Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Reach for the Stars

First publlished in Steven's Window, The National Newspaper early this year. Thanks.

A death happened in the hamlet right after ours in the village. That was soon after Christmas that the relatives had to set up the ‘house cry’ right up the first week of New Year 2014. The deceased was a woman of standing in the community that when her body arrived on Monday afternoon a lot of the surrounding community members paid their last respects that evening.

The night went smoothly for most of the mourners until the morning when a commotion began with some of the relatives accusing others of using sorcery.  The problem was that instead of participating in the laments and mourning in the night some of the youths decided to drink ‘steam’ in the night.

My father who had gone over early for the burial returned dismayed that there was a fight early in the morning.  He asked me if I can help him with some money to sort out the customary restrictions that the relatives of the deceased had imposed that morning.

I realized that village ways and customs remain intact among many of our people. I assisted my father participate in the funeral customs of our community. In no way am I to stand in the way of ignore the importance customs plays in the lives of many of our people in Papua New Guinea.

Many like myself are educated in Western classrooms and knowledge but return home from time to time to be with our families who live pretty much same way for many years. I have always seen this unique element of Papua New Guineans to be a source of strength and inspiration to many generations.

Last year the debate on whose culture was important began with the removal of the artifact and totems poles in the National Parliament by the Speaker of the House, Mr. Theodore Zurrenuouc, and his supporters. The debate raised the awareness that Papua New Guineans must treat their cultures and customs with sensitivity and respect. No one has the right to force one’s culture on another.

It was also a important defining moment for the birth of cultural consciousness among many educated Papua New Guineans. The question that most felt needed answer was whether to privilege the introduced Western cultures and ideologies such as Christianity and other plastic material arts and culture.

There is a post-colonial theory that espouses the condition that most formerly colonized nations go through. It is the theory of mimicry and imitation of the former colonizer’s habits, customs, belief systems, ideologies, and exact replication of the former colonizer’s attitude to the colonized people. Imitation and mimicry are behavior patterns that promotes a copycat of the original colonial behavior and ideas, much to the detriment of the colonized.

One of the negative effects of this process of mimicry is the cultural denigration that most formerly colonized societies go through even many years after Independence, often driven from with the national elites and sectorial conclaves. It is never encompassing of the whole, but driven purely from a minor groups of individuals, with absolute access to the seed of power and control.

That in the Marxian superstructure would translate as the political elite and the political state apparatuses of government, education, and even church. Once given legitimation within the state apparatuses that becomes an ‘official’ sanction on cultural expressions and collective bargaining power. Political theorists like to describe this activity as socialism initiate with the production machine itself.

So what do you get out of a political condition such as this as exemplified in the PNG case? Is it about culture or about political power? It cannot be about cultural power? It is about political power fashioned by the individuals with access to power and resources to manipulate collective pubic consciousness to the point of inserting their belief system on others unwilling to participate in their activity. History in the world has ample similarities to compare outcropping of such ideological emergence.

But to return to the story reported in the beginning of this article I am often troubled with the observation of many funeral and haus krais in our communities. Some of our people no longer observe haus krais and respect the departed relatives with proper laments and traditional mourning rituals. In some communities of the East Sepik province people no longer have post-mortuary feasts to mark the passing of fellow tribesmen and women. People have become individualistic and removed from their cultural frameworks of social-cultural psychology.

Yet in some parts of Papua New Guinea garden food and store goods are brought together with pigs to mark such a time. People are properly given respect and assured their relationships with those who mourn. A continuity of life is given meaning within the cultural traditions that brought people together in the first place.

The challenge that Papua New Guinea faces is that mortuary and post-mortuary practices are not the same everywhere. It is difficult for one cultural group to impose their cultures on another without creating any form of conflict in the act.

The point I want to make here is that Papua New Guineans acknowledge that following a cultural purists path is self-negating and self-defeating, but acknowledging national unity through cultural diversity is the way forward.

The understanding that we all share is that we respect each other cultures and differences and work hard at finding a common path, a common currency, and common purpose for our visions as a nation of heterogeneous cultures and  cultural diversity, which we allow to blend with the introduced ones and those we adopted at Independence, much like some of our national laws that we follow in the country apart from the Constitution, the Customary Laws, and other laws made in Papua New Guinea based on the ingredients given above.

The reflection made here highlights the importance we ourselves must make on what is important to us as cultural people proud of who were are and what we make of ourselves.

We must not let someone else decide for us.

Haus Krai

This article was first published in the Stevens' Winduo, The National newspaper earlier this year!

