Category Archives: Colonialism

Why do whites have so much cargo?

The opening narrative of “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” by Jared Diamond depicts a man named Yali from New Guinea asking the question, “Why is that you white people developed much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”  I was 34 when I first read this book, and the question Yali posed made me smile.

When we moved to Papua New Guinea from the United States, we were afforded by the mission a certain sized crate to ship belongings over.  We were warned that at best, the shipment would arrive 3 months after our arrival by plane, thus we were encouraged to bring as much as the airlines would allow with us on the journey, knowing it needed to last us that whole time. My folks had two small children in tow: so our suitcases contained not only clothes and towels and toiletries, but toys as well. At that time, the airlines would allow one carry on bag, and two checked bags free of charge.

Our flight left St. Louis, with a layover in Los Angeles, and another in Honolulu.  My parents scheduled us a few days in Hawaii as a means of adjusting to the time change, climate and temperature change, etc.  When we arrived in Honolulu, and attempted to hail a cab to take us to our hotel, we realized this could be quite a production.  We’d need a van or a large station wagon to carry us as we had so much ‘cargo’ along for the trip.

When my father finally flagged down a large station wagon cab, we crowded to the curb with all our luggage.  The driver opened the back of the wagon, then rounded the car to the curb we were waiting on.  He eyeballed our bags-all twelve of them-with obvious amusement and skepticism.  “Just how long are you visiting Hawaii?” he asked.  Mom’s response was quick “Three days.”  He stood there gapping, then shaking his head laughing, loaded the car.  When we arrived at the hotel, mom quietly asked dad why the cabby acted so strangely.  Dad explained, “He thought we each had 3 suitcases for our visit to Hawaii.  That’s one suitcase a day for each of us.”

Little did we know that this interpretation of our baggage would serve as a metaphor for our whole tenure in New Guinea.


In light of the CoastWatchers…

The mission owned a house on the north shore of Papua New Guinea in the resort town of Madang.  Only 4 degrees south of the equator, and 250 miles north of the Great Barrier Reef, this tropical paradise was home of some of the most amazing snorkeling and scuba diving in the world.  The Coral Sea was virtually pristine, the waters warm and crystal clear.

In honor of not being understood

The mission house was all of 50 yards from the harbor–a country club and golf course stood between our house and the open water.  To the North, about 1/2 a mile from our veranda stood The CoastWatchers Memorial Lighthouse.  This was a very modern looking monument erected post-World War II in honor of the Navajo US soldiers whose intervention in the pacific saved countless American and Allied lives from the Japanese.  Why the Navajo?  Apparently their language and syntax is wholly unique from any other documented, known language.  They could sneak into the mountains and watch the bays below for Japanese war ships.  They would radio in coordinates of the enemy ships to American bases speaking in Navajo–the unbreakable code which was their native tongue–and tip off the US Navy to the enemy’s whereabouts.  US planes would swoop in and take out the Japanese, leaving the US soldiers largely unscathed.

The lighthouse was a comforting presence in Madang.  I could lay in bed in my room and watch the light periodically glide it’s way through the window and around the walls of my room as it slowly turned in endless nocturnal circles.  I thought a lot about those Navajo men- how very displaced they must have felt, fighting a battle for the honor of a nation who has treated them as second class citizens; how odd it must be to be celebrated for being incomprehensible.

I must confess: I identified with the Navajo. I was a third culture kid-not really “American” any more, not really Papua New Guinean, but some thing in between.  Some tertium quid. That we lived in such luxury half the year as ‘missionaries’ also created dissonance.  How could we ex-patriates wander the beach, the resort, the golf course and then minister to those without adequate medical care, nutrition, clothing or shelter?  We lived in the light of the CoastWatchers, as well as in its shadow.  We were incomprehensible.