“WE ARE WASTING OUR TIME, WE ARE GETTING BIG PAY FOR DOING NOTHING, for virtually doing nothing…. I am challenging each Member of Parliament, are we productive, are we doing anything, yet we want to get more pay, more privileges for ourselves….And I want to tell the people of PNG, we have not had proper debates in Parliament, we have not had enough time to scrutinise the Government of the day, we are wasting our time in Parliament” (Post Courier 25/02/08).
These words were aired earlier this year by Mr. Francis Awesa who is the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Imbongu Open electorate in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. His observations came in light of the hasty manner in which the Somare-Temu government used its numerical strength to bulldoze the passage of a law which legitimised the purchase of Tolukuma Goldmine by the Government-owned company, Petromin. While acknowledging the government’s numerical strength, Mr Awesa is concerned as to “Why they (the Government) are running away from public scrutiny, whether outside… or inside parliament, they should be subject to public scrutiny, NGOs, interest groups should be able to question the Government?” (Post Courier 25/02/08).
These disturbing words of introspection and castigation by Mr Awesa carry a poignant message about the qualitative and numerical disparity between the political and economic excess of politicians and the growing economic strife that plagues ordinary Papua New Guineans who struggle to make ends meet even as their list of electoral expectations, stirred by election promises, await some form of reconciliation. In the corridors of power meanwhile, a catalogue of questions have gone begging after the political sanity of national economic investments. Disgust is regularly expressed over financial and political privileges of some politicians whose arrogance become explicit when they adopt an evasive run-away character of indifference to matters of due process and procedure, debate and deliberation. As numerical supremacy legitimises itself for its own good, accountability turns into an expedient currency of rhetorical convenience.
Without accepting political talk for granted, it is fair to task whether Mr Awesa’s is a genuine voice in the wilderness of Waigani’s politics or are his words symptomatic of a disgruntled MP whose political circumstances happen to locate him in one rather than the other side of the Parliament? Far from entangling Mr Awesa in his own words, these same questions should be asked of other parliamentarians as well as to open and extend the terms of debate implicated in Mr Awesa’s original admission. In this vein we might want to ask the following kinds of questions:
Why are other parlimentarians not in agreement with Mr Awesa and not being able to act in concert with what their conscience hold in agreement? Is Mr Awesa’s statement merely a frustrated admission of numerical defeat, a confirmation of political excess that sanction and inaugurate a defilement and theft of democracy or is it a genuine observation that highlights the constitutional impasse that belies the present regime of guided democracy in PNG? What kind of political conditions should prompt a reasonable politician to denounce and dismiss the excessiveness perhaps even the vanity of a parliamentary career? Why should Mr Awesa’s concern be something so basic and fundamental to a nascent democracy? Why must the idea of democracy exhibit a mathematical or a quantitative dimension that conceals the inner workings of a democracy that is going astray? Is it merely the case that the idea of democracy rest on a paradox involving the philosophical issues of quantity and quality?
In wrestling with these kinds of questions, the following account provides a comparative case about decision making from Kanganamun, a village on the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea in order to throw a critical light on the debate enunciated by Mr Awesa. The discussion requires some appreciation of the haus tambaran (spirit-house) in a Sepik village life and culture. As an architectural expression of a body politic, the haus tambaran is the seat of traditional government, it’s connection with the notorious initiation ritual makes it an immediate preserve of male pride and domination but it carries a far more complex gender understanding to it.
Kanganamun is located along the middle stretches of the Sepik River and it comes under the adminstrative ambit of the Wosera-Gawi Electorate. The people of Kanganamun speak the Iatmul language which is spoken in three dialects: Nyaura; Parimbe and Woliagwi. Kanganamun speaks the Parimbe dialect. The Iatmul villages are located along the Sepik River in the area that lies between Pagwi to the west and Tambunum to the east. These villages are known throughout the world for their prolific art forms, a gruesome initiation ritual involving body lacerations and very stunning haus tambaran.
The haus tambaran overlook residential houses where women, children and uninitiated men stay. Initiated men move in between the haus tambaran and the residential house but use the haus tambaran as a place for social gatherings on a daily basis. The haus tambaran is the place where they hold ceremonial debates, conduct initiation rituals and deliberate and make decisions that affect the village. It is where wars are planned and conflicts are generated and resolved. Both residential houses and the haus tambaran are decorated but the aesthetic of the haus tambaran is elaborated to a point where it inspires awe and admiration and strikes fear into the minds of those who look at it or go close to it.
By virtue of their personal names and esoteric mythology, every Iatmul haus tambaran is a “woman” but is architecturally composed of male and female elements. Such an androgynous composition is based on an analogy derived from the way in which people are understood as being composed of male and female parts. Being part male and female (or androgynous) means that in different and alternating episodic moments in the life of the village, one of the androgynous part of the haus tambaran will be given prominence while the other part is left implicit.
