their experiences to inspire our young people.

Email: steven.winduo.manui@gmail.com; blog: www.manui-manui.blogspot.com

Sunday, March 7, 2010

True Measure of Values

First appeared in Steven's Window, a favorite column in The Weekender of The National daily newspaper of Papua New Guinea. Date: Friday 05th March 2010, p.5.

In his autobiography: The Measure of a Man, Sydney Poitier, the living legend, epitomizing the black presence in Hollywood, talks about his incredible journey from the tomato fields on Cat Island in the Bahamas to the limelight of Hollywood. Poitier recalls his simple childhood on island home: “On that tiny spit of land they call Cat Island, life was indeed very simple, and decidedly preindustrial. Our cultural “authenticity” extended to having neither plumbing nor electricity, and we didn’t have much in the way of schooling or jobs, either. In a word, we were poor, but poverty there was very different from poverty in a modern place characterized by concrete. It’s not romanticizing the past to state that poverty on Cat Island didn’t preclude gorgeous beaches and a climate like heaven, cocoa plum trees and sea grapes and cassava growing in the forest, and bananas growing wild.”

Sydney Poitier went on to be the first black actor to win the Academic Award for best actor for his outstanding performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963. His landmark films include The Defiant Ones, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir With Love. Among his many other accolades, Poitier has been awarded the Screen Actor’s Guild’s highest honor, the Life Achievement Award, for an outstanding career and humanitarian accomplishment.

It is always refreshing to read about the life of a successful person to learn about how he or she became successful. The need to reflect on life’s unpredictable journey is the reason for Poitier to write the book. In his own words Poitier describes his reason for writing the book:

“More recently I decided to write about life. Just life itself. What I’ve learnt by living more than seventy years of it. What I absorbed through my early experiences in a certain time and place, and what I absorbed, certainly without knowing it, through the blood of my parents, and through the blood of their parents before them.

“I felt compelled to write about certain values, such as integrity and commitment, faith and forgiveness, about the virtues of simplicity, about the difference between “amusing ourselves to death” and finding meaningful pleasures—even joy. But I have no wish to play the pontificating fool, pretending that I’ve suddenly come with the answers to all life’s questions. Quite the contrary. I began this book as an exploration, an exercise in self-questioning. In other words, I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I espouse, the standards I myself have set.”

Sydney Poitier remains true to his values, principles, and the standards he had set himself to live with. His humbleness and forthrightness as he would in his film roles is also the image one gains from reading the autobiography. The Poitier we follow in this book is someone who went from dishwasher in New York, on to Broadway, and to Hollywood. Sounds a simple straight forward journey, but no, as we find out from Poitier as he recounts his experiences.

What struck me about the book is the association I made to Poitier, acting as the black teacher in a whites only school in England. “Now admittedly, the young teacher I portrayed,” writes Poitier, “was the epitome of virtue. Elegant and well-spoken, intelligent and kind, he was also courageous and steadfast as he stood up to abuse and maintained his commitment to the students under his charge.” That image stayed with me for a long time. The first time I saw the film it inspired me to think of it as a real life experience.

As fate would have it I found myself in exact imitation of the film To Sir With Love when I became the first Papua New Guinean professor of English in an American university between August 2007 and May 2008. It was also the time I acquired Poitier’s autobiography. Reading the book gave me the courage to go through the experience with ease even though the challenge to remain unaffected by the high standard of education in the United States was always a constant heart beat. The experience I gained from teaching English to a class of predominantly white American students for 10 months would remain with me for a long time. The value of such uncommon experiences is that we tend to gain more positive outlook on life by veering into life’s vault to find the inspiration to reinvent ourselves.

Now, at least two years after that experience and teaching back here at the University of Papua New Guinea I reflect on that experiences as a measure of the potential professional Papua New Guineans have in the international market place. We are capable of working as professionals in our chosen fields in different parts of the world, earning respectable salaries for rendering our professional skills and intellectual labor. I was earning US three grants a fortnight, which is equivalent to about nine to ten grants a fortnight in our local currency. With that kind of salary I was able to remit money home and even afford to fly my family over to the United States for a two months holiday.

That seems more like the movies than real life experience. The salaries I receive as a national academic at UPNG is meager. In real monetary terms my fortnightly salary after tax is peanuts to say the least. Such punishing salaries force professional people on the international market scene to leave when an opportunity presents itself. I am no different to the next national academic with similar qualifications and exposure.

The sad truth about this outdated system of salaries is that many of our bright minds are poorly compensated or rewarded for their loyalty to their country and people. Our system of reward for loyalty falls short of a true measure. A sizeable number of professional Papua New Guineans are already marketing their intellectual labor at the international market.

 Email: steven.winduo.manui@gmail.com

 Blog: www.manui-manui.blogspot.com