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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.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Story of a lifetime

Vonu Libitino, a 2nd year literature major at UPNG, feeling good about being the first to read Sir Thomas Ritako's autobiography. Photo by Storyboard.
Arise, Sir Thomas.

An eleven year-old boy is suddenly subjected to light jokes and mannerisms of a Titan (Manus) setting and as he turns twelve begins to take those jokes seriously. The jokes best describe him as a poor waif in the true PNG traditional meaning of the term. That further translates as nogat papa nogat mama, a term which truly implies material as much as hierarchal social poverty. Who are your parents and ancestors and where are your gardens and your land? These become impeding questions that the child grows up with on Sori Island, Manus Province.

In time, however, and as he turns twelve he sees the surrounding world differently. He cannot understand why the foreigners are bombing his beautiful islands of Sori and Baramang. He joins a group of boys his age and under direction from a 70 year-old elder they marched down to sea armed with special magical leaves, dip these into the water and then try waving the bombers away from the beautiful islands. They save their islands that way and the boy himself becomes all more curious about the given setting in which he is meant to grow up.

He thinks his biological parents, particularly his father, had been mean to dump him like that on Sori Island. He becomes a subject of both convenient jesting and ridicule among even his closest relatives but it is his cousin sisters who are more sparing, and through them he learns to question his own sense of existence.

As he does at that age we begin to see the philosophical essence of how and what it feels like growing up as a Papua New Guinean during the post-war period, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies and right up to the present. Papua New Guineans who grew up during this period have learnt something important which today we must seriously regard as the hour of our intellectual re-awakening. That period in our nation’s history is important in that sense. And we begin to see this clearly through the avenue of a certain genre in literature known as the autobiography.

This is Sir Thomas Ritako’s autobiography which runs for 258 pages and becomes a worthy addition to Papua New Guinea’s autobiographical literature that includes Sir Albert Maori Kiki, Sir Paulias Matane, Sir Michael Somare and Dame Carol Kidu, to name a few known ones. There could be several more and these would most certainly include Sir Ebia Olewale or the renown Ben Moide, depending on the talents and entrepreneurship of Papua New Guinean writers as prospective biographers.

The one of Sir Thomas Ritako’s is the work of Dr Bernad Minol of UPNG and Prof Ted Wolfers of the University of Wollongong, Australia, and it is published as Arise Sir Thomas by the University of Papua New Guinea’s Bookshop. What Minol and Wolfers did was guide Sir Thomas Ritako along and he in turn put pen on paper to let his thoughts come flowing out, forming one of the finest historical literary publications of our times. The same method, of course, was used by Professor Ulli Beier when initiating Albert Maori Kiki into the world of arts and letters, a work which would later become the monumental Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime. The moral lesson to this remark is thus absolutely clear: Papua New Guinea you have all your resources available that are within reach; you alone can write your country’s literature and history. Look around you now and see how many whose life stories you can help write and publish for our future generations.

Of course, Sir Thomas was not stranded on Sori Island, to be left there feeling sorry for himself. He did venture out from the confines of simple Titan island life and travel eventually to New Ireland where he would meet his biological parents and ask why he was seemingly abandoned to fend for himself in the company of his grandmother, Awoh, who chided him one moment but came to his rescue the next when his cousins’ jestings could hardly be contained even by the adults themselves. After that meeting with his parents Sir Thomas then resolved to do what many Papua New Guineans of his generation set their minds to do: to pursue the challenges of education to the very roots of their foundations and come up with the resolution that, yes, we all can and be.

With that determination in mind he proceeds to Utu Government School but not without his father’s wish to send him off on yet another mission, this time not to Sori Island among his own blood relatives to do the preferred traditional “growing up” exercise, but with someone else, a school teacher known as Joseph Ritako who will become a mentor as much as a parent whose name he shall bear to the end of his days. Thus, the emergence of Sir Thomas Ritako.

From Utu Sir Thomas went to Kerevat Central School and then to the famous Sogeri Central School. What proceeded thenceforth is the same series of episodes that Papua New Guineans are familiar with, but with a great difference – and that is what the name Ritako suggests. The name, which is New Ireland in origin, derives from the Manus term Dritakou – meaning “over the fence”. For we can see now that what Sir Thomas did is a step further than what Sir Albert Maori Kiki did in Ten Thousand Years in Lifetime. From Sogeri he went through several stages of heightened intellectual development, at the Fiji Central Medical School, for example,  then to Port Moresby Teachers College, then to his postings as a teacher (like his two fathers before him), back to the Administrative College where he married his childhood sweetheart, Ruby, and onwards to some very important public service appointments, including overseas postings and his final achievement as a knight within the British Commonwealth of independent nations of the world.

Arise Sir Thomas is a beautiful autobiography to read. It brings fresh insight to those ideas already represented in the earlier autobiographical and biographical writings of PNG. The book also sheds light on various historical, intellectual as much as psychological details of our country, by being itself a very simple story so very simply and humbly told.

You can get your copy of Arise Sir Thomas from UPNG Bookshop at the Waigani Campus.

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