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The Turtle's Cargo

Papua New Guinea

The Turtle's cargo
Western education in Melanesia – Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu –
has been an unmitigated failure. It succeeds, says Nicholas Faraclas,
only in transforming powerful, sovereign peoples into slaves.
This is the story of a grassroots movement for education with a difference.

Most students are pushed out of formal education in Melanesia after only a few years because they cannot pay school fees, pass the eliminatory exams or cope with a foreign language and culture.

They receive just enough schooling to cultivate their taste for ‘cargo’ – the term that popular educators use to refer to the illusions of power and happiness peddled by transnational corporations – but without the formal qualifications to gain access to it. They are thus being trained to adopt the ‘cargo mentality’, to love and believe in the ‘Master’ and his cargo and to hate and reject their own customs and land – their very selves.

The few who finish school are being groomed for a small élite class whose function is eventually to deliver the peoples of Melanesia into the hands of international corporate control.

The movement for popular education originated as a network ofcommunity-based programs to promote education for children and adults in the 1,000-plus languages of Melanesia. In the space of only a few years nearly 2,000 community-run pre-schools have been established in which over 350 languages are spoken to give children a sound foundation in their own cultures.

The story that follows illustrates their work.

An old man tells a story in the language of the village. No-one has ever invited him to speak inside a classroom before and he is delighted that there are so many young people there to listen. He starts: ‘A young man went to the reef to spear a turtle. He knew that there were many turtles in that place, but when he arrived he looked far out over the water and saw no sign of any turtles. He climbed out on the rocks to get a better look, but still he saw nothing. Then an old woman came and asked: “My son, what are you looking for?” The young man answered: “Mother, I know that there are turtles here, but I can’t seem to find any.” The old woman laughed and said: “Look a bit more closely at the stone that you’re standing on. There you’ll find your turtle!”’

The old man then adds something that his grandfather used to say about the days when the slave ships took him away to work in Australia: ‘At first, many were forced to go to work on the plantations, but later many were glad to go. When we saw a few slaves return here to the village with their cargo boxes full of tobacco, gin, salt, sugar, tinned fish, so many things, just like the Masters (Australians), we were amazed. We wanted the Cargo too.’

Maera, a woman from the village, is an animator for the local critical-literacy program. She has everyone stand in a circle holding hands, with the old man in the middle. In the local language she asks: ‘When did the first Europeans come to Melanesia?’ Most have no idea, but some say ‘1850’ – when the first missions were established.

‘No,’ says Maera, ‘the Europeans first came in the 1500s’. The group is astonished. She continues: ‘It took the Europeans only a few years to conquer the Aztecs, whom they called “civilized”, with their big empire, their powerful kings and their big cities. Why did it take them 300 years to conquer us, whom they called “savages”?’

Now the questions and answers fly back and forth. The group begins to talk about how, in most traditional Melanesian societies, everyone in the community has access to land and complete housing, food and employment security. The role of traditional leaders is not to rule but to serve.

‘But where does our power come from?’ asks Maera.

Now the old man begins to explain the significance of the turtle: ‘We are all standing on the back of the turtle, just like the young man in the story. The turtle has four legs, a tail and a head. That is our power.’

Maera asks the members of the group to ask the person beside them what they think the old man meant. ‘What does the turtle represent?’ Many answers are given and she writes them beside the different parts of the turtle that she draws on the board. When the discussion ends, she summarizes: ‘The legs are our land, our community, our customary knowledge and our traditional work. The tail is our language. The head is the belief that we have in these things and in our own power to control them in our own interest.’

Then the old man complains: ‘We are all just like the young man. We are standing on a great power that our ancestors gave to us, but we have forgotten how to recognize and appreciate it. Something else from far away has caught our attention, and no-one is interested in the turtle any more.’

Maera intervenes again: ‘When our ancestors had a problem, who identified the problem? Who found out the causes of the problem? Who solved it?’ Everyone answers: ‘They did it all themselves.’ She then asks: ‘But now, when we have a problem in our communities, who identifies it, analyses it and solves it?’ Lots of answers: ‘The Government’, ‘The missions’, ‘The consultants from the World Bank’, ‘The NGOs’.

