Saturday, 3 November 2012

I Just Called to Say ‘Who are You?'

 ‘Yu tok’ is how you answer the phone in pidgin. I like that you give permission to the person who just interrupted you, to speak. It seems very authoritative - give it a try sometime :)  
In this entry, I’d like to give you a little snapshot of how one aspect of the modern world settles in to a place where many people are subsistence famers, still practice customs that have been handed down for countless generations and have never heard of youtube. I’d like to talk about how mobile phones are used and indeed embraced in PNG.

If you’re like me (I’m 32) you aint no spring chicken but you’re not entirely over the hill either (yep, that’s what I’m telling myself). Your parents were young in the 60’s. They had home phones, television, and The Beatles and they watched as man landed on the moon. They lived with the threat of a nuclear war. In the same decade, there were whole communities of people in PNG who had never seen someone outside of their own cultural group. They’d never seen a pasty white person or even the ocean. Amazing. I have one colleague here who is also around my parents’ age (actually a little younger) who grew up in a village where electricity was unheard of and who remembers that the first time she ever touched a computer was 2006. This same woman is now a confident and competent user of things like powerpoint and gmail. Also amazing.

PNG is a diverse country. It’s something which is said over here often cause it’s true. It’s usually said in relation to the hundreds of languages and cultures which co-exist, but it could also be said about the population’s exposure to countries and cultures outside of PNG and familiarity with modern technology. Some peoples, especially in coastal areas such as East New Britain where I live, have been exposed to missionaries and trade ships for a few hundred years. They’ve also seen Germans, Brits, Australians and Japanese come and go (and wreak havoc) and therefore have a recent history of relations with external ideas and influences. Yet even within East New Britain, tradition and modernity blend and at times clash in spectacular ways which I find quite fascinating. To be honest, the same was true (albeit in a very different way) in Japan and it’s still something which draws me in.

The most obvious nod to modern ways in PNG is the mobile phone. Here, like in Australia, it seems that everyone has a mobile. The largest provider is a company called Digicel and the coverage they provide, even in pretty remote areas seems impressive. In many ways, the system here is a big improvement on what I’m used to. Everyone has a pre-paid phone (and pre-paid power and water) and you buy little credit coupons from the supermarket which have a code on the back. You just plug the number into your phone and it’s done. In Australia, with Vodaphone at least, you have to ring a number and listen to crappy advertising messages to do the same thing. In PNG, you can also transfer your phone credit to your power or water meter. Genius.

Also, Digicel has a system where people can, for free, send texts to others on the same network asking to be called or asking for credit if they run out. Clever huh. Of course, this is Digicel’s way of encouraging you to use the phone more and spend more money - but Papua New Guineans are incredibly savvy about taking advantage of this and using the phone for free. They have an awesome system.

This leftover from WWII lies directly under the Digicel
billboard above

Here, people use the free ‘template’ texts to send real messages to their friends. For example, Digicel allows you to plug a number into a text template such as ‘please send me _____ kina in credit’ and you just put the amount in. People agree on what each number means, so sending a request for 2 kina might mean you’re on your way home, sending a request for 3 kina might mean ‘I’m ready to be picked up’, etc. In this way, people use the phone company’s plan to try to make you spend more on credit, to cleverly send free messages. I love it.

Phone credit
 So, phones are everywhere. Yesterday, I saw a number of amazing traditional performances (singing and dancing is referred to as singsing and sumsum – Tok Pisin is so fun). There were young men performing in little other than leaves and paper bark, chanting, drumming and dancing according to a custom that may be very very old (no one really knows how old) and there alongside them were friends and family, phones out, videoing the show for posterity.  

People using their phones to capture cultural performances

Can you see the guy sitting down in the centre? Filming with his phone
and chanting at the same time :)
Entertainment aside, mobile phone technology is such a wonderful thing for a place like PNG as it doesn’t require services to reach your individual door (like a landline) and there aren’t the same maintenance costs involved (I guess satellites aren’t affected by earthquakes and humidity like everything else is here). Of course, it’s not all rosy and some people can and do use phones to film and disseminate pornography 

which is a big concern for a society which strongly promotes Christian and conservative values. I’m not sure how widespread the problems are but certainly the advantages of mobile phones mean that they are here to stay.