A death happened in the hamlet right after ours in the village. That was soon after Christmas that the relatives had to set up the ‘house cry’ right up the first week of New Year 2014. The deceased was a woman of standing in the community that when her body arrived on Monday afternoon a lot of the surrounding community members paid their last respects that evening.

The night went smoothly for most of the mourners until the morning when a commotion began with some of the relatives accusing others of using sorcery.  The problem was that instead of participating in the laments and mourning in the night some of the youths decided to drink ‘steam’ in the night.

My father who had gone over early for the burial returned dismayed that there was a fight early in the morning.  He asked me if I can help him with some money to sort out the customary restrictions that the relatives of the deceased had imposed that morning.

I realized that village ways and customs remain intact among many of our people. I assisted my father participate in the funeral customs of our community. In no way am I to stand in the way of ignore the importance customs plays in the lives of many of our people in Papua New Guinea.

Many like myself are educated in Western classrooms and knowledge but return home from time to time to be with our families who live pretty much same way for many years. I have always seen this unique element of Papua New Guineans to be a source of strength and inspiration to many generations.

Last year the debate on whose culture was important began with the removal of the artifact and totems poles in the National Parliament by the Speaker of the House, Mr. Theodore Zurrenuouc, and his supporters. The debate raised the awareness that Papua New Guineans must treat their cultures and customs with sensitivity and respect. No one has the right to force one’s culture on another.

It was also a important defining moment for the birth of cultural consciousness among many educated Papua New Guineans. The question that most felt needed answer was whether to privilege the introduced Western cultures and ideologies such as Christianity and other plastic material arts and culture.

There is a post-colonial theory that espouses the condition that most formerly colonized nations go through. It is the theory of mimicry and imitation of the former colonizer’s habits, customs, belief systems, ideologies, and exact replication of the former colonizer’s attitude to the colonized people. Imitation and mimicry are behavior patterns that promotes a copycat of the original colonial behavior and ideas, much to the detriment of the colonized.

One of the negative effects of this process of mimicry is the cultural denigration that most formerly colonized societies go through even many years after Independence, often driven from with the national elites and sectorial conclaves. It is never encompassing of the whole, but driven purely from a minor groups of individuals, with absolute access to the seed of power and control.

That in the Marxian superstructure would translate as the political elite and the political state apparatuses of government, education, and even church. Once given legitimation within the state apparatuses that becomes an ‘official’ sanction on cultural expressions and collective bargaining power. Political theorists like to describe this activity as socialism initiate with the production machine itself.

So what do you get out of a political condition such as this as exemplified in the PNG case? Is it about culture or about political power? It cannot be about cultural power? It is about political power fashioned by the individuals with access to power and resources to manipulate collective pubic consciousness to the point of inserting their belief system on others unwilling to participate in their activity. History in the world has ample similarities to compare outcropping of such ideological emergence.

But to return to the story reported in the beginning of this article I am often troubled with the observation of many funeral and haus krais in our communities. Some of our people no longer observe haus krais and respect the departed relatives with proper laments and traditional mourning rituals. In some communities of the East Sepik province people no longer have post-mortuary feasts to mark the passing of fellow tribesmen and women. People have become individualistic and removed from their cultural frameworks of social-cultural psychology.

Yet in some parts of Papua New Guinea garden food and store goods are brought together with pigs to mark such a time. People are properly given respect and assured their relationships with those who mourn. A continuity of life is given meaning within the cultural traditions that brought people together in the first place.

The challenge that Papua New Guinea faces is that mortuary and post-mortuary practices are not the same everywhere. It is difficult for one cultural group to impose their cultures on another without creating any form of conflict in the act.

The point I want to make here is that Papua New Guineans acknowledge that following a cultural purists path is self-negating and self-defeating, but acknowledging national unity through cultural diversity is the way forward.

The understanding that we all share is that we respect each other cultures and differences and work hard at finding a common path, a common currency, and common purpose for our visions as a nation of heterogeneous cultures and  cultural diversity, which we allow to blend with the introduced ones and those we adopted at Independence, much like some of our national laws that we follow in the country apart from the Constitution, the Customary Laws, and other laws made in Papua New Guinea based on the ingredients given above.

The reflection made here highlights the importance we ourselves must make on what is important to us as cultural people proud of who were are and what we make of ourselves.

We must not let someone else decide for us.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Producing Success


Papua New Guinea has contributed to the world knowledge in science, literature, anthropology, medicine, law, and music, arts, and culture. So often we are slow in acknowledging our intellectual and knowledge contributions to the world, perhaps because we ourselves have been slow in saying so or we just don’t care.

