In 1932, just as the Sydney Harbour Bridge was being opened with some crazy guy on horseback charging the barriers to be the first to cross the bridge, the Leahy brothers became the first to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown. They trekked the foreboding and the formidable hinterland, the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The highlanders found them, weary, lost, undernourished and wanting of feminine companionship. After the ever enterprising highlanders discovered their faeces smelled just like their own, they gave their sisters and daughters to them, who in turn have spawned tens more families and tribes both urbane, urban and rural dwelling. Today the likes of the Leahys, Taylors and the Foxs are part of the history and wider business diaspora of this great and wonderful piece of God’s own country.
In such a short time Papua New Guinea has been caught up in the jet stream of modernity. Today Papua New Guinea children are just as capable of dissecting a complicated digital mobile phone and re- and de-program it as quickly as any other on the planet. On the other side of the world on any given day, sons of Papua New Guinea are flying for foreign airlines and landing massive jetliners in ports and destinations that our parents never heard of, and if we did, it was only from watching matinees.
Papua New Guineans are some of the most blessed people in the world. They are blessed with closely knit families, who live in tribes and who share their joys and misfortunes together as community. Their value systems have been complemented by Christian missionaries who have instilled the fear of God and the brought understanding and clarity to their own creation stories and spirituality.
When Christian missions came, they taught that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. Man was created by God in his own image. He was the pinnacle of God’s creation, to be at the apex of all creation and created beings, great and small, bright and beautiful. Man was called upon to dominate the world, multiply and fill the world, and multiply, we did.
Then came the day, when man decided he was also going to create man.
After de-mystifying the mysteries of the outer-space by landing himself on the moon, and plying the unfathomable oceans to find you never fell off the edge, conquering the sound barrier, breaking down organisms and reducing matter to its finite cellular and molecular form, came the day when man dared to emulate God and said; “let us make man just like myself”
Here is where our story really begins.
The weekend Australian Newspaper on 12th October 2013 reported this story of a Queensland couple suing an IVF clinic and its doctors because they got 3 babies instead of 2. They are suing because they ordered 2 babies and instead the wife “conceived” 3 babies, one of which is an accident. They are now suing for this accident involving an unwanted baby, and the measure of the damages ($510,400) is the cost of raising the accidental and unwanted child.
At the heart of this legal suit is a contract that the couple allege the IVF Laboratory breached; that they signed up for only two babies, but the IVF Laboratory delivered three- a human mistake.
The first reaction of many Papua New Guineans would, understandably, range from sympathy, utter disbelief, to downright indignation for the couple. How dare the couple sue for a precious gift from God! They have been blessed in addition to what they have dreamt, hoped or even asked for. God exceeded their wishes abundantly. After having tried naturally and couldn’t conceive for many years, some would say God through modern science answered their prayers, and more. Any normal couple would be grateful, you would think; but obviously not this couple.
This kind of mistake does sometimes occur with IVF clinics planting more than one, or in the case of twins, more than two fertilized eggs, hoping for minimum success. Many couples experience miscarriages throughout the IVF program and pregnancy becomes an ever elusive achievement. In certain cases some embryos would divide to produce multiple babies where only one fertilised egg was requested and placed. In all cases doctors would advise participants of the relative risks associated with the IVF process.
The unnamed Queensland couple today have 3 healthy and happy 3 year olds. Their birthing was unremarkable. Although the triplets were born pre-maturely and spent 2 months in hospital, it is still unremarkable as a high percentage of babies in the world today are born pre-maturely. The mother is well. All went well for them. However, the parents with the onset of parenthood, and having counted their blessings, are still upset, and upset enough to sue the IVF clinic that created their babies. Why, because they didn’t get what they ordered.
Deep within our beings and you don’t have to be Papua New Guinean to feel it, but especially if you are a Papua New Guinean, it seems all so very wrong. It offends us in deeper places, and we intuitively know it, but may not always or readily articulate it. When you are reading this article, you too may find yourself somewhat disturbed, if not, challenged, within, by the actions of the couple from Queensland, irrespective of where on the spectrum of science or religion you fall. I know, because I felt the same way when I first read the article.
