It’s been incredible to get to spend the last 3 and a bit weeks doing oral history interviews with West Papuans about their lives. I’ve learnt a lot about the history I’m studying and gained a different perspective on my thesis and these historic events. I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt from the West Papuans here in Papua New Guinea is how to live with passion and purpose.
During my interviews I asked the West Papuans about West Papuan history in the 1960s and 1970s, how they came to be in PNG, their experiences living in PNG, what stories they were told about West Papua growing up, and their hopes for the future of West Papua. One of the recurring themes to emerge throughout the interviews was how the struggle for West Papuan independence and the hope for a better future framed the whole way they approached life and provided a purpose for their everyday lives. Both young and old spoke about how despite the struggles and hardships, they persevered and dedicated themselves to making use of every opportunity available – education, resources, jobs – to help develop themselves, to support their community and to ensure the best possible future for West Papua. The injustice they saw happening in West Papua, the discrimination and the persecution, lead them to make the most of all they had in Papua New Guinea, however limited.
Many young West Papuans made sure to study politics at university, no matter what their major was, to help them to be better leaders and to ensure they could participate in the political struggle for West Papua. One West Papuan I interviewed told me about how she had worked hard at school to do well and win scholarships in order to be able to get a good job. With her career she hoped to be able to gain a position of influence where she would have a platform to share about West Papua. At the same time she used the resources from her job to house her family and to financially support the West Papuans in her community.
This passion the West Papuans showed wasn’t just to improve their own lives but those of all West Papuans, to support the generation who had come before them and lay the foundation for those who would come after. If they had education, it was used to educate others. If they had finances, it was to support the community. If they had a home, it was to provide refuge.
I don’t want to make light of the suffering many West Papuans have gone through and still experience on a daily basis, but I want to point out how these experiences have shaped their lives and forged a hope that has sustained them. A hope not only for the future but for the present. While they persistently campaign the United Nations and their Pacific neighbours for political change, everyday they make a positive impact on their community.
I think this provides a challenge to all us. While many of us seek a more just world we often think of change as far off - in the hands of someone else or at an undetermined time in the future. Yet the West Papuans in Papua New Guinea demonstrate how you can live with a hope for a better future while simultaneously being part of bringing it to fruition each day. They provide a rich example of what it looks like to live as part of a larger community and see your story as contribution to a longer narrative.