The sign out at the front gates of the UPNG Waigani campus last Saturday read, “Milne Bay Cultural Day: achieving academic excellence through cultural foundations.”
Storyboard woke up at about 8 am that morning with the recollection that, yes, there must be some kind of gathering at the Drill Hall. So down he strolled by 11.33 am just to witness people walking away from that place where the main cultural activities were supposed to be. What? The festivities have ended much sooner?
Everything about Milne Bay is either culture shock or disaster.
In any Milne Bay gathering, be it a political rally or a cultural show, no one seems to be out and about, looking as if everyone is up to something or is involved in some form of human activity. But the music that comes through the acoustics seems to indicate that there is some activity going on. Even the Drill Hall itself at that hour, the so-called peak hour of any cultural activity, seemed deserted. There were signs of some dignitaries giving speeches through the loud speaker systems, but it was the attitude of the crowd that got storyboard down somewhat into silent lamentations, and that sort of thing. Who is our speaker? What is the message of his speech? And who is he addressing? This little group of betel nut vendors – that is over here by the shade of desolate gum trees? Ah, kapole hinage... egu Alotau.
Nonetheless what storyboard thought he caught wind of was some mention of Alice Wedega being the icon of the province, the name giver, the promise of the nation’s soul from that locality of Papua New Guinea. And it is well that Alice was mentioned because it is through this entity that one hopes to get into the heart of Milne Bay as a province of significance. The main message in Alice Wedega is that we listen – we listen to the heartbeat of our country.
And what that heartbeat seemed to have been telling storyboard that morning was that perhaps the cultural day itself was not properly organized. There were success stories surrounding previous cultural day activities observed at this very Drill Hall but not, sad to say, this one. Ae kafoe, yada melala.
But beneath all that atmosphere of eternal silence, that ever humble looking pregnant silence, lay the spiritual essence of the province itself. Milne Bays are such quiet people one never knows whether they are going or coming. But they are there nevertheless, forlorn and sad, stolid and rigid, but never broken. Ask them to dance and they will; to sing and they will; to build and they will. Perhaps that is what the organizers meant by the phrase “achieving academic excellence through cultural foundations”. But along the surface of things they are truly very unfriendly looking people. They build walls as it were all around them so other cultural groups cannot get into their own silent world. If you ask why they do that the answer is very simple indeed. They are very, very shy people, these Milne Bays. It takes an outsider to break the ice for them. And if an outsider feels he or she is persistently being stared at, don’t worry, a little conversation will do the trick.
So even by 3.30pm the queue at the gate was as long as it was at 11am previously. People were still buying tickets to enter the Drill Hall and enjoy the festivities. A great number came with portable sitting chairs, sitting mats, even pillows and bed sheets – oh dear, but that was the Milne Bay cultural thing.
Only one instance of negative criticism came storyboard’s way when he was moving around the sparsely distributed crowd at the Drill Hall. That the whole province was not represented enough with the necessary cultural activities such as dances and feast making rituals – not necessarily because UPNG lacked the numbers from each district of the province, but because the executive of the student body did not do enough of that protocol homework to include everybody. That complaint came from the Rabaraba faction of the University community, and there were others as well with similar complaints.
When at last the dancers took to the platforms to observe the rituals of food exchange it was not successfully ascertained which districts or language groups were involved. The obvious Trobriand Islands decorations stood out, but storyboard’s party did not seem to be sure if it was the Normanby islanders or some mainland cultural group that was partnering the former. Some spectators said it was the latter while others seemed certain the dancers were from the mainland, usually around the Alotau area itself. There was also confusion as to the paint applied as decoration on the faces of some of the dancers: one moment the same dancers seemed to be dancing in the Trobriand groups, and the next in the Esa’ala group. Oh dear. Then of course there was the convenient explanation that not many Milne Bay students were keen in getting painted and dressed up with the necessary bilas to participate fully at the festivities.
Perhaps in the next cultural festivities we will witness a more balanced sort of representation. Or are we already too tired of the Baniara dancers, quite often an equally highlighted spectacular as compared to the Trobriand one in any Milne Bay gathering? Ah, the splendour of it all. One seems to miss all that, not to mention the familiar mona shouts that proclaim the sacred essence of a traditional Milne Bay feast.
One thing, however, storyboard found memorable at that occasion. The presence of those that create the poetry and song that carries the sentiments of the province itself; Kulusia may have been missing but Hetei Dickson was there, sure enough.