Michael Mel: "I had to re-learn my own language"

December 2006 -

He is professor of visual arts at the University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea, and he writes plays. Michael Augustine Mel, laureate of the Prince Claus Fund, acquired fame for his writings which include Chanted Tales. These are traditional stories that explain the history of a society and people's positions in that society. Chanted Tales are also an important tool for teaching morality and social responsibility. "In the village where I lived, we grew up with stories, in our own language, of course. When we went to school, that was brutally taken away." This is an experience that he shares with every child that goes to school in Papua New Guinea. "Hey you...speak English!" they are commanded. With strange consequences. "I started feeling ashamed of myself," Mel remembers. "I was even ashamed of my own language."

Michael Mel Copyright: Tony Gwyn-Jones

While he was a student, he was extremely proficient in the English language. Until someone asked him: who are you? "That is when I woke up." He had forgotten his roots. "I had to re-learn my own language. You learn the lessons of life that make you a socially responsible individual in your own language." Now that he is a teacher, he sees that same forgetfulness of one's own culture among his students. "Television dictates our fashion, our music, our heroes." Michael Mel's Chanted Tales - stories that are sung - bridge that gap. They are recorded in the villages and Mel uses them in his lectures. "I bring back the traditional knowledge, entertainment and upbringing. This serves as a counterpoint to the media and the stories from the West." Does it work? "The students are enraptured during my lectures. But outside of the lecture hall´┐Ż.. What I do goes against the flow."

Mel rediscovered himself. "A language carries values, things that you believe in. When you take that away, you become a cripple." It also made him stronger: "I speak my native tongue, Pidgin English - a local language based on English - and British English. I can change frequencies, just like the radio. The control knob is in my head. But I control it. That helps me in the cultural negotiations with the West."