Messages from Melanesia

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My first time out of Australia was in 1970 when I went on an amazing adventure to Papua New Guinea. In those three months, I spent six weeks working on the Highlands Highway between Wapenamanda and Wabag, climbed the 3800m high peak of Mount Hagen, went on a 4 day trek through the most spectacular scenery, hitch-hiked the Highlands Highway from Lae to Mount Hagen, watched Birds of Paradise flying across mist-shrouded rainforest valley, and participated in a ten-day National Fitness camp at Mount Hagen with young people who were to become the leaders of the soon-to-be independent nation.

The highlight of this time was the amazing hospitality I experienced from the Papua New Guinea people wherever I went. I enjoyed it so much I was back next year for another three months when, as a newly graduated engineer, I surveyed a road through earthquake prone country to the North of Madang.

My time in Papua New Guinea whetted my appetite for exploring the world and from 1974 to 1978 I worked in Malaysia then Thailand as part of the Australian Volunteers Abroad program.

History has not been so kind to Papua New Guinea since the heady days of self government and independence in the early 1970s. I had always thought that I would end up working back there, but the news coming from Papua New Guinea has not been that positive. Recently Dee, a woman from Manus Island, lived with us in Townsville for three years. Dee spoked glowingly about her village and family back on Manus but also shared her fears about going back to live in Port Moresby – she bore the scars of a machete attack that occurred while returning with her children from a shopping excursion.

I felt ambivalence towards a country that had given me so much. When I thought of Papua New Guinea I remembered the wonderful hospitality of the people I met there 40 years ago but this was tempered more recently by the violence experienced by friends who have worked there, and the negative media reports of PNG that highlight the violence and corruption. The reports from the detention centre on Manus Island did little to improve my perceptions of the current situation in Papua New Guinea.

Several experiences in the past month have got me reconsidering these negative attitudes. The first was a recent Facebook post by Hilda, a student from Papua New Guinea studying at James Cook University where I work. She wrote

“Western Culture is so unbelievably lonely, even the neighbours don’t talk!! Everyone seem to be all caught up in their own little ‘busy’ worlds, there is no sense of community, everyone seem to be detached completely from fellow humans around them, nature, surrounding environment, etc. … I can live here in this house for 2 years and never get to know my neighbours who live just 5 metres from the corner of my room, they are (an) old couple and if they die tomorrow I will never know and no one will remember them.

It’s such a sad lonely life…Compared to back home, everyone is a family, you meet a stranger for the first time and without even knowing your first name, they will treat you as if you were very much a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister. You move into a completely strange neighbourhood or village and the whole community invites you for meals or always bring you a plate or plastics of peanut or buai. On the streets people will pass you by always with a smile and greeting. There’s always that warm feeling of being at home.”

Food for thought. We in Australia certainly have a lifestyle abundant in material possessions but Hilda reminds us of what we might have given up in the process.

Awareness of the need to re-think some of my attitudes was heightened last week as I listened to a presentation by Flora Pondilei, a Cairns resident and JCU graduate who comes from Manus Island. In her talk to the Cairns Institute entitled “Manus Island – Hell-hole – Hell no! Misrepresented – Absolutely”, Flora reminded the audience that the forgotten victims of the Off-shore Processing on Manus Island were the women and children of Manus. Manus Islanders traditionally were famed for their friendliness and the hospitality shown to visitors. This easy-going lifestyle has been changed, probably forever, by what has happened in the past twelve months.

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Flora said that while Transfield were awarded a contract of $1.2billion to run the detention centre for 20 months – both the health and education infrastructure for Manus Islanders remained hopeless. The infamous agreement to establish the Manus Island detention centre, negotiated by former PM Kevin Rudd with Papua New Guinea PM Peter O’Neill, undoubtedly brought great benefits to the Papua New Guinea Government – however few of these rewards have been passed on to the residents of Manus.

The Manus Island detention centre certainly is a scandal – an institution set up by the Australian Government to break the spirit of the asylum seeker inmates, so that they might then agree to return back to where they come from and face persecution and even death.

Flora reminded us that the asylum seekers in the detention centre are not the only victims of this morally bankrupt system.

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About peterhanley1

Peter Hanley has lived in North Queensland for more than 30 years. His interests include human rights, social justice, sustainability and community development. True North explores issues in these areas.
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