THE BONE DAGGER

Simon, a leader of his clan,  is an elderly man who has no use for shoes and the clothes that the white man brought in more than 50 years ago.  This proud Hela elder is one of hundreds whose world revolved around traditional symbols of wealth and status.But all that is being torn to shreds as the whiteman’s cash takes precedence over headresses, bird plumes and pigs.  The whiteman’s law has also rendered centuries old  traditional commandments  unapplicable in the 21st century.

These days Simon refuses to leave the confines of his village and venture into the Tari township -the capital of the new Hela province. His whole world – the world of the Hela man – is slowly crumbling around him. 


For laws enforced to the letter by armed police dictate that he abandon his cassowary bone dagger that a Hela  man always  carries after initiation. The whitemen from gas project are fearful of the Hela with their strange headresses and their “offensive weapons,” -the cassowary bone daggers. Police tell him that he can wear everything else but the bone dagger. Some of his tribesman have chosen. To wear shorts and trousers to avoid hassles with the police but not Simon. He doesn’t care much about Exxon Mobil’s multibillion dollar gas project but what worries him are ancient prophecies of strife and turmoil that will befall his people if the land is disturbed and the “fire” given to the outsider.

What also worries him is that his land is being invaded and trampled on  by foreigners and he is unable to defend it.

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WE’RE BEING INFORMED BUT WE’RE NOT ACTING

OKSAPMIN, SANDAUN PROVINCE –  2002:  Election year. I  arrived at a  school in the Tekin Valley after a 6 hour trek through  the jungle.   The rain had just ended when I began an interview with  a local teacher.   I was asking him about maternal  and infant mortality rates  and he   mentioned in passing that   the nearest   health centre was   a  days walk from where we were.   Two days for villages I had passed. For those in very remote villages, it was just too difficult for them.  This teacher told me they had no proper record of  the number of  mothers and babies who had died that year or previous years. He gave me an educated guess. He said between 15 and 30 babies died in a year. So when a baby   died  just after birth, the  father would  take the tiny body to the back of the hut and bury him or her  there.   No one mourned for them. They were just nameless children who had not even seen their first birthday.

Oksapmin, Sandaun Province
NUKU, SANDAUN PROVINCE-  2002:   I met  a health worker in a small aid post.   Half  the concrete floor had collapsed. It had sunk  about 15 centimetres into the ground.   The medicine cabinet had only anti malarial tablets  and liniment  used for body aches.   He told me a child had died about 24 hours ago of dehydration.   By the time the child had been brought to the   aid post, the health worker couldn’t insert a needle because the child’s veins  had already collapsed. The father arrived minutes later and the health worker told him: If you want your son to live  take him now and run to the health centre.  To walk  would have taken  him six hours.  He did make it to the  government station. He had the health centre in sight. But the child had  already died.
PORT MORESBY, NCD – 2003:   At the Airlines PNG hanger. I was taking pictures  for a story on EMTV news.  The story was  about   the aftermath of  ethnic violence.  In front of me were  seven coffins bound for Goilala in the Central province.    What caught my attention   were two  coffins – a large one in which lay a man and  beside him was a smaller meter long coffin containing  the body of his  son.  They had been hacked to death  after being blamed for instigating  trouble at a marketplace.   Usually, I don’t try to think about these things. But   when you’re doing the job, you find yourself thinking about it  a lot. You try to understand the reasons behind  why people kill others and in this case – an innocent child.  I still have  difficulty understanding the brutality  and  reasons behind that massacre. 
PORT MORESBY, NCD 2009: I met a landowner from the Moran Area in the Southern Highlands province. He’s been fighting for about three years for the government  to recognize the legitimacy of his landowner group in the  LNG project.  He’s a young man in his early thirties. He   isn’t  as well educated  as many of you in this room  but he knows where is land boundaries are  and he knows his land rights.   He represents a group of dissatisfied men and  women.  
             So what does  the murder of seven  Goilalas in Port Moresby’s Tete settlement have to do with   maternal and infant mortality in  remote Sandaun Province?
How does the story of  a southern highlands  landowner tie in with  a child dying in his fathers arms   minutes before reaching  a health centre  Nuku?
In Journalism school, they tell you  to keep the big picture in mind whilst  giving your story a human face.   The stories that I’ve told you  shows  you the human face of the challenges and difficulties that confront ordinary Papua New Guineans.
These stories are also the human face of the dissatisfaction  felt through a cross section of society.
             A few years ago,  the  Institute of National Affairs  published a small article  about  the ethnic violence that happened in the Solomon Islands.  It said ethnic violence… 
“…was largely the result of imbalanced development …with portions of the population feeling alienated and aggrieved…”
“…they were missing out on opportunities… or had injustices done to them or had lost control over land and resources…”
‘…corruption  and deals over natural resources contributed to that dissatisfaction…”
Somehow all this sounds very  familiar.   If I were a doctor, I’d say Papua New Guinea   already has what appears to be the Solomon Islands Syndrome and we are in denial.   We’ve taken the formula   that created the disaster on Bougainville  and we’re creating a more lethal recipe for nationwide self-destruction.
OUTSTANDING ISSUES
 We as a nation have so many outstanding issues that we need to address. Yet we keep creating new problems for ourselves.    We haven’t solved Ok Tedi’s environmental problems  and yet  we’ve allowed another foreign company to  dump it’s waste into  the Basamuk Bay. While dozens of teachers in Port Moresby and other major centres live in classrooms because of the lack of accommodation and high rentals, we give ourselves hefty increases in accommodation allowances and we say it’s justified.
Why does a  father in remote Sandaun  have to accept the death  of his son when our leaders  have access to  the best doctors  in  a foreign country.   Why do we buy a jet  to be used by    just a few when we don’t want to subsidize rural air transport for ordinary people?
We all have solutions to  the ills of our society. For ethnic violence, we say send them back to where they came from.  But send them back to what? 
To a village that  has no road access? 
To schools that have no teachers?
To health centres that have no medicine?
It is sometimes difficult to understand why we choose to  nurture dissatisfaction and anger amongst our people?  In a sense, we are fortunate that the vast majority of Papua New Guineans  do not draw the link between decision makers   and poor service delivery.  Maybe it’s because they’re too busy just trying to survive  because of those bad decisions.
But I tell you this that void of ignorance is diminishing at a very rapid rate.  Soon every Papua New Guinean with a mobile phone will know exactly  what Waigani is doing though mobile internet access and they will have every right to be angry.
WHAT TO DO
Each of us has a responsibility. Every person has the job of fixing this great country of ours. 
If a teacher  taught  for eight hours a day, five days a week.  Wouldn’t we have better educated people?
And if that one person in authority made sure medicine got from point A to  point B,   wouldn’t  we have less people dying?
At almost every workshop or meeting where the role of the media is discussed, people  keep saying “the media has an important role to play in development.”   It has been said so many times that its become a cliché.
If you buy a paper, you see headlines on a newspaper. Turn on the radio at midday and the NBC  tells you what’s happening around the country.  
We can write a hundred stories about  illegal immigrants  and human smuggling…
 We can write about disappearing millions   and  investigations by the Public Accounts Committee… But the media  is   good only if ordinary  people and those in authority  take the information that is supplied  and act on it.   If  the systems  and authorities  don’t take steps to address the problems we expose, then our attempts  amount to  very little.

