An occasional series of autobiographical memoirs by PNG Attitude's writers
AT KUNDIAWA provincial hospital on 9 August 1973, the morning dawn, as the Simbus say, had stagnated.
The small township was soaked with drizzle. The crystal white clouds had astutely sought refuge on the adjoining peaks of Dee Pek, Argol, Porol Scarp and Tokma.
Seen from the air, the junction of the Simbu and Wahgi Rivers (Murane and Uwai) seemed as if they were in the Antarctic. The four cornered Kundiawa town was soaked and submerged in a cold, hard, white landscape.
In the hospital labour ward, timid but stout Simbu mothers were strolling around anxiously in skirts, laplaps and a couple of grass skirts, awaiting what had turned out to be a marathon delivery.
Erkina couldn’t execute a normal delivery so a Caesarean had been needed to deliver the 4kg child, which was now wrapped in a cloth and left in her arms. Her husband asked whether the child was male or female.
“Ah, if I can remember correctly, it is a boy.”
Bolkun smiled as if there was sudden sunshine.
“I was the only male in my family but now I have this many sons,” Bolkun said, folding four fingers on his right hand.
And so I was born to Bolkun and his second wife, my biological mother Erkina. Bolkun’s hamlet was at Ulwal in the Bari land. He slaughtered a prized pig to sanctify me and to thank my mother.
Sweet potato, taro and other vegetables were thrown on top of the pork on the hot stones of the earth oven. In an hour’s time the aroma of the food was exuding from the ground. The women gathered and uncovered the oven and the steam vapourised.
“Duagau Kapkora visited Erkina every single day at the Kundiawa hospital with food. Therefore we will name the child Kela Kapkora,” said Bolkun.
The first name Kela was given to me for the simple reason I didn’t have an iota of hair on my head at delivery.
At the same dinner speech that day, I was officially given to Apikan, my father’s sister, as her son. Dama, her husband, was sterile and so had not been able to have children with either Apikan or Makan, his second wife.
“He is no longer our son; he is now your son. He will fetch water and break firewood for you and Dama during your old age,” said Bolkun.
Apikan cried and yelled as she crossed to Erkina to take me. I was sleeping on a pandanus mat inside a bilum. I officially became the child of my aunty and her husband.
On 17 September 1975, the sun emerged early and was showing a third of its face at the top of Dee Pek. The people in the smoky hut at Ulwal didn’t know Papua New Guinea had got its independence the previous day. I didn’t know either.
Apikan decided to follow her husband and his second wife Makan to settle at Ganige in the north-west of the Simbu Province. Ganige, some 45 kilometres northwest of the Bari land, is at the entrance to the Wahgi Valley on the Okuk Highway.
Apikan and Erkina wrapped roasted sweet potatoes in banana leaves and talked leisurely while Bolkun dozed on his log bed close to the door, occasionally joining the conversation.
“Which road will we take to reach Mingende?” asked Apikan.
“Follow the Welamur-Gor-Mingende road to Ganige. In case it rains you can call in at Banake or Dik Daka,” replied Bolkun.
Two of Bolkun’s sisters were married to the Erula Nauro tribe so if we needed help when we crossed Nauro country, we could call into their huts.
Apikan, when she adopted me, coached and imparted to me the skills to be a productive man in the traditional way of life. She did not anticipate that in the years to come the entire population of the Galkope would succumb to western culture and I would largely adopt the white man’s ways.
We used to have a long kunai hut that was divided in the middle. We slept in one half with our pigs in the other. Whatever we ate the crumbs and other rubbish thrown for the pigs. Sometimes, I used to invite the small piglets to sleep with me on my dirty mattress.
To this day, I still remember the names of every one of those piglets. Pigs were an important asset. Socio-economic shocks to the traditional Simbu life were cushioned with pigs. To this day, I still have pigs. I have a pig sty in Port Moresby and have pigs in Simbu too.
I was raised by a couple who had no formal education and that meant there were no children’s or any other books at home. We didn’t have lights at night to read the pamphlets distributed by the Catholic Church.
In the family home there was no other language spoken than our own dialect. In fact I didn’t learn to speak English or Pidgin until I stepped into a classroom for formal education.
I lived happily with my adopted mother and father at Ganige. I had great childhood experiences like floating on rubber tubes from the Ganige River headwaters to the Wahgi River, looking for birds’ nests, fishing in the rivers and Goramara Creek, roasting kaukau on the river bank, mock battles in the bush, cowboys and indians games and more.
On most evenings, we were told bedtime stories in our dialect and I enjoyed this and looked forward to it every evening. My adopted parents saw priests and kiaps with shorts and white socks rolled up to their knees occasionally in the tribal lands and they wanted me to be like them when I grew up. They wanted me to work for the white men even though they couldn’t read or write themselves.
On a chilly afternoon in January 1980, Bolkun arrived at Goglmugl from the Bari land where he lived with his second wife Erkina. He made regular visits to Ganige because he now had a third wife, Ukueveh, and her two children to tend to.
“I came to ask if you could allow Kela to attend school this year,” Bolkun said. “There aren’t any schools here. Kup, Moruma or Gaugl are far away and in foreign tribal lands. As such I thought he could come back to the Bari land and attend the school at Neragaima.”
