Enjoying the challenges in Papua New Guinea
In 1978, when Chris Sanderson and her husband Don decided to leave a settled life in Hastings to teach in newly independent Papua New Guinea, they could hardly have guessed that, as Chris puts it, “the forthcoming adventure would change me forever.” How that happened she describes in a fascinating detail in Another ‘Growing up in New Guinea,’ as Nick Terdre recounts.
The title is a reference to anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous study. Chris’s book is also full of anthropological interest, as well as being a lively personal tale of coming to terms with a very different culture. She and Don had already spent three years in Zambia, but their assignment in a newly built national high school in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, with three young children in tow, represented a challenge on a different scale. “You get into expat mode,” she explained as a reason for taking it on. “You have a thirst for adventure.”
The Sandersons immersed themselves in their new life with zest. After generations of colonial rule, the country had just been given its independence and there was an urgent need to educate young people to play a role in its future life. Chris and Don both had full-time teaching posts in a newly established high school, along with other expat staff from various countries. For the students too, it was a novel experience, many coming from remote villages where life had changed little over the years. This was a country with a population of only some three and half million, but 700 languages!
Seizing the opportunities
Following the Brexit vote, it is refreshing to be reminded that not all Brits are xenophobes or fearful of the outside world. Through the eight years they were there, the Sandersons grasped the opportunities on offer, filling the hours outside teaching time with extra-mural activities and social pursuits and even having another baby.
Chris was constantly fascinated by the contrasts with life in the UK. She was struck by the respect of students for their elders and the absence of snobbery: “There was no fear of manual labour, of getting their hands dirty,” compared with other places where “we had come across people who thought that education was the key to a sedentary life where one could pay others to do menial tasks.” There was no need to find ways to motivate the students: “…teaching was a pleasure, with students who were respectful and ready to listen to every word.”
Sometimes Chris was faced with situations which were simply beyond her ken, such as the day she noticed a student with a large beetle on his head. No one else commented so nor did she. “What could I say? I didn’t know if it was an ornament, something of cultural significance, a pet or even a practical way of dealing with head lice.”
Golding hits a chord
As an English teacher she had to find material to study that would mean something to her students – writers such as Dickens and Austen presented worlds difficult for them to understand, but novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, depicting the lost schoolboys’ journey from civilisation into savagery struck an obvious chord among students from a society in which inter-tribal warfare was still a living memory.
“It was of particular interest to the boys, I think, because they knew what would have been expected of them if they had been born two generations earlier and there were aspects of their culture that they regretted having to miss. These were young people torn between cultures.”
Another author who went down well was Shakespeare, whose play The Tempest Chris adapted for a student production. She thought it “…had so much relevance to this growing nation. Here were people whose way of life was changing because of visitors from another world and who were faced with questions about how much of the old way of life they should cast aside, which culture should prevail.” The production proved a great success.
The students had only a limited knowledge of Western culture, largely gained through films, music and radio, so for Chris this was an important area for expanding their horizons. The notion of acting was foreign to some – one young actress, who played the part of a woman who climbed the social ladder and began thinking herself superior to those she left behind, found herself criticised by some of her fellows as if the attitudes she portrayed in the play were what she really thought rather than an act.
Some parts of Western culture were enthusiastically adopted: an inter-class disco dancing competition initiated by Chris and a colleague was an immediate hit.
Chris herself had to rethink some of her attitudes in the light of the local culture. On one of her trips in search of the elusive bird of paradise, when she found herself scrabbling around in the mud after a rainy night, she decided that going barefoot like the local people was the best way. “I have known ever since then what toes are for! Apart from the need to keep feet warm in certain parts of the world, I really believe that shoes serve very little purpose…”
After living as an expat, you return to your native country with a sharper eye. When they came back to the UK in 1986, the Sandersons suffered reverse culture shock, Chris says. As an example, she mentions the time she found herself in a lift panelled with mirrors and was suddenly aware how important the personal image is to us. “In the West we’re obsessed with the way we look, but in PNG you were valued for who you were.
“I’m so glad my kids escaped that, but by the same token they were very naive when we came back.” That naivety was soon overcome, and was anyway a small price to pay for eight happy years crammed with memorable experiences.
I must own up to having known Chris for several years, so I might be considered a partisan reviewer, though I had no idea of her life in PNG until the book appeared. At first I wondered why it was so long, all 177 pages of it: surely going into that much detail was going to be boring? In the end that proved to be its strength – Chris has a habit of making telling observations and the details turn out to be anything but dry. I found it a great read and an encouraging example of a positive response to other peoples and cultures.
Another ‘Growing Up In New Guinea’: our lives in Papua New Guinea 1978-86 by Chris Sanderson. Available from Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road, Hastings TN34 1RE, £10. Also from Waterstone’s and Amazon. Prices vary. An electronic version is available from Lulu for £3.
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