Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Meet Rumli.


One of the great things, perhaps the only great thing, that Papua New Guinea inherited from British and subsequently Australian colonialism, is the tradition of the ‘tea-break’ or ‘morning tea’ as it is known here.

Every morning, at 10 o’clock, everything stops for tea and we all troop off to the ‘staff mess’, where tea and cakes are laid on for all the lecturer and admin staff.  How civilized is that?

It was on one such trip to ‘morning tea’ that I met Rumli, sitting on the grass near the door, displaying his collections of bilums for sale.  The bilum is a traditional Papua New Guinean bag that women make to sell.  They come in all sorts of designs and sizes and everybody has one, or two, or three.  They are used as handbags, shopping bags or even to carry your baby around.

Rumli is an secret agent, sent by his village to lie in wait for people at Divine Word University and sell them bilums (or should it be ‘bila’?).  He does a great job.


How to carry a Bilum.


A woman might well carry her bilum in her hand or slung over one shoulder like a handbag, but the bilum is a truly unisex accessory.  The only difference is that men usually wear them, as Rumli is here demonstrating, around their necks. Sorted!

How to sell a Bilum.


Step 1:  Find Linda.

Step 2:  Sell bilum.

Step 3:  Find Linda again.

Step 4:  Continue until you run out of bilums.

Step 5:  Go back to your village and get more.

Come on, Britain. Do Keep up!


These are some examples of Papua New Guinean money.  The basic unit of currency is the ‘kina’ named after the kina shell which used to be used as money in the good old days..  There are then 100 toea to one kina.

Why do I say that Britain needs to keep up?  Well, PNG banknotes are made of polymer, (‘plastic’ to the non-scientific!)  I understand Britain might get around to this new technology sometime next year.

How much is it worth?  About four kina to the UK pound.


Linda has been teaching Science in Port Moresby for the past week. She left a last Saturday with a suitcase full in cornflour, balloons, plastic tubing, cup-hooks, paper clips and half a dozen empty tin cans and string. She has been in her element – a whole week of doing what she does best, with a class of nine in-service teachers who didn’t know what hit them. They finished the week in a state of exhaustion after working solidly for 22 hours, but they went home with armfuls of science resources and a headful of new ideas.

I, meanwhile, have spent the week ‘baching’. It’s an Australian expression meaning ‘living like a bachelor’. It is part of this new language that I’m gradually learning in preparation for our trip to Oz at Christmas. I’ve learned that the Australians love shortening perfectly respectable words and adding o’s so a journalist becomes a ‘journo’, and a garbage collector is a ‘garbo’.

They’ve made ‘farewell’ into a verb, so you might have a party to ‘farewell’ someone who is going on a journey.

And the one that takes the most getting used to is the word ‘Victorian’. When somebody talks about ‘the Victorian police’, I have to banish from my mind all thoughts of some forlorn and lonely, tall-hatted Bow Street Runner, traipsing through the foggy back streets of nineteenth century London in search of footpads and neer-do-wells. I have to replace that with the image of some musclebound, bronzed, motorbike-riding police officer arresting drunk drivers on the highway in the State of Victoria.

I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it by Christmas.

Bringing out the Big Drums.

P1040133 P1040169

These magnificent drums come from the island of Manus and the students from the Manus Student Association are very happy to turn up and play them at any Cultural Day or similar gathering.  They make a very stirring sound that you feel in the pit of your stomach.

Drum with Crocodile


The Crocodile.

I’ve seen dozens of crocodiles since we’ve been in Papua New Guinea. Fortunately, all of them carved out of wood either on the prows of fishing boats or on the front of traditional drums like this one.

I’ve also just read a novel called “The Crocodile”, that I can thoroughly recommend if you can get hold of it. It’s by Vincent Eri and it is the first novel ever written by a Papua New Guinean. Eri, who was one of the first cohort of Papua New Guineans to go to university, wrote the novel in 1970. Twenty years later he went on to be PNG’s 5th Governor General, albeit briefly.


The novel tells of a young boy, Hoiri, growing up in a village in an isolated part of Papua New Guinea in the years before and during the Second World War. At that time, PNG was governed by the Australians who would send ‘patrol officers’ out into the rural areas to administer the country, bring western ideas of law, (known here as ‘Westminister justice’) and generally to keep the peace.


A couple of ‘Kiaps’, Australian Patrol Officers.

When he was a boy, Hoira had been sent to a Catholic mission school by his aunt who brought him up, when his own parents had been killed under suspicious circumstances. She hoped that the fact that the teaching in the Catholic School was all done in English, would help Hoira to get a good job somewhere in the colonial administration, when he grew up.

