MANY expatriates who have lived in Papua New Guinea will acknowledge that, while they themselves may have contributed much to the country, they also learned much from the people in their time there.
When If I ask myself what I have learned, one of the first things that comes to mind is that older people face death in a peaceful and accepting manner and without fear.
This is in contrast with my experience from Irish culture, where death seems to be faced with great fear and apprehension.
Many times in PNG I have personally experienced the calmness and acceptance of old people faced with death. Let me give you some brief case studies.
Ongka of Kawelka
Onkga the son of Kaepa from Bagl near Kotna, was a bigman of the Kawelka tribe. He was an important figure and his life story was transcribed by the eminent anthropologist Andrew Strathern. Onkga, who is pictured between me and Michael Pagl above, had also featured in a documentary film entitled Ongka’s Big Moka.
He later moved to Kuk in the Baisu area, the well-known site where evidence was found that people had been agriculturalists from about 9,000 years ago.
I got to know Ongka in 1999 when I was based in the Mt Hagen town parish which also took care of Kuk and Baisu. I often visited the area where he lived and he was always friendly and keen for a chat.
Ongka was now old and not in good health and determined to settle his affairs before he died. He asked his family to send out word to his former friends and business partners that he would be dying soon and he wanted to settle any debts.
If anything was owed, the people should claim it before he died. His son Simon Keni later told me that one man did come and claimed that Ongka owed him a pig. Ongka duly acknowledged the claim and gave the man a pig.
Having settled his debts, Ongka passed away peacefully, content that he did not owe anybody anything. The mourning (hauskrai) was at the old government station at Kuk.
Nugints of Mokei Pangump
In 1975, Nugints was old. When he was baptised in 1965 and took the baptismal name Paulus it was estimated that he was about 75. Ten years later he grew weak and his clan realised he would not live much longer.
In earlier days, the dead were not buried in coffins. Sometimes the body was wrapped in the bark of a tree and buried. Then, with the advent of outsiders, there came the custom of burying people in wooden coffins.
Sometimes the coffin would be home-made, often a rough wooden box made from discarded planks, pieces of old crates or plywood.
I have officiated at funerals where the timber on the home-made coffin had been taken from old crates and still bore stenciled messages such as ‘This Side Up’, ‘Use No Hooks’ or ‘Fragile’.
Nugints was well respected and his clan decided to buy him a decent coffin, a proper well-made coffin. They decided on this before he died.
In fact they purchased the coffin before he died because they wanted him to see that they respected him and cared for him. If they waited until after he died, then Nugints would not know how much they esteemed him.
When I was told Nugints was dying, I went to his house at Palimrui adjacent to Mt Hagen town. As I entered the house, I was surprised to discover that he was already lying in the coffin. He was wearing a new white tee-shirt and a white trousers and was smiling at me and looking very pleased with himself.
He did not say much but he was fully conscious. He joined in the prayers and appeared happy. Anyway I anointed him in the coffin and gave him communion. He seemed to be happy lying in the coffin and I could imagine him saying, “Well I might as well get used to it!”
Paulus Nugints died a few days later. He was buried in the coffin that he had slept in.
Nani (pictured at right) the son of Nami was a bigman of the Mokei Kiminka Penambimp tribe. He was now a gentle old man but in his younger days had been a well-known warrior. His clan had been involved in a major war against the Kemi-Kukilika Pair tribe.
In old age, in 1973, he was baptised, taking the name Joseph. Nani lived at Biabrui near Mt Hagen and had several wives. When I met him as parish priest in Rebiamul, he was no longer able to move around much, so I would visit him regularly.
In 1983 in the middle of the coffee season, Nani, realising he was getting weaker, peacefully told his people he would soon die.
His sons, of whom there were many, were concerned.
“If you die now we will have a long mourning period and we will not be able to pick the coffee and we will lose the harvest,” they told him. “You cannot die now, later on is OK.”
His people were not really concerned about the coffee, they wanted to hold on to Nani for a bit longer.
Nani postponed dying until after the coffee was harvested towards the end of 1983. There was a large funeral.
Mit of Mokei Koibuga-Kelingamp
In 2013 Philip Pilip Kobun was 80 years old. He was born in 1933, the year Jim Taylor and the Leahy brothers first entered the Mt Hagen area, and was baptised on Christmas night, 1945. He was given the name Philip probably because he already had the local name Pilip, a Melpa word for a type of sugar-cane.
Pilip’s father was Kobun of the Mokei Nampakae clan. They lived at Gumats next to Rebiamul where I was based. Pilip’s mother, Mit, was from the Mokei Koibuga-Kelingamp clan. She was baptised together with a large group of catechumens in 1962 and given the name Rosa.
While at Rebiamul I used to help out at the parish church. I had known Pilip from 1973 and some years ago I had helped him with some problems. Now, in 2013, he was 80 years old and seemed healthy enough.
I had not seen Pilip for some weeks when I got a request to visit the sick at his house in Gumats right at the back of Rebiamul.
When I got to the house I saw Pilip standing outside his house looking hale and hearty. I said to him “Mi tink yu sik na u singautim mi, tasol mi no tink yu luk sik” (I thought you were ill and you called me, but you do not look ill).
He said to me, “Ino mi sik, em Mama bilong mi sik” (It’s not me who is sick, it is my mother). (In Pidgin one can refer to an aunt or related older woman also as Mama but this was the mama tru of Pilip, his birth mother.
One of his clan came out of the house carrying Pilip’s mother Rosa Mit in his arms. She was small and frail. She did not talk but gave a nice smile and looked very much at peace. We said prayers and I gave her communion and anointed her.
Pilip himself was certainly 80 years old and his mother was probably 100 or even older. shortly afterwards. She died later that year, 2013, and there was a report about this grand woman in the Post-Courier newspaper.
All of these people accepted death peacefully. There appeared to be no great fear of death. Some of the men had been involved in tribal fighting in their youth and may even have killed people. But they were ready to face the end and were not afraid.
These four people were among the many I have known in the Mt Hagen area to die peacefully and without fear. They taught me a lesson.
Yossarian, a character in the famed novel, Catch 22, said he “was going to live for ever or die in the attempt!”
I am not saying we should not try and live healthy lives for as long as we can, but am saying that, when the time comes, we can face death peacefully and without fear.
Maybe if I had lived long enough in Ireland I would have learned the same lesson from old people there, but in fact it was a lesson I learnt from the old people of Papua New Guinea.
When the time comes may we all have the courage and the peace that these old people showed.