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|
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|
|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.