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Papua New Guinea: An Independent Country!

September 16 is Independence Day for Papua New Guinea. There have been 23 such days previously, this is the 24th. Fr. Peter remembers the first celebration, held at Minj. 5,000 people. No security. No problems. Just happiness and an expectation of a glorious future as a free, independent nation under God (as the National Anthem proclaims). Fatima Secondary School is holding a big sing sing, everyone is invited; Good Shepherd College is augmenting their morning Mass and the students have a special meal. Their students (and some of ours) are all dressing up in traditional bilas. So, some of what happened on or around Independence Day, 1999&

An Independence Day Mass
7:30 AM in the College Chapel, a little later than usual for daily Mass. Six of our students are partaking in the celebrations down at Fatima and have been up since 5:00AM getting bilas'd. They are standing on the runway (as our Priest in Sydney called it) with Fr. Kees, ready to process in.

The little Casio keyboard stirs to life with the rousing melody of the national anthem. The Priests and the bilas'd students process in – the singing does not do the anthem justice really, just a little lacklustre. The bilas'd students really are splendid though: feathers, leaves and paint everywhere!

A 3rd year student – Steve Kanda – gives a short talk, a rousing talk really, though the theme escapes me now; then we are into the Mass. Nothing really different, just six blokes at the front wearing feathers and leaves. Tokenism? There are some denominations who prohibit the use of bilas. The Catholics have arguably been the most successful at integrating their culture and Christian liturgy (which can be a bit of a two-edged sword).

In his homily, Kees said that Papua New Guinea abrusim olgeta arapela kuntri, PNG emi numbawan. Images of Sydney sandstone flora floated through my mind; its rocky, nutrient deficient soil ablaze with a bounty of springtime blossom. Noted by early English explorers as more beautiful than the flowering borders back home (in England). I guess beauty will always be in the eye of the beholder. Twisted Scribbly Gums, screeching feathered rainbows flashing past, stunning Dwarf Apples covered in a snowy blossom, Grey and Pink Spider Flowers and the host of others! My father-in-law would say "hunger sauce" – my memory yearning for the visual feast again!

My reverie was cut short by Fr. Kees' homily again, "Independence Day is not a day to focus on negatives," (there are plenty of those), "but to focus on the positives: when you go home to your village, all the people there are good people." When I asked one student how his holidays were, he said "Terrible! Because the police came every day and tormented the village." Some in the village had apparently stolen a container of rice, and the police were trying to recover it. But, as Fr. Kees said, 98% of Papua New Guineans are good people, we don't need to think about the 2% on Independence Day.

The sign of peace, when we sekim han bilong olgeta manmeri, was especially joyful and exuberant. The congregation was coming alive. It is their day after all, their country. Their celebration.

We sang the national anthem for the procession out too. This time it really was stirring! Maybe the students were not used to the late start? Much congratulations on the way out, hand shaking and back slapping.

Independence Day Celebrations at Fatima
The boys raced down early, they were on a promise to be bilas'd by some of the groups. The celebrations were meant to start about 9:30, so Sandi and I wandered down about 10:30 allowing a considerable amount for PNG time. We were planning to do an English sing sing: Oranges and Lemons, Hokey Tokey, maybe a square dance?

We were sitting, waiting for it all to begin, when we heard the first shouts of a group on the other side of the school. All the groups were forming up on the road and were beginning to march/dance around to the football ground. Anticipation was high as we followed the groups around. Spectators were milling everywhere. When the groups push forward it would be easy to get yourself run over (which would mean being covered in body paint and maybe a feather or two stuck where it should not be stuck. Terrifying having a group of angry looking natives bearing down on you and not being able to move backwards because of the crush of people behind you!

Most of the sing sing'ers were from the Wahgi Valley, so were similarly presented: black bird of paradise feathers, red & yellow face paint and long blue striped laplaps. Looking out over the football ground as they danced or jumped up and down, the mass of feathers looked like a black flowered meadow in a breeze, all swaying and swishing together. Looking at all those feathers, you realise why you never see a bird of paradise in the wild. A sort of a clear felling in an ornithological way has taken place, leaving any area with easy access devoid of bird life. We have some beautiful little blue kingfishers here at the College, thankfully, they are too small to use for bilas.

The school principal – Andrew Mangi – and Ben, the board chairman, were dressed in amazing bilas (as big men should be). Andrew stood up at the opening and declared that he was 'proud to be a true Papua New Guinean'. That it was important to retain the traditional bilas, it is 'our tradition'. "Olgeta klos yumi kisim, i klos bilong waitman tasol!" It made me wonder what does really make a Papua New Guinean, or an Australian for that matter. Surely it's not just the clothes? But maybe Andrew was referring to the wider aspect of bilas: parents spending 3 hours decorating their children, unpacking the cherished feathers (now K70-100 each), digging the clay (although shoe polish and whiteout get a good go these days). His slightly anti-Whiteman tradition sentiments helped us to forget our planned performance.

