Today is the last day of our fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. I’ve been here for the past 3 weeks or so with anthropologist James Leach piloting the first stage of a new kind of toolkit designed to help remote indigenous communities document and record – in their own hand and forms of expression – the kinds of traditional cultural, environmental, ecological and social knowledge (“TEK”) that are in danger of gradually fading away as development, resource extraction, industrialisation and the money economy erode their ability to live sustainably in the bush/jungle.
I flew to Perth in late February to spend a week with James preparing for our trip : gathering the gear we’d need to be able to co-design booklets using bookleteer offline in the bush, print them out and scan them back in, as well as documenting all these processes. James is currently on an ARC Future Fellowship at the University of Western Australia, as well as Professor and Director of Research for the French Pacific Research Institute, CREDO in Marseille. He has been working with the people of Reite village on Papua New Guinea’s Rai Coast (Madang Province) since 1993 and his 2003 book, Creative Land (Berghahn Books), is a major anthropological study of their culture and society. James and I have been collaborating on ideas of self-documentation of traditional knowledge and “indigenous science” ever since I introduced him to the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer back in 2008. When two Reite people, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, came to the UK in 2009 to take part in a project at the British Museum’s Ethnographic Dept telling stories and giving information about hundreds of objects from PNG in the collection, we first used the notebooks together to create a parallel series of documents about this encounter and what was revealed.
In 2012 I was invited to share my thoughts on how bookleteer and the books format could be used by indigenous people themselves at the Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on TEK at the University of Goroka in PNG. We followed this up with a trip to Reite village where we spent a week testing out our ideas with people from the village, and developing a simple co-design process for creating notebooks with prompts to help people (whose literacy varies dramatically) record and share things of value to them. The focus was to understand how far this idea could really deliver something of use and value to people who live a largely traditional way of life in the bush, and why they might want to do this. It became clear early on that the enormous enthusiasm was driven by concerns about how all the knowledge that has allowed their society to thrive in the bush for countless generations could easily vanish in the face of money, cash cropping and the speed of communications and change that factors like mobile phones are bringing – leading some young people to turn away from traditional life for the dubious advantages of a precarious life in the shanty towns on the edge of PNG’s growing cities. The notebooks offer a new kind of way to preserve and transmit such knowledge for future generations, especially as they combine the physical and the digital, meaning the loss of a physical copy of a book doesn’t matter when it has been digitised and stored online. The success of this first experiment enabled us to write a proposal for funding a 2 year pilot to the Christensen Fund (a US-based foundation) which awarded us funding in 2014.
After a brief stopover in Canberra to consult and share ideas with Colin Filer and Robin Hide of Australian National University (both PNG experts of longstanding), we headed straight to Madang to meet with James’ friend Pinbin Sisau (at whose home we would be staying in Reite village) and gather all the necessary stores to sustain us in the field for several weeks. After a day in Madang we took a dinghy, skippered by the ever-reliable Alfus, across Astrolabe Bay and South-East 60km or so along the Rai Coast to the black sand beach where we landed and were met by some villagers who’d help portage all our cargo the 10km inland we’d have to walk, up into the foothills of the Finisterre Mountains where Reite village is located (at about 300m above sea level).
James had visited Reite again recently, in October 2014, to discuss the upcoming field work and to gather more feedback on our original experiment so we could plan how, in practice, we could co-design notebook templates with the villagers and what we could prepare in advance to help this. A few small tweaks to prompts used in our 2012 co-designed notebook were made, as well as creating a simple printed version (I had handwritten all the notebooks we used before) on bookleteer and a new book for collective writing. To have the capability to design, generate and print out bookleteer books in the field, I commissioned Joe Flintham (Fathom Point Ltd) – who is bookleteer’s chief consultant programmer – to adapt a version of bookleteer to run offline (i.e. with no need for internet connectivity) on my Apple MacBook Air laptop. Joe created an Ubuntu Virtual Machine image of bookleteer (minus various online services) that runs on Oracle’s Virtual Box application. Combining this with a portable inkjet printer (a Canon Pixma iP110 with battery), a portable scanner (an EPSON DS-30) and the Polaroid PoGo & LG Pocket Photo PD239 Zink printers would give us a fully-fledged ‘bush publishing” capability. For paper we brought with us a supply of Aquascribe waterproof paper (a Tyvek-type product) and pre-printed and shipped some 170 copies of different book templates. The waterproof paper is a highly useful technology to use in the damp and humid environment, where ordinary pulp-based paper becomes fibrous very swiftly and disintegrates in a short time. Books printed and made on this paper (as we used before) have a much longer lifespan – possibly decades.
