Saturday, 19 November 2011

Man Up - PNG Style

First and foremost, this is not an entry which aims to be informative. I think it’s pretty clear that I lack the sort of plumbing required to know what it means to ‘be a man’ and I’ve certainly never given the concept of masculinity in any culture much thought. (OK, I may have done some wondering whilst in Japan – a land where a man can never over pluck his eyebrows or own two many manbags.) Here in PNG, my understanding of manhood is somewhere south of nothing – so, in this entry, I’d just like to raise a few things, throw out a few ideas, share my observations and all that.

Here are some of the things I’ve observed about men in PNG which, according to my western whitey ways are somewhat contradictory, or at least worth pondering…..

Men in PNG carry bush knives. Correction, males in PNG, including small boys, carry bush knives. This makes them look really tough. The other day I was walking down the street and I saw a couple of young men, shirts off, upper bodies ripped, swinging machetes to cut grass by the side of the road. I was on my own and given all the scary stories you hear from PNG, this kind of situation can makes one a little nervous. There were also some little boys playing on the footpath in front of me. Suddenly one of the young men, lunges forward towards the path (and me – ahh!) but only so he can use the back of his knife to give the kids a little smack to get them to move off the path and out of my way. He follows this with ‘sori misses’ and smiles shyly at me.

This little tacker practices with a knife. His parents gave it to him to play with to keep him quiet. 

So far, all of the men I encounter around town greet me in a very old fashioned and courteous way. This is only comment worthy when you can picture them also carrying a bush knife and speaking with a mouth full of buai. Buai, or betel nut, is chewed here with mustard and lime. It’s gives the chewer a high as well as a mouth full of thick, blood red saliva. It also seems to rot their teeth. This means that sometimes when men speak to you they kinda look like recently satiated vampires who have lived in eras pre-dentistry. 

On the flip side, the buai also makes their lips really red, so although they come across partially like tough men of the land, they also, at times, look like kids who’ve gotten into their mums make up.

Now, for a parallel with Japan – everyone carries bags here. Men, women, kids, all carry bags either over their shoulder, around their neck like a necklace, or with the strap like a headband and the bag hanging down their back. So I’m thinking it’s us in the west who have peculiar ideas about men not carrying small bags. Everyone here carries woven bags called bilums, and stylistically, they are completely non gender specific.    

Also, men sometimes stick leaves or feathers in the centre of their afros. The women don’t do this where I live (although I’m told in other provinces, women sometimes put a flower behind their left ear to show they are married or the right ear to show they are single). Many of the women do however, have facial tattoos. Sometimes these are small dots on the forehead, sometimes long straight lines cutting diagonally across the cheeks (the markings relate to where they are from). It certainly makes them look tough – significantly tougher than a man with flora in his hair :) 

Anyway, when you combine handbag carrying, bright red lips, hair adornments, a laplap (sarong) and a muscular arm wielding a machete, you get a pretty interesting visual representation of a manliness which defies and challenges what we think of as ‘manly’ in Australia. I really love living outside of Aus for these kinds of culture readjustments. Travelling definitely gives you an insight but living somewhere, just going about your everyday life in another context, really messes with your sense of ‘normal’ in the best possible way.

But I digress. Moving on from the aesthetic stuff, through the research I’ve been involved with, I’ve encountered some really interesting, and at times confronting things concerning cultural expectations of men in PNG.

We (the research team, who are all PNGn except for me) have heard from locals about how men don’t want to accompany their wives to antenatal clinic visits because, wait for it, they’ll be teased by the pregnant women at the clinic. Or, they’ll be picked on by others in the community for walking around with their pregnant wife. When I asked what kind of terrifying things others might say about them, we were given examples like ‘oh, yu papa pinis!’ (oh, you’re already a father!) or they might be called a dog for following their wife around, or, someone might say ‘traim na isi liklik’ (try and slow down a little – as in, you’ve already had sex and gotten her pregnant, now leave her alone and stop trying for more). Seriously? Their manhood is shattered because they got their wife pregnant and people know that – gasp - they actually care about their wife and want to accompany her? We’ve also heard stories of men creeping into labour wards at night to visit their wives and give them food. Of course, they had to sneak in so no one would see them. Oh the shame!

