Tuesday, 4 April 2006

cloaks and daggers

Let’s start with the daggers.

Good news: MP Ipatas-hey-let’s-have-sex-I’ve-got-AIDS has stepped aside.

Bad news: for “charges of misconduct”; everyone knows what he’s done but it hasn’t been publicly printed. He’s going to legally challenge the charges.

Bad news: cabinet reshuffle. Patrick Pruaitch – as corrupt as they come, probably more so; read here – has been promoted; now not only is he in charge of forestry, he’s garnered the finance and planning portfolios as well. This is really, really bad news, suggesting that it's more than a rumour that PM Somare is also implicated in the RH forestry company’s corruption of png. Bart Philemon was previously in control of the finance portfolio, and one of the very few good guys in politics. He seems to have been shafted, no one quite knows his new role.

And cloaks…

It’s a hard part of the volunteer job to gauge – the consequences for your counterparts of working with you. There are the objectives in your job description. And then there’s what is actually possible and likely. But there are plenty more affects that come from your presence and your actions, and what they are – well that’s a question not for you to answer, because mostly you won’t know.

But it’s one I think about all the same. Today I asked one of the women I work with if she would teach me how to bake bread: she has an oven, but mostly cooks outside on an open fire (more social, and saves money by not having to pay for gas); I thought it might be entertaining to do, and I have been wondering if she really makes bread or if it’ll turn out to be some kind of damper. Something to learn anyway. She was very excited, and blurted out: “Finally I can teach you something! After all that you have taught me.” I’ve been here for over a year, but this was one of the first times she intimated that ours was not an uncomplicated relationship for her.

I know the relationship isn’t simple; what I mean is … for the first time I had a sense of some of the complications. In PNG, there is a heavy basis of reciprocity to relationships: you do things for others, and in the future they can do things for you, and you can ask them to do things for you. This will read as a simple statement but it has enormous ramifications that encircle our lives here. Our working relationship is in this way, I think, a challenge for my workmate: although I personally feel that she gives me truckloads, today she gestured that she sees it differently, that I give and she doesn’t have much occasion to give back.

This is just one of the unexpected consequences. Jealousy is another. Other departments or workplaces with no volunteer may get shirty and resentful. Anthropological articles on PNG often term it a place of jealous cultures; I thought this was a bit dated, but it is not at all, just a fact of life.

A friend – a fellow volunteer – raised another consequence from her workplace, in regards to working with men. People marry young here – girls late teens maybe; guys tend to be older, so perhaps in their twenties. The people my friend works with a mainly guys, literate, most with a school level of about year 10 and married to village women (that is, women from their ples, where their wantoks are and where they came from and go to; living in town is always temporary, even if for decades).

The difficulty is a profound one: with this volunteer around, the men’s ideas of the world have expanded: what exists, what is possible, understandings of how things work, how to get things done. This is no light matter; these are fundamental shifts in conceptions of the world. But changes like that are not announced, they don’t happen overtly. There’s no thunderclap. Little differences creep in on a daily basis; they’re not noticed at first, but they build up.

It’s been two years since these guys first began working with the volunteer; all involved have changed. And some of the men are now having difficulties in their personal lives, in their relationships with their wives and their wantoks. There is an intellectual gap not previously noticed or experienced between themselves and their wives, who often still live in the village while the men commute, who haven’t had this constant contact with someone from “outside”. Same with their wantoks: it is no longer so satisfying to spend time in the village, sitting around a fire, telling stories about limited communities. This is no longer all there is to life.

These are issues which are opaque. There are no answers, of course, but the questions they raise don’t go away either. Often our term as “volunteer” is just a cloak: we hide under it whilst we engage in the undercover activity of a “change agent”. We’re here to introduce new ways of doing things in a manner that is hopefully sensitive and that will hopefully make sense (and few of us actually applied directly for such a role).

But just as that suggests we have a double-purpose, so to do the people we work with. And all of this muddle – it’s tiring and frustrating and also stimulating, and partly why you do apply.

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