Associate Professor Helen Gardner – Waigani Seminar Reflections

Associate Professor Helen Gardner, member of the Contemporary Histories Research Group, attended the Waigani Seminar (18-23 August) in Port Moresby for the 40th Anniversary of Papua New Guinea. Helen has reflected on this event for the CHRG:

Flew into Moresby in the early afternoon over the dry barren landscape of the capital. Of the 70 or so people on the plane, I was one of only four women. This set me thinking about the mix of people who had ‘come up’ over the last sixty years. Many of my Pacific History colleagues began their working life here as teachers when it was still Australian territory. Now, however, a new generation of Australians is at work in Papua New Guinea. Not for building the state or educating the people but for extracting the resources. This is a new frontier.

And Moresby is nothing if not a frontier town. The tiny administrative outpost has grown, in 100 years, to a larger more chaotic version of its earlier self. Much of the town seems only now to be succumbing to something more permanent. Empty lots and unmade pavements are interspersed with government buildings and barbed wire, though new roads are graced with trees down the centre set into stone beds. While mere saplings at the moment, in 20 years these efforts may transform the city. Port Moresby is famous for its security guards and fences, yet the town – or city for the true population is difficult to estimate – is less menacing than I anticipated. It seems as though the gates and barriers and manned posts serve a metaphorical as well as physical barrier aiming at keeping the order on one side and the upheaval that is Port Moresby, on the other.

I was met at the airport by my endlessly cheerful and welcoming hosts Jon and Catherine who drove Dr Kirstie Close-Barry and me out past the squatter settlements of Erima and Nine Mile. The road was in a constant state of upgrade and the route was lined with plastic bags – that ubiquitous weed of the third world city – though the more built up areas are largely clean. The drought that has laid waste to the country ensured the dust never settled. As we came up to our destination an apparition appeared in the middle distance, a Ferris wheel, then a cluster of life-size fibreglass African animals, milling about on the Port Moresby savannah in an unexpected fun park.

Amidst this frontier world Pacific Adventist University is an oasis, literally. It has a small lake and bird life that attracts twitchers from around the world. I met one on the plane as I wrangled with the visa people over the price of my entry to the country. He was there, he said, for Manus, mispronouncing it, so I stared at him quizzically before comprehending that this island, now a symbol for Australia’s cruel and unusual immigration policy with hundreds of people incarcerated in conditions that are currently the subject of a senate committee, is also world famous for its birds.

We were there for the Waigani seminar, a conference that stretches back to 1966 when the Australian administration brought together social scientists and educationalists and economists and others to ponder the future of their colony. In the years leading to independence in 1975 the seminar distilled the theories of the unborn nation and predicted the problems of the forthcoming state. Resurrected in the last 15 years, the seminar is now a forum for politicians and academics and NGOs and others keen to be chart the future for Papua New Guinea. Australians, the former colonial masters, were conspicuous by their absence except for a few here and there and the Deakin University contingent led by Dr Jonathan Ritchie who is undertaking a major oral history project on Papua New Guinea memories of World War Two in conjunction with the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery, and funded by the Australian Aid Program Strongim Pipol Strongim Nesen.

The first morning of the seminar was prefaced by peak hour traffic, for the new wealth of Moresby has been expended on a clog of cars. Our driver and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the Adventist University Jeff Crocombe explained that the trip to his daughter’s school had been halved when the road was expanded to four lanes. Previously they might sit in traffic for one and a half hours before abandoning the attempt for a day of home school.

The conference began, not as the program promised, with an opening address by Prime Minister O’Neill for he was inexplicably in India: the local newspaper showed him laying a wreath on Gandhi’s tomb. Instead Tolai acting Prime Minister Leo Dion stepped in. He was welcomed into the lecture theatre with dancers from East New Britain and other places and we began with a prayer, the national pledge and anthem. But Dion was the minor precursor to the minister for planning and infrastructure Charles Abel, descendant of his famous namesake, a missionary to Milne Bay who established a closed Christian community, Kwato, to protect his Chosen from the contamination of New Guinea. But the next generation broke down the barriers erected by their founder – his son Cecil married a local woman, – and Kwato produced a slew of teachers, politicians and other key figures for the independent nation.