Reite is made up of several hamlets, being the name applied not just to one village but an administrative district from the colonial period. As such the people who took part in our project come not just from Reite itself, but from Sarangama, Yasing, Marpungae and Serieng. For the next two weeks of our fieldwork we were constantly engaged in discussions with local people about the books, what they might include in them and how they could help reinforce the importance of the knowledge of the land, plants, animals and environment that people here have developed over generations. Once again, James’ long-term collaborator and informant, Porer Nombo, was the hub around which much of the necessary energy to bring people together and discuss the ideas was focused. In addition to the 3 templates we had prepared before coming, we co-designed with Porer, Pinbin and several others with a keen interest (such as Peter Nombo and Katak Pulu) another 4 different styles of notebook for a range of different themes and types of ‘stori’ that people wanted to record. Overall, 63 books were completed by around 42 people during the fortnight we stayed in the village. The major difference in this project was that, rather than taking the books away to scan and return, the portable scanner meant that we could scan everyone’s book in the village itself. Thus we could store a digital copy (and print out another if needed) and leave the original in its author’s hands in the village. This was an important step, partly to underscore that the books were by and for people in the village, not for us, and also to counter ideas that we might be taking knowledge away from the village to profit from selling it. For us, the digitisation of the books is a critical component for transmission to the future as it means that the unique books, which are hand written and drawn in by their authors, can be retrieved and printed again if lost or damaged. We explained this to everyone in several meetings – both smaller ones within the house we stayed in, and a larger public meeting about halfway through the project.
As in our previous experiment, we designed the front cover of each book to include a photograph of the author (which we took using digital cameras and our smartphones and printed out on the sticky-backed photo paper of the PoGo & LG Zink printers). As well as describing the general themes of the prompts inside each book, the cover also includes the simple statement that the author has been told about and understands the project, as well as statements (which they can cross out if they don’t agree to) that the book can be scanned onto computer, and shared online. As it turned out, the excitement that people’s work would appear on the internet was palpable and a significant impetus behind participation. Having something they had made, with their picture on it, on the internet had real value – suggesting that the knowledge they have could both be seen by others around the world and known about across PNG too.
What became one of the most important aspects of the fieldwork was the way that the local primary school (St Monica’s Reite) adopted the books wholesale and wove them directly into the curriculum around social science and environmental studies. We met up with Mr Jonathan Zorro, the school headmaster, in the first days of our trip (I had met him on my previous trip and James again last October) and he confirmed that he was very keen for the school to become involved. It turned out that the school has a desktop PC with a laser printer and scanner, so it became clear that not only could the school print out copies of the books on standard A4 paper, but they could scan them in and store them locally on the school computer. We agreed to spend a day at the school to introduce the project to all the students and then to do some practical book-making demonstrations and workshops with each class. James also agreed to give each of the Upper school classes (years 5-8) a short lecture on the importance of traditional knowledge and how it relates to environmental studies and preserving the community’s way of life. Mr Zorro organised for 290 books to be printed at the school, with one of the key emphases being that the students should use both the Tok Pisin versions and the English versions to improve their language and descriptive skills. Mr Zorro kindly shared with us the assessment criteria which he also developed for the students’ work : assessing their English language skills, their artwork (drawing), narrative ability, use of social science and environmental studies knowledge. Within a week of our first presentation at the school many of the students had submitted books of their own and we ended up digitising 55 of the best ones.
We had planned for a visit by to Reite by Catherine Sparks (who is based in Vanuatu) and Yat Paol (based in PNG) from the Christensen Fund’s Melanesian programme, but Cyclone Pam intervened and our own visit to the village was cut short by a few days (due to some health and security issues) so we have ended up completing our fieldwork from a base in Madang. There we presented the work completed to Yat Paol and were also able to arrange a meeting for him with the school headmaster plus Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau who have been our steadfast colleagues in this project. Now we have scanned the 118 books we have been indexing their contents and details of the authors to prepare a specially designed website to act as an online repository of library for Reite, and beginning to analyse and work with Porer and Pinbin on some indigenous classifications for the kinds of knowledge and experience that they contain. As our time here draws to a close we find that we have a wealth of stories to develop new parts of the toolkit from, and a clear sense of direction for the project’s second stage.
Towards the end of October 2012 I boarded a flight to Sydney on the first leg of a journey to Papua New Guinea, where I was to give a presentation about public authoring and the Shareables we have created over the past dozen and more years. Through my friend, the anthropologist James Leach, I had been invited to participate in a symposium at the University of Goroka in PNG’s Eastern Highlands to share my thoughts and experiences of using hybrid tools and technologies with different communities to record and share their knowledge, stories and experiences – a process we have called public authoring since developing our Urban Tapestries project back in 2003.
