IN the 1970s I moved schools to a rural outer suburb of Brisbane in Australia. I was in Grade 5, nearly 10-years old, and you could find me most mornings crying on a swing in the school playground, dreading the classroom.
I was the only person of colour in the entire school and quite a novelty. It was assumed I was an ‘Abo’ an awful abbreviated for Indigenous Australians, or Aborigines. A term used as an insult. A term to set you apart – make you feel less.
As a mixed-race Papua New Guinean-Australian, I’ve encountered racism in various guises in both PNG and in Australia, the country my parents chose to move to when leaving PNG in 1972 prior to independence. Or, as the Europeans said at the time, before it all “went to shit”.
As a mixed race person, I was too dark for the suburbs of Brisbane and too light back in my PNG village.
Returning home to my village in the Markham Valley as an adult to reconnect to family, culture and heritage, I was heartbroken because all the pikininis referred to me as a missis, a Tok Pisin term for female Europeans.
Obviously I was too light for the village, the home of my heart, and I was not the Markham meri that I desperately wanted to identify as.
My cousin was playing in a soccer tournament, so my female cousins took me to cheer him on. As we sat there we noticed people turning and pointing at me, giggling behind their hands. Soon hardly anyone was watching the match, but staring at the missis. My cousins were embarrassed and we ran back to the village in shame.
I told my male cousins what had happened and they were so angry and said we must go again tomorrow and they would “kill anyone that looked or made fun of me”. I felt so protected, so loved.
True to their word, off we went the next day. One male cousin sat with me, my other cousin, who was playing, called out and waved at me. Not one person looked or pointed – the energy felt so different.
I felt accepted and stayed for hours. In fact, my cousin had to drag me back to the village, as I just wanted to stay. The difference was so palpable it empowered me. I was elated, it made me feel whole.
One day, visiting my uncle’s village, and meeting with more pikininis referring to me as missis and getting strange looks from other villagers, my Papa Jeejay could see I was upset and asked me to explain as we sat under the massive mango tree where many generations of my family had sat before.
I tried to explain in a mixture of broken Tok Pisin, mother tongue and English how disappointed I was that I was viewed as a European, not as a Markham meri while in Australia I was viewed as an ‘other’.
Papa listened earnestly, understanding my pain and humiliation. As a mixed-race person, you never truly fit in – that’s how I felt.
The missionaries spread the word of God throughout PNG and in the Markham Valley Lutheranism is the faith.
As well as Lutheran services every night in my village there was a traditional lotu service every Sunday attended by all the villagers from surrounding areas– easily 1,000 people.
My Papa Jeejay chose this location to rouse on the entire village and tell them my story. That I had endured racism in Australia and now, home with my family, was still facing it and was looked at as a European not a Markham meri.
He angrily told them I was a Markham meri, that I had returned home to meet my family, learn about my heritage and that I was one of them.
Although, at the time, I wished a hole would open up and swallow me whole, I now look back sobbing, so grateful for my Papa, my Auntie’s husband, for sharing my pain and humiliation and enforcing my acceptance.
The village is a patriarchy and it is these men, my Papa and my male cousins, who accepted me and ensured the rest of the village did too.
I often think of the Markham Valley. I might see a landscape that reminds me of the lush and bountiful valley that provides everything needed for my family.
I remember a moment standing in my cousin’s peanut farm looking at the coconut palms, the distant mountains, the sun setting, my heart singing at the beauty; home of my heart.
My experience in the village was special and true. The traditional life led by my family is one where God provides all needs and people have a purpose to contribute to their family and the village lifestyle.
It is men who will help women achieve equality in contemporary PNG. That was my experience and I will be forever appreciative of them.