This is the address given by Dame Carol Kidu, DBE, at the PNGAA 2012 Christmas Lunch.

I acknowledge the traditional elders, past and present, of the land on which we are gathered. I also acknowledge my extended family of the Vahoi clan of Pari village and the people of Moresby South electorate in Papua New Guinea. It is because of their support through three elections that I am privileged to be here today. I owe them my gratitude and respect.

I am honoured to be invited to speak with you at the PNG Association of Australia Christmas luncheon. I look around in awe at the diverse mix of people here today. There is diversity in age and background but one thing we all have in common is a deep love for Papua New Guinea and its people.

Last week when I delivered the Second PNG Independence Oration at Parliament House, Hon. Richard Marles, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, described how for his first interaction with PNG as a school student it was love at first sight. For me I guess my love affair with PNG started with love at first sight when I met Buri Kidu in 1963 at the Tallebudgerra Fitness Camp: a young colonial scholarship student, dedicated to his people and his homeland. Me: a starry eyed 16-year-old idealist. It’s a long way and a lot of water under the bridge since then—some peaceful and soul restoring waters but some extremely turbulent waters and Buri was a calm rock of stability in the midst of it all until his death in 1994. His death was life-changing for me in many ways.

I was asked to speak around the topic Looking back—Looking forward. A huge potential scope for a kaleidoscope of experiences. Where to start?  

Reflections: prior to Buri’s death—learning to live in another world—a communal co-dependent society where I was no longer Carol. Who am I?? I am Dobi sinana, Buri vabuna, Kahliza tubuna, Lilly ravana, etc., etc. (Dobi’s mother, Buri’s widow, Kahliza’s grandmother, Lilly’s inlaw and so on). I soon learnt that I was no longer an individual but was addressed in terms of my relationships with other people: relationships that implied expected behaviours and responsibilities. Relationships are the basis of PNG society. It is a fact that can conflict directly with modern society which is based on institutions and processes.

Reflections: my mother-in-law—proud, dignified, wise—certainly not the portrait of the downtrodden PNG woman as usually projected by foreign media. What has happened to the voice and status of women? Women did have influence in traditional society but it was mainly confined to the private space and male orators carried the decisions into the public space. Our challenge today is to ensure that enough women can gain access to lead in the public space. It has not been easy.

Reflections: a proud dignified hard-working society under attack from the process of urbanisation; unable to interact on same terms with more aggressive tribes now making the city their home. The challenge of equitable development with cultures that are so different is a difficult challenge.

Reflections: I would like to explore the issue of poverty and culture a little. Most writings on poverty examine socio-economic issues but fail to recognise the cultural influences on poverty and inequity. Perhaps culturally it is almost impossible to achieve the national goal of equitable development in Papua New Guinea. There is ethnic tension in PNG around the issue of resource development and sometimes resentment by coastal people against some Highland groups who are more aggressive culturally. As the Member in an urban electorate for 15 years—a melting pot of tribes learning to become one people, one nation in the capital city—I watched these resentments simmer until often a small incident would bring them to boiling point and explosion with violent clashes, deaths, injuries and property destruction followed by compensation gatherings and then back to simmer in a cyclical manner.

We are aiming to be one people, one nation and there are fundamental commonalities and differences that unite or divide us. One difference is in attitudes to work. Most Highland cultures are based on competitive and continuous productivity to create the “bigmen” in the tribe. In Papuan tribes where leadership was inherited through chieftainships, continuous competitive production was not the norm. In fact it was avoided. Papuans, often stereotyped as lazy, work very hard to fulfil communal cultural obligations such as funeral and bride-price ceremonies or church contributions but between these obligations, the fear of jealousy, sorcery and even death often discourages people from standing out from the communal norm.

The Highland cultures based on entrepreneurship adapted very quickly to Western capitalism whereas some other tribes have been trapped in a cultural time-warp that exacerbates poverty. Being married into a non-entrepreneurial culture I keep challenging myself with the question: How can we design business development models that adapt to different cultures to create a minimal situation of sufficiency rather than increasing poverty?

The increasing “me” culture of individualism within communal rights to resources such as land also challenges me to think about the processes and impacts of change. How can we decrease the feminisation of poverty by ensuring access to resources and land for women and debunking the myths that women had no land rights. I reflect on the 1960s to 1980s, when we were still practising shifting cultivation on traditional land on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Each year, the male clan leaders who were the custodians of the land distributed the blocks for farming. Were the blocks allocated to men? No. Announcements would be made “Dobi sinana ena tano; Gaudi sinana ena tano”; and so on naming all the women in the family and our total blocks would be overseen by my widowed mother-in-law. What has happened to those very clear user rights of women today? Individual male clan leaders negotiate the leasing and sale of land and alienate women and families from their means of livelihood without any legal protection for future generations. Widows and women married outside the village are being denied access to land and being forced into dependence and poverty.

