Trish Nicholson is an extraordinary woman. She is a writer and the author of several books, an anthropologist, a photographer, a keen and experienced traveller. Her most recent publication, ‘Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals’, is just as extraordinary as the lady herself. If you want to know more about Trish’s time in Melanesia, just read the interview.
Pasifika Tales: You spent quite a few years living and working in Papua New Guinea. Was it an adventure, a challenge, or a perfect mix of both?
Trish Nicholson: It was certainly a challenge, physically, emotionally and professionally, but I knew it would be and I believe one grows as a person by meeting challenges. I hadn’t gone seeking adventure, but looking back, my own curiosity and willingness to take risks to satisfy it meant that adventures simply happened.
PT: Why did you decide to ‘abandon’ your successful career in Europe and travel to a remote Pacific country?
TN: Working overseas is something I had wanted to do since childhood. Previous generations in my family had spent years in far-flung places in the world, so I suppose there was something of a tradition. As a schoolgirl, I wrote to the United Nations in New York to ask how to become an aid worker. Some kind person wrote back to me, saying I should become qualified in whatever I was good at, gain twenty years experience, and then apply for a job. And that is pretty much what I did. At University I studied geography and social anthropology and was intensely interested in how others lived, and the different ways of meeting human needs in different cultures. Later, there came a point in my professional career in Europe when I felt something was missing, and I realized that if I didn’t take this step to go overseas soon, it might be too late. The job in Papua New Guinea was the most interesting one that came up at that time.
PT: Ok, so you arrived in PNG… What shocked you the most?
TN: There were small shocks initially, like the heat and humidity which can, literally, take your breath away, especially as I was coming from the cold climate of Scotland. A fan in my house helped, but much of the time I was travelling to remote parts of West Sepik (Sandaun), so my body had to adapt. Once I got into the work, the sheer chaos of the local administration was a bit of a shock, and people in positions of power can benefit from chaos, so it took a while to show staff the benefits of better organisation. But the biggest shock was the extent of violence against women – a problem close to me because women who were my colleagues and friends were affected. It is difficult for a foreigner to know how to respond and I often discussed it with another friend, the local head of women’s welfare. The few books published about Papua New Guinea barely mention women, and they are accounts written by men who would have little chance to interact with women, so I made a point of including women’s stories in ‘Inside the Crocodile’.
PT: How did you cope with culture shock?
TN: My background in social anthropology helped because I was already aware of many different beliefs and ways of living in other societies. I found, though, that it was hard to live in two cultures at the same time, so I immersed myself as far as possible in trying to understand the local cultures – ‘cultures’ in the plural, because even within Sandaun Province there are different ways of viewing the world. Other expats in the area were from a range of cultures and nationalities, too, so one had to be adaptable. Times when I needed to relax and simply be ‘me’, I played my favourite classical music, and the chuckle of geckoes and screech of cicadas became part of the orchestra.
PT: Did you have troubles accepting certain cultural practices?
TN: The treatment of women I have already mentioned, and it was something I could not accept. But sometimes there was an amusing side to the gender issue. Traditionally, men eat first, but when we had a World Bank representative visiting on one occasion and a party was put on for him and all the provincial staff, the Premier decided to adopt the western custom of inviting women to serve themselves from the buffet first. The women loved this idea and all went to the table with big enamel bowls, taking the best pork pieces, the ones with lots of tasty fat on them, while the men watched in great agitation. That experiment in ‘western manners’ was never repeated! But the separation of men and women at functions was a feature of Aussie social life, too, and I found that restricting. Papua New Guinean colleagues accepted me at work as an ‘honorary male’ and recognized that I needed to talk to men about work, but I would get black looks from expat wives in Aussie gatherings if I crossed to the other side of the room to talk to the men.
Another practice that caused me frustration was the custom of talking all around a subject to avoid giving a straight answer or giving out information – tok bokis in Tok Pisin – which made a nightmare of management meetings. I could understand the reasons for it, though, and soon adopted the technique myself when necessary. One of the reasons for tok bokis is that political, work, and personal spheres – which are strictly separated in western bureaucracies – are intricately interwoven in Papua New Guinea, as a result, dealing with most public administration issues is like walking in a minefield.