She goes to the board and writes ‘Reading Life’ on one side and ‘Writing Life’ on the other. Under the heading ‘Reading Life’ she writes the following as she reads it aloud: ‘Our ancestors knew how to read their lives. That is, they knew how to identify their own problems and find out the real causes and meanings of those problems.’ Then her hand moves to the heading ‘Writing Life’ and she jots down the following as she says it: ‘Our ancestors knew how to write their lives. That is, they knew how to use their own knowledge, resources and hard work to solve their own problems.’

The old man adds: ‘Our ancestors read the meanings of everything, the ripples on the water, the changes in the wind, the flight of birds, a birth or a death in the village. When our ancestors sat down to eat a piece of taro, they knew exactly who had given the taro to them, from which garden it came and the deep significance of the bonding between families and individuals that the exchange represented for the survival of the community. Every act was carefully planned to convey many levels of meaning.’

Maera then asks: ‘But now, who is reading and writing our lives? For example, what did you eat for breakfast today?’ Silence. She asks the members of the group to break up into smaller groups to answer this question. When everyone has finished discussing, they give their answers.

One group reports: ‘Before, when we were hungry, we went to the garden to get something to eat. Now, people have tasted store food and they like it better, because it has sugar and salt in it. When you eat garden food, it tastes all right, but store food makes your mouth go wild.’ Everyone laughs and agrees.

Flabby and fit
Then Maera asks: ‘Look at the people who eat store food in the village. What do they look like? Now compare them with the people who eat garden food.’ The group describes store-food eaters as ‘weak’ or ‘flabby’, while they say that garden-food eaters are ‘strong’ and ‘fit’.

Next an all-male group reports: ‘Before the development project came we had a lot of food gardens, but now we have coffee and copra plots and we are making a lot of money. We don’t need the gardens any more. Now we can afford to buy store food.’

The women are not happy with this. Several remarks are made like: ‘Yes, you men took our gardens to plant the coffee and now we women have to struggle to find little leftover plots of land to plant a few sweet potatoes and greens for our families.’

Maera then asks: ‘How much money do you make from coffee?’ Someone replies: ‘On the plantation we get $0.40 a bucket. That’s about $3.00 a day for a fast picker.’ She then asks: ‘And how much food can you buy with $3.00?’ The answer: ‘Just a tin of fish and a packet of rice!’ Maera continues: ‘If you had worked in your garden instead of on the plantation, how much food would you have brought home?’ ‘Baskets and baskets full,’ is the reply.

A man in the group interjects here: ‘But some of us have our own private coffee plots, and we get up to $1.00 a kilo at the scales.’

Maera then asks the man what he purchases at the store when the buyers give him $1.00 a kilo for his coffee. He goes down the items on his usual shopping list and eventually he hits ‘Nescafé’. Then Maera asks: ‘And how much do you pay for one kilo of Nescafé in the store?’ ‘$15.00,’ is the reply. She continues: ‘But whose work produced the coffee in the jar?’ Everyone reaffirms: ‘Our work.’ Maera asks: ‘But how much money do you get from your labour, and how much does the company get?’

The group begins to understand the basic inequalities that underpin global economics.

Next, Maera asks the group to make up a literacy story based on the discussions that happened in the sessions. She asks someone to start. One of the women suggests a real story from the village: ‘Palo took away his wife Mari’s garden in order to plant coffee.’ Maera encourages others in the group to continue the story. After a dozen or so additions and embellishments, the group shortens the story to four sentences and Maera writes it on the board:

‘Palo took away Mari’s garden so that he could plant coffee. Mari looked after the coffee until it was ready. Palo sold the coffee and used all the money to get drunk. There was no money and no food in the house, so Palo beat Mari.’

Maera will teach reading and writing for meaning from this story using a whole-language approach and the mechanics of reading and writing from a very simple community-designed primer using a ‘word-attack’ skills approach. The story will be traced onto a mimeograph stencil along with four pictures and two questions, then printed on a silk-screen printer by people in the village, to be used as a one-page story book for future literacy classes.

Everyone agrees that it’s time for a break. Maera sits down. She has been thinking all morning about the news from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. The World Bank has managed to seduce some key leaders of the non-governmental organization (NGO) with whom she works to participate in a ‘Poverty Alleviation Program’. The New Zealand/Aotearoa High Commission in Port Moresby is threatening to withdraw funding from any NGO that openly criticizes the World Bank.