Reflections: I often feel that PNG has taken off at an incredible speed but we have failed to pick up the majority of the passengers. They have remained on the ground struggling with the complex interface between tradition and modernity often marginalised from the main flight path for a variety of reasons. Should we just see this as the “price of progress” or should we devise programmes to facilitate analytical reflection to help citizens define their pathways to a more prosperous future? Is such fanciful thinking possible in a nation of such diversity? I believe that it has to be part of the way forward if we as communities and as a nation are going to truly take ownership of the future.

Let me illustrate further by drawing on the White Ribbon campaign issue of violence against women. The violence being experienced by women in PNG is well documented and completely unacceptable. But is it traditional? Certainly children growing up today possibly see it as a norm of PNG and this can create a very dangerous perpetual cycle. But in the society I married into, such physical violence in the family was not traditional and not acceptable. Perhaps more common was psychological violence and disempowering language that devalues women and discourages women from aspiring to leadership positions (eg basio hereva, asiemu maoro,  oi be hahine sibone/passim mouth, u nogot rait, u meri tasol: don’t speak you are only a woman and have no right to speak).

Lateral violence is also a powerful negative force in communities particularly amongst women and again can discourage women’s aspirations for their futures. Of course physical violence requires urgent and immediate action but other forms of violence also require analytical analysis because they contribute to underlying causes of violence. Discouraging language that incites violence also needs to be factored into any response programmes: often this language comes from women. Programmes designed to address violence against women need to explore multiple responses to fill the vacuum created by the loss of cultural protective customs and the inadequacies of legal and institutional responses to violence.

Reflections: Related to violence is the high levels of stress in families and communities. Health issues of emotional and social well-being have very little focus in our health system: mental health receives less than 1% of the health budget. There are too many other issues demanding attention: the maternal and infant mortality, the HIV epidemic, the emergence of multiple drug resistant strains of TB, the rapid increase in lifestyle related NCDs, all stretch institutional capacity to respond beyond the limit. However, when the North Queensland Mental Health specialists held their Creating Futures Conference 2012 in Port Moresby, this neglected area of health gained quite a boost. Stress and anger management need attention as do substance abuse and addictive behaviour. The Church Health system is perhaps the best starting point to expand these health issues. Some interesting modelling is already well advanced in Manus Island where Dr Quetin Reilly has established a mindfulness meditation retreat in his wife’s village area. The positive impact on academic results for school students in the area is now being monitored and documented. We are presently looking at ways to introduce this work into Port Moresby.

I am aware that I am rambling with my reflections—many of which appear negative—so it is time to bring some conclusions to these reflections. Although they may appear negative they are not intended to be. They merely illustrate that “modernistion” is a thin veneer on  the surface of thousands of years of cultural diversity. The interface between the many indigenous tribes and between tradition and modernity is not an easy interface. How can we get the best of many worlds for our people? There has been disappointing progress. Despite much in-country effort and overseas development assistance, the reality is that socio-economic indicators remain low by regional and international standards and social disparity is increasing. Major issues remain impediments to sustainable development.

BUT we need to acknowledge and strengthen the family and the resilience of the community as the foundation of the nation. We need to provide knowledge and skills for families to become economically viable and take ownership of their futures to ensure at least sufficiency for all and prosperity for some (rather than the worrying increasing disparity). We need to strengthen belief systems based on trust and personal empowerment and discourage belief systems based on fear and criticism (sorcery and jealousy). There are endless stories of dysfunction from the interface between the multiplicity of cultures and hybrid cultures that make up contemporary Papua New Guinea: an independent nation of hundreds of indigenous tribes and new generation people sometimes living in “bubbles”. How can we rethink “service deliver to reach beyond the formal systems into the margins of the rural majority and the urban poor?

Our challenge is to roll out social policy implement process in partnership with the churches and NGOs who are the best implementers at community level. Government must take more interest in what is happening at the community level. We need to rethink development and accept that just and lasting change can only be achieved when communities own their future. Mobilisation should start from national leadership with policies, laws and budgeted implementation strategies but sustainability depends on continuing community participation. Laws, policies, structural reform and budgeted development programs are essential but are not enough even when they become institutionalized. Laws and policies alone do not change reality; even with a strong bureaucracy.

In the final outcome, the solutions  begin and end in civil society.

May I be frivolous and invite the PNG Association of Australia to join the MAD CAT TEAM.

Who are the MAD CAT TEAM?

They are people who believe in possibility thinking and want to MAKE A DIFFERENCE as CHANGE AGENT TRAINERS by recognising that in a TEAM, TOGETHER EVERYONE ACHIEVES MORE.



Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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