Apikan, lectured on the benefits of sending me to school, was convinced. In February 1980, I returned to the Bari land and attended Neragaima Primary School, leaving behind my childhood friends and my adopted mother at Ganige.
When a new and bigger clinic was built in Neragaima, Fr Paul Steven from Germany had turned a small abandoned aid post into a library. He stocked it with children’s books, Reader’s Digests, a few encyclopaedias and some magazines.
I frequented this small library and flipped through the books looking mostly at the pictures. Later, when I was able to read, I read the children’s books. The habit of reading sprouted and grew roots in me.
I was selected to go to a boarding high school. My parents bought me new clothes and, for the first time in my life, shoes. They escorted me to the school and left me there, my father stressing important rules that I had to strictly follow during the next four years of schooling.
At Kondiu Rosary High School, I could read well but not speak English with fluency and assertiveness. I read Treasure Island, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Sherlock Holmes books, Dicken’s David Copperfield, The Count of Monte Cristo and many others but my greatest inspiration came from reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
When I read Achebe’s book, I saw reflected what my biological father told me in the dusk of night regarding his experiences in Lae, when he went to Bulolo and Finschhafen with his shotgun looking for bird of paradise feathers, marrying his third wife at Finschhafen, working with the army at the Moem Barracks and the rest.
Later in life I thought about writing a similar novel. Part of that work was published in PNG Attitude as Seduction at the Hotel Cecil.
In late January 1991, a small group of family members gathered at the family hut at Goramara. They contributed towards paying my fees to do Year 11 at St Fidelis College minor seminary. The college was situated at the western end of Alexishafen near Madang, isolated in the midst of coconuts and mangroves.
I arrived at St Fidelis from Simbu around 9:30 at night. The dormitory was only 10 metres away from the sea and I heard the waves crashing on the coral and smelt the sea coming through the windows with the breeze. I chose a bed in the corner of the dormitory.
At dawn other new students, also from Simbu, joined me and we surveyed the coastline and walked down to feel and taste the salt water. It was the first time we had seen the ocean.
St. Fidelis’ tradition required that at 4 pm on weekdays we had to read aloud for 20 minutes, concentrating on pronouncing words properly. We had speech classes where we chose a topic and talked to the class about it for five minutes.
This all contributed to reading, writing and improving our English. I owe the priests, brothers and sisters for moulding me and instilling in me the discipline to develop a reading habit.
In early August 1995, I applied to do a Bachelor of Law at the University of Papua New Guinea and the following January arrived at the university. I later dropped Law, re-streamed and studied Social Science.
As my education progressed my adopted parents and Bolkun were growing grey hair and becoming frail. They were not rich. None of them had coffee plots or big portions of land at Ganige. Where they lived was only a settlement. Their main assets were back in the Bari land.
Ukueveh, the third wife, shared her gardening plots with Erkina so they could plant enough kaukau to feed the pigs. Pigs provided their only income. Makan and Apikan also shared plots.
In the highlands of New Guinea, a party is not a party unless there is pork and beer. Hence there was a good market for pigs during the Easter and Christmas festive seasons. Our family took advantage of this and raised extra pigs to sell and pay for my tuition fees.
At UPNG I read books written by Papua New Guineans and also the adventures of Karo Ararua, who had been jailed and hanged in Badili. I also read publications like Okobondo and Yagl Ingu. I developed a liking for PNG literature and read as much as I could.
I attended a course taught by Dr Steven Winduo and later showed him the manuscript for my first book but publishing opportunities were scarce in PNG. Even now most of the opportunities available are through PNG Attitude and Pukpuk Publications which uses Amazon as a publishing platform. Back then I struggled to find a publisher for my book.
After some years my plight was mentioned in the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia’s Una Voce journal, published in Sydney . Word spread among former kiaps and teachers who worked in PNG and eventually Phil Fitzpatrick found me a publisher. Crawford House Publishing in Adelaide wanted my manuscript.
Crawford House was owned by a former South Australian Museum researcher and publisher who had worked in the Southern Highlands and then the Western Province in the 1960s and 1970s. Phil edited the book, The Flight of Galkope, which was launched at the PNG High Commission in 2013 while I was studying at the Australian National University in Canberra.
I am one of the pioneers of the PNG Attitude blog, having contributed articles since 2011. Phil Fitzpatrick motivated me to continue to write through occasional emails and has been the chief editor of my articles since 2011. I owe him a life pig as a symbol of sipuu (thank you).
I will write about anything at all for all audiences. I get a lot of positive comments and compliments from readers but occasionally I get threats and derogatory names from the supporters of bent bureaucrats and fat cats for writing objectively.
These have become one of the motivations that enable me to continue to write. I believe we can become change agents from objective writing.
When I compare my first article with my recent articles in PNG Attitude I can see a lot of difference. I have improved a lot. I am sure I will continue to write since reading and writing are now a part of my daily chores.
I am thankful to PNG Attitude for nourishing the writing talents in me and others like me. I have been working on a couple of other books for a few years now. The delays are a killer but hopefully I will get them through to publication soon. Wakai wo!