TKRN: Groundwork for Legacy

May 21, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

Reite participants at TKRN Legacy Workshop, Bismarck Ramu Group, Madang

It is now more than five years since my first visit to Papua New Guinea and Reite village, on Madang Province’s Rai Coast. I’ve just completed my fourth field trip there with anthropologist, James Leach, where we have been conducting the first stage of a 2 year legacy and handover phase for TK Reite Notebooks, supported again by The Christensen Fund. Our aim is to establish a firm base for Reite people to have control over the tools and techniques we have co-developed with them, and for them to have both the confidence, capability and capacity to share not only their own Traditional Knowledge with others, but to train other communities, who wish to adopt it, in the TKRN Toolkit‘s use too.

Over the years we have been exploring potential partnerships with local organisations both in PNG and in Vanuatu, hoping to build a network of support for TKRN and those using it. Last year James met with Banak Gamui of the Karawari Cave Arts Fund – an NGO based in Madang – who is active in supporting traditional cultural preservation and regeneration initiatives in Madang Province, including the Madang-Maror Network. Banak agreed to help support Reite people continue to use the Toolkit beyond the project’s end, by hosting the basic publishing kit (laptop, printer & scanner) at KCAF’s office and strengthening Reite’s connections with other communities in the area also active in practising, documenting and preserving Kastom culture. In addition, Yat Paol, of Gildipasi/Madang-Maror, was also able to broker a connection with Bismarck Ramu Group, another local NGO which supports communities retain their land and water rights against extractive development. BRG agreed to host a 3 day workshop and 18 participants from Reite and its neighbouring villages, Marpungae, Asang, Soriang and Sarangama, travelled up to Madang to take part, along with Banak Gamui, Yat Paol and Catherine Sparks – formerly Melanesia Program Officer of The Christensen Fund.

Over these days, we increased the core group we had been working with from the village and undertook refresher training in making and using the notebooks co-developed previously. Much time was also spent in discussions about what exactly TK (Traditional Knowledge) means to people for whom it is still an everyday practice – rather than a ‘heritage’ practice as many Western traditions are often relegated to. One of our key Reite collaborators, Urufaf Anip of Marpungae, came up with a popular transliteration – Timbuna Kastom – which seems to capture much of what is both special and at risk about their way of life. Timbuna could be understood as the ancestor spirits which animate the bush, as well as descendants and those to come. Kastom is the traditional way of life that communities in PNG followed for countless generations before the arrival of missionaries and colonialism. As both Christianity, the money economy and industrial development (mining, logging, monocultural farming, factory fishing and other extractive processes) have supplanted traditional beliefs and ways of living, so more and more Papuans have found their connection to land, bush and water have been severed, and their lives made more precarious.

This connection is at the heart of what makes this project such a timely opportunity to revitalize social cohesion and knowledge transmission around the importance of those communities which have retained a strong traditional culture. The workshops also underlined the crucial importance of Tok Ples – local language – which is the blood of Timbuna Kastom/Traditional Knowledge’s beating heart. PNG has over 800 individual languages (not dialects) – with some ranging from just a few tens to thousands of speakers. Until very recently, communities across PNG were almost exclusively oral in culture, writing and literacy being a product of interaction with traders, missionaries and then colonial administration. But there is an intensely rich visual culture – each community creating unique designs reflected in their crafting of objects and decorations as well as styles of house building. Designs are often deeply symbolic, communicating specific stories and meanings, or relating to particular locations. Language and visual design are thus deeply intertwined with the particular geographies and environments which PNG’s many and diverse communities inhabit and steward. Maintaining and strengthening this diversity is as crucial as maintaining the diversity of plants and seed banks for genetic variety. PNG’s school system still teaches predominantly in English, and over the years Pidgin, Tok Pisin, has become the main national language, to the point now where children in many communities are not being brought up to speak their local Tok Ples first, but Pisin instead. As the unique relationships to place are loosened in this way, the connection to land slackens and people are persuaded to register and sell their land to outsiders. For a country where around 80% of people are still reliant on subsistence food production (through their gardens) this is clearly catastrophic.

On the wall of the BRG Community Room where we held the workshop, there is an inspiring quotation from PNG’s 1975 Constitutional Planning Committee:

This is placed next to a copy of the PNG National Goals and Directive Principles:

The workshop provided us with a space and place to collectively retread the ideas and experiments of the past 5 years, and to reiterate the aspirations and ambitions for what the tools and the continued practice of kastom means to traditional communities. Being held in a less isolated and rural setting it also gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the digital aspects that are harder to achieve in the bush: scanning in notebooks and uploading to the online library which we created for Reite. Although almost all the villagers have never used a computer before, are completely unused to keyboards and have only a slim grasp of the workings of file systems and structures, windows and desktop metaphors – they acknowledge the potential benefits that this form of recording and sharing can offer them and are quick to learn it use. Two people (Urufaf and his sister Pasen) were chosen to be the leaders of this activity and to receive additional training later in our visit.