One of the health workers also told us that men shouldn’t accompany their wife to the baby’s immunisation visit because women can handle it but the father will get too upset when the baby is in pain. I mean really. When I heard this, I couldn’t help but mutter, ‘sounds like they need to man up’ – which then meant I had to explain the term ‘man up’ to my colleagues who thought it was very funny and readily agreed (they are women and all have a background in health work). 

Just in case I’m giving the impression that men in PNG are 100% pansy, I should also present to you an alternative scenario. A few months ago, Geoff and I attended, along with Hannah and Mike, our awesome NZ buddies who live across the road, a fire dance performance. The performance was held to honour the outgoing archbishop, who is originally from Germany, but has lived in East New Britain for decades and is greatly respected in the Catholic community here. In particular, he has worked closely with the Baining people, who live in inland ENB and are culturally and linguistically different to the Tolai, who live along the coast. The Baining do not usually conduct any cultural activities on Tolai land, but an exception was made for the archbishop.   

We went along, and to be honest, I expected some sort of running across hot coals kind of thing. Instead, men dressed only in heavy, elaborate headdresses and strips of vegetation ran through a huge fire of burning logs. Flames were leaping to head height and the logs were all stacked loosely on top of each other so that even if they hadn’t been on fire, running over and through them could easily have resulted in some bad ankle damage. To the side of the fire, men chanted and beat drums. The whole thing was pretty crazy and the men doing the fire runs – brave or insane depending on your take. The audience also had to duck and weave at times as flaming logs were accidently kicked out of the fire and sent flying into the seated audience. (Anyone who sooks about Australia being a nanny state should really move to PNG.) The performance took place on a local school oval, where our friend Mike is a PE teacher (amongst many other roles). As we marvelled at the dancing fire men, he looked on wistfully as his sports field was set alight and a large section of grass turned to a pit of ash. Ahh the challenges of life in the ‘land of the unexpected’.

But, the point of this story was not to highlight the challenges of teaching PE in PNG, but that here is a place where some men are scared of being teased by a bunch of pregnant ladies in oversized floral dresses or of seeing a baby cry from a needle jab, yet at the same time, men are willing to run through six foot flames to say ‘thanks for being a tops archbishop’.

So, what does it mean to be a manly man? Is it mainly about how you present yourself, physically, to others? Or is it more about the level of hardship you’re willing to sign up for? The more time I spend outside my comfort zone, the more our expectations of gender seem highly arbitrary.  

I wonder what people from PNG would make of men in Australia? Walking around holding hands with their women, a mouth full of straight pearly whites, no skills with anything bigger than a steak knife…….

Anyway, those are my observations of men in PNG. Sorry for the lack of photos today but I didn’t think it very ethical to take photos of random men and post them online. I don’t want to get myself into trouble and have to purchase a pig. I’ll explain that one another time.

Lukim yu na gutpela wiken bilong yu J

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Let's Shopping!

Before I arrived in Kokopo, I really had no idea about what you could, or could not purchase here. Needless to say, I have been absolutely flabbergasted at the incredible array of food products available (couscous, balsamic vinegar, miso paste, sun dried tomatoes) and also very curious about consumption in this part of the world. Who the hell is eating couscous? These kinds of products are not cheap and locals I’ve talked to don’t even know what couscous is. Sure there are quite a few expats around, but still! One look at the use-by date on several products and you are part way to an answer. Fresh juice that expired a month ago? Lovely. Jokes aside, we are very well serviced here in Kokopo :) 

So many products!
It's the little Japanese shelf! Can you believe I can buy wasabi in PNG?
The Tropicana supermarket (across from where we live). Note all the utes and 4WDs. Anyone lucky enough to have access to a car drives something like this.

