The following piece was written to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (being celebrated in America today) and to raise awareness for West Papua. It was also written as a reflection on the work organized and performed by Oceania Interrupted, a collective of Māori and Pacific women raising awareness for issues affecting our Pacific region. Benny Wenda is an independence leader for West Papua, currently living in exile in the United Kingdom. This creative piece is an imagined dialogue between Martin Luther King, Benny Wenda, and myself.
“Who will be the voice?” Benny asks. “Who will be the voice?”
I hear Martin’s words, singing: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
This matters. West Papua matters!
So, I take one step forward, my hands bound, my mouth covered in their flag, my body adorned in nothing but a black lavalava. My skin, mourning. But I find the breeze, kiss the rain, and bathe in spots of sun.
Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements. Our pace is that of sacrifice, of suffering, of struggle. It is slow. But it moves forward, one step at a time.
Martin once told us that “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Every step forward is another step towards justice.
Benny’s eyes water for his people: “Our people cry the last fifty years” but “Because we are ‘primitive’, nobody listens.”
I want to cry. I want to cry for them. But I will not dress the flag that binds my mouth in tears. I will only wear it with strength. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.
I stand in a line of women, Oceanic women, interrupted. Interrupting spaces, thoughts, actions. Giving space for West Papua: space to learn, space to see, space to feel.
I can feel the woman ahead of me, the one behind, our breaths in synch. Marching.
Martin once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
We stand for West Papua!
Fifteen years. Fifteen years is the amount of time a person in West Papua can be imprisoned for raising their flag. We wear it voluntarily.
At home, I can raise my Hawaiian flag everyday; I can wear it on my chest. I can speak of sovereignty, speak of indigenous rights. I am privileged.
So, I take another step forward. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.
Every step forward, no matter how small, is another step towards justice.
Benny’s hope is like the wind pushing at my back: “I promise, one day West Papua Free! One day I will invite you to meet my tribe, when West Papua is free!”
I think of what his eyes have witnessed: the killings, the rapes, the torture, the imprisonment of his people and I am amazed at his resilience.
He limps forward, his leg injured in the bombing of his village. Every step, painful. Every step, suffering. Every step a sacrifice.
Martin’s words remind us in windy whispers, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Every step forward, even if crawling, is another step towards justice.
Marching, marching. Eyes ahead. There is voice in these actions. Voice in these movements.
Benny asks again, “Who will be the voice?”
I will. We will.
We cannot be silent. Silence and absence can be mistaken as consent. I do not consent to what is happening in West Papua. Therefore, I will not be silent. I will not be absent.
I will march. We will march, giving voice to those who cannot speak, to those who cannot fight.
Benny reminds us that we are not separate: “On the outside, we seem a different colour, but inside of your blood, what colour is that? It’s red.”
Therefore, to fight for our Pacific family is to fight for ourselves.
We all bleed red.
“Who will be the voice?” he asks again, then answers his own question, saying, “You are the voice of the tribal peoples around the world.”
Yes we are, Benny. Yes, we are. Marching, marching. Eyes ahead.
Every step, no matter how small, no matter how difficult, no matter how scary, is another step towards justice.
Walk with me.
All photos are by Tanu Gago and Oceania Interrupted and were originally posted here. The photos come from a series of acts performed in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. The first was at the Indonesian Embassy and the second was at the Positively Pasifika Festival held at Waitangi Park. The performances, using visual and performative art, were aimed at raising awareness for West Papua. They were entitled “Capital Interruption: Free West Papua.”
For more information on Oceania Interrupted, visit their page here.
All quotes by Benny Wenda are from here.
For more information on Benny Wenda, read his biography here.
For inspirational quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr., you can find them here.
And finally, for more information on West Papua, go to the Free West Papua Campaign page here.