In so far as I am concern we need to acknowledge the contributions our societies and people have made to world knowledge and development of our understanding of the world, as we know it today.

As a Papua New Guinean writer I have such a responsibility to tell the world about Papua New Guinea, its people, its social and cultural way of life, and its knowledge systems. With it comes also the responsibility to make Papua New Guineans become aware of the importance of their own societies and the contributions each society has made to the world.

It is often said that Papua New Guinean societies have been ‘overwritten’ or ‘over-described’ in the books, analogues, and travelogues, and scientific volumes of the world.  It is true our societies have been the subject of rigorous intellectual and scientific investigations, since the arrival of Europeans on our shores. It continues even today.

It fascinates me to participate in that creative dialogue and intellectual stimulations that some of these studies have made to our understanding of ourselves, more so to the point of recognizing how little we ourselves have done to write about ourselves in journals and books.

I was having a writer’s block in the last few weeks, but thanks to Peter Demerath’s book, Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School (2009), published by the University of Chicago Press, USA. 

Dr. Demerath is an associate professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota, USA.

Dr. Demerath and his family were on their way to Pere village in Manus Province, last year when he presented a copy of his book to me.  It was a wonderful gesture to have the visit of Dr. Demerath, his wife Dr. Ellen, and daughters, Olivia and Sophia since the first time I met them in Minnesota, when I served as a visiting professor in English at the University of Minnesota in 2007-2008.

The Demerath family had also been kind enough to invite my family over to dinner at their home in St. Pauls, in addition to making sure my children got to know their children in that short span of time.

Reading Dr. Demerath’s book, Producing Success, I was struck with the inspiration that a Papua New Guinean society has been the source of inspiration for this impressive book.

In his own words, Dr. Demerath says that the “comparative perspective that runs throughout the book has been generated largely by my ongoing relationship with the people of Manus Province, Papua New Guinea.”

Dr. Demerath adopts a cross-cultural view of his study of the culture of personal advancement in an American High School, with that of his experience in Pere village, Manus Province.

“On the face of it, it would be hard to imagine two societies that have less in common: the inhabitants of Pere are relatively poor subsistence fisherpeople who are struggling to achieve a measure of economic development with little outside support.”

Dr. Demerath knows from his long-term relationship with his adopted family in Manus that Pere village ways and life are so diametrically different to those in a small affluent town in the United States.

I sure admire Dr. Demerath’s honesty and sensitivity in dealing with the difference there is. He writes:

 “However, one of the guiding principles of anthropology is that we know best about something when we can see it in a comparative perspective: comparisons throw the cultural basis of specific belief or actions into sharp relief, thereby enabling us to locate ourselves relative to other groups, and ultimately identify potential prospect for change…It is in this way that anthropologists frequently use comparison to ‘make the familiar strange and interesting again.’”

Dr. Demerath recounts the discussion he had with a young sixteen-year old Pere boy in May 1985. The boy had told Dr. Demerath about how hard it was to be in school in Manus, more particularly about the boy’s anxieties about not getting any employment after school.

“Most likely, he said, he would end up going back to his home village, becoming a subsistence fisherman, and trying to “come up good” so that he could pay back the hard work that his parents had put into raising him. I had heard other students say similar things, and I sympathized and said I understood.”

To his surprise, the boy asked one important question that would have an impact on Dr. Demerath’s perspective forever.

“Then, surprisingly, he looked at me and said, “Peter, what do you want to do with your life when you go back to America?” During the ten months I had been there, none of the students had asked me that. “Well,” I said, “I think I want to teach, and try to get a job at a university, and maybe write a book someday.” “Ah,” he said nodding. “So you want to be somebody.” At first I wasn’t sure what he meant. But then, after reflecting for a few moments, I said, “Yes, I think I do.”

That seems to have remained ingrained in Dr. Demerath’s mind and charted his subsequent journey out of graduate school and into the academic environment of teaching, research, and publications.

In some sense the writing of this book has given Dr. Demerath the opportunity to explain to the world his experiences in Manus and in the United States of America. 

Dr. Demerath acknowledges the inspiration Margaret Mead, who had also done research on childhood, socialization, and social change between 1928 and 1974, had on his own research in Pere village.

Dr. Demerath’s excellent book, Producing Success, is intended for educators, students, and parents, as well as for anthropologists, sociologist, and other social scientists.