Practising with TKRN notebooks at BRG

The workshop had been programmed to precede and important ceremony in the village, and on its conclusion the villagers, James, myself, Banak, Catherine and Yat’s wife and son made the day-long journey in two small dinghies across Astrolabe Bay and down the Rai Coast, then up 400m above sea level and 10km inland to Reite village, where we would be staying. Over the next days a series of ceremonies and events took place that demonstrated Reite’s strong hold on kastom, the richness of their culture, and just how keenly people wish to continue this way of life into the future and for the benefits of future generations. We took part in a night-time Tamburan event (a performance of secret, sacred instruments) that began in the bush before moving into a Haus Tamburan itself. This was followed the following day by a large kastom food distribution between one village and families of another, followed the next day by a reconciliation payment ceremony and the all-night Singsing to conclude the festivities. In amongst these ceremonies, James, Banak, Catherine and I were invited to address the local school (which James and I worked with back in 2015) about our respective projects and the importance of traditional culture, tok ples and caring for the environment.

The ceremonies over, we rested for a day then returned to Madang for a final couple of days intensive media training with Urufaf and Pasen. This involved introducing them both to the computer from first principles, getting them used to using it for scanning documents, file management, email and using the internet. With the assistance of Banak & KCAF in Madang, and from me remotely from the UK, we will be supporting them gradually take over the maintenance of the Reite Online Library – scanning and uploading completed TKRN notebooks and expanding the resource. As their confidence and fluency with digital technologies grow, there is the potential to increase their skills to include designing their own notebooks and using bookleteer to generate their own publications.

Urufaf & Pasen after 2 days media training

The success of the workshop at BRG and the excitement generated in the village during the ceremonies, has had a significant effect in making the longer term aspirations of the project begin to see light. Reite people are growing in confidence and desire to share this method of practicing and documenting culture and kastom to other interested communities in the region and, in so doing, to establish a name and reputation for themselves. Plans are already underway for a Reite to host a group of representatives from other Madang Province communities next year to demonstrate this and share the TKRN Toolkit and training.

More TKRN work in Papua New Guinea

May 27, 2016 by · 3 Comments 

Finisterre Mountains on the Rai Coast, seen across Astrolabe Bay from Madang

Finisterre Mountains on the Rai Coast, seen across Astrolabe Bay from Madang

I’ve recently returned from Papua New Guinea where, with James Leach, I have been doing field work for our TK Reite Notebooks (TKRN) project. This follows on from our work last year in Reite village on Madang’s Rai Coast, and also from our trip to Vanuatu in February, where we worked with a group of women fieldworkers and the Vanuatu Cultural Centre.

Having established the model of working with the notebooks with Reite villagers last year, the focus of our trip in this second year of the project was not to produce more books, but to explore how and if the model would work with other communities and, to find other local partners for whom the tools and techniques we have developed could be useful additions to their own methods and practices of documenting traditional knowledge.

Through our close discussions with Catherine Sparks and Yat Paol of The Christensen Fund (our project’s main sponsor), we identified some possibilities – the Research + Conservation Foundation (RCF) of Papua New Guinea (in Goroka, Eastern Highland Province); and Tokain village, Bogia District (Madang Province). Having arrived in Madang and met up with two of our key collaborators from Reite – Porer Nombo and Pinbin Sisau – we made plans to travel up the coast to the village of Tokain and stay a few days to introduce our model to local people. James and I then travelled to Goroka to spend a day at RCF meeting with their director, Sangion Tiu, education programme manager, Emmie Betabete, and resource officer, Milan Korarome. We learnt about RCF’s work in communities and in teacher training, and presented our TKRN approach. This resonated strongly with RCF whose staff spoke of the problem of documenting traditional knowledge in both school and village settings. It was a lovely moment when their enthusiasm for the books spilled over and we decided on the spot to co-design a new template with them. We then spent a while devising questions about climate change for elementary schoolchildren, which RCF will pilot this summer.