We live at an age and at a time when individuals can very much get what they want. You can tailor your lifestyle, from a designer home, to the car of your choice. You can even pick the partner, husband or wife of your choice with the aid of a vast array of online dating services. If you don’t like your gender identity, you can get it changed just as you can your name. If you don’t like the clothes you wear, you get a tailor to fit out a new wardrobe. At a time when humble cooks in a kitchen have become television superstars and celebrities, you can eat what you want from a huge range of choices, from upmarket restaurants and fast food outlets to DIY cookbooks replete with gourmet suggestions. The choices of modern gadgets at hand to lure us into believing we can live and relate in a virtual world community without leaving our homes or offices, are endless. The world has become a plantation of passivity, and its inhabitants reduced to mere pawns of account, invoice or billing numbers, vegetating and cogitating daily on a diet of digital screens, with their impersonal cosmology shaped by mind thieves and information predators, that wage daily wars for the right to remotely monopolize our thought processes and our hip pockets. The digital screen, large and small, has succeeded in creating a virtual reality, a reality that only exists in our minds. The essential tools of trade in the virtual world involve remote gadgets that give us an interposed digital identity, as opposed to one shaped by warm personal and physical interaction.
Baby food is instant, nappies are instant, coffee is instant, fast food is instant, and if you feel old or just a little appear older, or merely want to change the way you look and feel about yourself, there are syringes full of Botox and other chemicals, or learned surgeons with sharp scalpels that can make a few incisive nips and tucks in the right places, and voila!, you have a new body, and wistfully, a brand new life!
It is the ultimate quest of a society with all the technological, scientific and medical advances we have made. No longer is the human body a mystery, or a subject of the puripuri man. We have been able to unravel the medical wonders of complex information systems that run parallel and interdependent with its other driven by the intelligence of the heart and the brain as the prime organs. We have identified the essential information codes for each individual, the DNA, which ensures each is absolutely and frightfully unique creation and there is no replica or replacement. Hence, the impetus to create scientifically and artificially, another human being, whether in test tubes or invitro is mans display of his scientific prowess, challenging previously held notions of a god and the creation story.
This is the ultimate goal, and the crowning achievement of humanists the world over- that man can replicate himself without the need for a family, a society or a god.
Family is at the heart of human institutions and society. It is the first human institution ever created. It is the basis of human identity and the deep well from which we draw our social connectivity, interpersonal relations and personal harmony. It is where a baby is born and cared for, and it is where it learns its first words and takes its first steps. The family unit is critical to the rearing and nurturing process. The quality of this process determines the overall harmony of the family, community and of all other human endeavour.
In Papua New Guinea the mostly individualistic value system of the West is threatening the tribal and family based value system. It is like sandpaper that is unrelenting in wearing down our old ways of keeping and strengthening our communities as closed self sufficient and self supporting units. With advances in transportation and communication, we are being forced to define and redefine our traditional family units. Today we have so many cross cultural marriages that have become a positive aspect of modern PNG. It is the strongest glue ever in uniting us as a nation, but it comes with its own set of challenges to maintain family unity and cohesion. The individualistic values that come with modernisation are forcing us to find new ways of keeping and maintaining individual, family and community harmony.
Papua New Guineans are battling everyday to live with two value systems: that of the West and what the village expects of them. Some constantly feel the pangs of being torn between two worlds, but choose to juggle life and making do as they go along, discovering and inventing their own rules as it suits them.
Prior to the industrial revolution, in Europe for instance, we read that most races of people did live in larger communities and in larger family groupings. Then with advancement of industry and technology, the West redefined a person as labour, a critical the means of production. No longer is he or she part of the whole, which is family and community, but already well on his or her way into becoming just a number. Despite the resistances of unionism, society morphed around the romantic notions of modernism to refine community into nuclear family units that are effective production units to serve industry. Today the banking system of the West is designed to serve the individual and his immediate nuclear family. High-rise housing blocks are built to house and family of two or three children at the most, without any room for grandparents and the extended family. Farmlands are reduced to quarter acre blocks in the suburbs to house a family of 2 children and their pet dog, with no regard for who their neighbours are. The planning of cities and towns are based on individualistic notions as opposed to altruistic communities.
The individual and his or her bundle of rights, are recognised by the Western legal systems, and is celebrated at even the United Nations. Notions of community wellbeing based on individualism and individual rights are being designed as aid programs and being shoved directly down the throats of unsuspecting third world nations, whose overall individual and societal harmony is based on embracing wellbeing of extended families, villages and surrounding tribal communities.
The West with its individualism has lost the strength and quality of what it is like to be family and community. In striving to keep up its means and modes of production it has reduced humanity to just faceless numbers, or cold and unfeeling digits. The health of its economies is measured by unemployment numbers. Its cities stink of robotic individualism, and the people are barely held together by the steely hand of the law in their zombie like existences. Individualism has given birth to police states wherein every individual is a potential terrorist, and everyone is caused to live in suspicion of each other. There is little community and equally less harmony. Everyone is run by the strong arm of the law and their sense of community is what is piped through television screens.
