My week in Papua New Guinea as the UK's cultural emissary sent by the British Council was full of surprises. I have decided to show you the pictures of myself in tribal costume standing with a pig before they appear on the cover of Private Eye with a rude caption coming out of my head. There are other, even more embarrassing photographs of me attempting to join in some local dancing, but I think we'll draw a veil over that. My starring appearance at the Papua New Guinea film festival didn't quite go according to plan either. The venue, an open-air school by the beach in the nation's capital, Port Moresby, was packed with local bigwigs. After cocktails, I took the microphone to make a short speech and found I was competing with about a hundred religious fanatics chanting on the sand nearby. Luckily, years of bellowing orders has meant that my voice can carry at least a hundred metres and, speech delivered, I left the audience settling down to enjoy My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Later that night I found myself in a nightclub chatting to the Prime Minister's daughter to the strains of Eminem. I wanted to ask why few people are brave enough to walk the streets of Port Moresby after dark, and why everybody's houses were surrounded by razor wire and chain-link fences, but I thought better of it. A sign at the airport tells people that "no firearms are allowed beyond this point". It's that kind of place.
Papua New Guinea has 850 languages (about a third of all the indigenous languages left in the world today) and rural tribes who still settle disputes by attacking each other. Impenetrable terrain meant that parts of the interior were only discovered in the mid-1930s. This vast country has some of the most beautiful scenery you'll find any-where, from lush steep-sided valleys in the Highlands to dozens of unspoilt islands in turquoise waters teeming with fish. Everywhere I went I heard the same question - why do all new democracies suffer so much from corruption? (The country has had full independence only since 1975.) At lunch, the Chief Ombudsman Mr Ila Geno (a former police chief) told me that his leadership tribunal investigates more than 3,000 cases each year and has just recommended that the Deputy Prime Minister should lose his job. The streets of Port Moresby are full of litter and the roads are in an appalling state. More than 170,000 people live in shanty towns in dreadful conditions, refusing to return to their villages, where they could grow enough food to live on, preferring to beg in the capital, where there is no chance of a job. Quite simply, the government has run out of money. There is no free health service and if you are diagnosed with Aids you will be lucky to live nine months. In spite of all this, I have never met a more courteous and charming group of people, and when I went to the Highlands to see Benjamin Zephaniah recite his poetry in an impressive new auditorium at the university in Goroka, I was pleased to note that he was rapturously received by a capacity crowd of 500, from children to grandparents.
Arriving in Kavieng at the northern end of the islands which make up the province of New Ireland, I was greeted with a song from the local choir. As the strains of "Welcome, welcome Janet Street-Porter" floated across the tarmac, a bolt of lightning struck a tree nearby, killing one person and injuring several others. I hoped it was not an omen. Ian Ling-Stuckey, the Governor, had asked me to come and talk to local women. Little did I realise that this meant participating in an exotic pageant. In the village of Mansava in the Tsoi Islands, I found the beach lined with hundreds of people. My official greeter was a joker with large white plastic sunglasses, dreadlocks of sea moss, a yellow vegetable-fibre skirt and garlands of shells. Only later did I realise he was also (inexplicably) wearing a double strand of white plastic ladies' pearls. With lips and mouth stained bright red from chewing betel, he was straight from the pages of Vogue. We visitors - the British High Commissioner, the French Ambassador, Pablo from the PNG cultural organisation UK Connect, and Ian - were ushered behind a large tarpaulin and told to take our tops off. There are some things, dear readers, that I will not do, even for the British Council. Wrapped in a yellow robe, tied up with grass, I had leaves wound around my arms, and a natty yellow fibre-and-shell band placed over my hair. Next came the paint job, charcoal and white powder made from ground-up coral. It felt like battery acid but looked suitably war-like when I emerged, to cheers all round.
After I'd shaken hands with dozens of people, dancers "rowed" me with oars into the village square, where I was presented with a pile of coconuts, some yams and a small, very cross pig tied to a pole. As we posed for photos, the pig bit the British High Commissioner on the bottom. Then it was time for another song and a procession into the village hall, where I talked about being a woman with four husbands (much hilarity as this is a country where men take four wives) and a long career. All this was duly translated into pidgin, and then the women made a series of speeches asking the dignitaries present for funds to build a sewing room and a covered market.
You cannot visit somewhere like this without feeling ashamed at how hard women have to work to make ends meet, and yet how friendly and welcoming they were to a stranger like me. Up in the Eastern Highlands outside Goroka, Miriam and Steve Layton are developing low-tech solutions for people in a rural area where the government does very little - making classrooms from thatch, low-cost lavatories for schools and desks that are portable, as well as self-help kits for those with Aids. This is a male-dominated culture (only one female MP, who is also a cabinet minister), and one community leader told me that adultery is still regularly dealt with by duels, when the husband and the lover fight each other with bows and arrows. Above all, this is a country rich in assets such as oil, minerals and fertile soil, but cash poor. Increasing the number of tourists who would like to explore the national parks is not easy because the government cannot afford to mend the roads to them.
But to see Benjamin reciting his poems about universal subjects such as "mum" and "money" to children giggling in delight made me feel more optimistic for the future. On the other hand the national newspaper the Post Courier has replaced all its office windows with bullet-proof glass, and every single one of the reporters has been threatened with a gun or attacked. But I must end with good news. I took my pig from Mansava, and did not, as is the custom, build a fire and cook it in the hot earth. It's been christened Janet and is currently alive and well in Ian's garden. I may not like pets, but wild pigs are another matter.Reuse content