Wantok niuspepa was a weekly newspaper published in Tok Pisin (pidgin English) in Papua New Guinea. It was run by Fr Frank Mihalic, SVD, a linguist with a passion for Tok Pisin (or Pidgin English as it was then known). Mihalic wrote the first proper Tok Pisin dictionary and was keen to get the language stabilised. He decided to use Tok Pisin as the language for the newspaper because he wanted it to be read by the grassruts, the villagers, the young, the unemployed and semi-skilled.
When Wantok was launched in 1970, it was clear that the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea, which was administered by Australia under a UN mandate, was facing a period of momentous political change. Within five years, PNG would be granted her independence by Australia and in that period it was vital that ordinary people understood what was happening.
Comics and cartoons could play a role in explaining the changing relationship between the local people and the Australians as more Papua New Guineans took positions of responsibility. Being written in Tok Pisin meant that they would reach far more people than any official pronouncements, especially ones written in English.
In particular, two comics from Wantok during this period illustrate this function. In the first (below), the metaphor of a driver and passenger is used to show this changing relationship. It may have been not be the most sophisticated metaphor, but it worked.
In the second comic (below), the Chief Minister (later Prime Minister) Michael Somare is shown as a sports coach talking to a multi racial team, exhorting them to work together and forget their differences. Given the complexity of PNG society, with its hundreds of languages and tribes and residents from other countries, the idea of national unity was at the centre of Somare’s message to the people of PNG.
Wantok also used comics for other purposes, including agricultural extension work. The paper teamed up with the National Broadcasting Commission’s weekly didiman (farmers’) radio programme to print a series of cartoons that were meant to complement the weekly broadcast about ways of improving farming techniques, including, in this case, the virtues of compost in increasing crop yields.
As editor, Mihalic did everything he could to attract readers to his fledgling newspaper. After failing to garner much of a reaction to some frankly awful Disney cartoons about a puppy, Mihalic bought the PNG rights for the Phantom, a purple hero known as The Ghost Who Walks and The Guardian of the Eastern Dark, who lives in a cave in the middle of a jungle, where, surrounded by natives who fear him, he fights crime.
The strip was so popular that it spawned an advertising campaign which declared:
"Sapos yu kaikai planti pinat bai yu kamap strong olsem Phantom." (If you eat many peanuts, you will become strong like the Phantom.)
Unfortunately, PNG’s Australian-owned national daily, the Post-Courier, was also running the Phantom in English and its owners were not amused. They put pressure on the distributors in Sydney, who in turn told Mihalic that from now on the adventures of the Guardian of the Eastern Dark would no longer be available for him to translate into Tok Pisin. The Post-Courier had put pressure on the Phantom’s distributors, the Jaffa syndicate, to stop supplying Wantok with the tales of the Scourge of the Singh Pirates. The Phantom had been wildly popular with Wantok’s readers and his absence was keenly felt.
In the early days of using the comic, it was probably a way to attract readers and keep them with the paper; there had never been a Tok Pisin newspaper as ambitious as Wantok before, one with national aspirations, which was trying to develop a whole new class of reader. Until then the Australian administrations, under pressure from the United Nations, had pursued a policy of making English the lingua franca, but this had failed. Mihalic realised that there was a huge potential readership of people who could read and write Tok Pisin. So the Phantom and the didiman comic and the political cartoons spoke to an audience that had little or no chance of reading or writing English, even though they might understand it and would certainly have heard it on the radio.
Tok Pisin was the language of the grassruts and, for a while at least, it became the language of the Phantom. The other comics, educational and political, also helped create a climate in which people who until recently may have had no contact with the outside world, were being prepared for the day when they would take charge of their own country.
In later years Wantok developed its own comic strips and editorial cartoons drawn by the wonderfully talented Jada Wilson, among them Spak Maik, which related the weekly misadventures of a corrupt politician. Wantok continues to be the voice of the grassruts in Papua New Guinea and while the paper's fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the years, its commitment to communicating with the grassruts, whether in print or through cartoons and strips, remains as strong as ever.
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