PNG history dying with nation's elders - academic | Pacific Beat

PNG history dying with nation's elders - academic

PNG history dying with nation's elders - academic

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:25 AEDT

Papua New Guinea is in danger of losing its history.

Time is running out to capture the first hand stories of people involved in in the independence era and there is no real effort underway to record their part in the building of PNG before and after independence in 1975.

Dr Jonathan Ritchie, from the Alfred Deakin Research Institute in Melbourne was born and grew up in PNG, and his PhD thesis examined the drawing up of PNG's constitution.

He's recently been involved in collecting the oral histories of Australians involved in PNG's early history and believes somevbody should be collecting the stories of Papua New Guineans themselves.

Presenter:Gerraldine Coutts

Speaker:Dr Jonathan Ritchie, Senior Research Fellow, Alfred Deakin Research Institute

DR RITCHIE: The broad question say of losing PNG's history, but I think the issue that we've got is simple age really. It's the same here in Australia. We're talking something that happened 30 or more than 35 years ago now and a lot of the people who were active then or who had memories or strong memories of being involved in activities and so on prior to independence occurring in PNG are either very much in their old age or unfortunately are no longer with us and that's sort of that latter point is something I guess we're all concerned about and some of the big names have passed in the last couple of years, including people like the late Bernard Narakobi and of course, the person who I've just concluded writing a biography of the late Sir Ebia Olevale and there's a whole lot of people that of course fall into that same situation. And if we don't act soon those their stories will be lost to us and that I think is probably where I start from.

COUTTS: Are you making the distinction between written history, recorded history as distinct from oral history that needs to be collected?

DR RITCHIE: Yes, but of course in a case like PNG and this is the same in many other countries. There is always a very strong oral tradition and it's one of the things that we need to be aware of and as I said it's not just a case of the same thing is happening here in Australia. You mentioned in your introduction that I was involved in recording oral histories of Australians who were in Papua New Guinea between 1940 and 1975 which is a fantastic project and it was really a lot of great pleasure to do. But just even the last year, in fact two of the people who I've had the pleasure to interview have unfortunately passed away and at least it was terrific to be able to get their stories before they weren't able to do it anymore. And the oral histories of course form the basis for the kind of written history that will come and I think my point is that we really need to be able to record these stories in order to allow future generations of writers and journalists and historians and indeed of all sorts of people to learn from and to make written histories themselves based on this material, which if we don't act soon won't be available.

COUTTS: Well, it's a national history which you're talking about and needs to encapsulate the great challenges that have faced many in the country and why Papua New Guinea is where it is today and why it is shaped the way it is. What needs to go into that national story, what are the components of it?

DR RITCHIE: Right, well, I guess it's. The example I've got is thinking about walking up a hill and I had this experience in Goroka last year and the person who was with me said don't look back, always keep your eye on what's on top of the hill and that way you'll get there sort of thing. I thought was good advice. I got halfway up and I was finding it very, very difficult, because I'm not as young or as fit as I should be and I turned around and looked back and of course I realised just how far we'd come and that made that next step going up to the top of the hill that much easier. So I think it really is an important point in any history, particularly in PNG, to think about how far the country has made it since independence and indeed before that. So that covers a whole range of walks of life. I guess we always think about the political histories. I mentioned a couple of people who were involved and of course there are still some people. I mean the grand chief, of course, it would be wonderful if he's able to record his memoirs or if people are writing about him, but there's also a lot of other people in politics so it would be very interesting to hear their stories. But of course the nation is made not just by politicians, but by business people, and by artists, by literature people and people doing wonderful work in the community and the churches and indeed even in sport. I think it would be wonderful from the PNG perspective if people were to consider some of the terrific sports people that represented the country or done wonderful things for it. This is all part of what contributes nationbuilding. It's not just a political story and I'd like to see the church figures, I'd love to see the business figures and the scientists and the health people and all of these people having lives recorded. So it's a little bit similar, again thinking about the Australian project, where it wasn't just patrol officers or Kiaps or whoever I was able to interview. I mean there were people from representing the wide cross section of Australians who did spend time in PNG, of course, including journalists. So I would love to see a much more of a wide spectrum of story recording.

COUTTS: Well, you say there's a real urgency to act now and we know that PNG's Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare, is in hospital in Singapore at the moment and unwell. Are we that close to losing that bit of history for Papua New Guinea?

DR RITCHIE: Well, I put it this way, I would imagine somebody like Sir Michael who has obviously been a dominant feature in the Papua New Guinean political and indeed general landscape for ever since the 1960s. I would hope that there would be people queuing up to in the bid to record something of his contribution and influence on Papua New Guinea and that would include both people in PNG and also in Australia and possibly elsewhere.

COUTTS: No, sorry you go ahead?

DR RITCHIE: I was going to say I' m actually not really aware of a great deal of that going on. I was comparing, listeners may be aware that there are a number of biographies written about someone like Jean-Marie Tjibaou, for example, which, of course, is probably right but that should be so. But it seems strange in comparison that there has been so little in the way of this kind of narrative story telling about perhaps even more influential Papua New Guinean political figures, such as Sir Michael.

COUTTS: And Jean Marie Tjibaou, New Caledonian political leader who was murdered and he's assassinators never found in New Caledonia?


COUTTS: Just briefly then, in Papua New Guinea, is there a story that the Papua New Guineans need to tell themselves?

DR RITCHIE: Absolutely, very much so. This is one of the things that I believe very, very firmly about that unfortunately the discipline of history is something that has languished in recent years. I mean there are some terrific Papua New Guinean historians and I've had the pleasure to work alongside several of them in recent years, including I mentioned in this work I've been doing on Sir Ebia Olevale But there are very few students coming through the universities who major in history or who graduate as a historian and go onto further studies historians and this is an area that I would like to see in my call for more recording of history in Papua New Guinea history taking place. There has to be places available for young Papua New Guineans graduates or young Papua New Guinean students to get out there and take up scholarships, take up internships, fellowships, whatever means are available to be able to get out there and as an initial step at least record oral histories and then of course the writing will come after that.

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