Learn the Local Language! Or, An “A” for Effort in Papua New Guinea
Given my background in indigenous rights and community development, I always stress to students or fellow coffee travelers the importance of learning a few words in the local language. This is a major, and unexpected, show of respect for the farmers and their families. Even just “hello” and “thank you” in their tongue goes a long way in opening the door to a real relationship. But sometimes, even the best laid plans of mocha and men “aft gang aglay” (that’s Robert Burns’ poetic Scottish for “often go astray” if you weren’t an English major in the 1970’s).
On my first trip to the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea I wanted to be sure and impress the farmers with how much time I had spent studying their culture and, if not their particular language (there are over 860 of them!), at least a good chunk of tok pisin, the national language made up of Malay, Dutch, English and local languages that allows folks to communicate between tribes. It is a simple and straightforward amalgam, and very lyrical (“Igat pukpuk long wara?” – Are there crocodiles in this river?). I was invited to make speeches to every group we came across, and since every mile we walked meant we were entering a new tribal territory, I had ample opportunity to practice. My first speech was to a gathering of about seven thousand people at a “coffee festival” that had been hastily arranged for my visit. Hey, it wasn’t often that a buyer came up into the mountainous, roadless Eastern Highlands. People walked up to eight hours from who knows where to participate in the dancing, singing and speechmaking. They wore everything from Bird of Paradise feathered headgear to coffee branch togas to hardly anything at all. I was told that the last white man many folks had seen was an Australian soldier who got lost during World War II. I asked what happened to him.
“He’s buried over there,” came the reply.
Many folks addressed the festival before I spoke. There was the four hundred pound Member of Parliament MP Willie, who was booed off the stage amidst calls of “Liar!” and “You stole the money!” The highlanders of PNG take democratic participation to a level that blows our primary caucus meetings away. There was a great band Doi Diop (Firefly) who rocked the place. Several community organizers (“Women deserve respect and equal participation”) and public service announcements (“No witchcraft is allowed at the festival”) enlightened the crowd.
Then it was my turn to speak. Iggy, my host, introduced me as the man who came all the way from America to help the farmers organize and get more money for their coffee. I was ready to try out my tok pisin.
“Apinun tru, ol meri na man blong Papua-Niu-Gini!” A roar from the crowd. “Dispela cofi em i swit moa yet! (This coffee is delicious!)” A good start, but I knew enough to quit while I was ahead. I told them in English that if they organized into cooperatives and worked together, they would be able to sell directly to exporters and roasters and go past the middlemen who had always cheated them. They would get much more money.
“How much?” yelled a man from the crowd roughly.
“Yeah! How much?” chimed in others.
I tried a quick mental calculation of dollars into kina and pounds into kilos. I told them I wasn’t completely sure, but I thought they’d get between six and nine kina for a kilo of beans (that’s about eighty cents per pound). Kekas, a community organizer, had told me the farmers sold a kilo to the middlemen for one kina now (fifteen cents per pound). The crowd paid closer attention after that, applauding after most of my statements. Figuring I had spoken enough for now, as we were going to have more tok-tok over dinner, I decided to close with my well-rehearsed line.
“Tank yu tru, tank yu straight. Mi tok-tok pinis now!” I expected a final round of cheers, but the crowd stayed seated and looked even more attentive. I asked Iggy why people weren’t applauding, why they were just staring at me. Iggy leaned over and whispered,
“You just said, ‘Thank you, I am going to talk about my penis now.’”
“But I thought pinis meant ‘finished’!” I was totally embarrassed.
“It does, if you say it right. It’s more like pin-nis.”
“Uh, thanks, I’ll remember that.”
“Well, you got a choice now. You can end the speech or talk about your pinis. Nobody here has ever seen a whiteman pinis. I think they’re pretty curious.”
“Nope, that’s it for now,” I said quickly. “Maybe after dinner.”
Iggy got up and told the crowd that my talk was over. Big applause and cheers, a couple of groans and disappointed looks. Iggy patted me on the back and summed up our long road of work ahead to improve coffee quality, organize and insure more money for the farmers in PNG,
“When you start a fire it takes a while. Sometimes, it needs a little wind to make it kick in.” The crowd murmured agreement. It must have been a local expression. Iggy ended with a flourish. “But Mr. Dean here is not a little wind. He is a big wind! He is a very big wind!” The crowd went wild. The band clanged, tooted, and danced the meeting to a close.
By Dean Cycon, Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company