Posts Tagged 'social attitudes'

Halle-freaking-loo-yah!

The kid came into the supermarket as I did. She wore a burgundy uniform and her hair was cut short , she also had big eyes that lolled back too far when she looked up at me. She walked with exaggerated stride and a dramatic swinging of her arms.

I found myself in the aisle where certain cereals were kept. I was looking for rolled oats, but they only had the usual selection of sugar-coated stuff. I was about to leave when the kid came up the aisle. She offered her hand to shake, and we swapped names. As she spoke I saw almost all of her teeth were rotted down nearly to the gums. Each was a hideous decayed hunk. I was revolted.

It was hard to hear what she was saying, so I asked her to speak again. When I go to my house, I will pray for you she said. I felt disconcerted, but also touched. You are a good kid I said, hoping that would be the end of things. I believe in the Lord Jesus and I believe he made me the way I am. She spoke with innocent conviction, the kind that would be frightening if expressed by an adult but was perfectly normal for a kid. I said that was nice and that it was nice to meet her, then I walked off. I could not banish the image of the wrecked carnage of her teeth. The persistent image made me queasy until I got outside.

*

I came to the office and shook hands with the security guard like I always did. He was a large, bellicose man with a habit of yelling and following people around when they don’t want to be followed, making small talk and unfunny jokes. He usually wore loud tropical shirts and a hat that said I LOVE JESUS on it. During the day he would often come inside to find the owners of particular cars that needed to be moved out of the way. His voice would reverberate up the stairwell into the office, booming and incongruous and unwelcome.

This particular morning (a Monday) he was telling me about his weekend. He had gone to Church on Sunday, and worked Saturday. Every week, he said, he worked Monday to Saturday (although from his frequent absences one could surmise his definition of attending to duty was somewhat looser than usual). On Sunday he always went to church. I was pushing at the door, about the get inside to avoid the inevitable question – but not fast enough.

“Do you go to church?” he asked expectantly. I have fended off these questions before. The usual trick is to say one’s church – say, the Evangelical Apostle’s Church of the Redeeming Son of the Spirit of the Revelation of Man in the Promise of the Holy Scripture and Word of the Good Saviour – can only be found in Australia, and that our strict preference is to not risk deviating from the teachings of this church by attending another. But I was not in the mood this morning.

“No. I don’t” I replied bluntly, edging open the door. I felt the thick meaty hand against my arm.

“But – you must. You must.”

“No, I must not.”

“Can I tell you something?”

“I have the feeling I would prefer not.”

“It is important. Can I say it to you?”

Sigh. “Alright.”

“He gave you your wisdom, your mind and your health, he…”

“OK, stop, I knew I did not want to hear this.”

“He died for you, to save you.”

“I am sorry, but that is only what you believe. I believe people can only save themselves. I don’t believe anyone but humanity can do anything to help us. I am walking away now.” Which I did.

We did not speak much after that, except he did offer a “God bless you” when we said goodbye a few weeks later. But I cursed his very silhouette, and fumed at the sound of his voice whenever it roared in the stairwell. I became twisted with contempt.

Not long afterwards I discovered that the same man had fought with his colleagues over who deserved the best slices of meat – at a staff Christmas function.

*

We were more or less expected to attend, because our neighbour was involved and his excitement and eagerness for us to be there was palpable. So we went. The church was just at the end of the road anyway, so not far to drive. How long could a church play go for? Even with a hefty dollop of moralising, surely no more than an hour, or ninety minutes at the most.

For starters, this is PNG, and when something is supposed to start at 7pm it means it won’t start until 8. We sat threw a few singing groups and youth bands, presided over by a chubby young Australian minister. I went outside in the break to see if any more popcorn was for sale. There wasn’t. The drama started almost an hour and a half late.

