a steaming land ......

I have returned from New Guinea. There are 800 language groups. There are diverse beliefs and an ancient history. The country is so rugged and forested that a language group can exist in one valley their language is not understood by the villagers in the next valley. From a plane the valleys and mountains appear to steam. The white cloud steams up through the sharp spearheads of the mountains. A constant mist emanates from rivers and valleys. Regions are known for their tribal violence. Generations of war. Peace is brokered through gifts or exchanges. For a little while at least. Suspicion remains and human nature will always find some angle to be offended over. Some intrigue. Some alleged theft. Some poaching of pigs. The stealing of a wife. Some sorcery. There are mortal consequences.

Pigs are a universal currency. In the west we say money speaks all languages. In New Guinea presumably pigs speak all languages. Bride prices and many commodities are bartered on the worth of pigs. Brides are quite proud of how many porkers were bartered on their pretty selves.  You see the pigs being cradled with affection. A short life, but a merry one, presumably.  So called Big men or Bigfella's own many pigs. Or they are capable of getting their hands on many pigs. They supply to those who ask them. Its like MasterCard. The pigs are supplied on credit.  Big men are like Godfathers. They are generous. But you owe them allegiance. Big men get in to politics. Whole villages will vote for them based on promises. Whole villages will desert a Bigfella in politics if things don't go their way. Life is less about nation. Its about tribe, clan and family.

 Broadly speaking, the coastal region can be matriarchal. The highlands more patriarchal in governance. Violence is a theme. Its a very strong theme. Raskals are the national thugs. Violent,ugly and unwanted and banished from where ever they have come from. Social orphans  or literal orphans.  A bit like Australia's early convicts after settlement, one imagines. Banished and no way home.

I spent a half a day in one of the  prisons talking to about 20 of the Raskals. They were the politest and most respectful group of thugs I've ever spoken to. Working 40 years ago, inside prisons and the court system and over recent times in drugs and addictions and mental health.

Most of the blokes that day had no idea when they were going back to court. The unknowing or fatalism or vagueness seems to go with the circumstances. Life is brutal and hard and it ends quickly. Somehow they were grown up and took responsibility. They expected no mercy or quarter. There would be no mitigation or social or family circumstances pleaded. The appalling pre sentence reports and sociological rubbish I meticulously presented to court on behalf of viscious young felons 35 years ago in Australia seems so mercenary now.  They share accommodation on a cement slab with a toilet and shower. There is a roof but only cement quadrants that hold up the galvanised iron roof against the elements. There is a guard beyond the barbed wire with an Armalite rifle. His observation deck in the lush jungle separated from us by razor wire. He sits on a plastic chair, his space littered with bottles and rubbish. The Raskals occasional visitors bring them vegetables or noodles or rice and some tatty clothes. If they have visitors. If they can spare them food. I notice that the guards that day were pretty fatherly in an officious sort of way. The exception is the white screw. He has something of an air of disdain. He does not like the intrusion of these students and lecturers. He especially does not like me, a whitefella. He hides his contempt behind the usual cloak of bureaucratic efficiency and deference to procedures. I am getting impatient and the heat and humidity is playing on me.  He wears proper uniform and remarkably a beret in the vicious heat and humidity. I want to tell him it would be far more comfortable if he wore a native koteka on his head. For the sake of the students and lecturers I refrain from making the suggestion. I’m sure he would boot us out. Even in the heat, common sense suggests that he probably hasn't got a sense of humour.

I heard stories of violence. Reliable sources tell me stories of the summary justice dealt to Raskals in lonely places. You heard stories of one way trips to isolated beaches with the police. Just before I arrived the Australian Broadcasting Corporation announced  a pastor in a church had been buried alive for sorcery. Some of the locals suspecting he was using black magic to cause landslides. I was horrified. When I arrived a couple of days later in PNG it was news. But not a big story. There were stories of hand grenades and home made shot guns and the universal bush knife.  These things and other obscene ways of killing were not uncommon. I was told Yes it was awful. But, it was not in this province.  Out in the bush miles from no where there was a First aid station a teenage girl with her mother shivering from malarial infection. Lots of Australian aid money for medication but no drugs, money having been diverted by local politicians.