There are a number of large supermarkets in town, some of which also sell footwear (cheap runners and thongs, sorry jandels to my new found friends), clothes (T-shirts, shorts and meri blouses or muu-muus) and homewear (kettles, crockery, towels, etc). 

An overly excited mannequin at K Central Mart. Extra funny considering how conservatively people dress in PNG :)

Every store without exception sells a large array of bush knives. On more than one occasion Geoff has paused, mid grocery shop to look longingly at the bush knife display until I poop on his party and point out that a) he has no need for a bush knife and b) lacks the skills necessary to brandish one. Around here it seems that whilst Australian kids practice forming even letters with their grey leads in the pursuit of a pen license, kids in PNG start out with butter knives, move on to steak knives, and by the age of about 6, with the right kind of progress, are the proud owners of their very own machete. 

The supermarkets here can be really expensive, depending on how far something has travelled and how hard it has been to get it here in one piece. Icecream can be $30 (Australian) a tub, and a block of cadburys will set you back about $9. This is good for the waistline, but not so good for mental wellbeing. Yep, now I think I know how smokers feel………

The Kokopo market is however cheap and fabulous (although the ups and downs of the pineapple economy continue to confuse me - sometimes they cost 10 kina (about $5) then, just a few days later, only 2 kina??). You can buy all manner of tropical fruit, veges, salted fish, cooked lunches packaged in palm leaves, and buai (betel nut which gives you a high if you chew it). If you would ever like some evidence of how your tax dollars might be spent in a worthwhile fashion in overseas aid, look no further than the local market in Kokopo.  Big, covered, clean, well built, spacious with greenery – the local market is the heart of the town and built with Ausaid money. Tall breezy wooden structures house women and their small children as they sell their garden produce or crafts. The buildings are surrounding by trees and there are lots of fresh water taps and effective, covered drainage channels. When you think that some people have to travel from far away and sleep in the market the night before just to sell their produce, you can imagine how important it is to have a clean place with adequate shelter and water supply. The market also has a big colourful mural around it celebrating Papua New Guinean independence from Australia, with PNG and Aus flags. The market is a source of pride for local people and everyone keeps it clean. It must be one of the few places in town where people don’t chew and spit buai.
Mouli stands (a citrus fruit) in the market
Delicious veges, best eggplants ever. This bunch for less than 50c.

Tomatoes, capsicum, ginger and spring onion.

Lime for sale (to chew with your Betel nut for that island high)

The craft building at the market

The cooked foods stall

The PNG version of bento (called a karamap  in Tok Pisin or Tortorgor in the local tongue). Awesome environmental friendly packaging. Smoked and salted tuna in the background.
Inside the Karamap - cocount creamed greens, banana, fish and a little tomato 

The bus stop in front of the market, the mural in the background celebrates PNG independence.

Australia can’t take all the credit though, while Ausaid built the main buildings, Japanese aid also contributed in a very awesome Japanese way. In the centre of the market is a small, round building with excellent, always working air-con. Yep, it’s the Japanese funded fish room. I like to imagine a very serious JICA bureaucrat surveying the completed market, brow furrowed in a look of deep concern as he realises that no one has any means of keeping their tasty fish fresh. He hastily makes contact with Tokyo who immediately authorise the fish room’s construction. No one should have to live in these conditions! All jokes aside, the JICA program has done (and is doing) great stuff here, and the cool room is tops. (Perhaps the contributions of the various countries who provide aid to PNG is a future blog topic?)

Back to shopping….
Those of you who know Geoff well, know his deep, committed and truly passionate feelings for Savers in Footscray – a second hand clothing store. Luckily for Geoff he can still get his fix of second hand scavenging glory at ‘Labels’ – the Kokopo equivalent. Basically, shipping containers of second hand clothing come from Australia and these clothes are sold very very cheaply here in Kokopo. This means all the clothes are the same brands available in Australia, things like Susans and Target and if you’re lucky, some higher end stuff. One friend bought a Paul Smith shirt for less than a dollar. Who knew in Australia that your old discarded T-shirt might now be happily worn by a kid in rural PNG?

