BY GRAHAM DENT
PETER KRANZ has written of his anger at publicity and air time being given to an English journalist Piers Gibbon with his story Eating with Cannibals.
Yes this is crass sensationalist journalism at its worst. It is annoying and embarrassing for those who know the truth. As Paul Oates says, someone in PNG should set the record straight, but would the story be sensational enough for the media moguls.
The true story is much more interesting and edifying. It is a story of change, of a people confronted by experiences beyond their understanding and learning to manage that change
If this character had filmed his story 40-odd years ago he would have been fairly correct. But doing this story today is like portraying the people of Great Britain as cannibals because some of them are descendants of cannibals!
Up to about 1970, the Biami of the Western Province were still to some extent practicing cannibalism. Their country on the Papuan Plateau had been rarely touched.
The Hides-O’Malley patrol of 1935 passed through part of this area. But, because of its remoteness and scattered population, very little patrolling was conducted until 1961 when a station was established at Nomad River by Mal Lang.
Patrolling after that gradually spread gavmani influence in the region with varying degrees of confrontation.
I was fortunate to be stationed at Nomad River in 1967 and patrolled, as did many others, most of the then known Biami area. I observed evidence of instances of cannibalism.
A linguist working in the area told me that to the best of his understanding cannibalism was conducted to appease the anger caused by some injury to a person’s clan – be it puri-puri (magic), adultery, theft or injury or death caused by an earlier attack – in other words payback.
Work in this area was fascinating and sometimes challenging; at times using up to three interpreters to converse with villagers (that is if they stayed around to talk – many times they fled!).
One word we used a lot in those days was kwari - friend. To the best of my knowledge Nomad River was the last government station in PNG where police were routinely issued with live ammunition for patrol work.
In 1967 the area was still restricted (unofficially!). A National Geographic journalist visited us and was incensed to find he was not permitted into the area without an escort.
At that time missionaries were also restricted. Just prior to 1970 journalist James Anderson was permitted to accompany a patrol conducted by Jani Darris-Wells. The result of that patrol was a book titled Cannibal; photographically a good depiction of the area but a little sensationalist.
In 1994 I came back to Port Moresby and during that time met an old friend Henry Veretau. He introduced me to a young man who was visiting Moresby. I unfortunately don’t recall his name.
He was well dressed in suit and tie, spoke excellent English and was obviously well educated, a most impressive and charming young man. He was the Speaker of the Western Provincial Assembly.
Chatting to him, I discovered that he came from a village in the Supei, just to the north of Nomad Station. I had patrolled through there in 1967 when he would have been a manki, his parents would have relinquished cannibalism only within the previous seven years.
A huge change, and one experienced in varying degrees by all people in PNG. We westerners often complain about change – it is nothing compared with what the people of PNG have experienced and are still experiencing since World War II.
A most impressive achievement and worthy of a good deal more recognition than it gets.