WAGAWAGA is a village of two hundred and seventy people on the south shore of Milne Bay, in the Australian Territory of Papua. I make no apology for writing about an Australian rather than a British village in a Colonial Service journal. For here something is happening that is significant for all Oceanic communities.
In Wagawaga and the surrounding area of Milne Bay tradition is being broken. For generations the people have tilled the soil by methods of shifting cultivation: for to them preservation of timber resources and top soil was unnecessary. The staple food crop, taro, was supplemented with other garden crops, wild fruits, coconut, pig and fish. The great gardens were directed not only to household food supply but to the provision of wedding and mortuary feasts, and the leaders of the community were men of wealth and knowledge. As in most other parts of Melanesia, and some parts of Africa, there was no closely-knit tribal organisation with chiefs and paramount chiefs. Even to-day Wagawaga speaks its own language, rather mixed with other dialects, but nevertheless quite distinct; and this linguistic separation is paralleled by a political separation which makes it difficult to secure a loyalty to a group wider than the village.
For about seventy years Wagawaga has been subject to intensive missionary influence. The great feasts and the warfare which stimulated activity have disappeared. The three matrilineal clans still exist, but not in an organised way. Clan sentiment still influences in a subtle manner the inheritance of land, the choice of wives, the internal politics of the village, the distribution of income, but the clans do not now maintain club-houses nor hold ceremonies. Domestic houses, no longer of thatch, are of weatherboard roofed with corrugated iron—a typically Antipodean touch. The men still leave most of the garden work to the women, and earn such private cash as they need by casual labour.
This, in its essentials, is a situation that is common in Melanesia—old ways gone, nothing left but the hollowness of a semi-civilized living, no practical hopes that provide a spur to constructive activity. Indeed, as the women said at a meeting a few months ago, “Why should we have children ? Our work is hard and dull ; our children will be unhappy as we are. There is nothing for them, so we are not keen to have any more.”
These people have not been without help. They have seen comparatively little of government, but have been in continual contact with the missionaries of the Kwato Extension Association. Education in the three “r”s has been provided to a high standard, a dispensary with two Papuan nurses is nearby, and the missionaries have helped with all kinds of spiritual and general advice. Indeed, the Association has gone further than any other body I know of in this area in holding to two important ideals, the creation of a sense of equality between Papuan and European, and the provision of an outlet for activity in industrial work. The latter has been particularly marked and the advances made in training for boat-building, metalwork, sawmilling, house-building, furniture-making, and domestic crafts at the Mission headquarters, are an achievement of Melanesian development. The measure of this achievement may be gauged by the statement that there is, so far as I know, no Melanesian in the British Solomon Islands or the New Hebrides who has reached the standard of training of these people except in medical and clerical work and boat navigation—though they are people of the same race, character, abilities and social structure.
During the war the Japanese landed on the north shores of Milne Bay and were driven back in bitter fighting. Wagawaga was evacuated and used as an Allied naval base. When the people returned to their homes they were listless and apathetic. It seemed that the shock had been too much. The people were ripe for those psychological maladjustments which have appeared all over Melanesia, such as the “cargo cults” of New Guinea. They were filled with a sense of frustration, of inability to solve their problems or to achieve a level of activity comparable with that of Europeans. Some of the missionaries, too, had a sense of failure, and realised that their industrial education and their encouragement of equality had not been sufficiently related to village needs. It had remained, as it were, locked up at Headquarters and had made no deep penetration elsewhere except in religious practice and social etiquette.
Fortunately, the chance to remedy matters came and was recognised. A Papuan with some technical training, who had been away from Wagawaga for many years, returned to his people during the war. He was impressed with the activity of his military neighbours, and after lengthy discussions with the villagers, determined to ask a missionary whether it was possible to find a means of attaining similar standards of efficiency and industrial output. The idea of industrial efficiency in village life is so novel for Melanesia that the missionary would have been pardoned had he replied with the stock answer: “Industry is impossible. We have no local materials. It is too hard to train village people. Your society is not sufficiently acquisitive. You have no capital. There are no markets for inferior Melanesian work.” Instead, he determined to take up the challenge.
The scheme that is now being developed is one that could be applied, in its essentials, anywhere in the Western Pacific, except perhaps on atolls. A glance at import figures is enough to show that these colonies are completely dependent on outside sources for many significant items—all European consumption goods, furniture, foods including the native wants of rice, tinned meat, tinned fish, sugar, tea, flour and dried or tinned milk, and industrial materials such as machinery and jute bags. Except in Papua and New Guinea, where the immensity of the country permits the development of several crops, the only important export crop is copra.
The first task has been to experiment with the production of some of these commodities to see if they are suited to village manufacture, and to find other lines suitable for export.