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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.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Smooth Operators

The taste of the salt wind...
 There is a saying among dinghy operators in the Cape Vogel area that the moment you reach the decision to travel during rough weather, there is no turning back. “Once you get that 40 horse power going – don’t turn back,” they say with the click-swish of the thumb across the throat. And they are serious with that remark. A panic-ridden decision to turn back in mid journey might have terrible consequences. Many lives have been lost in this part of the Cape Vogel Basin through such errors in judgment.

A dinghy operator in that area professes to be an experienced sailor. He knows the nature of the tide and the current that flows with it. He knows the taste of the salt wind that touches the hair of the skin and what that might mean a few minutes later in the journey. And just by feeling the strength of the surge of tide against his vessel, he can tell how far he is from land, even if he has no compass nor stars to guide him. When the waves get bigger and fiercer, lancing white teeth at his vessel from virtually all directions, he knows when to hum down on the drone of the 40hp throttle and when to rev it up, as if dancing along with them and all the while allowing his 23 or so footer to surf, not cut or surge through, atop and along one before landing with ease at the side of the next. The passengers in turn place their trust in the operator because they know he will get them home.

Sometimes the weather gets so bad fog and mist cover much of Goodenough Bay and if a dinghy happens to be out there, it can quite likely stray towards the Solomon Sea or Trobriand group of islands and further beyond. One cannot even see the mainland from which one had sailed out. Even in that situation, the operator can tell how far he is offshore by simply watching the waves converge. Each time the waves converge, forming a formidable looking apex somewhat – that indicates a meeting point of the incoming tide with the receding one. He then knows he is not too far off from land.

One of the fascinating sights to behold is the way the operator and his crew ease out the dinghy to the depths in the fog of morning light, as their passengers settle themselves securely on their seats before each journey. While there is so much anxiety about how the weather might turn out as the sun rises, the crew carries on the usual ritual of wading into the water and tasting the salt from the finger tips. Some crew members stand up front and, on the pretext of lighting a spear, determine the speed of the salt wind before giving the signal for the operator to start up the engine.

At this point we should give those dinghy operators a hand for the wonderful work they do in transporting their passengers as well as goods and services from main centres like Alotau to their villages and back. Though they may not look fashionable or crafty as much as mysteriously elusive as the “Western male” in Madam Helen Folasade Adu’s jazz rendering of the phrase, they are indeed, and in this context, our “smooth operators” in the banana boat mode of transport.

But storyboard’s reasons for mentioning this crop of dinghy operators in a Milne Bay setting like Cape Vogel are as follows.

Firstly, the good work that Charles Abel has done by providing all the LLG wards in his electorate with dinghies. The dinghies serve their purpose at communal level in the areas of health, education and certain awareness programs that come under the auspices of AusAID and UNDP, including insertions of programs from various NGO entities such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics and VITAL (vernacular initiatives in scriptural as well as literacy workshops). These programs would not work easily or successfully without the availability of these Samarai Plastic products such as the 23foot banana boat or the 18/19foot outboard motor. For that Charles Abel as much as his group of dinghy operators from Suau to Midino must be commended.

Secondly, the Cape Vogel Basin remains quite certainly the most ignored area of the country by the PNG Government, not outsiders, and this has been evident for the last 40 years. During the last 5 decades no development program under the trade mark of this government or those previously has reached the Cape Vogel area. We have seen glimpses of one man’s efforts so far, and these come in the form of dinghies and their smooth operators that we talk about. Michael Somare has never in all his years as Prime Minister heard of Cape Vogel.  

Turn the coin, however, and what do you see? This particular area, though remote and insignificant in the eyes of innumerable PNG governments and their land developers, braces to welcome the global community as the final and certainly the largest of resource locations there is ever to be found. What the people of this area are doing nowadays is preparing themselves for that day. How will they handle the enormous wealth that lies buried deep within their land and under their seabeds?  

For the present each village makes do with whatever its people can afford; in lighting up a village with generators, for example; or working in collaborative partnerships with certain NGO factions in the areas of health, literacy and education. And though the whole region (Rabaraba District) looks agriculturally poor, there is often abundance of food and meat made available.

A well-respected politician and academic from the Nipa-Kutubu area, who had never made it to Parliament, thank God, once looked at that area of the Milne Bay Province and remarked: “You people are the tiller at the end of the boat that steers the nation along. Liken Papua New Guinea to a dinghy that tilts its head up when the 40hp engine is revved up. There, you can see your significance as the operator of the nation clearly.”       

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