I first got to know James at the University of Cambridge at a symposium he, Lee Wilson and Robin Boast co-organised for CRASSH where I was an invited speaker. We then began collaborating in 2009 when two Reite villagers, Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau, came to the UK to participate in a project at the British Museum Ethnography Department. Porer and Pinbin were invited to help identify hundreds of objects from the Rai Coast area of PNG that the BM has in its collections, but about which very little was known. In addition to the audio recording and photography of the objects, James wanted to capture something about the process of encountering and engaging with the objects; he turned to me to explore using the Diffusion Notebooks format we had previously discussed. Over the week or so of Porer and Pinbin’s visit to the BM Ethnographic Store in an east London warehouse several notebooks were made and shared online (these are also browsable on bookleteer and downloadable – Melanesia Project Notebooks). This small project was a personal turning point in several ways and when the opportunity came to visit PNG and to travel to Reite village itself with James I had no hesitation in accepting.
The Saem Majnep Memorial Symposium on Traditional Environmental Knowledge took place from October 31st to 2nd November and featured both local as well as international researchers. James and Porer Nombo presented their book, Reite Plants, as a potential model for sharing local traditional knowledge. I gave a presentation about how we have used the Diffusion eBook format and bookleteer in our work with different communities to record and share their stories, experiences and other things that they value. Prior to visiting PNG James and I had spent a few days discussing and sketching up some possible notebooks to take to Reite village. I had also researched a waterproof paper stock that could both be printed on and written on using universally available pens (such as biro and also Sharpie pens) – which was crucial in the hot and humid climate of PNG where ordinary paper is highly susceptible to mould, damp and disintegration. Taking a small amount of this paper with me, and some test printed waterproof eNotebooks, we made our way via Madang to Reite village.Once in the village, we realised that the sketches for notebooks that we had planned before were not quite right and that there was a unique opportunity to co-design a simpler approach that reflected local sensitivities to knowledge sharing. Working with Porer and Pinbin again, we devised a new formulation for the wording of the notebooks about the kind of subject matter we would be asking participants to record and share, as well as the provenance of their knowledge. A key ingredient was the informed consent statement that appears on the front cover of each notebook below the space for the participant’s photograph, which was printed and stuck on using a Polaroid PoGo printer, and beneath which each participant wrote their name after reading and agreeing.
Having just a limited supply of materials I was able to create 16 notebooks – far less than the number of people who wanted to take part – which were all handmade and written out in the village itself. At a morning meeting, the aims of the project were explained to the participants by Porer and James whilst I took their photos and printed them out to stick on the cover of their notebooks. As a simple pilot, we asked the participants to write about just one thing in their environment about which they had specific knowledge – knowledge that was their’s to share (i.e. not taboo or magical knowledge, hap tok in Tok Pisin). It was important that everyone taking part understood exactly what we were doing and why – that this was intended and an experiment to explore new ways for their community to record what they know and to be able to pass in on to their descendants as well as to share with others.
By the end of our week in the village all 16 notebooks had been returned, filled with stories, drawings and information – the first time I have had a 100% return rate in any participation project! Disassembling each of the notebooks back into flat sheets, I used a cheap portable hand scanner to create our very first digital versions of the notebooks, which were saved as multi-page PDF files for immediate sharing. Once back in our London studio I was able to take more accurate scans on a desktop scanner, but the use of the portable scanner to capture and immediately share (via SD card) digital versions of the notebooks was another useful demonstration of the simplicity of the whole process for sharing in the field without access to mains electricity and the usual infrastructure required for file sharing.
James provided some English translations to the notebooks, which we then incorporated into new versions made and shared on bookleteer – all of which can be browsed online or downloaded as A4 PDFs for making into handmade books in this collection – Reite and Sarangama Notebooks. We also combined the 16 notebooks into three larger bookleteer books grouped together according to subject matter accompanied by a book written by us (in both Tok Pisin and English) browsable or downloadable (as A3 PDFs) in the collection – TEK Pilot 1. Two of these books were recently printed in a small run using bookleteer’s Short Run printing service and sent out to subscribers of the Periodical – read about them here. We are sending handmade versions of all the books and notebooks back to the participants in Reite and Saragama villages, laser printed on another waterproof paper stock for durability.
Our longer terms aims are to expand this process for simple tools and techniques for recording and sharing local traditional cultural and ecological knowledge into a toolkit that could be used in different contexts and situations, and which is, as far as possible, technology agnostic. To do this we plan to return to Reite in 2014 to continue our co-design and collaboration with the villagers there, and to then devise a basic toolkit which can be shared with other people and communities in PNG, then potentially further afield. I would love to hear from others working with traditional or remote communities who’d like to share ideas and perhaps experiment with the process and tools we’ve developed so far.
On the trip to PNG I kept a diary of my experiences for my then 8 year old daughter, which I digitised using bookleteer. It is personal and written with her in mind, yet it is probably the best way to communicate some of the intense experiences I had in the village – with a culture and society that is so very different to my own yet offered so much to me in generosity of welcome, food, gifts and in spirit.