Thursday, January 28, 2010

Success Elements in Our Schools

First appeared in the column Steven's Window, The National newspaper. 29th January 2010.

This is the time of the year our young people prepare themselves to enter a new grade or educational institution. Many children at the primary and secondary levels have their paths cut out for them. The ones entering the universities are excited with beginning their first years at the highest learning institutions in the country. Most will go through the process with high expectations and dreams of the kind of person they will become after four years of tertiary education. Their fertile minds are ready to tackle the intellectual challenges before them.

Three important elements are at work in the success of students reaching the university level: First, the last school the students attended is the first element. Top ranking schools often have a high number of students entering university. The second element is the advice and direction provided by guidance teachers, parents, guardians. Many depend on their guidance teachers in upper secondary schools. Others with educated parents and guardians follow what they want them to do. The third element is the individual choices that each student made last year as they thought about what they wanted to do.

In thinking about these three elements I recall the journey I took in my own life. The school I went to is a Catholic boarding school only for boys known as St. Xaviers High School. The Marist Brothers ran the school. The school has the motto: duc in altum, meaning reach for the highest, enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best in the country. Every boy who went to that school strived to live up to that motto. Every year the boys left their crying parents and relatives at the old Wewak wharf or at the Wom Beach to travel by boat for two hours to reach Kairiru Island. The boys stayed on the Island for the whole year, except for the one week mid-term break and the Christmas break. The boys were either 13 or 14 years old the first time they leave their families to go away to the island to grow up, get schooled, and disciplined in their attitudes, manners, outlook of life, and the kind of life they want to lead in later years. Prayer, study, and work were the three important elements that the school enforced in its efforts to produce the best students in the country.

The school, however, is no longer a top secondary school in the country. The school standard has dropped over the years. The education authorities have watched the school go from being one of the best schools to being one of the last schools in the country.

I responded, like everyone else, to the school’s motto: duc in altum. We wanted to reach the highest level in our chosen paths, careers, and lives. We wanted to compete with everyone else in Papua New Guinea to get the top spot in the country. We had the privilege of mission education with its pious regime of constant prayer, fellowship, and intellectual commitment to our goals. Good Christian, respectful, and disciplined values kept us at bay. We remained true to these values and expectations that denied us the teenage temptations of spending wasteful time chasing girls or talking to them. We had no problems with alcohol, drugs, guns, and violence, unlike today’s high school students. We were content with our lives in school away from the luxury of our homes and relatives.

To get from grade 8 to grade 9 was the first real challenge. We completed grade 10 before moving into the job markets, national high schools, and the universities. The decisions we made at that time to continue on with our education were done with the best advice from our guidance teachers.

I had the best guidance of both worlds, so to speak. Getting into the national high school in the days when only the top 10 percent were given the opportunity was possible for me with the guidance of the good principal Brother Peter Cassidy. Whereas the advice I received in national high school to enter the University of Papua New Guinea was a cold shower, to say the least. Not because it was to wake me up to the reality, but because it was given with absolute decree that because I have an average grade in English, I would perform poorly in the field I chose to do since I was a kid. Notwithstanding I out performed such poor guidance and expectations without having to ignore the challenges that came with being in such a situation.

Now a days it is the parents who are more likely to influence their children about what they want their children to become. This seems like the normal thing to do, but the reality is that many young people soon find out that what they really want to do is different to what their parents and guardians want them to do. Those entering university studies quickly find out that they are either performing below standard or are disinterested in their studies. Parents and guardians must realize that many young people go with the choices they made because it is what they want to do in their lives, not what their parents or guardians want them to do. Parents and guardians should avoid over-determining a young person’s life.

We see time and again every year many students entering the university without knowing exactly what they want to do or become. “Wild Cards” is the term I use to describe this category of students. No one knows exactly what the young person will become after four years of university studies, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences programs.

I have one advice to many young people returning to the classrooms or taking up studies at universities across the country: “Set your goals high and believe in yourself that no matter what it takes or how long it takes you will achieve your goals. Have these goals written down. Achieving your goals is a process.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Great Wall of PNG

First published in Steven's Window, The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea on Friday January 22nd, 2010.

