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Notes on an ethnographic poem* - K(no)w Boundaries: Returning through urban lands’ seductions

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Reflections on land and life

Urban land, transnational and translocal life, and return journeys are three intersecting and moving spaces. My heart, my mind, my dreams, and my lived reality sense and experience these spaces through particular meanings of borders, land and property, and social boundaries that define my belonging and owning as both bounded and unbounded. My mobility between these physical and conceptual spaces is also shaped and limited by how they are framed in legal, academic, policy and socio-political discourses, my limited financial capacity to be mobile, and life’s day-to-day realities. In real life I am constantly reminded that I might be living in an unrealistic world. I agree! I must sustain a living. I must be a good mother and focus on the tasks of raising children. I must abide by the regulations and laws. I must be a good citizen and contribute to strong policies and budgets. These day-to-day exigencies are governed by hegemonic discourses that constitute the boundaries of what are allowable and acceptable policy spaces and intimate spaces of being and belonging. At the same time, I feel a magnetic pull towards these inexplicable spaces and I am unable to live any other way.

My poem reflects my research in urban spaces in PNG (Rooney 2017a), and my current multiple communities, homes, and localities in urban spaces. It holds multiple meanings, interpretations, and emotions. It began as a deeply emotional response in the months leading up to and after a return visit home to Port Moresby and Lorengau, Manus Island, Papua New Guinea in August 2017. It continues to unfold.

Through my research in a Port Moresby settlement, I have come to appreciate urban spaces in Papua New Guinea as creative organic spaces where human stories unfold amidst precarity, change, policymaking, scholarly writing and category making. How people navigate, negotiate and make ends meet seem to know no boundaries.

Do you know boundaries? the land asked

Whenever my mind returns to Port Moresby I think of the cross cultural, legal plurality, interdisciplinary, learning journey I experienced. Like many people living in urban Papua New Guinea I lived a life that crossed these academic terms. Whilst engaging in various customary and social events, we also lived in rented or mortgaged houses as owners. My ownership and access to land and property was clearly defined by state land and legal property laws but my belonging with people was created, nurtured, sustained in the relationships we had with each other. Getting to know how land in urban settlements is transacted, I learnt other forms of urban Melanesian relationships to land and property. From my initial worldview of defining urban property ownership in terms of portions, allotments, bounded by markers and secured in fences, I learnt to see the local boundary markers— the drains, trees, a rusty car, a market stand, paths, fences. These local markers only known to the local eye demark areas between houses, groups of people, enclaves of families and ethnic groups. Both conceptualisations of defining land and property ownership and belonging coexist and overlay each other. One man told me how he searched all over the land because he had heard it was state land. Finally, he discovered the cement markers that define the portions of state land. For over two decades, this ever-growing diverse community have resided on this land.

Land’s seduction knows no boundaries. Regardless of fences or a drain, these boundaries between people, including the social and ethnic narrated boundaries, are porous. As new knowledge and changes occur on land it seems that there are both known and no boundaries to the way people experience these changes. The porous boundaries between claimants—customary landowners, the state, the residents of the settlement and the companies buying the portions—are not separate but are spaces where actors relate and coexist contemporaneously. People with money buy land from poorer people pushing the poor further into the fringes. At one edge of the expanding of settlement occupation is vast customary land—sacred yet seductive and inviting with visible signs of more people encroaching on it. At the other edge, the settlement retreats as the city moves into the space. Companies’ graders excavate their portions delimiting their land’s boundaries by stripping the land forming visible lines by the bare ground. Then the fences go up. They simultaneously delimit the settlement’s boundaries by evicting settlement dwellers from their portion. Somewhere in those wavy hills, the cement boundary markers sit in the ground concealed; waiting allusively for whoever can make the strongest claim.

Land and son are one

The land with no concrete blocks is not some far off land. Customary land is the very same land that lies under the concrete blocks. That customary land is narrated through the hegemonic discourses and ideologies of patrilineality in discursive treatments of land in PNG society. I think of the men in the settlement who negotiated the land with customary landowners and the state and how they did this for their families to have land. I think of the customary landowners who must have known their loss but conceded. I think of the man who listened to his wife’s quiet dreams for a home of her own to retreat from the crowded Port Moresby home.

From a rounded body, my roots began

I think about the women whose stories and influence stamp their mark on the land. There is the Motuan woman, a clan member of the customary landowners, whose name is uttered and written in the narratives of the settlement. Her name and her grave demarks boundaries in time and in space. There are the women who lead in the community as chairladies of churches, of community education institutions, as community leaders. This suggests a need to rethink the hegemonic assumptions of ‘patrilineal ideologies’ (Goddard 2018). There are the women who led their families into the settlement and founded roots in settlement land. From our conception our mothers’ bodies carry us and together we begin the life’s journeys over lands. In PNG history and society, stories abound about women and men and their mutually constructed relationships with land that suggest that more nuanced accounts of land needs to counter the hegemonic ‘patrlineal ideology’ of land that are reinforced in scholarship and policy (Goddard 2018; Haley 2002; Schwimmer 1973, Zimmer 1985).