Of course, a phone to an Australian doesn’t necessarily mean the same as a phone to a Papua New Guinean. I could theorise that most people here have never had a landline and still don’t have internet access and that this combined with the fact that people can be very isolated and it’s human nature to want to seek out others = a situation where people use their phone to meet people and try to make new friends. Just a theory - I don’t really know the reason why, but, at times when it’s cheap (or free) to call, people will dial random numbers and see who’s there. You’ll be sitting at home, watching a DVD and suddenly the phone rings and someone asks ‘yu husat?’. At first, it seems pretty bizarre to be on the receiving end of a call and to be asked who you are. OK, I admit, it still seems pretty odd to me. I tend to reply with ‘yu kolim mi na yu husat?’ and they usually tell me and sometimes ask me where I am. (At least they don’t ask me what I’m wearing….) It’s hard not to find these calls irritating even though they’re not threatening at all. Once, I called a wrong number by accident. I apologised and hung up. Then, they began texting me, telling me that they lived in Moresby and asking how I was and that they hoped God would bless me, etc. I became engaged in a bizarre and pointless text conversation before I finally convinced them that although they were probably very nice, I wasn’t going to become their phone friend. I know. I’m so mean.

The Conference Centre of Kambubu
As I’ve mentioned, mobile phone coverage is pretty decent in East New Britain but there are some unlucky spots. I few weeks ago I visited a wonderful school called Kambubu, which is right on the coast of the Pomio district. This is the kind of place where you look out from the staff room to see impossibly blue water and swaying palms. You know you should be thinking of the kids and their grammar troubles but it’s hard not to think about how good some rum would taste in your coconut. Anyway, there is next to no mobile coverage in Kambubu, except for a large guava tree which, if you dance around it and wave your phone, you will, eventually, be able to send a text. The kids at this school refer to the tree as ‘the conference centre’.  (I know I said in my last post that kids weren’t allowed to have phones at school. It’s been true at every other school I’ve been to except this one.)

Mobile phones, and not computers, also give some people access to various forms of social media. Adults in the more urban areas, and kids in general, know about facebook and twitter. Some of them actually use these sites, others just know of them from Digicel’s far reaching advertising (in some places, the company paints tree trunks with Digicel red and white). But, as the vast majority of people don’t have general internet access, I’ve yet to meet a teenager who has heard of youtube. It seems somehow more bizarre when you hear them talk about twitter…..

 Next week, I’m running a session for the great staff at my base school on using powerpoint. Most of these teachers are, like many Papua New Guineans, very engaging speakers with a real sense of flair and I’m actually mindful of crushing their public speaking mojo with powerpoint so I gotta find a way to show them how to use it for pictures, graphs, etc, without tempting them to read off it (as so many people do in the places I’ve worked at before). At least I know they won’t be to insert pointless cutesy videos which they downloaded from youtube, so they’re already ahead as far as I’m concerned.

Lastly, one thing I have learnt from my colleagues here, and it’s something which we often say in Australia, but rarely have the guts to practice, is that ‘you’re never too old’. To see a woman in her late fifties, who grew up without electricity (it gets dark here at 6:00pm) slowly but surely learn to use the internet to search for and download images and then use them to create a presentation is humbling and impressive. I’ve known people in Australia to shy away from (actually in some cases loudly have a temper tantrum because of) frustrations with having to use new technology. Yes, I also admit to having a sook when I had to rub two brain cells together and get used to using a mac (scroll you stupid mouse pad scroll!). I now accept that my only significant first world problem is the total lack of beach front at your average Australian school (shocking but true), and not the fact that the computers are sometimes a little slow to load. To those of you who lack a view of swaying palms and white sandy beach from your office, I say ‘sori tru’ - that really sucks and yes, you definitely deserve better. To those of you who complain cause you have to submit something electronically I say toughen up. Then again, those people wouldn't be reading a blog cause they think a blog is some sort of plumbing problem.

The view from the staff room at Kambubu Secondary

The beach front of Ramoiana Technical School

Frolicking in front of the school on the Duke of York Islands

Lukim yu olgeta J