DAVID (DAVE) WALL, A MAN WHO Phil Fitzpatrick recently referred to as “gracing these pages”, died on Boxing Day - leaving his wife Deborah, his other loved ones and the friends he never met who regularly read his words on this blog.
As with many of our contributors, I never had the pleasure of meeting Dave. But like us, he was passionate about Papua New Guinea, where he had worked for 18 years on plantations and then in the malaria control division of the Health Department.
Upon returning to Australia in 1980, Dave qualified as a teacher-librarian and began to write his thoughts and reminiscences on PNG, many of which he shared with us. And we have been the richer for it.
Dave’s most recent piece was published in these columns on 17 December. It was entitled, with sad irony, In Mandela’s shadow: When the great pass away from us.
I will miss myemail correspondence with Dave, and the regular memorabilia that would drop into my inbox – stories of tough missionary priests, wild men of the Sepik and Dave’s wrestle with Catholicism and the challenges the world throws at each of us.
I, and I am sure many other readers, will miss his compassion, his insights and his deep and abiding love for Papua New Guinea and its people.
I can do no better by way of tribute to Dave to republish here his most profound autobiographical piece for PNG Attitude.
From greenhorn planter to a true man of PNG
BY DAVID WALL
“Ah, little woman, you little know the strain it puts upon a man to be an empire builder” - W Somerset Maugham in ‘Before the Party’
I was born at home in Melbourne, and the doctor looking after my mother was not present.
Not that it mattered much, as my father – also a doctor - stepped into the breach, as it were, and delivered me. According to Mum, he was joking with her throughout the process.
Not long after, my family moved to the Riverina region of in New South Wales – first to Narrandera and, after a number of years, to Leeton. In both towns my father practised medicine until he died in 1965.
My full name is David Andrew de Bérigny Wall. After leaving St Ignatius’ College Riverview in 1954 I worked on plantations and for the Department of Health in Papua New Guinea for 18 years.
On returning to Sydney I qualified as a teacher librarian and worked for the NSW Department of Education until retirement in 2005. I live in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown, with my wife, Deborah. I have two sons, Andrei and David Augustus, and one granddaughter, Hala.
I managed to leave Riverview without getting the Leaving Certificate and, after doing a few odd jobs here and there, decided I wanted to get the hell out of Australia and seek my fortune abroad.
I thought I’d achieved this when I was offered a job on a plantation in Fiji with Morris Hedstrom, but in the last minute the deal fell through. But an old family friend came to the rescue and gave me the name of a contact in Port Moresby.
Reg, the contact, vouched for me and guaranteed my accommodation in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. This satisfied the Department of Territories, and so I flew to Moresby in a DC4 in 1955. I was 19.
On arrival Reg introduced me to Alan Willis, the plantation inspector for Steamships Trading Company. The outcome was a position as an assistant at Mamai Plantation.
I worked for Steamships for two years on various plantations and subsequently for the New Guinea Company on New Ireland.
Looking back, I should never have been let loose on the unfortunate Melanesians who came in contact with me. I was an immature, callow greenhorn. I picked up the worst of the appalling plantation culture with its overtones of racism. On one plantation, I got my just deserts and was beaten up.
From my point of view the beneficial result of my plantation experience was that I saved enough money to embark on a world journey. This matured me, and made me into a half decent human being.
I journeyed throughout a good part of Africa, a bit of Europe, Canada and the United States and returned to Australia via Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
The highlights were meeting a variety of people: black, brown and white, colonials and independence fighters, and just ordinary people in an Africa of contrasts. Climbing the 5,895 metre Mt Kilimanjaro was a remarkable experience, reaching the highest point in the old German Empire – then known as Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze.
Also drinking gin and tonic in the Star Bar, Mombassa, in the company of an attractive Ugandan woman had a lot to recommend it!
I was privileged to see a bit of the Belgian Congo towards the end of 1958 before the riots in Stanleyville and its total collapse in terms of law and order after independence.
In Goma, on Lake Kivu, I met up with a Belgian medical doctor, DeCosta. He was driving around parts of the Congo, and was happy to take me along to practise his English. This was fortunate as I had very little French.
We drove from Goma to Uganda and back to the Congo, on the way seeing the beautiful Ruwenzori Mountains basking in their snow-capped whiteness in the reflection of a full moon.
On the drive to Stanleyville in his old Opel car, DeCosta mentioned that if we were unfortunate enough to run over a Congolese to never stop as one would be likely to experience réaction animale from the locals and be beaten up.
He said go to the nearest police station or hospital and report the accident. I couldn’t help but think of the road near Koki Market in Moresby and the roads of the PNG Highlands.
In my travels in Africa I also visited South Africa, Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Kenya, and Uganda.
From the Congo I eventually made my way back to Mombasa and got a steerage class passage on a Messageries Maritimes ship to France, and hence to the UK. From there I emigrated to Canada.
In Canada I worked at various jobs, ending up with Canadian Pacific Railway as a labourer in British Columbia. This job gave me enough money to purchase a fare back to Australia.
The period December 1959 until 1961 saw me again working on plantations in New Britain, New Ireland and Karkar Island.
Then in 1962 I took a position with the malaria control eradication unit run by Dr Jan Saave.
My first posting with Malaria Control was to the East Sepik. Here I was to remain more than 10 years before, in 1973, moving to West New Britain and then to Moresby. My job was ‘localised’ (terminated) just prior to independence.
I won’t write much here about my time with Malaria Control, only to say that I must have been successful in terms of my relations with the PNG people judging by the impromptu farewell given to my wife Deborah and me when the word got around Angoram that we were leaving.
Oh yes, in my time in Angoram I married a Filipina. Deborah had been initially intrigued with the impression I had given in a letter I had written to the press in which I said, quite wrongly, there was a shortage of women in PNG. Deb equated this with a shortage of rice in the Philippines!
As the letter appeared in the editorial section in the Daily Mirror on 14 February 1970, St Valentine’s Day, she thought it worth a reply. Two years later we were married in Manila.
I thought I was saving Deb, an active journalist, from martial law, just declared by Ferdinand Marcos. I suspect Deb thought she was saving me from a life of debauchery. I got the better end of the deal.
For a brief time we continued to live in PNG after we were married and Deborah got the job as press secretary to the leader of the opposition.
It was through Deb’s insistence on our return to Australia that I enrolled at Wollongong University and did an honours degree in history and later obtained qualifications in education and librarianship at other universities.
From 1980-2005 I was employed by the NSW Department of Education as a high school teacher and teacher librarian.
Since retiring from being a mentor of high school students, I’ve enjoyed writing, and the visits I’ve made back to the Sepik seeing my many friends.
It has been said before that you can get the man out of PNG, but you can’t get PNG out of the man. It is true.