Interested in feminism and development in Papua New Guinea? Be prepared for a bumpy ride, but read on

Rascal Rain book cover
Written by Cleo Fleming

Rascal Rain book coverInez Baranay’s 1994 account of her experience as a volunteer in Papua New Guinea was re-released in 2014 by Local Time Publishing. Rascal Rain is a difficult book to categorise, and at times a difficult book to read. While the book is a record of Baranay’s personal observations of the country and the people she came to know, it is not truly a memoir. It is rather the product of her coming to terms with the anxieties and disappointments that characterised much of her time as a volunteer, with what was then Australian Volunteers Abroad (AVA).

Baranay is a novelist and, to date, Rascal Rain is her only work of non-fiction. She had not planned to write about her experience, and from comments she makes early on in the book, she had not entirely planned to go to PNG as a volunteer. Yet the book’s opening chapters quickly captured my interest, and had me feeling that I was in good hands as Baranay began to paint a candid and intriguing picture of her life in Wabag, the provincial capital of Enga Province.

Baranay’s two-year assignment was to work with the Enga Provincial Women’s Council to expand its social and environmental programs, particularly literacy. PNG’s provincial women’s councils are non-government organisations with a 40-year history. Established in 1975, their purpose is to support the National Council of Women and advise the national government, and each of the provincial governments, on women’s affairs policy. The National Council of Women was set in place at the same time as both a representative network for women in PNG and a resource centre through which financial, and other, support could be directed.

It quickly becomes clear that Baranay’s assignment is fraught with organisational inadequacies and numerous other obstacles, and it isn’t long before she begins to wonder why the women’s council asked for a volunteer, and why AVA sent her. To compound this, she is somewhat isolated in her frustration and sense of failure, finding other volunteers thriving and moving ahead with their projects.

The thorniest aspect of her role is that, in addition to being employed by the non-government women’s council, she is told soon after arriving that she will also be working for the provincial government as their women’s officer. Both Levitica, the President of the Enga Women’s Council, and Joseph, the Assistant Secretary of the Division of Community Services, assure her that there is no conflict of interest in this. In some senses this is true. Baranay comes to understand that neither the Enga Provincial Women’s Council nor the National Women’s Council itself have much control over their resources or programs in the face of government interests or priorities, and very little influence in women’s affairs at the provincial level.

Moreover, Joseph is clearly the boss, and time and again Baranay watches Levitica defer to his preferences, and overlook the needs of the women’s council. Indeed, it is this relationship, in addition to being subjected herself to Joseph’s bullying and abusive behaviour, and not receiving any support from either Levitica or the field officer from AVA, that finally lead Baranay to quit the assignment and leave.

Baranay’s account of and reflection on her time in Enga, and the unravelling of her vision for what she had hoped to achieve are told in a very raw, unedited style. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this, and I think that the book would have benefitted from being crafted more consciously. It is partly the uncensored nature of her writing that drew a scathing critique by Susan Ash, to which Baranay responds in an Afterword to the new edition.

Yet this rawness also makes the book valuable. Baranay’s unfiltered thinking on what it means to be a woman in PNG, what development and feminism mean in the local context, and what her role as a volunteer in promoting them should be – and at what cost to herself and the women around her – is a refreshingly honest way of articulating the complex nature of the questions she’s grappling with.

Her “great downpours of self-doubt and doubt over the whole enterprise” bring into the open the potential for frustration and a sense of failure that are a reality for development volunteers. It’s a topic that has generated a great deal of discussion on this blog (see Ashlee Betteridge’s post on her volunteering experience in Timor-Leste, and Stephen Howes’ three-part series on the 2014 ODE evaluation of the Australian volunteering program) but which is perhaps not dealt with enough in the recruitment of volunteers, or in the planning and management of their assignments.