There are times when the haus tambaran will become distinctively male and at other times it will appear as female. For example when initiated men are summoned with the sound of garamut rhythms to congregate in the haus tambaran for a meeting, the situation is often described as a “father calling his sons”. Relations between men gives the haus tambaran a male imagery of a “father calling his sons”. On other oaccsions such as when men’s initiation are carried out, the androgynous composition becomes very explicit. The front part of the haus tambaran is regarded both as the ”crocodile’s nest” which is jealously guarded occupied by “female men” who are the symbolic mothers of the initiates that are kept in there. The back part of the haus tambaran is occupied by the “symbolic fathers” of the initiates. Relations among men within the initiatory complex and relations with women who are involved in the ritual from the outside feminises the haus tambaran with a womb and a nest where male crocodiles are hatched and nursed. These are just two examples to describe the episodic alternation of the gender which the haus tambaran takes on from time to time.
A haus tambaran is also considered symbolically as an architectural crocodile. Sometimes this metaphoric crocodile appears to be still and quiet, at other times it sanctions feats of dramatic rage and attacks its adversaries with vengeance. Whether it is active or passive, its heart beat keeps on pumping for one is always a crocodile. Everyone in a Iatmul village will be affiliated with a particular haus tambaran. There are two kinds of haus tambaran and people will belong to either of them. The crocodile is the animal that is integral to the cosmological imagination of the Iatmul people. In this cosmological scheme, all the village people are, in essence, miniaturised versions of the primal crocodile.
In one haus tambaran, the clans that occupy its front part are the ”head of the crocodile”. Clans that are sitted in the back part of the haus tambaran are the “tail of the crocodile”. The axial positions of the front and the back of the haus tambaran are idiomatically defined through an analogy imported from the present system of parliamentary democracy in PNG. Thus the clans that have their sitting platforms in the front are considered to be the “government” and are credited with the executive privilege of sharing and distribution. The clans located at the back of the haus tambaran are regarded as the “opposition”, they do not have powers to share and distribute goods that come into the haus tambaran . However, they have the right to challenge and scrutinise clans in the front for the exercise of their prerogatives.
Clans at the back cannot usurp the prerogatives of those in the front. However, while they have executive powers, the clans in the front cannot pursue any notion of collective interest or objective without consultation, dialogue and debate with those clans at the back of the haus tambaran. This is because the front and the back are head and tail of the same crocodile. This imagery of organic totality means that if the head of the crocodile moves, its tail will also follow. The head and tail do not travel in opposite directions. For this to be possible, the body of the crocodile has to be dismembered.
In sociological terms, a fission of some proportion would have interferred with the organic unity of the crocodile’s body that would cause the head or tail clans to move out and reconstitute itself elsewhere with the same organisational configuration. Each time a clan or a village does so, it always reconfigure itself into the head and tail of the crocodile. This is because there is always a head and a tail and in the head (opposition within unity) and a tail and head in the tail (unity within opposition) of the crocodile. This is how Iatmul villages have been formed and reformed over the last millenia and this general cosmological process of unity and opposition continues on today. Despite its cruel aggression, the crocodile is a crafty social and ecological engineer. It is never a hasty routine for a crocodile to pursue its objectives because it always drag itself on land and propels itself under water with its tail following the head. With these images in mind, we consider the following story.
Postponing a decision over Takaripi lagoon
In 2007, I returned for a short fieldtrip to Kanganamun. During that time I came across concerns expressed by several men in the village about a particular fishing lagoon. This lagoon is currently the subject of a competing claim of ownership between Kanganamun and a brother-village called Maringe. Clans of the haus tambaran (namely Wolimbi) that I am adopted into have four (4) fishing lagoons found within their territory. The clans in the other two haus tambaran (Minjimbit and Kosimbi) in Kanganamun do not have a fishing lagoon nearby. One of the fishing lagoos nearby was created in the 1950s through diverting the course of the Sepik River. For this, the men of Minjimbit and Kosimbi clans have been seeking to have access to fish in that lagoon on account that their grandfathers and fathers have worked towards creating that lagoon. But their attempts have been denied by clans of Wolimbi.
Kanganamun is now in a dispute with its brother-village, Maringe, over the ownership of Takiripi lagoon. This lagoon is located close to Maringe and few people from Wolimbi clans in Kanganamun have used that lagoon and it has often been used Maringe villagers. Because of its distance, women of Wolimbi clans in Kanganamun do not go fishing there. When Kanganamun women do go fishing there sometimes, they often find that fish are stolen from their nets or their nets were vandalised or stolen and they blame Maringe villagers for this. Because they do not use that lagoon often, some men of Wolimbi clans thought that they should allow their fellow villages of the Kosimbi and Minjimbit clans to go and fish there. In that way they could protect it from being taken over by Maringe village and at the same provide a means of subsistence to their fellow villagers who do not have a fishing lagoon nearby. This particular group of Wolimbi men argue that it doesnt seem right and fair that they should prevent their own village people (from Kosimbi and Minjimbit clans) to go fishing in Takaripi and yet do nothing to stop Maringe villagers who frequent the lagoon.