My ten year old son described the mural wall outside the Chinese Embassy in Port Moresby as the “The Great Wall of PNG”. He posed in front of the wall for me to get a picture of him. This wall appealed to him more than the mural wall paintings at Murray Barracks or elsewhere in the city. I took pictures of the wall that day because I know that sooner or later someone ignorant will deface it with graffiti of no taste.

My interest in the mural has nothing to do with my son’s description. The mural on the “great wall of PNG and China” focused on cultural and educational themes more so than economic or political themes. The artistic representation of the relationship between PNG and China is given prominence on this wall. The artistic framing of the experiences of Papua New Guineans is only read if we care to view it deeper than the surface reality presented to us.

Most of the mural artworks are on the walls of the Port Moresby National High School, the University of Papua New Guinea, the Port Moresby General Hospital, and the Chinese Embassy. These mural arts promote a cultural and social memory among the residents or the visitors to the city of Port Moresby. Whether anyone takes mural art in a serious way or remains uninterested, the visual pleasure such art generates is immeasurable. The mural art developed slowly in the early days when Port Moresby was a less populated city to one that is now overcrowded, congested, and struggling with promoting a balance and unbiased image to counteract the images promoted about it overseas.

Art is a reflection of a living experience that “is more than a statement about the relations of the observer to the observed,” according to Theordore Adorno, the influential Marxist art critic and intellectual. For art to embody the aesthetic experience it must become a living experience animated by the gaze of the viewer. The murals around Port Moresby or elsewhere in PNG serve similar functions.

Art is a tapestry of life. It is contemplative and reproduces meaning in a fundamental way. Art is produced in a way that is capable of speaking to us the moment our gazes land on it. “By speaking,” Ardono argues, “it becomes something that moves in itself.” It is that movement that we grasp when we view art, not its static, unchanging, and immobile elements. We grasp the relations formed by these elements in the work of art.

Art imitates reality. The artists negotiate the past with the present, the modern with the pre-modern, and between those who observe and those who are observed. The sense of hybridity permeates most of these public art forms in a way that many stories are told at once in a single space. Mural arts are always there in front of us. If we take the time to view these mural walls of art we can make sense of the importance these public art work at reproducing the history of our country.

The artists of these mural paintings appropriated postmodern cultural tools, knowledge, and material culture for their own self-representations. In the process of appropriation Papua New Guinean artists simultaneously reproduced a culture that is neither traditional nor modern, but a hybrid of both worlds capable of telling thousands of stories.

Art is a text with its own language system. Art as a text functions to signify meaning that is embedded in the society that produced it. As a system of signs art demands to be read as a text. Art produces and replicates its individuality and associations with itself and others in the same sphere of relationships.

The public murals are works of art that constitute a set of texts about life and conditions of human society in Papua New Guinea. These works of art are more than merely present or as colourful wall decorations—they are produced with the sense of art as a textual embodiment of life.

Reading mural art as text allows us to testify to the great human potential and complexity, its confusions, contradictions, contentions, and meaningful associations. Art as text is a tapestry of human lives always needing to be interpreted, given meaning, and reproduced to suspend closure or ending. Adorno reminds us that all artwork have something to teach us: “All artworks, even the affirmative, are a priori polemical… they are the unconscious schemata of that world’s transformation” (1997). It is this unconscious schemata of our world’s transformation that we experience every time we view the artwork around us.

The mural art alls of Port Moresby represent our world through the brush strokes of our local artists. In the mural arts we become active participants in an unconscious schema of transformation. We are to a larger extend involved in the reproduction of the textual meanings in these works of art. The mural on the “Wall of PNG” gave my son his perception of the wall as it did to me. We inhabit the same world, but see the world in different ways than we know.

Our rich traditional artistic heritage, in the forms of material arts, performance arts, or other artistic constructions, is not our focus here. Most of us are familiar with these and others such as the fine arts, sculptures, and print art forms. The notions of art discussed here, however, remain principles of aesthetics and function as frameworks of reading works of art in general.