For reasons never explained, Abel’s talk began with conjuring tricks and sleights of hand from a magician. It proved an apt introduction, for Charles seeks to wave his own spell over the country. He inspired the audience with his five-year plan ‘Stars’ and his insistence that the rhetoric of Papua New Guinea must be matched with actions. He was sick of the pious that pledged allegiance to the nation while robbing it blind, who beat their wives between prayers. He wants to ensure that the country is properly serviced and has proposed a major infrastructure plan that divides the nation into provinces, districts and wards each with a minimum level of government training institutes, hospitals schools and medical posts according to their need. With the echoes of Christian socialism that had animated the independence generation, Abel showed the same dogged determination as his ancestors. The packed audience hung on his words for he is the living embodiment of the tangle of Christian and Melanesian values on which the nation was forged, the creative offspring of a generation who admired the village and Melanesian communalism through Liberation Theology.

My paper was on that point exactly and began with Catholic Patrick Murphy, who pushed Vatican II into Papua New Guinea in the early 1960s. As radical theologies gained a foothold in the 1970s, the decolonising Melanesia was deeply affected. Ordinands entered the theological colleges and seminaries of Papua New Guinea as pious young men, and exited as radical activists. This was particularly significant for ni- Vanuatu who trained in PNG and returned home to organise for the Vanua’aku Pati against the Condominium. Many went on to become politicians. The papers passed in a mess of time and unexpected though not uncreative combinations. The conference goers might choose the stream that combined bio-security with a brilliant young blogger and television presenter – inexplicably funded by DFAT – who attacked the predatory capitalism of PNG. Deakin University’s third contributor, Kirstie Close Barry gave a paper on the large oral history exploration of the Papua New Guinea experience of the Kokoda track. This long overdue project is seeking the local memories of a place Australians struggle to recognise as the sovereign land of another people. Instead they worship it as a site ‘Forever Australia’ and flock to fight their way along the steps of their grandfathers. While seeking Australia, those who complete it are granted a uniquely Papua New Guinea experience: negotiating with landowners, slogging the mountainous terrain and sleeping in the villages of people whose ancestors were colonial subjects. The project described by Dr Barry listed the PNG nationals who are involved in the interviews, the place of the nation in PNG recollections of the track and the tensions for landholders along the route who feel inadequately recompensed for the use of their land. Many engage in the response that has become commonplace for PNG villagers aware that land is their only leverage, and put barriers across the track, infuriating Australians who believe it is their sacred site.

Day two of the seminar began with the founding father Grand Chief Michael Somare, who led the nation to independence from the early days of the Bully Beef club that became the PANGU Party and eventually the first government of the independent nation. Both metaphorically and literally the Lazarus of PNG politics Somare was a revolving Prime Minister over nearly 40 years, surviving and rebuilding each time the Melanesian style of political manoeuvring and votes of no confidence deposed him from office. In his final period as PM he fell very ill and was in a coma in Singapore for months in 2011 where he was said to have died for seven minutes. The entire country anticipated his death and parliament came to a standstill for the constitution was powerless to deal with an incapacitated prime minister. But Somare rose again – in truth you couldn’t kill him with an axe – and made a full and unexpected recovery. He returned to PNG demanding he be returned to the office of prime minister. But his wily colleagues had found a way around the impasse and he was refused entry to parliament. His court appeal was unsuccessful and fears of a Somare dynasty and a Mugabe style dictatorship were unfounded. In truth, as Somare himself noted, each time he was deposed as prime minister he abided by the constitution that he had helped create and stepped aside – except for the last time, which he believed to be unlawful.  The constitution was invoked frequently throughout the conference in the lead up to the fortieth anniversary of independence. As Dr Jon Ritchie showed in his masterful PhD thesis on the topic, the constitution was drafted by a committee and then taken on a tour of the country for village meetings to ensure the populace had input into their founding document. It is known as the mother law and is perhaps the most inclusive of all constitutions.
In the afternoon I walked up the hill to the National Research Institute with Matilda, who witnessed independence in 1975 on Samarai with a bottle of whiskey and a cluster of independence politicians. With her friend they toasted the new nation until the whiskey morphed the English word ‘independence’ into ‘underpants’. This is a common pun in PNG. The story is told of the children who struggled to understand why the Australian government wanted to give them ‘underpants’ when they already had their own. Dressed in her trademark pink velour hat Matilda and I sat down to hear Marilyn Strathern at a seminar on the articulation of customary and common law that has long bedevilled academics and lawyers. A world famous anthropologist, Strathern explored the difficulties of cross-cultural comprehension by comparing a Haus Krai and English funeral. Her complex but inviting philosophical lecture was delivered to a deeply engaged Papua New Guinea audience who put a series of sophisticated questions to her. Strathern answered each with thoughtful responses until the last man demanded ‘who is the corpse in the Haus Krai’, a query that denied the abstraction of the entire paper. Professor Strathern admitted, with a good natured shrug ‘that she was completely stumped’ and passed the microphone to her former student Andrew Motu, now director of the National Museum, who attempted a response.

