An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
FOR someone who had never witnessed the famous Wopaka of the Western Highlands, the heavy chanting and wailing, and the feet-stamping almost made me run for dear life.
Not to mention the sharp clanging of knives and hefty thud of wood against the pavement which I shifted my full attention to in case the participants chose something more human than the lifeless bricks.
I still marvel at the spirit of aggression and sorrow that this famous war cry drew back then, and I got to learn a little bit more about the Wopaka while writing this.
The crowd of mourners, friends, relatives and colleagues dutifully made way for the mud-cladded troupe which led the late Nigel Laki’s casket to the Divine Word University’s St Freinademetz Chapel for his funeral mass on that bright sunny afternoon of 19 March 2014.
For me, it was moving to witness such a dramatic ceremony in a university setting. It was indeed an illustration of how some of Papua New Guinea’s noble traditional rituals and ceremonies are still maintained today and it was commendable that a group of university students took the lead.
The late Nigel Kupamu Laki, of East Sepik and Eastern Highlands parentage, was a third year journalism student who died tragically at the hands of reckless youths on the evening of 14 March outside Divine Word University’s Nabasa campus. His death was the first of its kind for the university.
There was solemn observation while the body was repatriated first to Port Moresby and then to Malu village in the Ambunti region of the Sepik.
A hauskrai or mourning hut was set up by the East Sepik Students Association on campus and other student groups and university staff gathered to contribute financially for the body’s repatriation and other funeral expenses.
At night, as is the usual practice in PNG, students would assemble in and around Arnold Jensen Hall to share the sorrow of losing a dear colleague.
One night whilst sitting alone and observing students at the hauskrai, I recalled a phrase: “In PNG we don’t just feel sorry but we do it.”
“We don’t care what it takes or if the ceremony would be time consuming. All we care is that we truly show our feelings by offering a hand, money or even just showing up”, I thought.
That particular cultural virtue is also applicable to other gestures such as ‘thank you’, often symbolised with the exchange of gifts.
But the most heart-breaking experience was the departure of Nigel’s body for Port Moresby.
A convoy fit for any VIP accompanied the casket to Madang airport with police sirens blaring.
Three buses of students, one of which carried me with Nigel’s colleagues and close friends, trailed the casket in a smaller vehicle. As we swerved around the junction leading to the airport the blanket of silence was shattered as his closest friends sobbed heavily realising that, when the convoy next passed this point, it would be without Nigel.
After the casket was checked in and weighed, students were granted access to share a few moments and pay their final respects.
Finally the aircraft touched down, all procedures were attended to and the plane was cleared for departure.
Students, most of whom were dressed in black, formed two straight lines between which the casket was moved to the plane. They made sure to touch or gently tap on the casket before it reached the plane.
“Bye Nigel,” was all I could hear from his colleagues as they struggled to bid him farewell while weeping uncontrollably.
And as the plane lifted off the tarmac, the spacious parking lot of Madang’s Air Niugini cargo depot came to life with car horns and wailing that the airport staff will remember for a long time.
Nigel had left us in spirit and then physically.
While his friends and colleagues recovered from the heartbreak, those closest to him will need more time to accept the fact that life without Naibodo, as he is affectionately known, will never be the same.
But good thing is that his name will have a special place at DWU in the form of the Nigel Laki Award for Peace and Order.
According to DWU President, Fr Jan Czuba, the student who makes a significant contribution to peace and order in DWU will receive the award each year.
Rest in eternal peace, Nigel.