July 2005

The Nation Reviewed

Curse of the Dimdims

By Drusilla Modjeska

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Ten days after the incident at Brisbane airport, we were in a Port Moresby hotel watching Sunday morning current affairs from Australia. It was a while before Somare’s shoes got a mention, and when they did even the best of the Australian journalists seemed bemused. It was “a bit silly”, one of them said. In Papua New Guinea, silly was not what it was.

The first we heard of the incident was in Alotau, on PNG’s eastern tip. Sir Michael Somare, the prime minister, had been asked by Brisbane airport staff to remove his shoes as part of a security check. We were told that after the incident Australian expatriates in Moresby were confined to their hotels, but it wasn’t like that in Alotau, one of PNG’s safer towns. No one accosted us in the market, and the hotel staff were as polite and helpful as ever, and as veiled. Three carpenters on an AusAid mission were at the bar, trying to figure out how to make a cricket bat for the kids at the high school. They looked helplessly apologetic when the manager came over to them; the Enhanced Co-operation Program with Australia must be in worse shape than they’d realised if Somare had let the story run. In the dining room a group of oblivious whites carried on with a kind of conversational racism that reminded me of being here more than 30 years ago, when PNG was still an Australian territory.

We left Alotau next day to fly to Tufi, at the western end of Collingwood Bay, and visit the villages in the most spectacular of the fjords along that beautiful stretch of coast. By the time we arrived everyone knew about the shoe incident from the one radio. With Papuan courtesy they waited for us to speak of it first, which we did after food that night. To the young men it was symptomatic of an attitude to which they are very sensitive. To them it said: “You’re on your knees. You’re weak. We’re powerful. You take it.” This is the generation born at or after independence in 1975, and therefore too young to have seen their fathers or grandfathers humiliated by white patrols. The last colonial years were relatively benign on this coast, but bad incidents going back to the beginning live on. Ask anyone in these villages and they’ll tell you hair-raising stories of C.A.W. Monckton, who established the government station at Tufi, and when you go back to the records you can see that the stories have grown from fertile ground. Monckton had a history, in his own words, of “shoot and loot”.

Like most Papua New Guineans, everyone in these villages wants corruption cleaned up. They know that to do this the country needs help, and the most obvious place to expect help is from Australia. It was colonial rule that stopped the raids along this coast, making it possible for clans to move to the edge of the fish-rich fjords. This is as well-remembered as Monckton. So are the well-stocked schools and aid posts the Australians brought. Nowadays the schools are short of everything and the aid post at Tufi cannot be relied on for anything, other than anti-malarials and condoms.

Stanley Mokuta, a retired medical officer, recently applied to the provincial government to run an aid post for the villages at their end of the fjords. It takes two hours by canoe to reach the aid post at Tufi, or half an hour in the one and only dinghy if there’s money for zoom, which there usually isn’t. Stanley’s submissions were successful and 35,000 kina ($16,000) was allocated. Outside Jebo village there’s now the frame of a building with grass growing up through it. The first delivery arrived but nothing since. Most of the 35,000 kina has disappeared into the pockets of officials up and down the line, and although a court case is in progress no one expects the money to trickle back to the villages.

It wouldn’t have happened if the Australians were here, says Stanley, telling us about the Australian doctor who trained him, treating him like a son, and the store-rooms that were the prize of his hospital. In one of many contradictions among PNG attitudes, Australia is blamed for getting out too fast even as it is resented for the heavy-handedness with which it returns. Once the young men had recovered from their indignation on their prime minister’s behalf they looked gloomy. Things must be bad, they said, if Somare – one of the few PNG politicians with credibility – was crossing the Australians. They didn’t want the police to go.

But it wasn’t the ECP, under which Australian police and public servants were until recently deployed in key positions around the country, they wanted to talk about. Their simmering resentment centres on the resort at Tufi, built next to the airstrip on the site of the old government station. To call it a resort gives the wrong impression. Although the current owners have added a large Somerset Maugham verandah, it’s a modest set-up that was run by the previous owners as a place for young divers to stay. Everyone liked the manager, Ken, and people speak of him now in ways tinged with nostalgia. He was helpful. He looked out for the villagers, came down in his dinghy, took the kids up to school, passed on messages from relatives in Moresby or Alotau. He gave beers to the resort workers at the end of the day. Most importantly, he left the gates open and didn’t fix the fences that had been in a state of disrepair since the government sold the buildings after independence.

The new Moresby-based (white) owners have upgraded the resort to attract a richer class of diver. There’s no more fraternising over beer. The staff, depending on your attitude, are either efficient or exclusionary. And although there are no raskols at Tufi, and no road access from anywhere else, the fence is now eight feet high and topped with barbed wire. The gates are kept closed. This might reassure the tourists but it has caused extraordinary ill will. Walking along the fence on the way back to the airstrip, the schoolteacher who came on the dinghy with us said: “The only reason it’s there is to tell us we’re outside it.”

The more substantive issue has to do with who gets the tourists and on whose terms resort-visitors come for a night in the village guesthouses. The villagers live from their gardens and the fjords, and in this they are rich indeed. The soil is fertile and, except in serious drought, the water plentiful and clean. But they are cash-poor. With kerosene and zoom to buy and school fees to pay, a few kina can make a lot of difference. The villagers say the offer the resort makes is an insult. When visitors get sent to a rival village it’s seen as a wedge against them, orchestrated by the cunning old man who calls himself paramount chief of the area. He’s a chief for the dimdims, they say, meaning gullible whites, that’s all, and he has no claim to the land where the resort stands. The people we were with are descended from the brothers of Gawi, the warrior whom Monckton tricked into giving up the site – a lineage that makes their claim, and their sense of injury, greater.

In this complicated situation, competing villages view the resort as having the power to determine prices – for cray, for fish, for the zoom in their depot – and it is easy to see how they can feel excluded and exploited. Market forces, you might say, an inevitable clash of attitudes. Which it undoubtedly is. But when someone from the resort calls the schoolteacher boi in a cheerful, unthinking voice, the mood turns dark. The insult is received as a wound.

The one certain power the villagers have is their land. And it is to land that the talk always returns. The Merrie England had come along the coast in 1899 with the governor on board. He made an agreement for a certain plot of land and paid for it with fish-hooks and cloth. Then Monckton arrived as resident magistrate. Finding himself in a power play with Gawi, the warrior, he built the government outpost not on the agreed and paid-for land but on the headland where Gawi had his house. It is a humiliation that has not been forgotten.

One of Stanley Mokuta’s sons, in the line of descent from Gawi, recently went to the village with a lawyer. The land where the resort now stands was sold for government, another son explains, and was not to be sold on for bisnis. Not when that business brings nothing to them. They want to take the case to court. They think they can win. They won’t. They can’t match the resort. There are grievances like this all over the country and they never get anywhere in a system that has inherited Australia’s concept of a sale, even for a whisper, being forever. It’s all a bit silly, you might say. But unfortunately it’s not.

Drusilla Modjeska
Drusilla Modjeska is an editor and novelist whose book Stravinsky's Lunch won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. She has edited Meanjin and The Best Australian Essays.

Cover: July 2005

July 2005

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