Other People’s Clutter

Author: John Lister, who is currently completing his Masters of Secondary Teaching at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. John studied anthropology as part of his undergraduate degree at the University of Melbourne. His thesis, Paradise Lost: Expatriates in Post-Independence Papua New Guinea, explored the experiences of expatriates who lived in Lae during and after the independence of the country.

“Sorry about the mess”, Jill apologised as I walked through the door of her small house on the Gold Coast, “it’s not like when I had a hausmeri to clean it all for me”. 

I looked around as I walked into the house and saw the usual small piles of magazines and the odd pair of shoes dotted around the room. Sitting on the shelves were photos of family, and small souvenirs from Papua New Guinea (PNG) – a carved crocodile, a Conch shell, and a table with a tribal scene carved into its top. I didn’t see this as mess; rather this clutter told the story of her life after returning from PNG.  

For my Honours research, I explored how returned expatriates who had lived in Papua New Guinea contended with their role in the post-Independence period. Papua New Guinea was administered by the Australian Government until 1975, with many of my research participants living in the country’s second biggest city Lae during this time of transition. Former ABC correspondent Sean Dorney described Australia’s approach to PNG as constituting one of an ‘embarrassed colonialist’, with our reluctance to confront a period of history where we ruled over another people. This conflict was embodied in so much of what the expatriates collected around them; the clutter of an embarrassed colonialist. 

Vestiges of colonialism

As I visited more houses, I began to see more of these items dotted around their living rooms. One lady, Molly, had a large carving from East Sepik Province depicting a deity that she told me was keeping away ‘bad magic’. 

But perhaps the most perplexing item she had kept from her time was the empty casing of an artillery shell from World War Two. She told me that many of the ladies would find these shells (sometimes still live) and would commission a local Papua New Guinean man to convert them into modest flower vases. She laughed at how this industry emerged out of the ladies’ desire to keep fresh flowers in their houses. These floral contradictions of war and peace sat on sideboards in their breezy houses in Lae, and then back in their living rooms in suburban Brisbane.

Many of the people I interviewed had Papua New Guineans as domestic staff to help keep their houses in Lae tidy. The hausmeri was the Tok Pisin name for a female domestic staff member — often they acted as a nanny to younger children, cooking meals, and cleaning the house. A role that would be just as familiar in a household during the Raj, the expatriates I interviewed expressed an awkward relationship with the hausmeris.

Misunderstandings and justifications

Jill described a misunderstanding with one of her staff, after asking her to clean the fridge ‘inside and out’:

“… when I got home from work the fridge was out the back, she was hosing it down. So she cleaned it inside, and out…”

Some of the younger women spoke of having a closer relationship to the hausmeris, but this was still strained by their respective social positions. As one expat described, “There was always a bit of a barrier, how far you could actually allow that attachment to grow”.

During this period of transition to self-determination for Papua New Guineans these domestic relationships became harder to justify. Many of the women who I interviewed were working as teachers or medical staff and had a strong passion for social justice.  

Michelle was a teacher but had taken leave to raise her infant son. She spoke of being abhorred by the idea of having a hausmeri: “I was embarrassed because what was I going to do, just sit around and watch telly?” However, she ultimately resigned herself to the assistance.

The clutter of life

Back in Jill’s house, she showed me an ornately carved table located under a stack of New Idea magazines. It was carved for her ex-husband in return for some work he had done on the accounts for a timber yard. Carved on top was a creation story from the village where the craftsperson was from. 

Jill struggled to recount the story carved in front of us, instead pointing. This was probably a good thing — rather than this story being distorted through her expatriate prejudices and misunderstandings, all we could see was what the craftsperson chose to display.

This clutter was not always prominently displayed. Rather it existed as small hints of the person’s past mixed in with the clutter of their present. The mess around them and the mess of objects from their life in PNG told a story of the ‘embarrassed colonialist’, who collected the ephemera of their colonial relationship but no longer had the help to tidy it away. 

You feel the significance of not just the person in front of you, but the clutter around them. Mess (or even the lack of it) reveals so much of the lives of the people we encounter.

[Image by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash]

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