Dissension has inserted itself into the deliberations of the men of Wolimbi clans and an affirmative decision has been postponed since. I carried out a private survey and spoke with almost all the men of the Wolimbi haus tambaran. This survey revealed that 5 out of 31 households were opposed to the idea of allowing clans of Kosimbi and Minjimbit to go and fish at Takaripi. Men from the remaining 26 households were in favour. When decisions such as this are to be made, it is first deliberated at length and debated by initiated men who represent their clans in the haus tambaran.
Women who belong to these clans do make known their views which are often taken seriously. Although they do not go and talk inside the haus tambaran, they participate in this process through their fathers and initiated brothers. Forexample, in a conversation with a family (a man, his two initiated sons, his wife and marriageable daughter), the unmarried daughter issued the following warning:
“Who says we will allow those people to go to Takaripi. No way! I am talking here. They will have to kill me first. If they go, they will get my axe. I will smash their canoes and cut-cut their fishing nets”.
After speaking privately with these men, I was surprised to find that the 5 households that opposed the idea of granting access, have only 6 initiated men who are entitled to talk and debate in the haus tambaran. In the remaining 26 households, we have 29 initiated men who could talk. Despite the overwelming numerical support for granting access to the clans of Kosimbi and Minjimbit, the clans of Wolimbi haus tambaran were unable to make that decision in favour of access. When this numerical discrepancy was probed, one of my interlocutors (who was in favour of access) employed the service of two kinds of analogy by juxtaposing the image of canoe and a crocodile to explain the discrepancy.
“The canoe cannot go anywhere if those in the front are paddling in the oppsite direction to those at the back. Those at the back of the canoe are in the steer, they give direction. Those in the front are supplementing the propulsion that drives the canoe”.
A a decision is akin with movement that is cordinated with some sense of pupose, direction and often a range of possible outcomes. The image of propelling a canoe thats cuts its passage across the surface of water recalls the moment when a decision retraces itself in its movement from thought into action. Someone has to make a decision or is compelled to initiate action and even a crocodile decides its own movement.
“All of the initiated men in the village are like a crocodile. They need to come together as if there were one crocodile in order for the crocodile to do something, to take action. If they stay one-one and remain disjointed this way, nothing is going to happen”.
The privilege of being in the front of a haus tambaran, the demands of being in control from the back of the canoe, the power to be the head of the crocodile or having the sanction of numerical strength hardly provide the criteria that persuades the crocodile to move. One cannot speak about the inner morality, fecundity or the political unity of a haus tambaran as a seat of government or a body politic without an overwhelming consensus. If a decision has to be established, if the crocodile has to move in some way, its limbs have to work in unison with its head and tail. This is crocodile democracy!
If we extend the insights of Kanganamun village to a setting in contemporary scene in national life, we will find a very disturbing anti-crocodilean logic at work in the National Parliament of PNG. And this is happening at a point in time when the head of the present government is someone no less than the great Sana of Murik Lakes on the Sepik River and who is not unfamiliar with the logic of crocodile democracy.
If the National Parliament has model itself on the familiar Sepik haus tambaran, what is threatening about the contemporary crocodile is the way in which it is severed itself into the artificial components of a parliamentary democracy that defines itself primarily through the strength of its individual parts which remain as parts that are not equivalent to a whole as an organic totality. The ancient metaphoric crocodile disavows being persuaded by the tyranny of numerical strength.
Mr Awesa is right to complain that the numerical strength of the current PNG Government has taken on the character of an unaccountable tyrant who conceal himself in the guise of parliamentary democracy. Mr Awesa was of the opinion that an effective means of disarming this tyrant from spreading and immersing his tentacles of democractic idiocy is to dissolve the Parliament and convene a fresh national election (Post Courier 25/02/08). Given that in the PNGs constitution, the Head of State can only act on advice from the National Executive Council (cabinet of ministers). Mr. Awesa’s suggestion is not only unrealistic but if pursued the suggestion will still be entangled with the same tentacles that it is seeking to free itself from. The problem of numbers and democracy will endure even if the Parliament was dissolved. The ultimate philosophical issue that this discussion brings up is the intimacy between number and democracy. Rather than severing itself as a numerically powerful government that dictates a weak opposition, how can we have a democracy that keeps an image of totality that moves with the coordination of the head and tail of a crocodile?