Early in the story, Hoira is taken on a weel-long and dangerous canoe trip with his father and a group of other men from his village to the capital town of PNG, Port Moresby. This is the beginning of Hoira’s passage into adulthood as he learns the skills needed to handle a dug-out canoe along treacherous and crocodile infested rivers. When he finally arrives in Port Moresby, he sees, for the first time, cars, trucks and white people.

It is on this trip that Hoira’s father gives him the warning that permeates the whole novel. He tells him that tobacco and sugar are the white man’s two most powerful bits of magic and he goes on to say “Get used to smoking and drinking tea and you will slave for the rest of your life for the white man.”

Hoiri grows through his teenage years and marries. He soon has a baby son. By this time the war has broken out and the Japanese have begun their invasion. The Australians, outmanned and outgunned, recruit local Papua New Guinean men and boys to act as bearers, carrying supplies and ammunition along the jungle tracks where the Aussies were trying to hold up and thwart the Japanese advance on the capital. Hoiri is enlisted as a bearer. He has to leave his wife and new baby.

A chance encounter with another canoe from his area brings the news that Hoira’s wife has been killed, and presumed eaten, by a crocodile while she was fetching water from the river. As often happens in cases of unexpected death in PNG, even today, there are accusations of sorcery. Hoira is desperate to go back to his village to find out what happened, take care of his son and do what tradition expects of him, to find and kill the crocodile. His application to the patrol officer for leave is turned down.

After three years of carrying the white man’s burdens and living in the white man’s world, Hoira returns to his village with his wages for three years, eleven Australian pounds and five sticks of tobacco. He finds that he no longer belongs back where his roots are. He is torn between two opposing worlds. He can’t compete with the white man on equal terms nor can he derive any emotional security or sense of belonging from his own culture. His western-style education had taught him some English and given his an insight into the wider world, but it hadn’t guaranteed him success in the white man’s world. It had alienated him from the culture from which he came.

This tension between the lure of the modern and the ties with the traditional is a common feature of life here. I was recently teaching a course on “Managing the Learning Environment” to a roomful of quite experienced, in-service teachers, (Some of my former students who have experienced my own ‘management of the learning environment’ over many years of teaching German, could be forgiven a hollow laugh at this point!)

I had to teach this group for 22 hours in the same week, so there was time for a bit of chat on and around, (or indeed nothing to do with), the subject. The topic of conversation got around to the differences in the role and importance of the family in our respective societies. In PNG society, the family is everything. It is your main support mechanism in times of trouble and it is where your loyalties lie at all times. Anyone who gets a paid job in the town will send money home to the extended family in the village because he or she knows that when they retire, it is to the village that they will return. It is in the village that they will have their plot of land on which they will grow vegetables etc.

My students listened in stunned silence when I told them that in my culture, families are very small, scattered and largely independent. That old people live on their own for as long as they are able and will often spend their last days in a care home. They were shocked to hear that I have cousins that I could be sitting next to on a bus and be unaware that we were related; that our children have not lived with us, except very briefly, since they were eighteen and worst of all, that we have no village to which to return.

This conversation happened on the Tuesday of the course. On Friday afternoon, as we were breaking up and going our different ways, one of the students came up to me with a furrowed brow and said, ”Do you really mean that you have no village to go back to? You don’t belong anywhere?” He had been thinking about it for three days and still hadn’t managed to get his head around it. He was clearly troubled by what he had learned about western society, and yet he is part of a process of cultural change that may bring equally dramatic contradictions in its wake.

A few years ago, Linda and I took a group of six-formers on a four-week expedition to Botswana and Namibia. As part of this fascinating trip, we spent three nights in the middle of the Kalahari Desert in the company of three ‘Kalahari Bushmen’ who, over the three days, showed us some to the bush-skills that have traditionally kept these people alive in a very hostile living environment. Our three guides all wore western clothes, though very old, worn and torn, and only one of them spoke any English.

They showed us how to lay traps for animals and how to identify, and dig for, ‘bush-carrots’ that grow wild about eighteen inches under the earth. They showed us how to throw spears and use a bow and arrow. They even cut and carved a ‘digging stick’ for each member of the group. At night, we sat around a big campfire, cooked our dinner and chatted, like the San people, the Bushmen, have done for thousands of years.

It was significant that the one man who spoke English, and was therefore the leader of the Bushman group, had to keep referring back to his two companions when we were out and about during the day looking for bush food, water-storing roots or medicinal plants that would cure snake-bites, madness or urinary tract infections. He had been to school. They had lived in the bush. He had started to forget.