She has seen it all before. Don’t the NGO leaders see how they are being used? Many will be corrupted by the money and discredited, just like the politicians.

Scenes from the demonstrations against the World Bank in 1995 flashed through Maera’s head. The land-awareness campaigns that Maera and other popular educators had been conducting since 1989 played a major role in mobilizing people from every corner of the country to defeat the World Bank’s proposal to force Papua New Guineans to register their land. No wonder the World Bank is targeting the popular-education movement for special attention.

Already, it has given the go-ahead to ‘integrate’ the literacy pre-schools into the formal system. Control is being transferred from the community to the Government and to the Summer Institute of Linguistics, a US fundamentalist-dominated Christian mission with a long history of promoting education for slavery around the world. The Summer Institute is being paid millions to ‘retrain’ the teachers, to redesign a less critical curriculum and to rewrite and print less controversial materials.

The classroom begins to fill up again. Maera looks at the faces in front of her and she stops worrying. She remembers that, no matter what, she and the people in her village are determined to regain control over their land, their labour and their lives.

Traditional society guarantees all Melanesians full housing, food and employment security – a situation that seems beyond the wildest utopian dreams of the citizens of even the most liberal of industrialized welfare states. The fact that 1,000 Melanesian societies are retaining such power over their lives into the twenty-first century is living proof that most of us are not daring to dream enough. The fact that they exercise this power in ingeniously varied and finely adapted ways shows that the possibilities of making these dreams a reality are virtually boundless.

Nicholas Faraclas is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Papua New Guinea. For the past two decades he has developed courses and written several books on linguistics, literacy and popular education in Latin America, Africa and the South Pacific.

[image, unknown]

House of cards
Why there's more than meets the eye to the dramatic events and the surrounding of
Parliament that led to the expulsion of mercenaries from Papua New Guinea in March.

Celebrations on the streets of Port Moresby as Prime Minister Chan announces his resignation. People's victories happen more often than we might think – they're ignored or misrepresented by the international media. The coverage of recent events in Papua New Guinea is a case in point. International newspapers and magazines lead many to believe that what took place was a military coup; television showed people looting Asian-owned business houses, bringing to mind recent anti-Chinese rioting in neighbouring Indonesia.

What actually occurred during the final weeks of March, and led to the expulsion of the Executive Outcomes-linked 'Sandline' mercenaries as well as the resignation of the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, was very different. A spontaneous coalition of shanty-settlement dwellers, NGO activists, students, soldiers and people from all walks of life braved police barricades to stage a series of meetings, petition drives, strikes, protests and sit-ins without violence or ethnic tension of any kind.

After being forced by the World Bank to pay massive increases in school and hospital fees, Papua New Guineans were shocked to learn that the Government had hired a band of some 60 mercenaries for $12 million a month – a figure roughly equal to the monthly budgets of the Ministries of Education and Health combined.

The mercenaries were ostensibly hired to 'liquidate' the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, which has successfully occupied and claimed independence for the island of Bougainville, where the gigantic Australian-owned Paguna copper mine is located. But there were many other agendas at play. Australia was refusing to take responsibility for the colonial borders and reckless corporate behaviour that caused the Bougainville conflict.

The World Bank and big companies were desperate to force Papua New Guineans to relinquish control over their land and labour. The mining companies were eager to employ Sandline to enforce a 'final solution' to compensation claims. The Indonesians and Americans were nervously contemplating the implications of an independent Bougainville for the future of Jakarta's occupation of West Papua. On 17 March the Defence Force Commander decided to expose the dirty underside of the Sandline deal, igniting the powder keg that eventually sent the whole house of cards tumbling down.

Papua New Guineans have expelled Executive Outcomes and repudiated the agendas of the international power brokers who rely increasingly on mercenaries to do the dirty work of enforcing corporate control over peoples unlucky enough to be 'blessed' with 'strategic' mineral resources in the 'New World Order'.

Another people's victory, yes. But who is going to pay the $36 million promised to Executive Outcomes for its first three months of service? And who will tell the true story of what happened in Papua New Guinea this year?

The information contained in this report was collectively compiled,
discussed and presented by a group of students and citizens of Papua New Guinea.

Go to the contents page Go to the NI home page

New Internationalist issue 291 magazine cover This article is from the June 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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