You’ll Never Guess What This White Boy Learned In Papua New Guinea
The village was empty when we arrived, except for one man. He was in no mood to welcome us, instead watching in silence as our driver manoeuvred our oversized vehicle into a makeshift parking space. We departed the vehicle and said hello, but he gave us little in return.
His discomfort towards us surprised me, but I couldn’t blame him. After all, we were a bunch of foreigners intruding on his community’s land. Just because we had pale skin and charity logos emblazoned on our t-shirts didn’t mean we deserved a warm welcome.
“ARGHHH!!!” a chorus of voices yelled, accompanied by a rush of tribal men. The leader, dressed in little more than feathers and body paint, pointed a long spear toward me. Behind him, his sidekick held an axe above his head, screaming with similar intent. I turned around. We were surrounded. Fireworks cracked into the sky, replicating gunshots and exacerbating my terror.
The remaining community members emerged from the shadows of their wood-constructed dwellings. But rather than showing concern, they were bursting with laughter. Some were recording the confrontation on their camera phones, nudging their family members in delight.
That’s when I realised what was going on. They were pranking us.
Papua New Guinea is a nation infamous for crime, and it’s not uncommon to hear horror stories about tourists being attacked. This local group’s creative welcome had exposed our vulnerability, capitalising on our pre-disposed fears. More than that, it was a self-aware ruse, one that parodied their own culture and demonstrated their sense of humour.
This was the last place I expected to be on the end of a practical joke. So many people had warned me about danger, but few had primed me for laughter. It’s a shame, too; humour is a language spoken by everybody, yet is rarely mentioned when we talk about people living in poverty. Indeed, humour is so underplayed in development communications that it’s easy to think that it can’t co-exist with a life below the poverty line. After all, poverty is the pits, right? Surely there’s nothing funny about that?
This is a gross misunderstanding of what poverty really is. Traditional charity and journalistic images characterise people living in poverty as sad, burdened, and dependent. They seldom reveal the full spectrum of human emotions: happiness, anger, love, guilt, surprise, jealousy. When we’re only subject to a limited range of images, it’s easy for us to believe that humans living in poverty are somehow incapable of accessing certain emotions. In other words, it’s easy to believe that they’re less human than we are.
But just as #blessed Instagram selfies only capture a brief moment of joy, so too does ‘poverty porn’ only reveal a brief moment of sadness. Sometimes people are happy and sometimes they’re sad, but that’s irrelevant when assessing whether somebody is rich or poor. We would be much better off considering their ability to access education; their capacity to defend their rights; their proximity to healthcare; or their access to capital.
Thankfully, bigger NGOs have been shifting away from negative imagery over the past few years. Nevertheless, the accompanying narrative remains with the public and donors alike. That is, that poverty is overwhelmingly depressing and that the people stuck in such circumstances are fundamentally different to you and me. This narrative invites us to help ‘poor people’ in the same way that we might help a sick animal or a small child; since they can’t help themselves, it’s up to us to fix it. NGOs owe it to their audience to highlight more human events like this, rather than the black-and-white images with which we can often release by default.
I favour this kind of content because I can identify with those Papua New Guinea pranksters, and I imagine other Australians can too. Their greetings might have alarmed my group, but their cheekiness also struck a chord with us. Who would have thought that a spear to the face could have left us feeling so comfortable?
As members of their community led me through their village, I could appreciate that the life they lived had many upsides – a limitless supply of mangoes; close proximity to the beach; communal interdependence – but could also observe what was holding them back. Although they never used the word ‘poverty’, they acknowledged the barriers to an improved life: lack of access to clean water; a high prevalence of sickness in their community; lack of funds to send their bright youth to university. Not only were the people I met more nuanced than what I gave them credit, but so too was their situation.
I imagine you could have chucked any Australian into that same village and they would have left with similar observations. The reality is, though, that most Australians will never make the journey out to a country like Papua New Guinea, let alone its remote provinces. It may be our closest geographic neighbors and one of our former colonies, but Bali and Queenstown will always be cheaper and safer options.
As such, it’s the responsibility of organisations that visit these parts of the world to remind us of the bleeding obvious – that those living in poverty share the same humanity that we do, and are far more invested in their quest to break out of poverty than any white donor could be.
When NGOs introduce us to real people with diverse emotions and backgrounds, we are more inclined to trust the subjects and their intent for a better life. And this here is my vision: an Australian public that sees the solution to poverty as being one of partnership rather than one of charity. It’s a subtle semantic difference, but a powerful conceptual one. It means that the impetus to donate isn’t pity or guilt or pride. Rather, people are generous with their money because they trust the local recipients and believe in working alongside them.
It’s a grand vision that’s a few years off. But who knows, maybe a viral Papua New Guinean prank might help us get there…
Written by Kevin Hawkins
Head of Live Below the Line