No one lives as community any more in the developed West. With its celebrated advancements in technology and science it appears to have lost family cohesion, communal harmony, and ultimately its humanity. That is a strong, but sad indictment, and I make that call as a modern Melanesian village man.
We ought not to be surprised in down town Papua New Guinea by the news that a couple in Queensland, Australia, decided to sue an IVF clinic for giving them an extra child. As individuals regulated by strict laws, living in the world of instant everything, they may feel that they are justifiably entitled to what they contracted, and paid for, and the law should vindicate the assertion of their rights with monetary compensation, notwithstanding that their own bareness and deep yearning for fulfilment has driven them to this.
A child in PNG traditional context is valued differently to Australia today (where it has been sadly reduced to just another mouth to feed, clothe, house and educate). Yes the couple may have a point in Western individualistic nuclear family context where the pressures of low wages, mortgages, healthcare, high food prices leaves no social safety net, a caring extended family or tribal community, or traditional lands to fall back on.
There is something to be said about our traditional family units, as large as they may be. There is something to be said about our tribes, and about traditional land ownership. There is also something powerful to be said about community welfare, community rights, and community harmony. We in Papua New Guinea sometimes do not realize how fortunate we are that we still retain our old ways, and that there is strength and power in our old ways and our values. There is nothing wrong with our families, our extended families, our tribal communities and our ownership of our own lands and our resources. We are so rich beyond compare, and we have not even begun to understand and take advantage of how strong and how powerful we are as a people of strong family and community values in a modern setting. Our city and town planners with bits of paper from foreign universities do not understand who we are. They plan modern cities and towns like white-man with individualistic values that have delivered us crime and dysfunctional places. There is more order in some of the Melanesian squatter settlements than in the planned suburbs of our cities, and that is just one example.
It all begins with the way we live as community, the way we birth, rear and nurture our children, and what value we place upon them. The writers of the article on the Australian newspaper ask:
“Aren’t all children miracles? What message does this send to the couple’s three year old girls, that the unexpected arrival of one of them prompted a lawsuit?”
I don’t think any parent in any society has the right to condemn a child, any child born anywhere, to live with this stigma that he or she was an accident, or an unwanted baby. In this particular case, all the three children will live with not knowing which one of them is the unwanted child. If that is where all the scientific, technological and medical advancement of the West- man playing God has taken us, then we in Papua New Guinea, late entrants to Western civilisation, must be more critical and wary of the individualistic designs and value based systems constantly pushed upon us through Aid and other contraptions.
The UN, and its Agencies promote individualism and individual rights. The pursuit of the individual rights has probably caused it to lose sight of the need to balance the interests of community of individuals. The individual must be defined by community, where everyone has a place and every place has a person, and not the other way around. We must recognise that our traditional tribal communities and our extended family systems are our strength and build our nation on these pillars. Our families, whether monogamous or polygamous, are part of our traditional values that has sustained us for over 70,000 years. They need to be carefully balanced against foreign aid driven programs, deliberate initiatives at work today to socially re-engineer Papua New Guinea society through the narrow prism of individual rights where they be gender, child or adult based. The latter rights do not exist in a vacuum as we are led to think, and this is the folly into which our entire political leadership is entrapped by Aid donors and delivery agents like NGOs. The individualistic machinations of the West translated into narrow aid paradigms derive no legitimacy nor resonance from Papua New Guinea family, community or even national values. We are landowning lords of our own manors. We are not peasants or serfs in service of others. We are not poor people. We all have an identity and our places. Every one of us has a ples.
Our customary land ownership is our strength and we must take advantage of modern technology to survey and register them so as to minimize disputes. Our lands and our family and community values make us a people hard to beat in the Pacific, or anywhere on the planet. We are the lucky country. We are a lucky people. The question is, for how long will we remain lucky?
That is the challenge for us Papua New Guineans, to offer alternative models of progress for our people that reflects us and our traditions, our family and community values, so that the world can see, feel, and taste the unique flavour of Papua New Guinea.
For now our individual and community harmony depends on the value choices we make today, and it begins with the way we value, rear and nurture our children- our hope for a brighter, better and harmonious future. God forbid that we should treat our children as anything less than precious gifts to be cherished with joy and gratitude, by family, community and our government.