We returned to Madang after this highly successful meeting and the next day set out for Tokain with Porer, Pinbin and another young man from Reite, Urufaf, who has become a key proponent of using the TKRN books in his own community. Piling aboard a PMV (an open back truck with benches and a tarpaulin for sun/rain cover) we bumped along the highway following the coast north for about 4 hours before arriving. Many people from the village turned out to meet us and hear Porer, Pinbin and James introduce what the Reite villagers had done with the TKRN books and why it was important to them to preserve and transmit their culture and knowledge to future generations this way. The following morning we walked around different parts of the village meeting people going to market and in the community office, where they have a laptop and printer/scanner of their own, giving us an opportunity to demonstrate the whole cycle of printing off a PDF booklet, filling it in, scanning and storing it as a PDF on the computer and printing out another copy of the scanned book.

On the PMV, Porer & Urufaf

On the PMV, Porer & Urufaf

Tokain market

Tokain market

addressing Tokain's schoolchildren & teachers

addressing Tokain’s schoolchildren & teachers

Then we addressed all the students from the elementary and primary schools, their teachers and some of the village elders – again, the focus being on the Reite villagers explaining their use of the books and how the school in Reite had adopted the books as part of their own curriculum activities on environmental science and cultural heritage. This indigenous or local exchange of documentation practices (with James and myself taking a secondary role as facilitators rather than teachers) is very much the beginning of where we see the TKRN model developing in the future. The afternoon was spent workshopping ideas for the booklets and getting people used to the cutting and folding process for making up the books, as well as taking their photos to stick onto their books – always a popular aspect of the process. This continued well into the night with the convivial atmosphere of a house party surrounding the guesthouse where we stayed.

Porer Nombo explaining the TKRN books and method to Tokain villagers

Porer Nombo explaining the TKRN books and method to Tokain villagers

Dusk falls as people continue to gather to hear about TKRN

Dusk falls as people continue to gather to hear about TKRN

We left Tokain having agreed to meet up in a week or so’s time with a representative from the village who would bring us the first batch of completed books to scan and for me to build a simple website for – as I did last year for Reite (Reite Online Library).

Preparing the boat for the trip to Reite

Preparing the boat for the trip to Reite

From Madang we set off across Astrolabe Bay and down the Rai Coast to return to Reite for a few days and discuss with the community what had happened since our last field trip and what we proposed to do next. A meeting was organised and many people also came from neighbouring villages and hamlets: Sarangama, Asang, Marpungae and Serieng. Porer, Pinbin and Urufaf all spoke about the project, what was achieved last year, what we had just done at Tokain and how important it is for knowledge to continue to thrive and be passed on to future generations despite all the changes happening to the world around them. James also spoke of our visit to Vanuatu, how we had shared some of the Reite books with the indigenous fieldworkers there and we showed them some of the books made by the ni-Vanuatu people we met.

Public meeting in Reite

Public meeting in Reite

The response was dramatically positive, with people calling for a revival of teaching and learning in their traditional local language, Nekgini, alongside using Tok Pisin to document stories and practices. A core group of people interested in taking the lead to build up a library of traditional knowledge also emerged, a group who were also prepared to go ‘on patrol’ to other local villages to share with them the TKRN methods. We left over 250 blank books in the village, as well as a simple to operate Polaroid Snap camera (and several hundred sheets of Zink photo paper) to take and print out photos of people to stick on the front covers. By shifting the focus from the familiar and everyday towards the more esoteric, and perhaps endangered, types of knowledge of their environment that Reite people have, we are hoping they will be able to develop a truly unique and exemplary library that could inspire others across PNG, Melanesia and perhaps even farther afield to document their traditional knowledge before it is lost. We also took the opportunity to improve the design of the books, redesigning the front covers to allow for more contextual information about the author and the books contents, and rewriting the engaged consent statement on the front for better clarity.

Returning again to Madang we met with Ernest Kaket from Tokain and scanned in the books he’d brought with him from the village. These now form the foundation of their own online library which we hope to expand in due course.

Our next steps are to make a return visit to Vanuatu with a couple of Reite villagers to introduce their use of the TKRN model themselves; and to continue to develop the basis of a partnership with RCF as a means of extending the reach across PNG of the tools and methods we’ve co-created with Reite people.

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Dawn breaks across Astrolabe Bay

Bookleteering with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre

March 14, 2016 by · 4 Comments 

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Over the past 2 weeks I have been in Port Vila, Vanuatu in the South Pacific with James Leach and Lissant Bolton (Keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum) working with the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta (Bislama for Vanuatu Cultural Centre). Lissant organised and led a special workshop with a group of women fieldworkers on the theme of current changes to kinship systems (supported by the Christensen Fund). The fieldworkers are ni-Vanuatu (local) people representing some of the many different vernacular language groups from across the many islands who do voluntary work to record and preserve traditional culture and knowledge. The fieldworker programme has been established and overseen by the Cultural Centre (VKS) for over 35 years and is a unique initiative where local people gather “cultural knowledges about all the aspects of the customary art of living of Vanuatu”. Each year the fieldworkers gather together to share their research with each other and contribute to the documentation held at the VKS.

