BACK IN 1973 WHEN I WAS AT BRANDI High School near Wewak, I offered to coordinate a six- day visit by a group of 22 Aboriginal students, four aboriginal elders and two teachers from Yirrkala Mission School at Gove in Australia’s Northern Territory.
The trip was sponsored by the Dhanbul Association, the Northern Territory Education Department and the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund. The Yirrkala students and staff had spent many months preparing dances and songs to share with us.
They flew from Gove in a chartered Bush Pilots DC3 and were met by a selected group of Brandi students who I had arranged to look after them.
On the first night the Aboriginal students went off to stay with their delegated companion but, during the night, culture shock set in and the Yirrkala boys managed to find their way to a games room, sleeping together on the floor under one of the snooker tables.
Meanwhile, back in the Girls’ Dormitory, the Yirrkala girls moved out of their rooms and into an old Quonset hut where the elders were sleeping.
The Yirrkala students also found that the Brandi student’s diet didn’t agree with them so I had to buy Australian-type food to keep them happy. They were real Aussies when it came to eating.
On the Sunday I took them on a trip around Wewak and we attended the Wewak Baptist Church where Pastor Thorpe led the service.
At the church service and later at the beach, I could see that the Yirrkala students were very timid with the Brandi students but enjoyed talking to the white-skinned people they met. They found the Papua New Guineans, although sharing dark skins, to be strangers.
On Monday the Aboriginal group was invited to Expressive Arts lessons and the Brandi students enjoyed learning some of the Aboriginal dance movements, especially those that imitate the various native Australian animals such as the kangaroo and the emu.
The Aborigines were also taught some of the Sepik traditional dance movements and we hoped that the Aboriginal dances from Yirrkala would, in the future, include some of these Sepik movements.
On Tuesday the group flew in their DC3 to Mt Hagen for the day and visited the Baiyer River Bird Sanctuary where they saw the Bird of Paradise. They also visited Mt Hagen High School and danced for an appreciative audience but had to hurry away before the weather closed in.
On Wednesday morning arrangements were made for them to visit nearby Mandi village where they were invited into several of the large bush material homes and visited the community hall, local churches, copra drying sheds and saw the large earthenware jars used to store sago.
Every aspect of economic and social life was explained: making sago, growing coffee, chewing betel nut, the form of worship and community gatherings.
After a dance performance at Mandi school, they were taken to the beach for a traditional mumu which was another new experience for them.
The Yirrkala contingent returned to Brandi in the afternoon and put on a wonderful dance and song presentation in their full regalia. Many of the village people from the surrounding villages had heard about them and were able to attend.
On both Monday and Tuesday nights the Brandi students mixed in a relaxed social atmosphere with their visitors and shared their traditional dances and many friendships were made.
Arrangements had been made for a public performance to be given by the Yirrkala group at the Shell at Wirui Mission and announcements were made over Radio Wewak. On Wednesday night, when I drove them in to the Wirui Catholic Mission outdoor stage, I was amazed to see that over 8,000 people had gathered in this huge open area performance space.
The audience showed that they were thrilled to be able to watch Australian aboriginal people dancing their traditional dances and singing their songs and playing their didgeridoo.
The local Sepik audience identified with the Aboriginals as “fellow black skinned people” and at the end of the concert I could see they wanted to touch them. I feared that the Yirrkala students would become frightened so I bundled them onto the school truck and drove slowly through the huge crowd back to Brandi.