As we were sitting around the campfire, swapping stories, one night, there was a kettle on the fire and one of the Bushmen wanted to check if the water was boiling. Without bothering with a cloth or anything, he reached across the fire and, with his leathery hand, took the lid off the kettle. He still couldn’t see if the water was boiling, so he reached into the pocket of his tattered old jacket and brought out his mobile phone, switched on the torch function and looked into the kettle. Fifteen students’ jaws dropped.

Without realizing it, we had been granted the rare and unforgettable privilege of witnessing the final stages of a dying culture. The leader of our Bushman group had already started to forget the traditional survival skills. His two companions were the last generation that would ever use them.

The San people have traditionally lived off the land in a huge tract of land in central Botswana. They had no permanent homes and would move around from month to month in the constant search for food and grazing.

The Government of Botswana had other ideas. It saw itself as having a responsibility to ensure that every Botswanan child should go to school and, at the same time, it wanted to develop its tourism industry by creating a huge National Wildlife Reserve just where the San people had their ancestral land.

So the San were unceremoniously rounded up and shipped off to grim and characterless new settlements, made of corrugated iron shacks, hundreds of miles away from where their forefathers were buried. All of their children were put into Government schools and would never learn the bush skills that had kept their parents alive. Such is the on-march of modernity that the whole of the developing world is grappling with.

In Papua New Guinea, as in Botswana, the speed of these changes, and the sense of alienation and cultural loss that they entail, is often difficult to cope with and unfortunately, alcohol is often part of the solution.

But anyway, I digress! What were we talking about? Ah yes, crocodiles, or specifically, “The Crocodile”.

At the end of the story, and despite the state of cultural limbo in which he finds himself, Hoira’s greatest wish is that he will be able to get his son into a ‘Colonial school’. He hopes that his son will make the transition more successfully.

There are no ‘Colonial schools’ these days. Papua New Guinea today has been an independent country for just under 40 years, during which time there has always been a democratic, if sometimes messy, transfer of power, which in developing word terms is quite an achievement.

The country is keen to preserve its rich heritage of over 800 languages and therefore over 800 cultures. It will be very interesting to see, five or ten years from now, the extent to which this will have been possible.


Tok Pisin Word of the Week – ‘wan’

Wan’ simply means ‘one’ in Tok Pisin, as in ‘wan, tu, tri, foa and faiv…’

If you are counting something, then you have to add ‘-pela’  to the number, i.e ‘wanpela poteto, tupela poteto, tripela poteto, foapela…’

By the way, ‘Em i gat tupela tang’ which means ‘He is hypocritical.’ But I digress. Back to ‘wan.’

Nambawan’ means ‘the best’.

Yumi wanbel?’ ‘Are we in agreement?” (‘Are we of one belly?’) By the way, ‘belhat’ means ‘angry,’ (not hot-headed but hot-bellied.) And ‘bel i bagarap,’ is defined as ‘to have an upset stomach’ or ‘to need to go urgently to the toilet.’ But I digress. Back to ‘wan.’

Your ‘wanblut’ is your blood relative and your ‘wanhaus’ is someone who lives in the same house as you.

Your ‘wanpilai’ is your playmate but your ‘wanples’ , (literally ‘one-place’), is someone who comes from the same village as you.

wanpes’, (literally ‘one-face’), means ‘looking the same’, as in ‘Tupela meri i wanpes.’ ‘The two women look alike.’

Your ‘wanskul’ is your schoolmate and your ‘wanwok’ is your colleague, as in ‘Wanwok bilong mi em bilong Madang.’ My colleague comes from Madang.’

And then we come to ‘wantok’, (literally ‘one-talk’), defined in the dictionary as ‘countryman, one who speaks the same language, a person of the same ethnic group, a kinsman, a close friend, a mate.’

Wantok’ sounds such a positive word, a bit like ‘motherhood’ and ‘apple-pie.’ However, it could be argued that it is the biggest force for under-development that this country faces. The same was true, to an even greater extent, in South Sudan.

Wantokism’ means favouring your ‘wantok’ above all others. Nothing wrong in that, you might think.

Certainly amongst the Dinka, your priority was always towards your ‘wantok’, starting with your own family and moving out to your clan and tribe. So if ever you found yourself in charge of poorly–controlled funds, or the appointment of staff, you knew where your loyalty lay. Your cousin gets the job.