Returning to the Waigani Seminar I heard a depressing tale of the failure of the basic education in PNG. In some areas the level of primary enrolment is 10%. Afternoon tea was with an aged expatriate who was parliamentary secretary to a number of PNG politicians over the previous 20 years. When I asked him where he was from, he looked genuinely distressed for he had led a peripatetic life beginning in East Africa as the son of the colonial service with regular visits home to the family seat in England. In his late teens he began to roam the world. He finally settled in Papua New Guinea before completing his doctorate in anthropology at UQ. He is dismissive of suggestions that Port Moresby is a dangerous place and insists he always walked to and from parliament with a laptop under his arm and was known along the route. His regaled us with stories of how he fed his own ideas into the speeches and policies of the politicians of Papua New Guinea that he served.

Travelling back to PAU in the evening by taxi showed a completely different route to that viewed from the air-conditioned windows of the four wheel drive of our morning transport. We drove past the large milling crowd at the illegal market. We saw two cemeteries, one with unadorned concrete headstones where people sat chatting and smoking and another filled with plastic flowers.   Fearing the taxi cost I watched the meter that seemed to start at 75 then dropped to 37 before creeping up to 60. Preparing to pay what seemed a fair price for a half hour trip I asked the driver ‘how much?’. ‘What do you think?’ he said. ‘You pay what you think is right’. Stumped I passed over the 60 kina I was expecting to pay and he agreed it was fair before driving off.

An evening walk with Kirstie around the PAU conference showed the finely landscaped hills and huge number of birds that warble and chuckle through the morning and evening.

The next day began with a coffee and WIFI at the Holiday Inn that is the site for meetings between government agencies and international donors and partners. We headed off to Waigani to hear the last of the Opposition Leader’s speech. His policies were not dissimilar to those of the O’Neill government but he was disdainful of the current administration’s emphasis on its utopian roadmap Vision 2050 – Somare claims this document is his parting gift to the country and builds on the constitution of 1975. A practical and pragmatic man – a civil engineer – the leader of the Opposition thundered through the problems of PNG and its dismal place on the league tables of the world for health, education and corruption, expressing his deep frustration at every level. Watching outside the main hall that overflowed and required a video link to the crowd, I wondered if such emphasis on the failings of the nation would translate into votes though I know that many share his feelings.

The expected talk from the evangelical speaker of the house who wants to remove the culture elements that decorate the Parliament house did not eventuate. I was disappointed because I am interested in how the enculturated Christians of the older denominations, who live out the preamble of the constitution and support both the ‘spirits of the ancestors and the Christian values that are ours now’, deal with the Pentecostal Christians who see the devil at work in the continuation of culture. This is a real struggle and has already led to the removal of carvings from outside national buildings. Next week a national redemption day is planned. Each meeting begins with a prayer. A small booklet on V2050 winds Christian rhetoric into national needs. Christianity is mentioned at every level, which is deeply confronting for secular westerners.

Just one example from the seminar: at a talk on natural disaster planning an audience member rose and in a mix of Pidgin and English demanded disaster training include culture and traditional knowledge. His example was the eruption in Rabaul in 1994 where the spirits told the people that the volcano would erupt and despite the lack of warnings from the volcano office, the people left, fearing the poisonous gas that killed so many people in the eruption of the 1930s. When the ash cloud descended, the town had already emptied. The response from the presenter was that God has created all things and the populace must learn to watch the animals and respond.

We set off for Strathern’s second lecture at the museum by a round-about route that took in lunch at a Malaysian restaurant. Driving through a narrow road with the peculiar mix of open unkempt space and buildings that characterise this part of Port Moresby, we were stopped by what seemed to be an impromptu Sing Sing (dance competition). Dozens of fully attired Southern Highlanders from different groups converged on one of the open spaces while a long line formed to pay their 5 kina to watch.