TODAY I LEARNT HONESTY FROM A CHILD

In Madang  town today my wife and I met a child – a boy of  about  seven – no more than a meter tall.
He was selling DVDs.  I don’t always buy DVDs on the streets   but  there was something about this kid that drew  my attention and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Of course when you meet someone,  you notice the obvious first.  He was small and of elementary school age,   probably 6 or seven.  His nose was dirty. He had a bag slung across his body.
After the obvious, you start to pay attention to the less obvious.  To me, he wasn’t trying to be a streetwise  salesman. He  just wanted to sell his DVDs and go home.   But where was home?  He showed me his DVDs. Two of which  looked good. He said without saying that if I wasn’t interested he’d go somewhere else, he didn’t mind if I wasn’t interested.    I still didn’t know  what it was that drew me to this kid until I spoke to him.
            I asked him  who actually owned the DVDs he was selling and he told me they belonged to him.  I asked him a second time and again he  told me the same.  I asked where his parents were. He said his mother  had died  and his father “cut grass for Peter Barter,”   the former governor of Madang.  He said all this with a level of honesty that just broke my heart.
The DVDs – Green Hornet and Sucker Punch
This little person wasn’t seeking sympathy  nor was he asking for help.   I decided  to buy two of  his DVDs – not because I felt sorry for him but because they looked interesting.  While I was giving him the money he told us   that he  had eaten too many lollies and that he had a belly ache.  Again, he wasn’t looking for someone to feel sorry for him. He was just stating facts as they occurred.    I paid for the DVDs and gave him two kina extra – a spur of the moment decision. Not because I felt sorry for him.
He hesitated but then took the money. I’m writing this because I  can’t forget his eyes and what his whole being said without saying.
As young as he seemed, this little person had his dignity. He was honest.  He was trusting and he was willing to work hard without begging.
What was sad was that  he had accepted life as it is. He had accepted  that life for him and his dad is difficult and will continue to be difficult. Yet he wasn’t going to take it lying down. He didn’t express sadness about his mother’s death. Had simply accepted that   sometimes  mums  die when kids  are small and that dads have to work hard to cut grass and that kids have to sell DVDs   to make money.  Today,  I learnt a lot about honesty, perseverance and hard work.   I will work harder and appreciate the simple priceless gifts that money can’t buy.  I didn’t take a picture of him.

AFTER

After we’ve waged  wars

laid waste 
maimed and murdered
and drunk our fill
What then?
After we’ve raped and plundered
Gouged the earth,
Taken all her riches
And  stripped  of her dignity
What then?
After we’ve polluted the  rivers
Cut all the trees
Annihilated  all beasts
And  built our  cities
What then?
After we’ve melted the poles
Drowned the islands
Gorged on tuna
Harpooned all  the whales
What then?
After we’ve decimated  cultures
Displaced  our peoples
Robbed them  of land
And established destitution
What then?
After we’ve fed our lust
Satisfied our greed
Abandoned all common sense
And that which is morally right
What then?
After we’ve destroyed
Our past
Our present
Our future
What then? 

THE DARKNESS OF NEON LIGHTS

Downtown Port Moresby – (My Magic Moments

A youth  of nineteen by Burns Peak road
A ten seater flies past his humble  abode
His buttons undone his face   a  blank
Gust of air and into a twig his teeth he sank
A lump protrudes from his lanky frame
Cancer they said  but tis all the same
He’ll die anyway and  no one will care
For many  more his life they share
His mind  a baggage of  a childhood lost
The last of six  and born at great cost
His father  a landless Moresby squatter
For years lived in the same city quarter
On the radio  a new hospital is opened
For him it’s but a dream with a sour end
He’d curse his father for his foolish dream
If  he’d known a better life for it he’d scream
This has been   life since his mother left
Her death at birth left him bereft
Life sometimes was  a   cruel  joke
No pain.  No sadness  nor  tears on which to choke
Lights of the city had beckoned to his father
Even here on the hill they seemed farther
He lives it. He breaths it every day and on countless nights
He knows without knowing  the darkness of neon lights