The art works that we create in our lifetime capture the lived moments of our lives. In art we express the way we feel, see ourselves, and make sense of the complex world around us. Art gives us the key to self-expression and social-cultural representations. We use art to speak about our way of life and our world. In art we seize the moment to make a point that cuts through the different views we have about issues affecting us every day. Art is a reflection of our world.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Museums and Cultural Institutions

First published in Steven's Window, column of The National newspaper of PNG. Friday 15th, 2010.

A young guard of cultural traditions in front of Ayugham Bana cultural centre, Aiyura valley, EHP, PNG. Photo: Keisiva Darius.

Two places I am fond of visiting every time I travel overseas are the museums and bookshops. In museums I get a rare glimpse of a place, a people, a culture, and lifestyles as preserved by the curators and museum workers. It is also a place that a society makes a point about itself. The way a museum is organised, structured, and arranged is the way in which a particular society sees itself in relation to its objects of cultural value.

There are many stories and narratives written, painted, printed and displayed in the halls of a museum. I sometimes spend hours walking in the carefully structured hallways to view and learn about a society. In his introduction to the book Museum Provision and Professionalism, Gaynor Kavanagh says “museums differ across time and across cultures. Cultural and political differences will also make themselves evident in the form the museum takes and the priorities adopted. We invest our own culture in the institutions we create. A museum in, say, the West Midlands, in the United Kingdom, will have a different range of characteristics to one in central Sweden, northern France, California, the Ukraine or the suburbs of Sydney. Should you visit them, you would spot the differences instantly, although sometimes they are difficult to put into words” (1994: 3).

The museums that I have visited include the Chicago Field Museum in Illinois, Minneapolis Institute of Art in Minnesota, USA, Australian National Museum in Sydney, Te Papa in Wellington, and the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand. In the Minneapolis Institute of Arts I spend a whole semester studying how the Foucauldian notions of power and space are organized in a museum. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts hosts one of the rare collections of Malagan artefacts.

In Te Papa Museum, I learnt that eels are migrational around the South Pacific rather than being static in one place. In the Chicago Field Museum, a Murik Tumbuan guards one corner of the main hall. Canterbury Museum, located in Christchurch, New Zealand hosts its original collection as well as travelling exhibits. One year, a section was devoted to the Antartica Field Research Station. Among its original collections is the exhibition of Polynesian canoes, among which is a canoe from the Solomon Islands.

Just before I left Christchurch in August 2006, the Canterbury Museum staffs, together with the staff of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury, worked on a small exhibition featuring the collection of Macmillan Brown during his visits to the Pacific Islands in the early 1930s. Among the interesting items collected was a paddle from the Trobriand Islands.

My reflection on the point about museums is that as institutions of cultural preservation and education many lessons are learnt from within its halls of knowledge. Museums serve as a place to preserve our past and a place where we can learn about ourselves.

Our own National Museum and Art Gallery is an important space for public education and information dissemination. Consistent yearly activities should be scheduled and publicized for public visits and viewing. The importance of museums in contemporary Papua New Guineans’ lives must be set in motion. The museum must move away from the traditional role of being a house for preservation and housing old artefacts and rare traditional pieces of art and culture. The museum space must magnetize the public rather than keep them away from visiting it.

It is time also, I suggest, the government build provincial museums and cultural centres to house, exhibit, and educate people about the heritage of a province. Each province can showcase their archaeological heritage, art, material culture, and living traditions in their own museums. The provincial museums can also be centres for art exhibitions and education centres for the people of the province and those who visit the province. It is the pride of each province to tell its own stories in the way they have developed from the prehistoric past to the present.

One of the unique provincial museum is the J.K. McCarthy Museum in Kainantu. It was renamed as the Kainantu Cultural Centre. It has been in operation for 30 years. It attracts hundreds of tourists annually for its pottery, crafts, paintings, and other crafts. Unique to this centre is the pottery made from local clay unique to the area of Obura-Wanenara. The recent support it received from the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Honourable Charles Abel to keep its operations going is moral boosting for its patrons.

