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22 November 2012
Dr Sophie Loy-Wilson is a historian and researcher at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute. She works on the history of China-Australian relations. Her postdoctoral project is entitled 'Graves in the Forest: Chinese-Australian-Papua New Guinean Encounters in PNG 1880-2009.'
View the photo album from the trip here.
When I first began my fellowship year at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute in May I never imagined I would find myself in Port Moresby to participate in a 'Life Stories and Leadership' forum later in the year. My knowledge of PNG was vague at best, gleaned from mostly sensationalist Australia media reports detailing outbreaks of violence in Port Moresby or corruption and instability in the PNG government. But in April this year I got the chance to attend the Alfred Deakin Research Institute’s second annual conference on Papua New Guinea. It was at this conference that I met Dr Jonathan Ritchie, a historian who is chronicling the little known histories of PNG's political and community leaders, the men and women who have worked for positive change in Papua New Guinea and whose contributions to PNG are rarely documented and therefore rapidly being forgotten. The result is that many young people in PNG are tragically unaware of the often inspiring life-stories of their elders; men and women who lived through PNG's transition to Independence in 1975. It was through Jonathan that my idea for a postdoctoral project on a history on Chinese-Australia relations in PNG was formed. So when Jonathan offered me the chance to travel to Port Moresby I was thrilled.
Michelle Verso (ADRI's Project Manager) and I went to Port Moresby in November this year to assist Jonathan in the running of a consultative forum entitled 'Life Stories and Leadership in PNG'. The forum was a collaboration with the National Research Institute, where we also stayed during our visit, in a compound nestled in the foothills of Waigani, a suburb of Port Moresby, also home to the University of Papua New Guinea. In contrast to many of the images of Port Moresby I was familiar with from media reports - of dusty streets in graffiti-covered shanty towns - the NRI was quiet, leafy and suburban; children played under cassia trees and academics worked in air-conditioned offices ploughing through piles of government policy documents to the sound of cicadas and croaking frogs. Ten minutes drive from the NRI was a shopping mall owned by Chinese-Malaysian company Rimbunan Hijau. Jonathan and his wife Catherine took us there to buy supplies on our first night in PNG and Michelle and I had the surreal experience of walking through a forest of white Christmas trees at the entry way to the mall only to discover a sprawling supermarket with the same brands of cereal and biscuits that you’d find in Australia; piles of Tim-Tams sat in discount bins along with Dolly tuna tins and Papua New Guinean coffee. Outside the mall armed security guards in bright orange and red army camouflage uniforms opened the boom gates for children dressed in traditional tribal dress, on their way to a performance at the mall to welcome visiting Pacific Island leaders.
On day one of our trip we travelled to the beautiful Bomana War Cemetery before meeting with managers from Cloudy Bay Forestry Ltd, Mike Janssen and Rob de Fégely. Supported by the PNG Sustainable Development Program Ltd, Cloudy Bay funnels part of its profits back to local people as well as providing education in sustainable forestry practices and in this way is modelling a new kind of corporate culture in the PNG logging industry. After this meeting we travelled to the Pacific Adventist University where we discussed plans for collaborative projects between staff and students from PAU and Deakin University.
We saw signs of the growing Chinese involvement in PNG. Children's playgrounds accompanied by signs stating 'Built with funds donated by the Government of the People's Republic of China' are dotted around Port Moresby and we also saw a series of brightly coloured murals painted on the walls of the Chinese embassy celebrating collaboration between the Chinese and Papua New Guinean peoples. One of the murals depicted Chinese migrants arriving in junks and welcomed by Papuan New Guineans wearing yellow and red face paint. My postdoctoral work focuses on Chinese migration to PNG and the ways in which this migration is being reimagined in new Chinese histories of PNG and the Pacific, so I was especially fascinated by the murals.
The 'Life Stories and Leadership' Consultative forum was held at the National Research Institute on Thursday 22 November and both Michelle and I felt privileged to be involved. The forum was made possible by a Research Seeding Grant from Deakin’s Centre for Sustainable and Responsible Organisations.
Prominent Papua New Guineans such as Dr Thomas Webster and Dame Carol Kidu worked in small groups with younger Papuan New Guineans such as Theresa Meki, a student from the University of Goroka and Serena Sasingian, who heads The Voice, an organisation that helps develop PNG's youth. Each group took turns to nominate individuals they felt should be recognised as 'leaders' in contemporary PNG and the stories they told about these individuals were both moving and instructive. One of the speakers, Peter Aitsi (Country Manager for Newcrest Mining Ltd) reminded participants of the need for a strong leadership culture in contemporary PNG, not just in government but also in the corporate sector. As the day wore on, it became clear that in a country where technological resources are few and far between and where the majority of the population lives in poverty, the act of capturing living history, of taking down the stories of community leaders, was littered with practical obstacles. The participants agreed, however, that these stories formed an invaluable part of their national culture and had the potential to inspire and energize young people in a nation used to mostly negative stories about their political leaders.
Reflecting on our time in PNG, I was impressed by what we'd done - from visiting the Bomana War Cemetery to meeting young Papuan journalists at the Leadership symposium to hearing the stories of the United Nations Resident Representative to observing the impact of Chinese investment on the built landscape, we'd had a rich and varied couple of days. I left determined to come back. PNG is often on the radar of many Australians for all the wrong reasons. I came away hoping that the work the Alfred Deakin Research Institute is doing there will render the country's stories more tangible for both local Papua New Guineans as well as for Australians so that the many clichés that have been attached to PNG move aside to make room for the beguiling complexity of the country's places, pasts and people.