Modern Materialism Catches Up with Papua New Guinea

By Black, Jan Knippers | USA TODAY, November 1997 | Go to article overview
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Modern Materialism Catches Up with Papua New Guinea


Black, Jan Knippers, USA TODAY


Perhaps the most important clues about what modernization has meant to Papua New Guinea are being unearthed by linguists. Some have noted that, until very recently, the indigenous peoples were so proud of their collective individuality, or clan distinctiveness, that members made a point of holding on to languages only a few hundred people spoke. Meanwhile, some clans intentionally adopted new words to distinguish themselves from others.

What seems to be different now is that the children are sliding toward the English-based pidgin that is fast becoming the common language of working classes in the modern sector. Apparently, in ways so subtle that only children can see them clearly, all things indigenous are being discredited vis-a-vis the ways of the foreigners.

The Global Village has swallowed up the last of its hinterland. In the early 1990s, it reached out, almost overnight, and took in Papua New Guinea. That incorporation has been, at best, a mixed blessing for the indigenous people.

The island of New Guinea, which Papua New Guinea (PNG) shares with the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, is among the world's largest and accounts for 85% of PNG's land area. The modern state of PNG occupies the eastern half of the island and also claims hundreds of smaller islands to the north and east, including Manus. New Britain, and New Ireland in the Bismarck Archipelago; Bougainville and Buka in the Solomons; and the Trobriand. Woodlarh. D'Entrecasteaux, and Louisiade island groups. Most of this extensive territory was unexplored and virtually unnoticed by outsiders until relatively recent times.

The eastern shores of the big island first were visited by Spanish and Portuguese fleets in the 16th century, but there was no European settlement there until 1884, when Germany laid claim to the north coast and Britain followed suit in the south. In 1901, Britain turned its protectorate over to a newly independent Australia, and Australian troops seized German outposts on the northern coast during World War I. Australia then retained control (or the illusion of control) under a League of Nations mandate and subsequently, after a period of Japanese occupation during World War II, a United Nations trusteeship. Australia granted limited home rule in 1951, followed by more extensive autonomy in internal affairs in 1960 and full independence in 1975. That, at least, was the virtual reality of western colonists.

For the region's indigenous peoples, whose in situ roots date back some 50,000 years, reality was something else entirely, and few westerners dare pretend to understand it very well. Rugged mountainous terrain and dense tropical rainforest, together with the tradition of fierce defense of clan autonomy, account in part for the survival into modern times of more than 700 languages. (By some accounts, these represent about one-third of the world's known languages. English is the official national language, but the trade languages, Motu and Melanesian Pidgin English, are in more common use.) There still are few roads into the interior and, until the advent of the airplane, most language groups remained isolated not only from the outside wOrld, but from each other.

The astonished faces of indigenous high-landers were captured on film when Australian pilots first penetrated their territory in the 1930s. When my husband and I visited in the mid 1980s, there still were tribal elders to be found in the vicinity of Mt. Hagen who remembered when the first of the great silver birds descended and disgorged the strange, pale figures they took to be the ghosts of their ancestors. The visitors were clearly otherworldly because they carried talking boxes and other magical devices that could not possibly have been made by man.

The experience of Papua New Guinea during its first two decades of independence suggests that underdevelopment, poverty, and powerlessness are not always synonymous.

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