“Museums around the world are united in as much they are keeping places for objects open on a restricted basis to members of the public,” says Gaynor Kavanagh. “But, beyond this they vary according to such factors as the political and social attitudes of those involved, funding structures, the legal framework and the ideological baggage of the time…Museums serve a multitude of purposes and in particular, play many roles, some of which are rarely even hinted at in a museum’s mission statement or development plan … They can be shelters from the rain, mortuaries for dead objects, shrines to the memory of wealthy donors (frequently long forgotten), forums for debate, repositories for community archives, centres of scholarship and understanding, instruments of social control, locations for recreation and reflection, sacred spaces where the spirits of the ancestors rest... No two people will find exactly the same thing in a museum, or in a museum visit.”

In his article “A House of Thousand Cultural Societies” Michael Kisombo had written an informative piece on our National Museum and Art Gallery, (The National, September 4th, 2009) which readers can turn to for more information. I am also aware of plans to have a new museum developed in the near future to give it much needed attention in Papua New Guinea.

The personal reflections made here serve to reinforce what was already stated by others for the sake of keeping alive the conversation on the provision of museum services and development of cultural centres in Papua New Guinea.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Modernity's Manifold Chasms

The article appeared in Steven's Window, The National newspaper of PNG on Friday 08th January 2010.

A few days before Christmas I had a brief conversation with a colleague who had just returned from the Southern Highlands Province after the signing of various LNG agreements between the state, the developers, and the land owners of the massive oil and gas field.

I was curious about trauma resulting from the transition from the stone-age to the gas-age for the landowners with so much money in their lives. Resource owners are going on a spending spree, massive consumption of alcohol, and car sales yards in Mendi and Hagen are out of new vehicles to sell to the landowners. The landowners have become wealthy, in monetary terms, beyond their wildest dreams.

Money to spend is no longer an issue to the landowners. I have been thinking about what it all means to be someone who, a few years ago or a decade back, would have been so absorbed in the daily routine of tending to gardens, animal husbandry, customary social obligations, gifts exchange, and involvement in the tribal social, cultural, political, and economic activities in the high valley. With the oil and gas development the same villagers are given millions of Kina as payments for what is extracted from beneath the surface of their land.

These are people who have never thought money would change their lives. These are people content with living the way they were since their ancestors. These are people who never realized that their lives began in a simple way—a life that now has changed dramatically to one that rushes headlong into modernity without any preparedness for its negative consequences.

It is a life that, without much thought to it, takes a flight away from simple and ordinary things in life, or a life without the benefit of large amounts of money to one that is transformed into what is sometimes described as the postmodern anxiety.

The transformation is crafted within the shortest possible time in response to the resources and economic development initiated and sanctioned by the national government of Papua New Guinea. Nothing would have come about without the strong well developed policies and stewardship of the national government to safeguard the economic, natural resources, and political interest of its people.

The issue that interests me is the experience of social stress and disorder in the lives of the people who are now displaced from their social and cultural nests that kept them safe, healthy, and simple. With so much money to deal with many of the benefactors of the oil and gas fields will abandon their traditional and cultural way of life to one driven by the money received for being resource owners. Many people will go through a process of denial of their traditional social and cultural foundations, replacing these with new introduced cultures and social attitudes that are detrimental in the long run. Human history demonstrates that once such a cultural and social revolution is set in motion there is no turning back to the old ways. It is a one way train from depths of the cold mountains to the sea of modernity.

Change happening in the oil and gas rich Southern Highlands is irreversible unless someone cares enough to insists on setting up social and cultural institutions to shoulder the burden of social and cultural house-keeping. The need to respond to the emotional and psychological intensity of the experience is never a shot term solution. It must involve carefully designed institutions, programs, plans, and strategies of responding to the results of this traumatic experience. Otherwise it takes years to repair the cultural and social damage done to these people within a short span of time.

The experiences of Panguna, Misima, OK Tedi, and Pogera must continue to inform our leaders, planners, and resource developers to consider the social and cultural consequences emanating directly from the development of resources in the Southern Highlands Province. Consideration on the ripple effects such as rural urban drift, disillusionment, developmental anxieties, violence, over population in urban areas, and the spread of modern diseases caused by the experiences of displacement, social fragmentation, and cultural sacrifice must take place within a framework that is responsive rather than ignorance.