PT: Now, you worked on a World Bank-funded development project. What exactly were you responsible for?
TN: The project included a number of different components – agriculture and fisheries, education, health, roads and buildings, and project management – which were all intended to work together to achieve development goals. Expats leading each component worked with a counterpart Papua New Guinean who would take over from them. My role was ‘institution building’: to provide advice and support for all the components to co-operate, and to assist local staff and management to gain the most benefit from the project. This involved helping to sort out the chaos of staff appointments, designing and presenting training courses, giving advice to managers, setting up a provincial Staff Development Unit and training national staff to run it after I had left. The job was complicated by the fact that the expat project coordinator held the purse strings, but my boss was the Departmental Secretary – the head of the provincial civil service. As you can imagine, managing relationships was the most important, and challenging, part of my job. My position was within the regular staff structure and I was ‘the boss’ only of the Staff Development Unit, so to achieve any progress elsewhere in the organisation, I had to influence and work through others. Though more difficult, in the long term I think this is far more effective than giving orders or being a consultant on the outside.
PT: Being a woman, did you face any challenges?
TN: All the time! I’ve already mentioned the male/female divide in expat social life. And there were few single women around, so every unattached male expat made passes and resented being rejected. But my job was already too demanding to have any energy left for personal relationships. At work, to be accepted as an ‘honorary male’ meant dressing in baggy outfits that could not be considered provocative by even the most arrogant male, behaving with equal amounts of confidence and respect, and generally being professional and distancing myself from being ‘female’. In this way, I was accepted and respected by Papua New Guinean colleagues both in the province and at government headquarters in Waigani. It was often expats who had problems with it. When I was very ill in Goroka Base hospital, the chief medic there was horrified that I was going back to continue working in Sandaun. “Papua New Guinea is no place for a woman,” he said. I didn’t remind him that half the population were women.
PT: You wrote in your book that you didn’t have a chance to come back to Papua New Guinea? Would you like to?
TN: When an experience in a particular place has been so intense, and in a way life changing, I’m not sure it is a good idea to go back. I wouldn’t have a role now, people I knew have moved on in their lives, I would simply be an observer looking in briefly and I don’t think that would achieve any purpose.
PT: Your memoir is an extremely interesting read with an abundance of fantastic stories and tales. Would you mind sharing some tidbits that didn’t make it into the book?
TN: All the best stories are already in the book. Any events that aren’t in it are those that require too much background explanation for them to be properly understood, for example, a trip I made to Wamena in West Papua – perhaps I will write about that another time.
PT: This last question is an important one for the fans of your work: will you write more books? If yes, is there anything you’re working on at the moment?
TN: Those who enjoy travel and adventure can read my ebook, ‘Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon’. I take the reader with me on a long trek through this Buddhist Kingdom hidden high in the Himalayas. We wander through pine forests, meet with yak herders in the high pastures, and clamber over 5000-metre passes close to the Tibetan border. After a mini-bus ride and scary near misses on hairpin bends overlooking a sheer drop, we visit ancient temples and I include lots of information about Bhutan’s culture and history.
And there is another book that I wrote to encourage others to write, so it explains how to plan, research, write, edit, choose a publishing option, and market a book, and many tips apply to writing fiction as well as non-fiction. The title is ‘Writing Your Nonfiction Book: the Complete Guide to Becoming an Author’, available as an ebook and in print (the paperback can be ordered online from The Book Depository which supplies anywhere in the world free of postage). I made the book international in focus – resources and suggestions can be applied wherever a reader lives – to help people in different countries and cultures to write their own stories. We need to hear these different voices speaking for themselves. That is why national literary competitions and prizes such as The Crocodile Prize in Papua New Guinea are so important, they give real encouragement to local writers.
What I am working on at the moment is also international in outlook, but it’s another kind of journey – a social history of stories and storytellers through time. I am more than three-quarters of the way through the manuscript, but it will take a little while yet to complete because it requires a great deal of research.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some of my experiences with your blog readers.