The Governor – Fr Robert Luk – came and gave a very long and boring speech (politicians seem to be the same everywhere). He too majored on waitpelaman pasin bashing. He had some good points though: don't dig up all your gardens for coffee, keep growing the traditional foods.

The celebration was opened ("Let the celebrations begin!") and the library named after Neville of Wahgi Klos fame who has donated much to the school, and then the sing sing groups were let loose again on the football field.

The only coastal group – from the Trobrian Islands – caused quite a stir with their tapioca dance, a fairly erotic number about harvesting tapioca roots (don't ask me, I didn't actually get close enough to see it?). The girls were susu nating. They drew quite a big crowd, so big in fact that Sandi and I just couldn't get close enough to see them. We, in our innocence, thought that it was their uniqueness that created the interest. We later found out that they had to stop performing because the girls were being too harassed, touched and physically grabbed. This created two different reactions:

  1. Some said that if it is their culture to go su su nating then they should be given suitable protective security so that they will not be harassed (The army were meant to come, but they got lost or something?).
  2. Others said that they should adapt to the world as it is now, to the culture they are performing in; they should be aware of what they can and can't do and what effect it will have.

Andrew actually said in his speech that tambuna bilong mi igo raun raun susu nating, but no one else in built up areas does these days. It seems that the changes in society are forcing changes, if not on the actual traditions, at least on how they are presented. Part of the problem is, even though the highlands traditionally went bare breasted, when coastals (who are essentially a different culture) perform their traditional culture, the highlanders do not have cultural history to comprehend it. So it is strange, unfamiliar, outside their cultural restraint mechanisms; and strange things happened. Mind you – it wont be long before all traditions are outside current culture, mere museum pieces. Even now on the coast the traditional culture is only something to perform for tourists and at the cultural shows.

Sandi and I took some time out on the comfy chairs of the dais after following the groups around for a while. Whilst we were sitting there, the Tae-Kwon-Do people who were going to do a demonstration came and started dressing. A huge crowd gathered in front of the dais. The black belted leader got up to the microphone and started asking that the people make room. A little movement. "No, no. We need more space!" This went on for 15-20 minutes until some self-employed security got up with sticks and started laying into the crowd to get them to move. It was really gruesome. One fellow had a bush knife: he was only pretending, but if tempers got hot… And then demonstrators took their positions and we realised that we had the best seat in the house, the demonstration was right in front of us! We didn't actually want to watch the demonstration, but we were hemmed in now and couldn't get out!

It was a little like B-grade movie stunts, but the nationals love this sort of thing. Faked punches and kicks, rolls and jumps, all orchestrated and well rehearsed. Then the inevitable sales pitch came. They must have had some opposition from church groups because the leader made the point specially that it wasn't another religion and that most of the people came from good Christian homes, plus it was against their rules to use Tae-Kwon-Do on the street. A good clean sport!

When we finally did extract ourselves, we went to Andy's place for coffee. Very welcome too, because we hadn't had anything to eat or drink since breakfast. Iris has returned to enjoy the warmth of a German autumn, and Andy has seemed just a little lonely. I know I would be if Sandi had to go back early! So, after we had eaten him out of house and home, it was back to the College for Sandi and I; the boys went back to the football ground to kalap kalap with everyone else [see The Vaipa].

Click to enlargeThe following day Keren was getting the full bilas treatment with the Komblo: laplap and asgras (asnating and all!), painted face, leafed arms; but when they came to put the feathers into his headdress… he fainted. Twice. They said it was not uncommon for locals to faint too. Keren said everything was just too tight, they use rubber (tubes, drum seals, etc) as belts around arms &etc. All the boys came home with faces painted in Komblo or Hagen styles and a promise to bilas them for their school graduations later in the year. I hope we get a photo this time! Keren fainted just a little too soon, and the fellow making him up was in a terrible fix: worrying about this waitpelaman i spak and his feathers.

Celebrations at the College
Occasions such as Independence induce great excitement among our students. It is a chance to celebrate together. Invariably the student body looks forward to, and demands, extra food as the central part of their celebrations (possibly the only part). Usually in the form of "protein", which means meat. I think that their relationship to feast days and celebrations is in part cultural. I remember the first time I bumped into it: last year on the feast day of John Vianny (the patron saint of Parish Priests, so therefore much loved by seminarians). The students had characteristically left any planning for this day until the morning when they asked the Rector what was happening. Kees had replied that something could happen, of course; but nothing was planned. What did they have in mind? The students are characteristically silent when confronted with this type of question, partly because if what they have in mind is less than what the management has in mind, they will loose out; but then again, if it is more, then the management might shut down completely. Such a quandary! Into this void Kees offered coffee & biscuits, traditionally something he could cope with on such short notice.

