Wagawaga AN EXPERIMENT IN OCEANIC DEVELOPMENT

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. The plan as it affects Wagawaga and the neighbouring districts of Mime Bay is to develop furniture-making, fish-canning and fruit-canning, the first two being for local consumption, the last for export. Some of the Mission staff are experimenting with lino-cuts of Papuan design for application to curtains, dress fabrics, and similar textiles. As labour supply in Wagawaga is limited, it will be necessary to re-plan agriculture so that workers can increase their food supply with less garden work, and obtain for money the locally-grown foods they like. Agriculture is to be mechanised as far as possible on suitable ground. Some machinery has to be imported from dollar areas: dollars will be earned by mother-of-pearl fishing.

This scheme in its entirety affects a district very much larger than Wagawaga alone : but everywhere it meets a need. In some places, indeed, it has come too late. At least two villages, believing from pre-war experience that the missionaries were not prepared to lead them to a new standard of living and fuller way of life, have kept aloof. Confidence may not be restored. But in Wagawaga the movement is finding its centre.

This community, using money from high copra proceeds, gathered together in a “General Fund,” has financed a furniture factory employing thirteen people and at present turning out chairs for sale to Europeans, using local timber and imported canvas. A new dynamo has been ordered to provide street and house lighting. Canning and fishing machinery was ordered in Sydney when the Papuan leader of the project visited Australia to make his first acquaintance with outside civilisation. A beginning has been made in clearing the communal farm which is to supplement private gardening still carried out on three days a week. The people, though still colourless in their culture, at last have something tangible to work for.

This is not to say, of course, that the experiment, only just beginning, is a conclusive success, applicable elsewhere without moderation. There are numerous problems yet to face. The principal of these is to encourage the democratic administration of resources. A matrilineal non-chiefly society like that of Wagawaga is not given to producing petty dictators, since authority depends so much on personal qualities of leadership and wealth, and so little on heredity and power. Nevertheless, the leadership of modern enterprise is so complicated as to be beyond the grasp of the usual villager. It is necessary to train his representatives, the Committee Members, not only to carry out the business administration but also to interpret his desires correctly. This is a most difficult and tricky task. It is necessary to create a machinery of representation, and to educate ways of keeping records and books so that they can easily be interpreted by the ordinary citizen. The present emphasis is on “discipline”; what will soon be needed is a Court, not so much to punish the transgressor as to provide a just means of pro­tection for the individual. It is interesting to note that the British Solomons, having placed less emphasis on the economic development of the Melanesian, are nevertheless the location of Native Courts and Councils which would be invaluable in Papua at the present time.

Education in controlling money is a parallel requirement. It is little help to wait for this education before initiating development—education is rendered effective only if mistakes and losses are made and corrected. There is no doubt that the Wagawaga people have spent their money unfortunately in some respects. They have built up a debt by purchasing food and machinery before the money to pay for it was in hand. This may be excused on two grounds—gardens had suffered from pig devastation and there was a psychological need to see something tangible in the form of new machinery. One feels, however, that even had these two factors not been operative the temptation to draw on credit would have been just as strong. Income from copra is so ready at the moment that debts may soon be cleared, and then there should be no need to draw on credit to purchase machinery. Papuans are very fortunate also in that considerable sums of money are still to be paid as War Damage Compensation—possibly L7,000 for Wagawaga— and much training is financed by a rehabilitation scheme of the Commonwealth Government. There are no such sources of capital in the British Solomons or New Hebrides, though in the former Protectorate war-time losses were just as heavy as in Papua.

Although the Milne Bay scheme based on Wagawaga has many parallels in other parts of the world where village development is considered important, it is still almost alone in Melanesia, and its successes and failures will be of considerable interest. Not only is it providing a focus of activity for the people, possibly ultimately stimulating self-confidence and a much-needed flowering of culture. But it also gives an opportunity for the development of a new community with a firm basis in agriculture, yet commanding a rising standard of living by means of related industry, and retaining, through smallness in size, a sense of community. If the experiment succeeds, industry will have come to Papua without urbanisation.


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