One is reminded, in saying this, of the difficult transition and suffering made in China after the Cultural Revolution. Arthur Kleinman, a leading authority of anthropology and medicine reminds us that the recovery of the cultural self lost in the transition is never easy and quick. In terms of what this means is that a case of posttraumatic disorder is set in motion. In his book Social Origins of Distress and Disease (1986) Kleinman describes the case histories of individuals whose stress and disease resulted from the excesses of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, we must ask: Are the landowners of the oil and gas fields prepared to deal with the break down of social and cultural order as a direct result of the great leap they are now taking into the realms of modernity without preparedness? Are there institutions and programs to deal with posttraumatic stress disorder once it appears to make its presence difficult to ignore as it gnaws away at the moral and cultural sinews of a society? I pose these questions at this time to flag the imminent future our people in the Southern Highlands will go through in the lifespan of the resource exploitation.

It is not my place to tell the people of Southern Highlands, especially those with direct connection to the massive resource development, what to do. It is not my place also to argue with the government’s decisions and positions in the development of the resources in the Southern Highlands and Gulf provinces. What is important, however, is that, as a Papua New Guinean writer and scholar I stand between the past and future, then and now—and looking and asking questions that might easily be overlooked or answered in haste in our headlong dive into modernity’s manifold chasms.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Rower's Song: poems by Steven Edmund Winduo

New Book from Manui Publishers (PNG)

Steven Edmund Winduo: A Rower’s Song (2009), published by Manui Publishers. ISBN: 978-9980-9919-2-8. 146 pages. K69.90 (US$25.86)

A Rower’s Song is the first self-published book of poems. This is my third book of poetry. In this book I reflect on the experiences of living in a fast developing city in Oceania, where the social, cultural, and economic landscapes are changing in constant tune to the postmodern pressures. A Rower’s Song describes the changing social urban landscape with all its problems, challenges, and hopes. In this poetry, I am the rower with a song to sing as I cross islands and continents.

Here is a sample:

Borrowed Lives

Our pockets are torn
Living in our pockets
We have fallen so deep down
Walking the dark smelly alleys
Of some cheap Asian backyards
Or standing everyday at the same spot
Seeing the monotony of life
Driving by on the same road
We see the crowd swell like locusts
Beyond limit at the bus stop
Emptiness drops from the sky
And blanketed our vision forward
There’s nowhere out of this, we declare
We have to borrow money
To go on living here
Our pay packet looks fat
Our bank accounts stripped
There is no savings
To help us through hard times
Our hearts cannot bleed
Our hopes remain intact
Our borrowed lives will continue.

The collection includes works published in various journals and anthologies such as Journal of Postcolonial Writing (UK), Savannah Flames: a Papua New Guinean Journal of Literature, Language, and Culture (PNG), and Writing the Pacific (Fiji) edited by Jen Webb and Kavita Nandan. I recited some of these poems in Canada (Alberta), USA (Minnesota and Hawaii), Fiji, and Papua New Guinea.

To order email me on

Monday, January 4, 2010

Large Footprints on Pacific Shores

The article first appeared in my column Steven's Window, in The National newspaper of Papua New Guinea. December 31st 2009. Picture taken by author in 1988 on a cruise in the Sydney Harbour.

A year it was. Some of us will remember 2009 as a great year. Others will remember the year as a year of missed opportunities and tragedy. At this time of the year we also take stock of our lives, acknowledge the successes and losses, and re-cast our nets into the future. We also take a moment to reflect on the journey itself for what it’s worth.

In the journey we met fellow travellers, advisors, mentors, and those who made decisions that changed us or stopped us from realizing our full potentials. The great mentors are hard to replace.

I have known many such people in the journey of my life as a Papua New Guinean writer and scholar. Many such incredible people gave their knowledge, wisdom, time, and references to get me from where I was to where I am now. These people are beacons of inspiration in my life.