Lissant had invited James and I to visit Vanuatu with her and introduce the TKRN toolkit and techniques to the fieldworkers participating in the kinship workshop, as well as to meet with others working on different projects at the VKS. The low cost and ease of use of the TKRN booklets – both for collecting documentation in rural settings as well as digitising and archiving (both online and as hard copies) – made it an obvious tool to share. Prior to leaving London, Lissant and I had made some initial examples of Bislama (the local pidgin) notebooks for Vanuatu similar to those created in Tok Pisin for Papua New Guinea. These would be tested with the women fieldworkers during the workshop and we planned to adapt them with their assistance, as we have done in PNG with local people from Reite village.

In Port Vila James and I were also were introduced to Paula Aruhuri of the Vanuatu Indigenous Land Defence Desk, an organisation that promotes awareness of indigenous custom and land rights across Vanuatu and campaigns to stop land alienation from traditional owners. With Paula we co-designed a simple reporting notebook for the fieldworkers who deliver awareness events to local communities that will assist the land desk in documenting local people’s concerns and how they might be able to help them. And we met with Edson Willie of the VKS Akioloji Unit (Heritage Unit), with whom we co-designed a notebook for fieldworkers to record heritage sites.

The women fieldworkers experimented with one of the notebook formats and helped us re-design the front cover and write up a more appropriate ethics statement that reflected their different concerns about sharing traditional knowledge. In this case they chose not to share their books online (as we did in Reite), but to have them scanned, re-printed and stored in the ‘Tabu Rum’ of the VKS, the audio-visual archives. Local concerns about rights to aspects of traditional knowledge in Melanesia are a major theme and extremely important to design for. Developing tactics and a strategy to enable clear documentation and permission for sharing has been at the heart of the TKRN co-design process. Lissant has written about this issue in the context of Vanuatu and it also reflects on James’ work with Porer Nombo from Reite on their book Reite Plants in this essay.

We are planning to return to Vanuatu later in the year with some Reite people to participate in a knowledge exchange around the TKRN toolkit and techniques with men and women fieldworkers of the VKS. In this way we hope to develop a model of adoption whereby communities learn from each other how to use and adapt the toolkit for their own purposes, with our role being more one of facilitation than education or training. As a toolkit designed from the grassroots up, I hope to continue expanding on the concept of ‘public authoring’ that has driven the development of bookleteer and the ‘shareables’ it enables people to make and share.

In late April James and I will return to Papua New Guinea to work with Reite villagers to introduce the TKRN toolkit to a couple of other villages in Madang Province – this should provide an good indication of the possibilities and limitations of how a model of community knowledge transfer and adaptation can work.

Reite Village Online Library

September 21, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

This website has been created as an online library of TKRN notebooks made by the villagers of Reite and its neighbours in Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province. These books were created during a field trip in March 2015 and we hope to add many more in the future. We aim to transfer management of the site to the villagers themselves in due course, so that they can continue growing the library for future generations. As 4G mobile internet service penetrates into the jungle where they live and more local people own smartphones and connected devices, this is an increasingly likely possibility.

Mixing the physical and digital in this way means that traditional knowledge and customs may be preserved and transmitted forwards by embracing some of the changes that industrialisation and urbanisation bring to traditional rural communities. By working alongside the existing relationships of knowledge exchange it offers new opportunities for inter-generational collaboration on self-documentation of stories, experiences, history and practical knowledge of working with and sustaining the local ecology and environment.

The site itself is extremely simple and uses only free services: a free WordPress.com blog as the primary interface for organising and sharing the books; and a free Dropbox account as the primary repository of the PDF files of the scanned books. It is a key component in our TKRN Toolkit, and closes the loop in our use of hybrid digital and physical tools and techniques.

The villagers themselves developed their own categories and taxonomies for cataloguing the books, which have all been tagged accordingly. The books are thus searcheable by title, author and subject(s). Many of the books include an author photo on the cover page; a thumbnail image of the scanned book was included in each post, and a blog theme chosen that presents the main page as a mosaic of images from the posts. For communities with highly varied literacies, it also enables visual recognition both of the author’s faces, and in many cases their handwriting or drawing style.