The sea soars beneath. The land runs under my feet. My eyes look up through the salty water

For many people living in urban areas in PNG, there are at least two places—the urban home and the home rooting. Nearly always, this way of planting and nurturing roots in different places serves a bigger purpose. It connects with other people, other relationships, who in turn have their multiple footings. For many of us living in diaspora the return journey necessitates traversing from or through urban spaces. These are where most airports or ports are located and where many of our family now reside. Urban spaces are the nodes in our multilocal lives, if not the beginnings and ends in themselves. In this way life’s options open up, are made larger; but negotiating and working through these multiple meanings and spaces we attach to ‘home’ makes these journeys central in our lives and immensely emotional (See Taylor and Lee 2017 for examples from the Pacific).

My roots, aching, search for a place in the land beneath the concrete block

The question of land is important because it is an inalienable material part of people’s beings, identities and the source of life. But land is also important because it is alienated and inaccessible to a growing number of people. Urban land sits materially, symbolically, and legally in the middle ground between the old and the new, customs and laws, indigenous communities and newcomer migrants, old settlers and new settlers, residents and returning migrants. Studies tell us of the ways that Papua New Guineans living in urban areas engage in different ways that cut the boundaries between customary conceptualisations of land, property and ideologies of land (For examples of recent studies see McDonnell, Allen and Filer 2017; Rooney 2017b; Koczberski et al 2017; Stead 2016).

One grave. Many graves

In that Port Moresby settlement, the Motuan woman’s grave rests surrounded by other members of her clan—members of the customary landowning clan. Bounding themselves and their living families to the land. Around the graves, the residents of the settlement live. Trees, drains, fences, paths, and other local markers define areas. Coexisting on this land are the cement markers defining the very same land as state land. Her name crosses the boundaries between the settlement, state and customary landowners and individual titles.

I walk through that land

My own father’s grave is on state land in Lorengau, Manus Province. Six years after my fieldwork, I return to walk on state land owned by my parents for many years. Up until that day, I had never really thought of myself as having any particular connection to land in PNG. I had owned property and indeed there is an emotional attachment to the home created in the property, but this new connection I felt was different. Understanding the basics of custom, I thought I knew my boundaries. My father was not an indigenous Manus man. His own ancestors left their Irish roots and travelled over the ocean. He travelled to PNG where he ended up on Manus, a teacher employed by the Australian Government. He fell in love with and married my mother. Together they laid a foundation. On Manus, they kept us safe in my mother’s Manus roots. To the world, they pointed out potential routes. As Margaret Jolly (2001) notes, finding roots depends on making routes and perhaps also we might add that finding routes also begin by making roots. As I walked on that land and in the months after, I sensed something I had not felt before. A magnetic pull. There is family, and there is love. But there is something seductive about that land.

My research makes me see Lorengau with new eyes as an urban space that will continue to teach us. Lorengau is the space where PNG’s story of urban land and property contemporaneously and cospatially coincides with the global unfolding human migration story. Detained then released into the township of Lorengau asylum seekers and refugees are another actor seeking to make a living in this urban space. This will be a process of continual transformation in urban lands and lands, of cultural loss, cultural change, cultural assimilation and cultural creativity. A process involving both beauty and trauma, love and tension.

Mother’s rounded body loves the spirited new roots

In May 2018, it was reported that 36 children were born. Their mothers are Manus women or women on Manus, their fathers are refugees or asylum seekers (Rae 2018). The report foretells concerns about how these children will face difficulties given that their fathers are foreigners. I agree with this. The patrilineal ideology of land in PNG is very powerful and has material consequences for people’s access to land and their lives. At the same time, I think about how Papua New Guineans navigate urban land and I think about families. I know that as far as possible the Manus mothers and the families of these children will bound them in love. They will grow and occupy new spaces in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific, they will live and die within and beyond reinforcing, breaking, creating and breaking boundaries. They will yearn to return to the safety and peace that nurtured their spirits. As Manus Islander and poet, Kumalau Tawali (1970), writes in ‘The River Flows Back’:

In my mother’s womb

peace was mine but I said maping [morning]

I greeted the light

and came into the world saluting it with a cry.

I paddled downstream


One day I will reach the source again

there at my beginnings

another peace will welcome me.

For these children born of refugees and asylum seekers, in and from Manus Island their mothers fearlessly embody and shape both their social safety and the so-called regional security narrated in border policies that brought their fathers to Manus.

