AN often remarked trait of Australians who have enjoyed an association with Papua New Guinea – especially we who were fortunate enough to spend time beyond the cities and towns – is that we forever carry with us an affection for those places and people with whom we found ourselves.
That is certainly my experience and it’s with great anticipation that tomorrow I make a return to Kundiawa, capital of the Simbu Province, a region where I spent three years of my life as a very young man and which I last visited exactly 50 years ago.
It does not seem nearly that long.
Those of us who knew the Simbu people, even in those very different colonial times, rapidly developed a respect for their enterprise, adaptability, ingenuity, hospitality and strong values.
They were also fine warriors, as my kiap comrades can attest.
And they were opportunists – but in the best sense of the word. People who could espy an opportunity, understand where it might lead and then take appropriate action to advantage themselves of it.
When, after contemplating this return for some years, I finally found the vigour and good sense to do it, I decided to spend three days in the place they call Four Corner Town and to bring with me Ingrid, my youngest son Ben who works in Port Moresby and his partner Becky and daughter Leilani.
My decision was greeted with enthusiasm by my Simbu friends, who immediately recommended modes of transport, appropriate accommodation and a to-do list.
And my barata Francis Nii - author, editor and book publishing consultant - came up with an idea. Projek Wantok. Project Friendship.
Projek Wantok seeks to establish a functional relationship between Simbu Province and Noosa Shire across a range of areas – government, education, the churches, commerce, the arts, women’s rights and the environment.
It will require endorsement by the resepctive community leaders – the Simbu governor and the Noosa mayor – and a lot of hard work
Now the final details are to be worked out in Kundiawa and a respectful letter delivered to the Mayor of Noosa seeking his cooperation.
The initiative flows from last year’s visit to Noosa by a group of Papua New Guinean writers – including Francis Nii – who met Mayor Tony Wellington and Noosa MP in the Queensland parliament, Hon Glen Elmes.
Francis espied that, despite the cultural and geographic differences, there was some real compatibility between both regions, particularly in terms of environmental protection as a community value, tourism as a benefit to commerce, education as a road to the future and literature and the arts as cultural assets.
So Francis proposed that, if I thought there was something in it, we should work together to establish Projek Wantok which would aim to encourage young people and community leaders in our respective regions to engage with each other.
We saw that such a relationship would extend the hand of friendship across our cultures, promote the Papua New Guinea-Australia relationship and provide the people of Simbu and Noosa with a strong connection and a helping hand across a range of different community sectors.
So, if the local government of Noosa agrees, we will establish Projek Wantok for a period of a year followed by a review to determine whether it has delivered worthwhile results for both communities.
In these days of Trumpism and global division, we can but try.
Photo: Me with Elizabeth and Willie Kauage, a wife and a son of the great Simbu artist Mathias Kauage OBE and themselves artists