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New Guinea: Stone Age Election

3 minute read

Deep in the rain forests of New Guinea, native boys must undergo a kind of tribal bar mitzvah in which reeds are forced up their noses and down their throats to bleed out the spirits of their mothers. Some tribal warriors still eat a slice of a dead victim’s liver to absorb his magic. Barely out of the Stone Age, this primitive land, composed of Australian Papua and the United Nations trust territory of Northeast New Guinea, was last week nevertheless preparing itself for self-government.

New Guinea’s quest for autonomy was hastened by the freedom fad among the world’s underdeveloped nations. Fearful of being branded colonialist, Australia,which administers both territories, reluctantly stepped up its self-government timetable. Seven months ago, 400 electoral teams began penetrating the interior to teach the natives the rudiments of democracy.

Their task was complicated by the fact that among New Guinea’s 2,000,000 people, nearly 750 different languages are spoken. The lingua franca is pidgin — an amalgam of missionary English, Malay, and local dialects.

“Dispela Man Humbug.” So eager were the natives to learn about democracy that word filtered over the bush telegraph that no electoral patrols would be attacked, “even with sticks and stones.” In 12,000 villages and thousands of isolated hamlets, the teams used films to teach the natives voting techniques. To offset tribal boredom, lectures were interspersed with tape recordings of local “sing-sing” music. But presentations occasionally flopped. In one back-country village, natives complained that the voter shown on one of the election drawings was unknown to them. “Dispela man humbug mi no lookin dispela man wantain bepo,” said the tribal spokesman in fluent pidgin. (“This is humbug! I’ve never seen this fellow before.”) Interest in the election has spurred the revival of native “cargo cults.” Cultists believe that white men do not work, that they merely write secret symbols on scraps of paper, for which they receive planeloads of “cargo”—boats, tractors, houses, cars and canned goods.

After the election, cultists believe that they will inherit the white man’s magic to make goods materialize without doing any work. To show faith in their belief, some have killed their pigs in sacrificial offering; others have hacked airstrips out of the bush for the planes that will bring in the cargo.

A Day’s Walk. Fortnight ago, the month-long polling process actually began.No literacy or property qualifications restricted the universal adult suffrage. Though torrential rains cut down the early turnout, helicopters dropped into remote villages carrying Fiberglas ballot boxes and collapsible polling booths. No voter was more than a day’s walk from a polling station. In each district, natives placed their marks beside the name and picture of the candidates of their choice. In all, 299 candidates campaigned for seats in the 64-member House of Assembly; ten seats are appointive, ten reserved exclusively for white candidates, and the rest open to white or black campaigners.

Final returns will not be tabulated before April. Unless the new Assembly votes for complete independence, Australia will maintain a legislative veto over proceedings, keep funneling in the annual $50 million in economic aid on which the new country is completely dependent. Little is expected of the House of Assembly. Of the six elected native members in the old colonial legislature, not one ever proposed a bill.

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