Blogging a Way of Life

It is good to have an online presence with a blog that is under one’s own name. The strength of it is that it provides the connection I need with the rest of the world. It is indeed the best thing I ever did to myself in the age of electronic media technologies.

The weakness, however, is that I have not updated the blog entries for months. I feel terrible for neglecting the blog: www.stevenswindow.blogspot.com. The blog has given me an excellent presence in the electronic media world since 2008.

In her book, The Wow Factor (2010), Frances Cole Jones makes an important point about internet presence in our lives.

“Even a few years ago, having a personal presence online was seen at best a luxury and at worst an eccentricity. These days, it’s essential. If you can’t be Googled, you don’t exist. Given this, as you begin to think about technology, it is critical for you—whether you work in a corporate environment or not—to have a blog or personal website of your own; not doing so signals to employers and customers that you are out of touch with modern rhythms.”

There are people who prefer to remain untouched, but against such logic, the ever changing world of electronic media waits for no one and carries no blame for changing societies in the world.

“And least you think that only companies are online,” writes Jones in her book, “or that people exclusively discuss ‘business’ there, a recent poll by the blog search engine Technorati that covered almost thirteen hundred bloggers about personal interests, 46 percent blog about their industry or profession (but not in an official capacity), and only 12 percent blog on behalf of their companies.”

So what is a blog? Jones explains:

“A blog is a Web-based commentary site, usually written in a first-person, conversational manner about just anything you can imagine, and displayed in reverse chronological order. It can (and I recommend it should) include text, pictures, and links to videos, news items, etc. that interest, annoy, or inspire you. Done well, they offer an incredibly effective yet low-cost way to establish a basic Web presence, to build up your personal brand visibility, and to enhance your credibility. “

 The best way to develop and manage your own blog is to follow the advice given below. There are a number of free sites to get you started, like http://wordpress.com, www.blogger.com/, or home spaces.live.com/. Wiki Blog even has a free eight step video entitled: “How to Start a Blog” available at http://www.wikihow.com/Start-a-Blog.

Having one’s own blog seems to be the best way forward. Some of the bullet points that Jones used are relevant to a blogger. Jones makes several points that are worth nothing:

  • Use your own voice—don’t write as if there is someone over your shoulder: Authenticity is essential.
  • While you should be honest and open, you should also be respectful of your subjects and your audiences: no insults, no profanity. Keep criticism to a minimum.
  • Link to those who interest or influence you; the more you reference, and have links to and on your blog, the stronger your presence will be within the blogosphere.
  • If you’re blogging specifically about your business, don’t treat blogging like advertising—it’s a conversation, not a sermon. For that reason, make sure that you listen and respond to the feedback you receive. Also don’t simply post reviews and/or press releases.
  • If you work for a company, and are discussing that industry, find out (and stick to) your company’s blogging policy.
  • Having your name and your product/company’s name in the URL generally means Google will index it higher with respect to rank.
  • Once you begin it, it’s important to keep it fairly current. I’m not saying you have to update it daily—or even weekly. But I wouldn’t let more than two to three weeks by without saying something.

As a serious blogger I am guilty of ignoring the last point. I should have done something about it, but I had unnecessarily ignored that responsibility to the point where it is almost a year since I posted something new to the blog.

In the next advice that Jones hurls at the serious blogger I am all eyes and ears.

“What keeps people coming back to your blog? Content they can use. The more your blog includes essential/inside information and/or quirky/funny anecdotes they can’t get elsewhere, the more likely they are to return.”

Friends on my Facebook page will note that I have followed the next advice.

“Once you have your blog established, link it to your LinkedIn, Facebook, My Space, Twitter, etc, profiles. They all have spaces where URLs can be added to your personal information.”

I have created two blogs and administrated them for some time. A lot the postings I made are from this column. In some sense I wanted to capture the readers who may not have access to the hardcopy in The National newspaper. The targeted audience is one that is linked through the electronic medium. The aim was to have as many people read what I wrote initially for the “Steven’s Window” column in the newspaper.

The education and research value of the blog is something I cannot under-estimate as I often direct the students studying my courses in Literature to use the blog as a learning resource.

Recently I submitted an article on “Blogging in PNG” as my contribution to a book on contemporary ethnography of the Pacific to be published by the University of Hawaii Press. A bit of what I wrote in that essay was the following:

Information media technologies helped connect Papua New Guineans in complex ways. Blogging: an information technology experience is a transformative one for the Papua New Guineans who took up the challenge in the last 10 or more years. “

The arrival of the Internet technology impacted the way Papua New Guineans do things, send, and receive information.

I encourage you to start your own blog.