Baranay’s style made for some tough passages to wade through as a reader. As an editor, I found these passages as uncomfortable as I now understand the bumpy, winding drive from Mount Hagen to Wabag to be. But as a person interested in feminism, development and the role of the development volunteer, and someone for whom PNG is familiar in some ways and unknown in many others, I came away from Rascal Rain with many new insights, and a great deal to ponder.

For more information on Inez Baranay and her work, visit her website.

For more from Inez Baranay on her experience and the book itself, see her 2003 essay, ‘Fraught territory (The reception and impact of Rascal Rain, a Year in Papua New Guinea)’, Meanjin, 62(3), 223-229.

For an informative overview and analysis of the establishment of the provincial women’s councils and National Women’s Council of Papua New Guinea, see this chapter by Fungke Samana in Women, Development and Empowerment: A Pacific Feminist Perspective, edited by Vanessa Griffin.

For the review of Rascal Rain by Susan Ash, see LiNQ, Volume 24, Issue 2, October, 1997.

Cleo Fleming is Publications Editor at the Development Policy Centre.

Cleo Fleming

Cleo Fleming has worked at the Development Policy Centre since 2011. She currently works part-time as our Publications Editor. Cleo has a background in program management and administration. She has a Master of Social Science (International Development) from RMIT University and a Graduate Diploma in International Relations from Monash University.

5 Comments

  • Thank you for this review. To clarify, then: As I believe I told in the book I had never planned to go to PNG, preparing for a more expected placing in Indonesia, until AVA offered me the PNG job, in late 1991, giving me a week to think about it. That was when I approached anyone I could find to tell give me background; that would have been when I met Elizabeth. I had never intended or wanted to write a memoir at that point; I would have hoped for some inspiration for new fiction. The part Cleo quotes in her comment, written when the process was fresh, reflects the move to writing the book I had not at first wanted to write.

  • Just a correction to the note on Baranay: “She had not planned to write about her experience, and from comments she makes early on in the book, she had not entirely planned to go to PNG as a volunteer.”
    Inez approached me in the early 1990s indicating that she wanted to get to PNG, had applied to AVI as a way of getting there and that she had a very conscious plan to write about her experience there. Whether writing was her motivation to become an AVI is a matter that only Inez can clarify.

    • Many thanks for your comment Elizabeth. Your interaction with Inez Baranay was different then I think to her recollection in the third paragraph of the first page of the book, in which she says: “Two or three months ago I had never given Papua New Guinea a second thought. I had applied to AVA for several reasons which kept rearranging themselves in different patterns of priority. Eventually AVA offered me this job. Eventually I said yes.”

      As to her desire to write about the experience, she says in the Afterword that her publisher put the idea to her and at first she only promised to think about it. (p.203) I understood this as happening after she had been in PNG, but perhaps it was before? In re-reading this section of the book again, I think she makes a very insightful comment about her volunteering experience and why she did end up writing the book, when she says: “The process of writing it made it possible for me to put a structure, a shape, story, a kind of meaning, to what seemed like a strange mess of experience all happening simultaneously. Having written it, I could clear my desk and move on.”

  • Note also Baranay’s essay: 2003. “Fraught territory (The reception and impact of ‘Rascal Rain, a Year in Papua New Guinea’).” Meanjin, 62(3), 223-229.

    and for a comparable experience-, this recent book:
    Trish Nicholson 2015. Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals, Troubador Publishing.

    “Inside the Crocodile is a ‘travel memoir’ and it provides a series of glimpses into the author’s experiences of working in human resources development for the provincial government of Sandaun Province (West Sepik). Nicholson arrived in Vanimo in 1987 and spent five years working on a World Bank-funded development project. The book is compiled from the journals she kept whilst living and working in one of the remotest parts of PNG, and it provides a fascinating and compelling blend of personal and professional interactions, mishaps and successes, and clear-sighted observations of the surrounding and changing natural, social, cultural and economic environments….”
    Tess Newton Cain, In-line insights: five years in Vanimo

    • Many thanks Robin. I’ll be very interested to read the essay in Meanjin, and will add it to the notes at the end of my post.

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