The trouble with that is that once your cousin is behind his undeserved desk, performing badly, if at all, because he doesn’t have either the skills or the motivation to do the job, how do you get rid of him? The short answer is that you can’t. You can’t discipline a ‘wantok’, much less put him out of a job, because that would damage the family, the clan or the tribe. So any kind of performance management or accountability goes straight out of the window.

In Rumbek, the Ministry of Education for Lakes State was housed in a rickety old house that, in colonial times, had been the house of the headmaster. There had been no maintenance done on it since those days. The walls were cracked, the glass-less window frames were rotten and the rain came through the roof and dripped onto Linda’s desk. Somehow, the annual budget for maintaining the building never seemed to materialise.


The front door of the Ministry of Education, Rumbek, 2013

There were two other houses that belonged to the Ministry and they were just outside the main compound. It took two minutes to walk to one of them, ninety seconds to walk to the other. Sometimes documents had to be taken from one building to the other, so there was a need for messengers.

Every time there was a change of Minister, (there were two in the sixteen months we were there), the new Minister would appoint his sisters and his cousins and his aunts, not to mention his wives and his multifarious in-laws, as messengers. When The Minister was, subsequently, either dismissed, disgraced or redeployed, the new man would come in and do exactly the same.  He wouldn’t bother sacking the people appointed by his predecessor, however, because they were all still Dinka, after all, even if a bit more remotely related. They were in fact, still ‘wantoks’.

The cumulative effect of this was that when we were there, there were 105 messengers on the Ministry payroll!

Most of them never turned up for work. Some were not even living in South Sudan any more.  Some were reputed to have already died.


Two of the 105 at the front door of the Ministry.

Faithful followers of this blog might, justifiably, ask why this is the first time I’ve written about this. Well, now that I am safely beyond the reach of Major General Matur Chut Dhuol, the truth can be told.

Major General Dhuol was, and still is the Governor of Lakes State, of which Rumbek was, and still is, the capital. He spoke no English, and, to all accounts, was barely educated. He had, however, proved himself to be a ruthless, and much feared, military leader during the war. He was appointed by the President to bring order to what was seen as a pretty lawless state. His strategy was to basically ignore any concept of human rights or the rule of law and to give the security forces, (particularly the secret police), free rein to do whatever they wanted. When he banned alcohol throughout the State, guess where the truckloads of confiscated beer ended up. No prizes for the right answer.

There were four, heavily under-utilized, ‘tourist hotels’ in Rumbek, mainly used by aid agency staff and the occasional visitor passing through. In each of these hotels, except one, the security forces had demanded that a room be made permanently available to them for the entertainment of their lady companions. The owner of one of these hotels, an Indian, who had been reluctant to agree to this arrangement, was called to the security headquarters one day for interview. He was then locked in a latrine and given the opportunity to reconsider his response. When he agreed, he was released. The secret police had the keys to apartment 24.

Shortly after we arrived, the manageress of the hotel that had refused to allocate a room, a white Kenyan woman in her early twenties, was beaten up by the security police and had to be bundled onto a plane and flown out of the country for her own safety. The next manageress was less obstructive and keys were again made available.

In terms of my weekly blog, I was ninety-nine percent sure that the South Sudanese security services would not have had the technological expertise to monitor internet traffic, but you never know with technology.  Being a devout coward, I wasn’t going to put it to the test by writing anything that might have earned me a visit from Major General Dhuol’s heavies and an unwelcome sojourn in the black hole of the infamous Langcok prison, into which many people were known to have been put and from which some never returned.

It is significant that nearly two years after his appointment, the Major General had signally failed to bring law and order to Lakes State. To all accounts, the lawlessness and the killings are as bad as ever, if not worse, and the general public is so alienated about the human rights violations and the heavy-handed, and thoroughly illegal, tactics used by the security forces, that there is no cooperation between the people and the police, so the chances of establishing any kind of law and order, slip ever further into the far distance.

To cap it all, several of the reports that have come out of Rumbek recently have suggested that a lot of the killing and highway robbery that has been occurring in and around Lakes State, has been carried out by relatives of the Major General himself.

That will, of course, explain why no-one has been arrested and no-one will ever be put on trial.

Rule No 1 is “You never shop a wantok!”

PNG was the place to be.


So there we were, enjoying a sundowner on the balcony of a local hotel, when someone started taking chunks out of the moon.  The full lunar eclipse was apparently only visible from the Pacific and the western bits of the United States.  You wouldn’t believe the schadenfreude of some of our Australian friends in Madang that Brisbane and Sydney were shrouded in clouds last night whereas we had a clear black sky.


Going, going….




Still going…

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