We are roots, seeds, branches, leaves. Blown by the winds, over oceans

I am being political by focussing on the intersection between the seductive powers of land and the intimate space of mothers’ bodies rather than more visible and hegemonic scholarly narratives on border policies, migration, asylum seekers, bilateral aid, and land. In his essay, ‘Our Sea of Islands’ Epeli Hau’ofa (1994) compels us to smash the hegemonic discursive and literal boundaries that bound us Pacific Islanders in categories of underdevelopment, problematics, and need. Do we need to rethink our questions? I have sometimes been asked: How do we reconcile land laws and customs in the Pacific? Is there a solution? My response is now something like: ‘Is this even the right question?’ Urban Pacific land is a space at the edge of these boundaries of hegemonic discourse that have so long defined how Papua New Guineans are portrayed. It is a space that also demands a creative approach to public policy making. I have used this poem to explore these intersections between emotions, personal narratives, creative forms of knowledge with more conventional portrayals of knowledge and forms of discussing policy issues. Rather than viewing land tenure systems as irreconcilable we may reach better policy insights if we work towards ‘the understanding that in most Melanesian indigenous societies there is the simultaneous existence of two diametrically opposed systems, yet in [their] attempts to make sense of the chaos this creates, [Papua New Guineans] often embrace aspects of both systems’ (Winduo 2009: 6). The ways that Papua New Guineans are engaging in urban land and property are deeply telling of the ways indigenous Papua New Guineans produce and transfer knowledge. We need a more nuanced account of the ways that Papua New Guinean women and men deal with land. Urban land offers an opportunity to explore the endless imaginative ways to think about public policy in the Pacific.

We are roots, seeds, branches, leaves. Blown by the

winds, over oceans.

No boundaries. Seduced by lands.

From rounded bodies we come. Roots of many trees.

Looking up. Through the lands.

Sun’s light. Knows boundaries. Leads us home


Goddard, M 2018, ‘The origin and effects of the “patrilineal” rule among the Motu-Koita of Papua New Guinea’, Codification and Creation of Community and Customary Laws in the South Pacific and Beyond. Conference, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific 26–27 July 2018, Unpublished.

Hau’ofa, E 1994, ‘Our Sea of Islands, The Contemporary Pacific’, A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, V Naidu, E Waddell and E Hau‘ofa (eds), School of Social and Economic Development, The University of the South Pacific, Suva.

Haley, N C 2002, Ipakana yakaiya: mapping landscapes, mapping lives, contemporary land politics among the Duna, Australian National University, Canberra, PhD.

Jolly, M 2001, ‘On the Edge? Deserts, Oceans, Islands’, The Contemporary Pacific, 13, 2, 417–466.

Koczberski, G et al 2017, ‘Informal land markets in Papua New Guinea’, Kastom, Property and Ideology, S McDonnell, MG Allen and C Filer, ANU Press, Canberra. McDonnell, S, MG Allen and C Filer (eds) 2017, Kastom, Property and Ideology: Land Transformations in Melanesia, State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Series, ANU Press, Canberra

Rooney, MN 2017a, ‘Nogat Mani: Social Safety Nets For Tufi Migrants of ATS Settlement, Moresby, Papua New Guinea,

State Society and Governance in Melanesia, Australian National University, Canberra, PhD.

Rooney, MN 2017b, ‘There’s nothing better than land’: A migrant group’s strategies for accessing informal settlement

Schwimmer, E 1973, Exchange in the Social Structure of the Orokaiva: Traditional and Emergent Ideologies in the Northern District of Papua, Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Stead, V 2016, Becoming Landowners: Entanglements of Custom and Modernity in Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste, University of Hawaii Press, Hawaii.

Rae, A 2018, Manus Island's refugee babies: Q&A with Father Clement Taulam, Al Jazeera.

Tawali, K 1970, Signs in the Sky: Poems, Papua Pocket Poets, Port Moresby. Taylor, J 2017, ‘Beyond dead reckoning: Mobilities of return in the Pacific’, Mobilities of Return: Pacific Perspectives,

Taylor, J. and H Lee (eds), ANU Press, Canberra, 1–14. Taylor, J and H Lee (eds) 2017, Mobilities of Return: Pacific Perspectives, ANU Press, Canberra.

Winduo, SE 2009, ‘Reframing indigenous knowledge: Cultural knowledge and practices in Papua New Guinea’, Melanesian and Pacific Studies, National Capital District PNG.

Zimmer, L J 1985, ‘The losing game—Exchange, migration, and inequality among the Gende people of Papua New Guinea’, Bryn Mawr College, University Microfilms International, PhD.

* First published in Crawford Development Bulletin 80 (Citation: Rooney, M. N. (2018). (K) No (w) Boundaries: Returning through urban lands' seductions. In P. Thomas (Ed.), Development Bulletin 80 (pp. 115-118). Canberra: Crawford School of Public Policy.)

Land at Talasea on the outskirts of Lorengau town.
Photo credit: Michelle N Rooney. A road being carved into the landscape

Photo credit: Michelle Nayahamui Rooney, Lorengau.

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