ON ONE of the isolated islands in the Laughlan Group in Milne Bay province is the atoll village of Budibudi where an experience with books and reading had an unexpected impact in my life.
I was among the primarily Australian tourists on board the cruise ship Oceanic Discoverer, who visited the atoll village after we had crossed over the boarder from Gizo in the Solomon Islands.
Woodlark Island is the nearest government post and administrative centre.
The villagers depend on the ocean and what they can grow on the atoll, though not much to be spoken of as plentiful in the language of mainlanders.
I had walked further away from the village, along the beautiful sandy beach to see if I can walk around the entire length of the island.
Coming towards me was a village youth in his twenties.
He appeared to be lost in his own world, trapped, perhaps by the sheer isolation, and abandonment as it were.
Nothing else mattered to him more than the book he carried with him that day.
As he came nearer I noted he seemed happy being alone.
The book was not the Bible, but the way he carried and displayed pride in the book showed how much the book meant to him.
The book and the youth were connected, somehow, through some force beyond the likes of me.
Of all the people I had met on this trip, this Budibudi youth with the book was the most invective.
The book he was reading was Dame Josephine Abaijah’s autobiography A Thousand Coloured Dreams; the story of a young girl growing up in Papua.
Obviously, the book was not just about someone from his province, but also about the experiences of growing up on isolated islands scattered in Oceania, remaining vulnerable to the geographical isolation, and exposed to natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunami, and affected by the lack of political influence from Waigani or Alotau, and cut off from all matters of modernity sweeping through the rest of Papua New Guinea.
I asked him if he had been to school and beyond his village. Woodlark was the furthest and for school, he never went to high school.
The tourists visited Budibudi to learn about the people, their way of life, culture, and to admire the beautiful sandy beaches, marine diversity, and to understand the island life, away from the trappings of modern cities and towns.
The youth with a book on Budibudi Island, in contrast, wanted to learn about the world outside of his small island village.
The prized possession of A Thousand Coloured Dreams was his window of escape, the canoe to sail away across the ocean to other places, and his dreams about another world, another reality, another life.
The visitors to his island were the physical link between his island and the outside world. After we left he had only the book to indulge in for all he wants.
The reason I recount this experience is to highlight the issues of books and reading.
If more Papua New Guineans, regardless of education, where we are, what our socio-economic status is, or if reading is or isn’t part of our culture, can read books written by Papua New Guineans then I see this country on the way to making sense of itself.
Would it hurt to reprint some of our PNG classics for every school child in the country? Would it make sense to have our leaders write their memoirs for every child in their electorates to emulate?
The kind of responsible approach to address this national challenge is to redirect our attention away from the path we have been travelling all along.
Encouraging steps are being taken.
The Education Department has announced during the National Book Week, through Jacob Hevelawa, the acting director-general of the Office of Libraries, Literacy Awareness and Archives, that starting next year it becomes compulsory for all schools in the country to have a library.
It makes sense also to consider the non-formal education sector’s need for information and reading resources to assist them to participate in the development of the country.
Another sector of the population without access to books and reading materials are the ever increasing out-of-school population in urban centres and rural districts.
Ignoring this slice of the population is not the way to go about addressing the development and acceleration of the literacy rate.
Many of them are engaged in street vending, endless search for employment, and becoming the undesirable members of the society.
In November 2008, the Education Department through the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat released a situational analysis report on literacy initiative for empowerment in Papua New Guinea.
In his message in this report the Education Secretary Dr Joseph Pagelio acknowledged that the growth rate of literacy is 1% per year, less than 3% per year for our population growth.
It is a national dilemma and a national set back.
“Political will and adequate funding from the Government to support institutional strengthening of NLAS (National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat), the coordinating agency, to boost the morale of literacy stakeholders and effective collaboration network” is needed now than to wait another ten years, says Dr Pagelio.
The issue is not about books and reading as a Western concept, but on how we deal with books and reading in our lives.
What importance do we accord them?
How much are we willing to spend on buying books than on other everyday items?
The concern is not about print culture replacing oral culture, but about how we use print culture to broaden our perspectives of the horizon.
We can go on thinking books and reading are not part of our culture, but the success of anyone’s survival in the world or any students in the education system is determined on the basis of how much one has read to broaden the knowledge base anyone needs to participate in a meaningful and productive way.