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Whether it is "Redefining literary techniques and devices", "Justifying Papua New Guinea Literature", or "Translating the Bible into Anuki", these offer valuable reading for the paperless student of literature, and indeed the best sort of literary entertainment you can get out of Papua New Guinea. Check them out either on Soaba's Storyboard or The Anuki Country Press.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Leadership and traditional obligations

When we first read A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe in the early seventies, the general understanding then was that Papua New Guinea should not repeat certain political blunders experienced by some African nations immediately after independence. African novels such as this one by Achebe posed as essential pointers to what we were becoming as a new nation.

A Man of the People talks about Odili, a young school teacher who becomes fascinated by the wealth and power of his former teacher, Nanga, now a minister in the government. He is so curious about Nanga’s method of accumulating wealth that eventually his girlfriend too becomes interested and finally runs off with the minister. Odili plans revenge by doing what Nanga had done to become rich, and that is to campaign and beat him in the next elections to parliament. This he does, to a point. But as Odili braces to triumph over his older rival, and when revenge itself is about to taste sweet, there is a coup in that African country, and Nanga, the “man of the people” is ousted – faster than Odili might have anticipated.

Novels such as this, along with Things Fall Apart, were common subjects of discussion in literature at UPNG in those days. Even those from law and political science would pop by our dormitories and participate in these discussions. Occasionally one or two would get so excited they would outtalk us by reciting W.B. Yeats’ poem in full when referring to the titles of Achebe’s novels. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/...The ceremony of innocence drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

And if that wouldn’t do, we would walk down to the staff residences, in search of Ulli Beier’s “palace”. The palace consisted of a ground-level cement bungalow and an out-house where the artists Kauage, Yakupa and Ruki Fame worked under the mentorship of Georgina Beier; and where, of course, Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime was written. There we would join our professor and feast as writers and artists. Those who joined us would immediately qualify for admission by reciting the password: “Where there are writers there is wine and song.”

But those were the days when discussions affecting our new nation were observed in their “passionate intensity.” There were great men with whom these conversations were shared. Men such as Albert Maori Kiki, Vincent Eri, Bart Philemon, Bernard Sakora, John Waiko, John Kasaipwalova, Leo Hannet, Arthur Jawodimabari and others. Men such as Mekere Morauta were busy with their girlfriends or getting married, and would occasionally drop by to render support. Others, such as Narakobi and Father Momis, came around as well, not to drink wine and palaver but to ruminate with the betel nut or offer to hear confessions while looking like they were nursing some thick folders under their arms. Everything that was shared then was indeed the very act of writing not just literature but the constitution itself. From elsewhere, others would join in and dub in the necessary additions, the phraseology and clauses according to their respective fields of expertise, and if all that meant re-writing or continuing what first transpired at the Bully Beef Club (ADCOL), then this was it – our very own government in the making. And we could remind our well respected leaders then to go back to the novel, to the dome of literature, where the world began.

Now we come to the point of this article and that is leadership and traditional obligations. When we think along the lines of the novel A Man of the People, the irony and the satire noted therein lies not so much on a third world leader’s negligence of duty as to his acceptance that the burden of leadership is heavy upon his shoulders and this he must not lose sight of at all times. However, as “a man of the people” this Nanga does not do, and what we see in young Odili is his, Nanga’s, failure as a leader.

The concept of traditional obligation, on the other hand, is not at all a complex one as many of us would like to think. Much of our perception on traditional norms of livelihood becomes clouded by what we have learnt in the classroom on to the office environment and finally to our jobs as “leaders.” Every one of us is a leader in the true meaning of the term. But we cloud that moment of clarity by getting our perceptions on the word wrong.

Not every one of us free of traditional obligations. And neither are we exempt from any observation that is tradition-oriented. Whether we are in a metropolitan or rural setting, our initial attitude to family and neighbour alike is traditional through and through. “Bara, hap buai kam (Brother, share your betel nut with me)” or “Naki, lau sig ta negea mai (In-law, throw me one of your cigarettes).”

Ask a six year-old child what a bride price ceremony is and he/she will tell you. That same child will grow up to be a good leader with just the understanding that what happens in a bride price ceremony is accumulation of wealth that belongs to the entire community. The process of education on the notion of leadership and traditional obligation as seen in that child’s understanding of the bride price ceremony is therefore complete. If that child grows up and makes it to parliament but does not become a good leader, then we are looking at our country from a different perspective, through a different concept box, and in a different time frame.

When Chinua Achebe completed writing A Man of the People, Nigeria began experiencing a series of military coups and some major civil wars. Though the novelist did not intend to predict what Nigeria would become, some critics make inferences that the novel itself might have been taken too seriously.

By which time, Ulli Beier had left Nigeria and was in Papua New Guinea with a bigger role to play than what many of us may care to admit. His little band of creative writing students and writers at UPNG played a major role in the authorship of our nation’s Constitution. Now there are those that talk and claim sole authorship of the document. But the archives at the University of Melbourne nowadays seem to be pointing in the direction of who did the talking and who actually sat down and wrote the Constitution.

This article appeared in Papua New Guinea's The National Weekender on 21st May 2010. It discusses the phenomenon of leadership and traditional obligations in Papua New Guinea, with a focus on Chinua Achebe's novel, A Man of the People. The article also attempts to clarify the sort of influence Ulli Beier had had in Papua New Guinea during that country's fight for political independence from Australia. Beneath all that the article tries to point out who were actually responsible for setting the foundations of PNG's fight for independence and who indeed were involved in constructing the country's Constitution.

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