I go to house cry one evening down by the river. Someone's son had died. All that is known was that he was shot and murdered. Was it the police? Raskals ? Prison staff ? Local wontoks? No one knows. The true story is not disclosed. It could have been any one of those groups.  But in this place, it is, what happens.  The story conceals the shame. In this place there are things that are best left for tribe and clan and family to sort out. And you feel certain that they will.

At the University some buildings have been burnt down. A student leader killed horribly with a bush knife. Bush knives are common. Long slashing ones . Shorter stabbing ones. They appear to be carried as weapons but are invariably to slash and cut the long grass and the vegetables and cut what can be made palatable for the pot. We ask for directions in the Ramu valley from our 4 wheel drive. The helpful villager, by himself, approaches our car on my side window. I am pretty sure he will give us directions. But he has put his bush knife at port arms. Its in the bush and perhaps he knows better than us that anything goes. Even white ones. If you don't know who is asking you questions its best to be suspicious and prepared. 

Up the track out of Lae the local police station is a charred twisted heap. The locals set it alight with a villager inside. They came to the conclusion about his guilt. Poured petrol into his cell window and set it alight. Here security companies provide policing. You contract with one of the big three companies for protection and call outs. You have a radio for such contingencies. You would call the security first. Its unlikely you would call the police. Roadblocks by the police are common enough. The security companies seem quite disciplined have their own barracks and logistics and communication. I do wonder if the government has to keep an eye on them. The nights bring the torrential cooling rain. If your fortunate the electricity is working and the fans are working and the fridge will have something cold in it. You need to shop frequently because food goes off with intermittent electricity.

With the rain, it sometimes brings the Raskals. Their soft footfall is deadened by the thick rain on the long grass. We have security downstairs at night. They might or might not be reliable. We have grates all over the house and grates on the windows. We also have Fluffy. A Doberman Rottweiler cross who pads about inside or downstairs. I had made friends with him quickly. Even with my natural affinity for dogs I knew I had to be careful of upsetting Fluffy. Many of the itinerant locals are aware of him and keep well away from him. I wonder if there is a price on his head.  Those who live around the house with me have grown accustomed to him and realise his bite is worse than his bark. So best to keep on his good side.  I get up early to finalise my lecture notes. Coffee and vegemite. If I'm lucky the wild passionfruit and a portion of a bunch of peanuts.  Fluffy does not care for the expresso but he likes the Vegemite.  One slice for him. One slice for me. This is our ritual before the bells for lectures ring at 7am in the cool of the morning. I have to wear trousers rather than shorts to the lectures. At one stage academic gowns had to be worn as well.

 Fluffy like other dogs I have seen, has slash marks from the cruel bush knives. I had seen dogs wandering blind in the streets obviously and deliberately cut across the eyes. There seems to be a war of animal and locals.  

Horror stories kept emerging in this tribal land. Domestic violence and pay back are common place. I could see nor did I hear of evidence of large drug or meths and Ice culture. With the growing prosperity of international mining interests and the interest of the Chinese military and commercial ventures in the region, drugs are inevitable.

One of the benefits of travel is that you compare and contrast your own world with that of others. I think a bit about the Raskals in the prison and the tribespeople at the funeral. That world is totally different to the world of Australia. Its business offices its Universities its schools its media. The very concept of resiliency programs and coping mechanism and stress management is both bizarre and comical in the PNG I have just described. The issue of domestic violence and gender equality. Also another planetary system altogether. Yet for the past generations a large cohort of Australians have been brought up with a view filtered by education and generally what is called the nanny state that every one is precious , unique and an individual. They have grown up with the mantra of uniqueness and a worth that is unearned and that they should be respected for just being alive or having achieved a role in a job. Australia for perhaps the past 50 years has subscribed to various psychologies and social movements that reinforce this perspective. Australia of the past 50 years has been free from daily violence or war or tribalism. It is free from the the corruption and civil corruption of clans and families . Australians have never had to be confronted with having to work solidly to eat or survive. If you don’t work or labour in some way in PNG you starve. In Australia Centrelink stands by. Death is not commonplace experience to many people in Australia. Its part of daily business in PNG. I don’t wish what I saw in PNG on Australia. However the entitlement to a good life without thankfulness or acknowledgement is alive and part of the narrative in Australian society. I also wonder if in Australia resilience mantras need to be replaced with strong spoken words about just growing up and acting your age. Life is not about living life like your a permanent adolescent with a inherent sense of entitlement and prosperity owed to you by others.