In this last column of the year 2009 I wish to remember one person I owe so much gratitude and admiration. This person passed away in the middle of this year, on a bus in Auckland, after visiting Tonga on his way home to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The person is the late Emeritus Professor, Ron Crocombe, a man of majestic stature, wisdom, character, and scholarship.

Ron has mentored many of the leading Pacific Islands scholars in one way or another throughout his life. He had maintained an abiding interest in the culture, history, politics, economics, land tenure systems, and social change in the Pacific Islands throughout most of life. He had published volumes of books and literature on the subject.

He has undertaken research, consulting, lecturing, and administration in most Pacific Islands nations for more than 50 years of his life. He has worked for the Cook Islands government, the Australian National University (including being director of the New Guinea Research Unit in the 1960s, now known as the National Research Institute), University of California, East-West Center, Smithsonian Institution, University of Kagoshima, and the University of the South Pacific where he was Professor of Pacific Studies from 1969 to 1988, and founding director of the Institute of Pacific Studies. He has undertaken extensive consultancy for Pacific governments, the Pacific Community, Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, University of Papua New Guinea, various UN and Commonwealth agencies, Asian Development Bank and others.

Many of us, doing research on the study of Pacific Islands, cultures, literature, education, knowledge systems, and developmental studies, emulate the good professor’s style of scholarship. Some of us had the good fortune of being acknowledged in his various books.

I first met Ron Crocombe in Sydney in 1988 during a conference on Australia’s relationship with the South Pacific Islands. It was a year after I had graduated with my BA degree from UPNG. As young and inexperienced as I was at that time, the meeting with Ron Crocombe changed my life around. On a boat tour around the Sydney Harbour I asked Ron to help me publish my first book of poetry. He said he would speak to Marjorie, his wife, who at that time was the Director of the South Pacific Creative Arts Society in Fiji.

Nothing happened for the next few years until I met up with Ron and Marjorie again over lunch at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1991. The lunch was hosted by Dr. Malama Meleisa, the first director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury. The connection all of us have is the University of Papua New Guinea. Ron taught some courses at UPNG, Marjorie from Cook Islands and Malama from Samoa were graduates of UPNG. At that time of our meeting I was completing my Masters degree under a New Zealand government scholarship.

After that lunch Marjorie saw to it that I had my first book of poetry published while I was still a student in New Zealand. Ron, Marjorie, and Malama took it on themselves to make sure that I found my footing in the area of serious writing and scholarship in the literature, arts, and culture of the Pacific Islands, especially about my own Papua New Guinean society. There was the sense of urgency in their encouragement.

Ron had so much respect for Papua New Guinea. He observed with keen interest the social, political, economic, and cultural change in this country. He also maintained his relationship with key individuals in Papua New Guinea, who would call on him to provide wisdom and direction. Ron was always willing to come to PNG, when invited, any time of the year.

I saw him last when he was here in mid 2008 for the UPNG Waigani seminar and customary land development seminar in Lae, Morobe Province. Ron, as always, was the towering figure, full of wisdom and advice to his young followers. He also had so much respect for what others have to say, and was willing to stand up for the underdogs.

I did not get the time to talk much to him, but exchanged a few words of pleasantries and well wishes. It was to be the last opportunity I had of seeing Ron here at UPNG after my return from the University of Minnesota, USA.

Ron had done a lot for me in terms of encouraging me to continue writing and publishing scholarship on the cultures, literature, and the knowledge systems of my country. Ron went as far as sending me personal copies of his monumental book The South Pacific (2001) and his other two books.

In paying my tribute to the great doyen of Pacific Studies, Ron Crocombe, at this time, I am mindful of the scholarship in Pacific Studies, indigenous cultures, and knowledge systems began under the his leadership and others, which has given many young indigenous scholars, like myself, a stage to launch our career.

Ron’s shoes are too big for us to wear, but we can follow the large footprints left on the shores of the Pacific.

The Language Burden

Cultural Day at
Waigani Primary
School 2090

The article appeared first in Steven's Window, a column in The National newpaper of Papua New Guinea. December 24th 2009.

