Sunday, 11 September 2005

ship bilong PNG

(different faces represent different areas; the white face bottom right represents a Goroka man; I’m guessing he’s one of the asaro mud men)

The politics are ambiguous but I couldn’t resist this painting by Simon Gende, of Simbu.

I like to imagine it’s a re-dreaming of history. This time Papua New Guineans (see their distinctive noses!) man the ship and discover the new worlds. See how present they are: there’s no room for pasts or futures, so intent is the focus on the present, so absorbed are they in what is now. Their eyes meet your gaze directly, confident with their cultural markings of place. Ready.

PNG’s 30th anniversary of independence is coming up this weekend. I had forgotten this, until I wrote the above paragraph, and thought about the contrast between the optimism and strength in that picture and the uneasy air that surrounds talk of the commemoration.

It’s generally agreed that the state of PNG has degenerated, that in 30 years things (health services, education, governance, state institutions, environmental conditions and resources, safety) have gone “backwards” (if you like those linear, progressive models). There are malfunctions, breakdowns, failures; some things teeter permanently on the verge of collapse; others are unbearable – and yet must be borne. There are days when it seems that “PNG i bagarap”.

But somehow it never is. Whatever the analyses of the past and the predictions of the future; however dire or fantastic; there is a strong, kicking presence to the Papua New Guineans I work with, am friends with, move amongst. People are not devastated; they are not hopeless; they do not abandon the ship. Look again at the picture: there is no sign as to where the ship’s come from or where it’s going. There are no shadows. Instead people “face” the present, the here and now. There is something in this that represents what it is like here. It’s something more than the quality of durability: it’s living, a concentration on living itself.

It’s not that simple, of course. And today that attitude is not enough. But it’s also something that I’m learning from.

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