Monday, September 23, 2013

The Price of Independence

Now that our successful run of Twelfth Night is over, I have some breathing room to put together some of my observations on the recent Independence Day celebrations here in Papua New Guinea.  September 16, 1975 marked the day PNG became a separate nation, severing its governmental ties to Australia (but not to the British Commonwealth of which it is still a member).  As in many parts of the world, to mark the day there were lots of flags being sold on every street corner and market—not only the black red and gold national flag, but multi-colored flags from all 22 of the PNG provinces (or for those of you who are persnickety: 20 provinces, one autonomous district and the national capital district).  Not unlike  Fourth of July celebrations in the US, throughout the country there were ceremonies with long-winded speeches from various heads of state and government officials, displays of national dances and songs, a vast array of traditional foods served up (including some delicious sweet potatoes and fried red bananas,) a lot of drunk folks whooping it up over the course of the long weekend, and even a smattering of fireworks.  Yet, for all the similarities, I am struck by the vast differences between life in post-colonial PNG and that of more successful former colonies, and am left wondering if independence is always what it is cracked up to be.

The early colonial history of Papua New Guinea reads like most countries subjected to Western Imperialism, with a couple of important differences.  The first European inroads to the island were made by the Dutch East Indies Company as they were establishing their Indonesian presence in the late 1600’s.  But claiming something does not always mean doing anything with it and, unlike other conquests made by the Dutch, there was no obvious value to the land (its mineral and natural gas resources were not yet discovered) so it was left more or less alone until sometime in the late 1700’s when the British made a half-hearted play for it.  The Brits ultimately agreed to share the island with the Dutch but also did little with their claim until the Germans showed up and made a play for the northern part of the island.  Wanting to buffer Australia from potential German influence, the Brits agreed to divide the island yet again, leaving the east to the Dutch, the Germans in the north and keeping the south-west for themselves.  In the early 1900’s, administration of the British interest was inherited by the Australians, whose own history of independence from Britain is even more complicated than that of PNG!   
Port Moresby circa 1900
There were several aspects of PNG that made colonization slow in coming, at least until after WWII.  The country that the European explorers found held wild, difficult terrain populated by isolated tribes of subsistence farmers who spoke over 800 different languages, fought viciously among themselves, and sometimes engaged in head-hunting, cannibalism and slave trade.  This was not a country with a complex civilization that had developed written language or sophisticated gold and silver ornamentation like the Aztecs or Incas.  It did not have a readily accessible or easily captured population which could be pressed into slave labor like the Mandé or BaKango tribes.  Nor did it have the exotic spices like the Mughal Empire.  What it did have was a strategic location, which was critical during WWII, and a wealth of mineral and natural gas resources which were not fully exploited until the post-war era.
Early mining operations in PNG
I won’t recount the role of PNG in WWII, as I have given much of that history in previous blog entries.   However, given its integral role in the war in the South Pacific, and, the greater need in its aftermath for mineral and energy resources which were discovered in abundance on the island, the expat population (mostly Australians) boomed, increasing from about 6,000 to 50,000 by the early 1970’s.  But maybe because the lure of PNG is in the extractive industries, which is inherently a take-and-use sort of business, many of the expats who came really didn’t intend to settle permanently and create new lives in PNG.  They came, they saw, they conquered, then, for the most part, went home.  Even today, you find that there are many expats who live and work here alone while their families continue to live in the comfort and safety of Australia or other more developed nations.  Even those who do come with spouses and children seem reluctant to move their household effects here, as PNG is viewed as a temporary gig.  There seems to have been limited long-term investment in improving conditions in country, except for what was necessary and convenient for business, and limited support for integrating the local population into aspects of business, society and culture that would allow them to operate the economic and governance machine independently.

