PNG is a fast changing society and efforts to have our cultural knowledge systems documented in any form should be encouraged, writes STEVEN WINDUO
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 These original materials remain unpublished all these years that a sense of guilt on my part began to bother me.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.