James Brown: New Guinea Craft

The March guest speaker was James Brown from New Guinea Craft.

James went to PNG for the Catholic church for two years to help rebuild after the ’98 tsunami. The area that he was sent to is on the border with Indonesian Papua and is very remote. What little electricity there is, is from 30 year-old generators and the roads are very rough. The people who live there are entirely self-sufficient. They know how to survive off the bush and know how to make things from scratch.


His job was to manage the construction of houses and 16 schools. One reason so many schools were needed was that when locals heard that Australia was providing free education, the population of the area increased rapidly. Education has a high priority in PNG.
The materials to build the schools and houses was milled in the area. This was a challenge because boundaries have always been a sensitive matter to the locals. So every tree to be felled had to be accounted for. In PNG there are 800 languages each with many dialects. James had to work through many interpreters. He employed the mothers and youth groups to haul the construction gravel in bark backpacks. Of course, once the 25 tons had been toted to the site, the elders decided that reconstruction should be 3 kilometres further inland to escape the next tsunami.
James said that each week he had the adventure of a lifetime. Although it is a dangerous country to live in because of the difficult conditions and retributive character of the people, the adrenaline buzz is addictive. What will prevent his return is malaria. Over two years his family (four kids, wife, himself) had 60 bouts of malaria one of which almost killed his son.
James is not a weaver or basket maker. He has developed his business selling bilums and baskets to help the villagers. Only the villagers who have no money still use traditional methods to make bilums. Town dwellers use commercial yarns. It is getting difficult for James to source his bilums traditionally made from bark which are buff coloured with grey, green, brown stripes. He was told that trees, sea anemones and rocks (slate) are used for dyestuffs.
Baskets were first made in the Solomon Islands. The techniques were taught by the catholics and basket making has followed them to the highlands. The baskets James had were quite solid, some vase shaped with lids, others rectangular with handles and some place mats. James also has some tapa cloths (felt made from mulberry bark) with geometric decorations in ochre.
Each time James sells a bilum or basket he hopes a thread of understanding is added to the web of our neighbourship.

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