When independence came to PNG in 1975, it wasn’t generated by any burning patriotic flame on the part of the Papua New Guineans.  There was no rioting demanding the severing of ties to Australia, no civil unrest, no protests.  Unlike many countries that were kicking and screaming (or at least throwing a good hunger strike or two) for freedom from their Western captors, PNG was seemingly happy and content to carry on and stay calm.  The country really wasn’t prepared to set up its own government; in fact, one thing they had to do first was to identify potential political leaders and send them to school to learn about parliamentary and political procedures.  Yet, by the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, prompted by the wave of independence movements in Africa, the idea of continued colonial presence anywhere in the world became distinctly un-PC, and, with a little nudging by the United Nations, Australia began to prepare for a governmental and economic hand-off to PNG.  But, once the keys to the kingdom were passed on to the locals, many of the expats washed their hands of PNG and over the next few years, approximately 30,000 of them went home. 

PNG Parliament in session
So where does that leave PNG?  Well, the government has a unicameral parliament with executive power in the hands of a Prime Minister, but the members of parliament come from such divergent areas of the country , speaking any one of the over 800 languages that the running of the government is chaotic at best. For example, in 2011, two different candidates both claimed to have won the race for Prime Minister.  While the country was initially categorized by the UN as a developing country, its status was downgraded in 2006 to Least Developed Country (LDC) as a result of rampant corruption, abuses by police and security forces and continuing violence against women.  In fact, conditions are considered so bad in PNG that the new Australian PM has come up with an unusual immigration policy.  In order to dissuade Iranian and Afghan refugees from seeking asylum in Australia he is sending them to PNG instead. The idea is that the middle-men in Indonesia and Sri Lanka cannot promise the refugees a better life and they may have to reconsider their options. 
Above the door of Parliament building in Port Moresby
Even in a country that should be thriving as a result of income generated by mining and liquefied natural gas (LNG), over a third of the population is living on less than $1.25 per day, and this is no cheap place to live.  It does not appear that the problem is a lack of good jobs, so much as there has been little training of the local population on how to get and/or hold on to those jobs.  One of the biggest issues for businesses here is that the work force is has not had a strong educational system to support them, nor has there been ingrained the type of work ethic that supports the economic powerhouses of the world.  With high illiteracy, often weak command of the English language, and lack of familiarity with western business practices and norms, it is hard to see how gaining independence has moved the country forward.
Low tide in Port Moresby
Don’t get me wrong.  I am not advocating a return to Australian or any other country as overlords here.  This is a proud country with a strong and vibrant culture as well as a population that is fully capable of running its own affairs.  What it does need, however, is more help in strengthening its institutions, starting with education both for its children, and for adults who are looking to improve their job skills.  And, to be fair one of the important players in this arena will continue to be the Australians and, perhaps the US if we ever really make the Pacific Islands a focus in our “pivot to Asia” strategy.  But it isn’t about doing it for them…it is teaching them how to do it themselves.   
In a way, I am reminded of my own baby steps towards independence here in PNG.   We recently purchased a car here, but I have been reluctant to drive it for a number of reasons.  PNG is a left-hand drive country (steering wheel is on the right side of the car), which still has me walking to the wrong side of any vehicle I attempt to enter and not entirely secure in which lane I should turn into.  The car we purchased is also a manual drive, which means I have to use my left hand to shift gears.  Add to that the repeated frightening reports of violent carjacking across the city, with solo women drivers a popular target.  Besides,  I have a number of people who have been seemingly happy to shuttle me around, so why drive when someone else will do it for me?  It is certainly safer and easier for me, but then, I cannot make my own decisions on what to do or how to get to where I want to go.  At least PNG, as an independent nation, can make its own decisions on where it wants to go…but like me, may still need some lessons and support in getting there safely and effectively. 



Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Play’s The Thing

There's still time to book a flight, buy a ticket and come see the show!
If there is one thing that any expat can do to make the transition to living in a new country easier and more rewarding, it is to find some group, organization, club or activity and get involved as fast as possible.  From my experience, the quicker you can find something productive to do, the less likely you are to feel homesick and the more likely you will develop a whole raft of new friends.  All the better if you can find something that you are good at, or at least familiar with, so that you have the added sense of confidence in your value-added proposition.  Here in Papua New Guinea I have managed to hit my own personal trifecta of extracurricular activities in the form of theatre, choir and tennis.

For the oldest and dearest of my family and friends, my involvement in this combination of activities will come as no surprise.  These were the three pillars that kept me grounded, busy and out of trouble throughout my high school years.  People comment on how amazing it is that kids these days can multitask so well (a debatable proposition, which perhaps I will take up in another blog posting), but I would argue that my ability back then to learn lines of Shakespeare while simultaneously perfecting my serve and humming the alto part of Handel’s Messiah equaled or surpassed any of the skills of today’s computer dependant teens.  And, like riding a bike, because I learned these things in my youth, the skill sets are deeply and fundamentally ingrained--with just a little practice, they all come back fairly quickly, albeit somewhat less fluidly.

The Old Globe Theater (Homer High School style)
Of course, it also helped that I learned at the knee of three of the most enthusiastic, patient and masterful teachers—William S. Whiting, Donald Berg and my father, Barney Williams.  I could wax poetically about all three of these men ad nauseum, but I will give you the crystallized lessons I took away with me.  William “Shakespeare” Whiting instilled in me a true love and understanding of the Bard and his works, as well as a sense that in directing a play, especially with students, minimal guidance can produce miraculous results.  It’s not about how well they did, but how well they think they did.  From Don Berg, I discovered (not that I realized it at the time) that there is no such thing as setting the bar too high, and that if you don’t tell your students that it is difficult, they will think that singing Handel, Hayden, Mozart, gospel spirituals and four part a cappella 18th century chamber music is what every kid knows how to do.  And from my father, I learned that practice alone does not make perfect, but  positive attitude, graciousness in the face of loss and disappointment, and the ability to laugh at your own mistakes makes for a true champion.   Oh yeah, and never, ever, ever throw your tennis racket in anger.

Back in the days before we had separate boys' and girls' teams!

These life lessons, along with the underlying skills they taught me, have all been put to the test here in my first few months in PNG.  When I arrived in Port Moresby in May, I was absolutely thrilled to discover the existence of the Moresby Arts Theatre (MAT) and then to find out that the next show was to be Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  In an odd sort of déjà vu, the MAT is very similar to the Little Theatre Group of Costa Rica (LTG) in that it is run primarily by volunteer expats who do everything from acting and directing to publicity and cleaning the theatre (spelled both here and there with the British conventions).  As I did for the LTG, I will be on stage next week in Twelfth Night.  I have also begun singing with the Moresby Choral Society--still an alto and still taking on the challenging works of Handel and Mozart, as well as a few gospel spirituals that I sang so many years ago.  And most recently, I joined a group of women who are solid tennis players with whom I was able to hold my own.  So I am in the enviable position of being busy, active and happy, with the added bonus of establishing friendships that I am confident will be as strong as those I have made in so many other parts of the world.
I wouldn't need the makeup to play the nurse today!
Never in a million years would I have expected that in a place as far-flung as Papua New Guinea I would feel so connected to my origins in Homer, New York but I guess that in this expat living experience, one should learn to expect the unexpected.  And perhaps I am more tuned into my hometown as a result of Facebook, another “must have” weapon in the expat arsenal for fighting isolation and boredom.  I have reconnected with so many of my high school friends and am particularly enjoying keeping in touch with those who still live in or visit the Central New York area.  But even more so, through Facebook and this blog, I am having a great time sharing my new adventures with my old pals.  I only hope that somewhere, Herr Whiting, “Berger Bits” and Dad are all looking down here approvingly knowing that their lessons have not been lost on me, even on the other side of the world.
 All my English teachers would be appalled but it was not my job to edit the poster!