Kokopo also has a few pharmacies which are surprisingly good. They stock a vast array of products which reflect both the vast array of ways in which one’s health can go pear shaped in the tropics and the DIY approach that’s needed in the absence of easily accessible medical help. Serious antibiotics can be bought over the counter and the pharmacies sometimes stock the effective malaria treatments that the hospitals sadly lack.

We also have some stores selling junk food, though I'm sad to say as I type this, that I have forgotten to take a photo of the local KFC - yep, that's 'Kokopo Fried Chicken'. You'll have to take my word for it that the sign is very funny though not being a chicken eater, I can't do a taste comparison with the cuisine produced by the Kernel.  

So what’s missing from this thriving shopping precinct? Well, while there is one book shop (which mainly sells stationary) people in Kokopo lack access to reading materials. There are stores selling pirated DVDs and CDs, but books are in short supply. This is not to say that people don’t read, there are a number of newspapers in circulation and a lot of people seem to read them (usually written in English) however there is virtually nothing in the way of literature and there is no library (Ms Jeffery we need your services!).

Also I should mention, because any discussion of stores in Kokopo would be incomplete without it, that all the stores (to my knowledge) are owned by people of Chinese or Phillipino descent and this, at times, can cause tensions. Some store owners seem to do a lot to benefit the community. Other than obviously providing employment for a lot of people, they also provide scholarships to struggling secondary school students, donate prizes for school awards, etc. From what I can gather, these efforts are appreciated however tensions also exist due to frustrations about the lack of business ownership by PNG nationals, or should I say - given that people of Asian descent have been here in ENB for a very long time - people who are ethnically Papua New Guinean. Naturally, this is not a case of goodies and badies and the issue seems pretty complex. 

The frustrations spill out in various ways. I read an article in the newspaper complaining that poor people come to town from rural areas, buy cheap Chinese made products (the article was also making a point about the stores being Chinese owned), find they don't work and try and return them only to learn that the products have no warranty. Reading the article made me realise a few things. When I see cheap Chinese produced goods I expect them to be of poor quality. Given how cheap the product is for me, I care little if it doesn’t work well or last long and I can always afford to replace it. But, to a local, especially from a rural area, who has no means of acquiring anything other than cheap shonky products, no reason to expect that they wont last the distance and has travelled far to make a purchase, the perspective is naturally different. If you don’t have much cash and you save up for a radio or a kettle and then it breaks soon after and your told there is no warranty or means of getting a replacement– well, that’s just frustrating at best, but more likely insulting.

I’ve also been reading that at the moment, tensions in Bougainville about whether or not to encourage or even allow Chinese investors are high and two Chinese investors died mysteriously on their way to Bougainville (on a boat) a few months ago.

I should also say, that although I’ve only heard comments about the Chinese community, all over PNG many businesses are owned and run by expats – including Australians. I’ll just probably never be privy to comments about Australians and their bossy ways being an Australian myself. There are positives, in that overseas investment is still investment and it brings skills and resources into the country. On the other hand lack of local ownership and having PNG locals always working for foreign bosses is going to create obvious problems.  

Shall I write a nice tidy conclusion?
Here in Kokopo we can buy all kinds of foreign products – but sometimes have to pay through the nose for them. Fresh produce at the market is awesome and cheap. All the clothes come from abroad; many of them are your old clothes if you’re from Aus. The market was built with aid money and the stores in town with non-PNGn money. Doesn’t seem like that kind of scenario is going to change in the near future. Oh, and we need a library (preferably) or at least a decent book shop.

Lastly, when I come home, I’m going to the Vic market – and there I will consume an unadvisable amount of cheese. I will then move on to Lygon street where I will purchase silly amounts of overpriced icecream (which will still be cheaper than here!). Lastly, there will be the drinking of fine wine (actually even average wine will do at this point). Who’s in?