I first met Karina Parina when I started my new job with Papua New Guinea’s National Library Service in Port Moresby in 1980. She was a shy, softly spoken 21-year old girl from the village of Tubusereia, about an hour’s drive eastwards along the coast from Port Moresby.
My job at the National Library was to arrange training programs for the Papua New Guinean library staff, to enable them to fill the positions that were occupied at the time by sixteen expatriate librarians. As my job involved working with staff across the organisation on an ongoing basis, my first challenge was to learn everyone’s names. I clearly remember my first introduction to Karina because her lovely rhyming name was impossible to forget.
Like most of the other Papua New Guinean staff members she went about the library barefoot. A few of the others wore rubber thongs. In the tropical heat, we Westerners also abandoned our shoes and socks before long and converted to wearing rubber thongs. For appointments with important people such as the Minister for Education or senior public servants I kept a pair of more respectable leather thongs in my office.
It was far too hot and humid to wear a tie. The only ties we ever saw were worn by overseas businessmen and consultants disembarking from the planes at the airport. Such ties were quickly taken off as the sweat stains expanded on their shirts. with their jackets hanging despondently over their arms.
The names of my Papua New Guinean colleagues are forever engraved in my brain – Paul Dubai, Wiko Bona, Watorea Ivara, Ben Gar, Uru Hoahu, Otto Kakaw, Anita Bagiau, Cathy Bomboman, Geoffrey Bundu, Liz Kwarara and all the others. I loved their unusual names, and admired their colourful shirts and blouses, lap laps and hand-woven string bags called bilums that were used as de facto handbags by the women as well as the men.
During my time in Port Moresby I became so attached to my own bilum, given to me as a present by one of the staff, that I once carried it with me into a medical specialist’s waiting room in Harley Street in London during a visit to my in-laws. The only other person waiting in the room was wearing a dark pin-stripe suit and was reading The Times. He looked up as I entered, glanced briefly at my bilum, and showed his disapproval in that typical, barely perceptible British manner, by the minutest arching of an eyebrow before he returned to his newspaper.
Karina invited three of us Westerners to visit her home village one Saturday. There was only one small ‘shop’ in the village. It looked like someone’s village house with a little counter built on to the front. The shop stocked a few sparse items like canned food, matches and soft drinks. Many of the houses in the village, including Karina’s family home, were built on stilts over the sea. For these houses there was no sewage system in place.
Karina and a few of the other villagers took us out to sea on an engine-powered outrigger canoe, so that we could have a look at the village from a different perspective. The wind blew through our hair and took the edge off the tropical heat. We felt privileged that we had been given this opportunity to see a traditional Papua New Guinean stilt village and Karina clearly enjoyed showing us around her people’s place.
It quickly became apparent that she was a highly intelligent person who had the potential, with a bit of additional training and experience, to take over from one of the expatriates at the National Library. With funding obtained from the Australian Development and Assistance Bureau, I arranged to send her to Adelaide for three months on a training attachment to a modern Australian public library.
But first, we had to get Karina used to wearing shoes. We bought her a pair of shoes and got her to practise walking in them along one of the aisles in the National Library’s staff area. The grapevine must have been active because the other Papua New Guinean library staff quickly congregated to observe this free performance. They were consumed by mirth when Karina wobbled uncertainly down the aisle in the shoes.
I eagerly awaited her return from Adelaide, anticipating Karina sharing with me her impressions of that city’s impressive buildings, clean footpaths, roads that are free from potholes, impressive array of modern shops, safe and reliable public transport, excellent medical services, and uninterrupted water and power supply.
On her return to Port Moresby I picked her up at the airport.
“So, how did you like Adelaide, Karina?” I asked.
She frowned and, in her soft voice, declared, “It’s a terrible place, Tim.”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean? Were some of the people there nasty to you?”
“No, it’s not that,” she said. “But you should see how they treat the old people there. All the buses are full of old people with grey hair who have to travel to the shops and do their own shopping! Where are their children? Where are their nieces and nephews? Why are they not doing the shopping for their old people?” Karina was outraged.
It was then that I suddenly realised how, despite our wonderful buildings, shops brimming with consumer goods and material welfare, we Westerners have lost something of enormous value – the daily care of, and concern for, our older people and the close, comforting and strong supportive bonds with one’s direct and extended family. I was ashamed of my own Western arrogance, having unthinkingly assumed that everything we had in Australia was more desirable and impressive than that of the Papua New Guineans.
The fact that other cultures, including those in developing countries, are superior to our own in some critically important ways, was a lesson that I had to learn from a 21-year old village girl from a stilt village in Papua New Guinea.
Karina Parina, now Mrs Karina Bundu, went on to become the National Librarian of Papua New Guinea.
Karina Parina (carrying a fuel can) at her home village in 1981.