Sunday, July 28, 2013

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea

Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea

One of the problems about growing up in a small town is that the turnover of books in the local bookstore is very slow. This means that every time you go to the local book store, you have to continue sifting through the same books – trying to convince yourself to buy one of the ones that you passed on buying during the last visit. It is a horrible and painful process to think that you have to settle on your personal reading material – and it was in this process that I came to loathe Jared Diamond. Granted – I know that my loathing is based on nothing substantial. It is just that I got tired of seeing stacks of his most recent book while there were hardly any books available on the topics which interested me. I loathed him for no other reason other than spite - so don't take it personally, Mr. Diamond!

I will admit, at one point, I picked up one of his books to give it a test read. He promptly lost me when, in the book I picked up, he started talking about Papua New Guinea. (It was long before my Global Book Challenge.) I knew where Papua New Guinea was located (thanks to my handy-dandy Geo Safari Globe Quiz which brought me hours upon hours of entertainment as a 6-year-old), but little else about the country. I remember looking at it on the globe and thinking how interesting that the island that contained Papua New Guinea was cut almost perfectly in half by a straight line. Knowing nothing about borders and political strife, I found it interesting for pure aesthetic purposes. 

When it came time to choose a book about Papua New Guinea, I wanted a book that would not only provide me with an overview, but also with a story that would be compelling, as I was getting a little exhausted of reading heavy-duty books about politics, social unrest, and policy. I eventually settled upon a book entitled Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak, published by the National Geographic Society.

Once I began reading this book, I found it difficult to put it down – I was reading it everywhere when studying in Germany: the U-Bahn, cafes, the doctor’s office, in the minutes before class began, etc. It is essentially a travel memoir – and subsequently does not only delve into the country in and of itself, but also into the author, who is indeed a fascinating character. After deciding to take a year off from graduate studies, the author made plans to travel to Papua New Guinea as a single woman in order to cross the country. To be honest, I truly respect women who are willing and able to do this – because I seriously doubt that I would chose to do something similar on my own (especially during a relaxing gap year!) My reasoning behind this is only for safety reasons. I would love to see the wildlife, interact with local cultures and diverse people, and sleep in the outdoors. But the reality is, I would never do something like that by myself. As I keep finding myself in situations that compromise my security in public places with hundreds of eyes and a strong security force in the western world, I can only imagine what could happen elsewhere. I say all of this to express my admiration for the author. To be honest, I found her story allowing me to live vicariously through her travels. 

Papua New Guinea is a relatively new country, having gained its independence from Australia in only 1975. The country is home to around 6.4 million people and is marked by its diversity. There are some 800 different languages spoken in the country – and most have less than 1,000 speakers each. During her travels, the author visits many of these small, isolated communities within Papua New Guinea and is able to experience their ways of life. Interestingly, however, she notes that religion is a unifying factor among the people, while it is hard to create a shared identity based on language or culture. “Nearly 40 percent of the indigenous population are Catholics or Lutherans. Another 28 percent are of some other Christian denomination. Not bad for a country virtually unexplored up through the second half of the 20th century.” (page 55)

I enjoyed reading about the different ethnic groups and the challenges that the country faces in regard to modernization. Like in many of the other books I have read about the region, establishing peace in the midst of such a strong ethnic diversity often proves to be difficult, especially as certain tribes have been warring for generations. Likewise, the author’s experiences in the capital city of Port Moresby with the so-called “rascal boys” were  very interesting, especially as we consider the country’s history, its route to modernization, and the country’s troubles today with smuggling. According to the author: “They’re a PNG [Papua New Guinea] phenomenon and the reason why Port Moresby is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. The rascals are generally young men who come to Port Moresby from all over the county. They leave behind tribal homelands to converge in the big towns with hopes of discovering an El Dorado of wealth and western goods.” (page 65) 

Despite these interesting stories, I was particularly drawn to the author’s experiences with the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, or the Free Papua Movement), as this brought me back to my childhood wondering about the straight line which separated the island of New Guinea on my globe. For those who do not know, the eastern part of the island is controlled by Indonesia – a country that is spread across many islands and with the strongest army in Southeast Asia (two points I brought out in my blog post about Indonesia.) Just like on East Timor, there is a movement for island independence and unification, as supported by the OPM. In her book, the author shares her experience traveling to a refugee camp in Papua New Guinea, which  “holds about 10,000 people from West New Guinea – Indonesian Irian Jaya – who were forced to flee from the rape, torture, and slaughter of the Indonesian military, the same notorious military that has been occupying and terrorizing East Timor for decades.” (page 145) I found these stories the most compelling – especially those of the women and children who have been caught up in the conflict. The author brings a very personal touch to her portrayal, as she shares her feelings of burden and responsibility for having been a guest of the refugee camp and learning their stories, which were virtually unknown in the western world. She wanted to help bring justice to these people and I think she did a compelling job in her book. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!  

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