The choice of language for communication among Papua New Guineans has never been an issue. In urban areas most people speak Tokpisin to get around or communicate with each other. English is chosen in an environment that requires communication in that language. Most people code switch between these languages whenever possible. No one seems to bother which language is used in the everyday communication.

The most trouble people have with language is the moment a language is written. One can speak Tokpisin competently, but transferring it to writing is difficult to many speakers. The same is also true of English though more so with speakers of English as a second, third, or fourth language. Written English demands adherence to rules of composition and stylistics, known also as grammar or rules of language construction. Ignorance of these rules results in poor constructions, punctuation errors, spelling mistakes, and misuse of words and expressions.

The main reason for insisting on school age children beginning with Indigenous languages is that our children can have some form of language competency at the elementary level before transiting into English at the third grade and upwards. Linguists, Anne Cursan and Michael Adams, tell us that in “India, South Africa, Malaysia, Switzerland, and many more, speakers learn multiple languages because they participate in multilingual communities in which different languages are used by various speakers for different purposes. In many countries where English is not the primary language, children start learning English as an additional language fairly early and intensively in their schooling.”

“The desire for a shared language (Sometimes within the country as well as internationally) and the desire for the opportunities available for speakers of English can compete with the desire to maintain more local identities and, therefore, languages. The debate about the use and status of English in Kenya, for example, has been lively and captures many of the concerns shared by other countries in the expanding …circle.”

Ngugi wa Thiongo best known for introducing the term ‘decolonizing the mind’ by replacing the English language with local languages is one of the influential people in the debate on language choice. African writers, according to Ngugi, must do justice to the local languages by writing their own local languages. He writes: “We the African writers are bound by our calling to do for our language what Spencer, Milton and Shakespeare did for English: what Pushkin and Tolstoy did for Russian: indeed what all writers in world history have done for their languages by meeting the challenge of creating a literature in them, which process later opens the languages for philosophy, science, technology and all the other areas of human creative endeavors.”

Ngugi’s position is challenged by the South African writer Harry Mashabela in 1983: “But learning and using English will not only give us the much-needed unifying chord but will also land us into the exciting world of ideas; it will enable us to keep company with kings in the world of ideas and also make it possible for us to share the experiences of our own brothers in the world: men such as black Americans W. E. Burghardt DuBois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes; Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, Ghana’s Ayi Kwei Armah.”

The Nigerians writer Chinua Achebe expands the argument: “The price a world language must be prepared to pay is submission to many different kinds of use. The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience….I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”

The point about bringing this debate to this column is that many of us choose the language with which to communicate in because of the necessity to do so at a particular time and place. I choose to speak and write in English most times, but allow code switching with Tokpisin in many occasions. Most people speak Tokpisin without a second thought, but writing in Tokpisin is difficult to many Papua New Guineans. In schools the language of instruction is English, but Tokpisin is always on the tip of the tongue, when English becomes difficult to understand and use as with some of my university students.

John Kasaipwalova experimented on this linguistic situation in the story “Bomana Kalabus O” where he experimented with the registers of English and Tokpisin. We know that English alone would not affect change in a multilingual environment such as Papua New Guinea. In literary usage we also know that English is insufficient in capturing all our cultural knowledge without the help of our local languages as is the case with Russell Soaba’s writings captured in the poetry collection Kwamra: A Season of Harvest.

Adult literacy classes in Port Moresby city are conducted in Tokpisin and English. Many of the students are mothers living in the city with no skills of reading or writing in English or even Tokpisin, but converse competently in spoken Tokpisin. The methods, approaches, and resource materials used in literacy programs make the difference in a learner’s ability to read and write within a short period.

Come to think of it, the head rush in the direction of imposing an English only curriculum next year is troubling. The poor performance of students in formal education is not necessarily because of the use of vernacular or the lingua francas in schools. Other factors must be considered such as teachers’ language competency and pedagogic skills, learning resources, and attitudes to learning in different linguistic and cultural locality. Enhancing reading and writing competencies of teachers and students alike might break the hoodoo.