Strathern’s talk on her old photographs from Mt Hagen in the 1960s and ‘70s, and the social relations they displayed, showed again her gentle probing intelligence. A walk around the old tired exhibits under a layer of dust at the museum gave just a hint of the extraordinary material culture of this place while outside the amplified strains of the brilliantly attired Sing Sing dancers floated up the hill.

We were invited to dinner in honour of Strathern and arrived at the Japanese restaurant in a part of Moresby that I had not encountered before. This was the port, gleaming towers of apartments, no empty spaces and no surging crowds of squatters. But squatter is a misnomer for the rents are so high in Port Moresby that public servants and university lecturers live in the squatter settlements with arrangements negotiated with local landowners. The port section of Port Moresby feels like any city while just over the hill is a frontier land of the 21st century. In the latter is Parliament House, the university, and government buildings. There is also ‘City Hall’ built with Chinese aid in a Chinese fusion architecture, while across the road the gleaming shopping mall Vision City was built by Malaysian Loggers. Further down the street is a huge derelict mausoleum, again built with Chinese money that was intended as a Casino before the laws on gambling kicked in and the project stopped. Driving down the busy streets are Southern Highland dancers on the backs of trucks who also lay claim to the town.

During dinner I was seated between two members of the diplomatic corps. I asked one how long he had been in PNG and he responded with a distinctly undiplomatic, ‘too long’. The place has no charm for him; he is horrified by the sorcery and the inefficiencies, and struggles with the PNG respect for culture which he sees as an excuse for failure. The Australian member of the diplomatic corps on my other side could not have been more different. After only a short time in the country he shows a deep enthusiasm for the place and is humble in the face of the intellectual struggle required to understand it. He asked for book titles and admitted sadly there is no library in the high commission to help him in his quest.

The next morning we tried to visit the fun park – the Ferris Wheel apparition from earlier, which also has birds and orchids. But it was closed for the governor’s son had booked it for his wedding. Instead we walked around the PAU campus admiring the birdlife, the landscaping and the extraordinary playground made of recycled tires, a joint project with the University of Cincinnati on the role of play in childhood concentration. While beautifully laid out it was bereft of children for they had been given a strict timetable on when they might play on it. The deputy vice chancellor was in the process of rectifying this.

In the afternoon we went for lunch in the Bluff Inn, a sad run down concrete block building with a beautiful garden that runs down to the Goldie River. Then we headed to the Sogeri Plateau and the start of the Kokoda Track/Trail in a convoy of vehicles from Pacific Adventist University that included two Solomon Island students and expatriate staff. The drive up is breathtaking and now safe owing to recent work on the road. This has done the local children out of a job who had previously hovered around the biggest potholes with a shovel, looking industrious and seeking payment of 2 kina for their efforts from the cars that slowed to negotiate both the gaping holes and the pint sized ‘workers’.

At lookouts along the way you can stop to admire the bluffs, and the waterfalls along the river that hosts the hydroelectric dam for Port Moresby. The road winds up steeply with rubberneck bends before heading branching onto 10 kilometres of red dirt. We drove past two key Seventh-day Adventist villages including the first church built in the early 1910s. Apparently 10,000 PNG people attended the centenary. Highlanders walked down over weeks to take part, a modern day Canterbury Tales that brought them into contact, at the end, with the young Australians who are on their own pilgrimage to the Australian nation.

The entrance to the track has an understated memorial that frames the view and lists the battalions who fought on the campaign. The explanation plaque is in Pidgin and English. I had not expected to be moved but it is a dramatic landscape and the track begins with a steep descent- almost impossible in the wet- that must have dismayed all the young men who headed down it in the 1940s, aware that many of them would not come back. While we have all heard how difficult it is, the reality exceeds expectations. One of the members of our convoy recalled being there when a group of young Australians, with state of the art gear, dragged themselves up the hill utterly defeated by the first day’s walk. While they had intended to walk the full 90 kilometres over 5 days, they had bailed out after just 5 hours and returned.

The last day included a trip to Bomana cemetery where row upon row of headstones sit above the bones of young men – both Papuan and Australian – most under 30 and many only 19. Each grave has a comment by loved ones: ‘Only son, deeply mourned’.

Then to the airport to return to Australia. I am seated in front of two very drunk Kiwi boys, the same age as those who came up to fight the Japanese some 70 years ago. I hoped they might sober up on the flight but were served rum during the drinks round. This seemed unwise at the time but perhaps the attendants knew what they were doing for they are now sound asleep.

Associate Professor Helen Gardner Profile


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Australian Policy
 and History

Find out more