The play was long and indeed pointed in its message. Young men dedicated to crime threw off their evil-looking wrap-around sunglasses and proclaimed they had seen a new truth. Families on the verge of collapse came together over prayer and renewal of faith. And a young man, killed in a car accident with his friends, realises too late that while his friends (bathed in sweet white light) have made the right choice in life, he had failed to do so. He suffered – for a good thirty minutes, live on stage – in the raging hellfires. The dark interior of the large church was wracked with the wails and squeals of his infernal punishment. Huge flames were projected onto the backdrop, and red lights circled the stage. Perhaps some felt fear and awe at this spectacle, but I felt outrage and something bordering on hate. The acted-out ordeal playing out before me was a real one for me. I squirmed as the brutal message of fear and retribution bludgeoned the people assembled.

Excluding the half-time intermission between the two acts, the drama went for more than two hours, followed by a fifteen minute sermon by another local pastor. Apparently our neighbour sought us out after the show to see if we had enjoyed the performance, but I had rushed to the car as soon as the moment permitted when the sermon was done. I was glad I had not seen him. He is a good man, a decent neighbour and a friend. But I could not have looked him in the eyes that night for fear of the disgust in my own.

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“Bigpla pik blong Kwin i bai kam!”

Pigs are fantastic beasts. I was smacked by this revelation as we stood under the twilight stars and lazy palms negotiating a price for a boat ride the following day. While our companion discussed the details with the boat owner I looked around and saw two mottled swine rummaging through foliage. One was seized by an urge and backed itself against the trunk of a palm, vigorously scratching its backside by rubbing it against the tree. For some the purest image of uninhibited freedom is a hawk in flight or perhaps a motorcyclist at top speed. For me it is a pig shamelessly scratching its arse on a coconut palm in the tropical twilight. This may be linked with my outlook on life. For some, the ultimate itch to scratch is that of itchy feet, relieved only by travails across the globe and residences in exotic cities. For others, sex or addictions. My equivalent is much baser, and much more easy to satisfy – provided one has a similar attitude to a pig in paradise.

I have found that the best justice I can give our two weeks away can really be best rendered in momentary glimpses, the snippets of memory that persist vividly despite the jumbled competition of everything else that preoccupies me. The best of these images of our two weeks away, especially during our two nights in the Eastern Highlands, are all swine-related – as evidenced by the example above, or the too-cute piglet tied by the leg to a Goroka pikinini as they both sat and waited for ‘mum’. Other pig related moments also stick solidly in the mind – like the nun we heard on ABC radio who was explaining the source of tribal conflict in the Highlands – invariably land, women and (of course) pigs.

What beast can stand atop a heaped mound of organic market refuse, snout its way through the debris until it finds something edible, and still look magnificent? Only the mighty Highlands swine! These fantastic animals have no fear or hindrance, and seemed to roam parts of Goroka as one would expect a stray dog to – except there would never, ever be a ‘stray’ pig in PNG. The animals seemingly face only two grave dangers in life. The first danger is that of the speeeding PMV. These vehicles – typically fifteen-seater minibuses – career recklessly around the sharp corners and over poorly-maintained bitumen up and down the length of the Highlands Highway, from Wabag or Mendi to Mount Hagen, Hagen to Goroka via Kundiawa, from Goroka to Lae or Madang on the coast (the Madang-Goroka route was incidentally the trip we took, up into the Eastern Highlands and back – what a ride!). Villages line the highway, inhabited by people who are not accustomed to the general rules of road safety that are drilled into the typical suburban Aussie kids’ head (Get off the road! Get here! I said get off the bloody road! etc etc). Mind you there are many suburban Aussie roads that are trafficked more heavily than the Highlands Highway, by vehicles that often travel faster – except the PMVs. With a roadside population unfettered by road safety worries, it can be understood why concern for animals straying onto the road is also minimal. Thus the three (maybe more) situations on our rides to and from Goroka where the PMV we were in had to brake suddenly, veer wildly, or simply rely on the self-preservation instincts of the unsuspecting pig who moments before had been snorting away, merrily and unmolested, on a nice sunny patch of road. Our PMV drivers were both skilled and lucky, and no pigs were killed or injured during our travels, however there is no way every pig on the highway could be so fortunate.