The night of the "party" brought a mass student demonstration with much anger, a "sit in" in front of our garage. They felt put down, put out that they were given "children's food", that the management hadn't let them celebrate with something culturally appropriate. I was aghast that "celebration" had become something to come from without; I had thought that it should be the manifestation of what was happening within. Kees pinned a stinging notice up in the dining room juxtaposing the students' behaviour with the life of the saint who lived a very meagre life full of fasting. But nothing has changed. I think it is very cargo cultish, and I'm sad we seem to be training these people out of imaginative spontaneity and inner life into a reliance on external stimuli.

For Independence Day I suggested to the relevant student leaders that it might be a nice idea if the student body organised something (Kees had said that there would be no common meal with students and staff). Something the students instigated and catered for (I had given them double the normal fresh meat ration). These common meals are always at the behest of the Rector, top down, and I thought it would be reasonable (on the celebration of independence) if the students organised something independently, on behalf of the Papua New Guineans, for the other missionaries' nationalities.

It never happened. They ate their extra rations in their own houses.

The Driving Test
Thursday 30th October 1999. The day Jesse decided he would be ready for the test. He had used up 1½ three-month learner's permits battling raskols, dodging potholes, getting flat tyres and studying the little traffic code book (see The Driving Lesson). The sign said on the door that people will not be "entertained" outside the scheduled hours (9AM – 12MD and 1PM – 3PM), so we arrived in Hagen at 8:35AM and filled in time practicing parallel parking. It's hard to know why parallel parking is even referred to: there is only angle parking in all the cities we've seen!

We were unsure what Jesse should expect in the test. We thought it would be a drive around town and maybe a verbal test of the rules. Consequently, I'd taken Jesse into town for experience on the crowded streets a number of times. When we booked the previous Tuesday (the policeman said, "Sure, come at 9AM next Thursday!"), he gave us the traffic code book saying we should probably look through it first. The test had been described by another policeman as "samting nating", which the streets give eloquent agreement to!

At 9 o'clock the police station was relatively quiet. The policeman from last Tuesday recognised us and called the person responsible for license testing, whom turned out to be one of the fairly rare policewomen. She called us through and gave Jesse a trifolded exam paper and a blank A4 sheet for his answers. We both sat down at a long bench; Jesse hunched over his exam, me trying not to look. Sixteen questions in all which only took Jesse a quarter of an hour to finish.

Jess handed it back to the policewoman, and we sat back down and looked at the policemen wandering around (some with shouldered high-powered rifles). The police station really is amazing, absolutely filthy. The once blue walls now a grimy grey. The floorboards with no trace of their original finish, just scuffed, dirty timber. The customer area has remnants of the original vinyl tiles in patches.

The policewoman came out, said Jesse had passed his written test and asked if we have brought our vehicle. I replied in the affirmative, and we head out for the driving test. But when she sees the College bus, she says that we can't do it in that, it's a class 3 vehicle only. All my arguments that all Jesse's learning was in that vehicle proved pointless. So where can we find another, smaller, vehicle? Br. Lambert at Rebiamul of course! Lambert is one of the most beautiful German brothers we have met, a little fearsome when he gets angry though; he runs the Catholic Mission garage workshop.

So we dash out to Rebiamul and ask Lambert, who is literally up to his armpits in beef that he had slaughtered the day before, if we can borrow a Suzuki 4X4 for half-an-hour. It takes half-an-hour to find the keys, and another half-an-hour getting Jesse familiar with the car: he's never driven anything like it before! And once he has managed starting from a standstill without stalling and a few parallel parks we headed back. An hour is a long time in the Mt Hagen police station: the place is now crowded, bulging at the seams.

I consider our business half over, that we have just a little justification, so I just push to the front and walk behind the counter to the office where the policewoman resided. But there was only a policeman inside reading the traffic code (I hope not learning it). I say that we have come back to finish the driving test. "Oh, em i stap long narapela hap." He shrugs, and leads us outside. He asks Jesse to do a parallel park between some witch's hats in 3 manoeuvres or less, and leave the parked position in 3 manoeuvres or less. Jesse manages it with only one brief stall, and that's that. We head back inside, he fills out the questionnaire without once asking Jesse if he wears glasses, suffers from any disability or has been refused a license before anywhere. Jesse signs it, we head out to the payment window, hand over K10 and get a receipt. Then it's over to the counter where they type up the licence. Then it's over to the photography room where they photograph Jesse next to a number 1, signifying his class. Wait for the Polaroid to work, laminate the license and we're outahere! All morning to get a license – hey, it's PNG, what did you expect? – and now we were starving!

Jesse, now a licensed driver, drives me home to the welcoming whoops and congratulations of his brothers. He thought the test was a bit of an anti-climax in the end: I guess that's the way it goes in Papua New Guinea, if you don't feel like doing the full test then you don't, and who's to know and complain?

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