AS was Leonard Fong Roka, Francis Nii was an early contributor to the Crocodile Prize and we first met him when he attended the writers’ workshop and Prize awards ceremony at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby in 2011.
Of all the people we have met since inaugurating the Prize, Francis stands out not so much because he is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair and all the problems that entails but because of his strength of character and commitment to literature in Papua New Guinea and his Simbu homeland.
His gentle winning essay in the 2013 Crocodile Prize was a direct and unusual response to the negative publicity that Papua New Guinea receives in a largely ignorant and unfeeling Australian media following the announcement of the deal to banish asylum seekers to Manus Island.
Rather than a predictable diatribe about the insensitivity of Australian journalists, the essay takes a much gentler course and uses humour and homespun wisdom to demonstrate that life for many Papua New Guineans, particularly in rural areas, is good.
It also pokes fun at those Papua New Guineans who slavishly follow western ways without realising what their own traditional cultures and lifestyles have got to offer.
The result is an anecdote and fable of considerable power, in both social and political contexts.
Part of its authority is in the fixed and cleverly disguised objective of making readers think about the issues.
In this sense it follows in the footsteps of many of literature’s great essay writers and was a worthy winner of this national literary award.
If Dekla Says Papua New Guinea is Eden, then it is!
FRANCIS SINA NII
IN NEED of Vitamin D from heaven’s abundant supply, I was wheeled in my battered wheelchair down to the helipad at the southern end of Kundiawa’s Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital, which is my home.
As I was sunbathing, Kaupa, an old friend and an aspiring politician, walked up to me. He had seen me through the window of the ward where his sick daughter had been admitted the day before.
We chatted for a while and Kaupa suggested we go to the hospital front-gate market for a cup of Kongo coffee. He helped me push my wheelchair and we went to the favourite coffee spot.
After a kapa each at Dorothy’s Coffee Shop, I was tempted to take a chew of betel nut. We moved to the first seller on the Wara Simbu side of the road and I paid for two nuts.
As we were chewing, a young woman in her early thirties came towards us wearing six-pocket trousers, collared tee-shirt and a pair of strappers.
“Dekla, my sister, what are you doing here?” the buai seller asked the woman in Tok Pisin.
“My sister Paula, it’s been a long time,” Dekla responded and they shook hands.
“I‘ve been in the hospital for some days now looking after my son. He hurt his ankle while playing with other children,” Dekla explained.
After chatting with Paula for a while, Dekla asked her for some betel nut. “Sista sampela piksa buai o - sister any display nuts?”
“Sista laip em had tru - sister life is so difficult. Buai em ino planti - betel nuts are not plenty. Yu baim na kaikai - you buy and chew,” the buai seller responded.
“Sista, mi askim long wanpela piksa buai tasol - sister, I am asking for a display nut only. Blong wanem yu tok laip i had - why are you saying life is so difficult? Olsem wanem laip i had tru – how comes life is so difficult?”
“Sori sista, laip long town i had tru – sorry sister, life in town is so hard. Olgeta samting i moni tasol - everything is money.”
“Oh sista, yu nogat wok na yu hangamap nating long town olsem na yu painim laip em had – oh sister, yu have no jobs and you are just squatting in town that’s why you find life so difficult. Yu mas kam bek long ples – you must come back to the village.
“Ples em heven – village is heaven. Olgeta samting i stap – everything is in the village. Yu ino bai wari long wanpela samting – you will never be worried about anything”.
The conversation turned into an argument and became quite bitter, so I decided to distract them. I gave two kina to Paula and instructed her to give Dekla four nuts worth 50 toea each.
Dekla looked at me and shook her head. “Give his money back,” she said and pulled the two kina from Paula’s hand and gave it back to me.
“I feel sorry for you. I have money. I will buy myself some nuts but not from this rubbish,” and Dekla pulled out a K10 note from a roll of ten and twenty kina bills in her purse in full view of Paula and walked to the next seller. Would you like a drink of Coke?” She asked me and I nodded.
From the corner of my eyes I saw Paula trying to swallow a lump that refused to go down her throat. I couldn’t figure out what was going on in her mind but clearly she was flustered.
Dekla came back with a bottle of Coke and a handful of betel nut and mustard beans. She gave me the Coke and suggested we sit under the shade of a mango tree on the other side of the road and chew.
“Paula is my cousin,” Dekla explained as she and Kaupa were chewing the nuts and I was drinking the Coke.
“We are from Toromambuno in Gembogl. We both left school after completing Grade 6 and got married.
“Me and my husband, we live in the village. Our three children were born at Gembogl Rural Health Centre.
“Once in a while I travel to Madang or Lae to sell my carrots, broccoli and cauliflowers. After selling them, I buy clothes and household items - mattresses, blankets and cooking pots – all that we need and then I go back home.
“Paula and her husband left the village soon after they got married and they have been living in a settlement around here ever since.
“I don’t understand this talk of hard life or poverty. Maybe this is the language of vagrants squatting in settlements in towns and cities.
“In the village, we have everything we need. We have food, fresh clean water, firewood and a house to live in.
“When we are hungry, we just take a walk to the back of our house and pick ripe bananas, avocado or sugar cane and eat them and we are full.
“When we need salt, soap, kerosene, cooking oil or a FlexCard to make a phone call, we pick coffee or vegetables from the garden and sell them on the roadside, get the money and we buy these things.
“We are not worried about money. We don’t struggle in the scorching heat to make a few kina for just one evening’s meal.
“We do gardening whenever we feel like it. Otherwise we go swimming in the creek or lazing around with friends and play 7 Bomb - cards. We are happy.
“I feel sorry for my sister and her family. They must come back to the village,” Dekla said.
I was very interested in what Dekla said especially after all the negative publicity about Papua New Guinea in the Australian media following the asylum seeker deal. I mulled over her words for a while and then asked her a question.
“Dekla, contrary to what you have said, some Australians are saying that Papua New Guinea is a poverty stricken ‘shithole’. What do you think about that?” I stressed every word for effect.
“What?” Kaupa and Dekla fumed simultaneously.
“Lucky their jobless are living off the dole otherwise they would starve to death.” So said Kaupa, the senior public servant and aspiring politician.
“People like Paula who squat in settlements and lack basic needs like food, good shelter and decent clothes may come under the definition of the poverty that Australians are talking about. But that’s only a fraction of the whole population. Most Papua New Guineans, including me and my people in Salt Nomane, are not poor.
“We don’t survive on dole handouts. We don’t live in makeshift tents. We don’t survive on a spoonful of donated rice and soup day by day. We don’t stand in queues for hours just to get a bucket of water for the week.”
Dekla cut in. “You are right my brother. Papua New Guinea is Eden. We don’t lack anything, so why should outsiders describe us as poor people?”
I intervened and changed the subject. After all, the nuts were depleted. We dispersed. And until just now I forgot about the incident.