The unfortunate event of a pig’s injury or death is not a cheap one. I have been told of a Chinese saying, that if you run over a chicken then it’s the chicken’s fault, but if you run over a duck it’s definitely YOUR fault. Substitute the chicken for a skinny dog and a duck for a mighty Highlands hog and you have a pretty solid PNG aphorism too. You accidentally kill a pig, then you’d better have some handy cash – maybe half a grand, maybe two grand, depending on how angry the villagers are, how big the pig is, and whether or not you managed to speed away without anyone taking note of the vehicle you were in. Pigs are items of huge value, especially in the Highlands, they are not killed and eaten willy-nilly. They have ceremonial functions, and are ‘outlaid’ to settle tribal disputes, bride prices, or to honour guests of high esteem. It is simply not cool to smash one up with your car.

This brings us to the other certain danger of the Highlands pig – the mumu. A mumu is a feast, involving the cooking of pigs and other (less important and delicious) items underground using the hot-rocks technique. A mumu takes hours and is accompanied by an event of great significance – as aforementioned, a wedding, or the brokering of peace between feuding parties, and honoured guest, or maybe an aspiring leader trying to impress his ‘constituents’ with his magnanimity and generosity (and thus consolidate his constituents’ obligation to support him in elections). Many, many pigs have died over the ages thanks to the threat of the mumu, often en masse. They often don’t die well from what I have read – accounts include pigs only just stunned being thrown onto fires to burn off their coats of hair, or bludgeoned brutally by hands wielding sticks, the same hands that until moments before had nurtured the animal, fed it and comforted it with as much pride and dedication as would be given a human child – perhaps more. A dire end to a previously unfettered life of luxury. This was probably the fate of the pig who we saw trussed and hanging from a long pole carried between two men as we sped on our way back to Madang.

Another great pig memory is indeed not even my memory, and it actually had little to do with any pig whatsoever. Martin is a friend who we met in Madang, a film-maker who is from Rabaul but who lives in Germany (prospects in the movie industry are better in Europe). He recounted a tale from his youth, when the Queen sent an elephant on tour of Papua New Guinea as a gesture to celebrate the territory’s imminent independence. The arrival of the great beast was in the offing and many villagers of all ages clamoured exitedly by the roads, giddy with anticipation. A large motor was heard in the distance and the word spread rapidly – “bigpla pik blong Kwin i bai kam!” The Queen’s big pig is coming!

Discriminate against bigotry!

While waiting with a friend on Saturday morning we got chatting in Tok Pisin, and I was told that Papua New Guinea was a land with “no discrimination”. All people, my friend said, respected each other and got along.

A few things sprang to mind. Status of women and gender equity, for example. Prevalent anti-Chinese and anti-Malaysian attitudes (which to be fair often arise from the rotten conditions locals are offered by companies from these places, and the gut-wrenching destruction these companies inflict on traditional society and the environment… not that any of that is limited to Asian companies per se, but I digress). I thought of being called a waitman. I thought of regional rivalry and the mistrust a lot of coastal people have for Highlanders. I thought of violence and quaint traditions such as ‘tribal warfare’.

I normally do not like to contest such statements seeing as keeping relations smooth is pretty important to us. I couldn’t resist this however. I replied with ‘Mi tingting ol manmeri blong PNG em gutpela manmeri tru. Tasol mi tingting sampela manmeri blong Highlands ating no laik sampela manmeri blong Goilala district a’ (I think the people of PNG are very good people. But I think some people from the Highlands perhaps don’t like some people from the Goilala district, eh’).

This was I thought an uncontroversial choice of examples, with the Goilala of Central province having just as savage a reputation as some Highlanders. Nonetheless I expected to be contested, but wasn’t. Instead my friend, who I must remind you had moments before assert that PNG was a country without discrimination, said: ‘Mi no laikim manmeri blong Goilala. Mi tingting em gat planti bigotry.’ (I don’t like people from Goilala. I think they are very bigoted).

I didn’t push it.