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Athabasca University

About The Papuan Villager

The Papuan Villager (1929-1941) was unique in colonial history. It was a newspaper produced by the Australian administration in Papua as a vehicle for what is now called “social marketing.” The Government Anthropologist, Francis Williams, had the idea that a newspaper might be a good way to help Papuans learn English as part of assimilating into western culture. Sir Hubert Murray, Papua’s literate and forward-thinking Lieutenant-Governor, agreed; he thought the newspaper could engender a sense of “national” unity. He diverted native education tax money to pay for the venture because he viewed their “little experiment” as adult education. The “experiment” persisted for thirteen years, until Williams' death in an airplane accident. Williams personally edited the newspaper over its entire lifespan, which is an indication of how seriously he took the project.

Francis Williams used the newspaper to teach Papuans the few things that he felt they needed to know in order to improve their daily lives: principally facility with English, better hygiene, and improved gardening practices. Other than those three areas, Williams thought that Papuans ought to keep their culture as intact as they could. His theory of cultural assimilation was eventually published as "The Blending of Cultures" (1935). In that essay, in The Villager, and in his academic writing, Williams takes a modified functional approach to anthropology.

The Papuan Villager used a tabloid format and was 10-16 pages long. Its contents were interesting and its tone friendly; it contained the results of sporting events, simplified versions of international news (especially exotic articles about the British royal family), gardening hints, tips on how to understand western culture, detailed information on different indigenous cultures in Papua, local news stories, and two centre pages of photographs featuring the faces of islanders and expatriates whom readers would know. The newspaper engaged its readers even more by offering contests for the best village gardens.

But the reason that The Papuan Villager is important for both literature and print culture is that Williams used it to encourage Papuans to retain their own cultures and to use the written word for communication. He began by valorizing native customs, such as the making of arrows and baskets. He included many pen and ink illustrations of Papuan artifacts, describing how they were used and how important they were to keeping Papuan cultures alive. He urged his readers to become writers, telling them that this was their paper and offering to pay for successful submissions. His readers responded by sending Williams written versions of Papuan folklore and by serving as village correspondents for local news. Each writer was acknowledged with a short biography. Early in The Villager’s history, Williams included samples of editing, in order to show his Papuan writers what he considered to be acceptable newspaper style. His editorial hand was light. Williams' readers responded to his approach, and to the literature competitions, by submitting many stories and tales.

Although the newspaper was intended for adult readers, principally those Papuan men who worked for the administration and who were associated with the Christian missions, it was given free of charge to all mission schools and sold otherwise at very reasonable rates. Williams used the newspaper to indicate to his adult readers that such things had to be paid for. However, because it penetrated schools and homes, its readership was wide; soon school children and women were contributing as well.

After Williams’ death and the colony had recovered from the War, the newspaper was re-introduced as a school magazine called The Papua and New Guinea Villager (1950-1960). The first issue of this magazine pays tribute to both Williams and Murray and testifies to the popularity of the earlier newspaper. From 1960 onwards, a number of increasingly “hip” school magazines took the place of the now, old-fashioned, Villager. However, the notion of indigenous writing was revived just prior to Independence, with the publication of New Guinea Writing (1970-72), and later Papua New Guinea Writing (1972-1977).

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Updated October 13 2016 by Library Services