REVISITING Simbu after 50 years last week, I was feted with a degree of celebrity I really didn’t merit.
That said, most proceedings were laced with profuse and jocular references to the time I was lost for 24 hours in the Yongomugl caves when my lamp failed and I couldn’t navigate the many branches and faults to find my out.
Yup - had to be rescued.
A few months prior to this drama, I had arrived in Kundiawa (population 200; 80 expatriates) in January 1964 having just turned 19.
My assignment was as head (and only) teacher at the 12-student Kundiawa Primary A School, at the time located in the Chimbu Club and shared with the drinkers who, during school hours, would cagily enter by the back door and consume in uneasy silence behind a shuttered bar.
‘A’ stood for Australian curriculum. In those days, one incentive to attract expatriates to the Territory was a commitment that, if their location could muster at least 12 students of primary school age, no matter how remote the outpost, the colonial Administration would provide a teacher.
At Kundiawa A the pupils included a blend of Australian, mixed race and one indigenous child – the bright as a button son of Johannes Yonduai, the senior medical orderly. It was clear to me that young Yonduai had been recruited to make up the numbers.
I quickly settled into a routine of teaching, socialising, sport and exploration. It was a good life. The Simbu people were kind to me. Young as I was, they called me masta – a term of subservience which has, except for the very old, thankfully vanished from their vocabulary.
Now, in early March 2017 – having been absent from Simbu for 50 years – I was back in Kundiawa with a chunk of my family.
The visit had occurred at a propitious time. Relationships had not been good between the Simbu Provincial Government and the Simbu Writers Association/Simbu Children Foundation powerhouse.
The latter, led by the charismatic Jimmy Drekore – PNG’s Man of Honour whose children’s charity is internationally recognised - and administered by the careful, competent and wise Francis Nii, was perhaps seen as a competing source of influence.
But our impending visit, and a shared desire to reach out to the people of my home in Noosa, had sublimated the hard feelings and resulted in a powerful collaboration.
Simbu Governor Noah Kool – who was in Port Moresby on parliamentary duties - has given us a letter to carry with us back to Noosa inviting the shire mayor, on behalf of the Noosa people, to embark on a mutual project which the Simbus have designated as Projek Wantok – Project Friendship. My wife, Ingrid, is a Noosa councillor.
And so it was that our first task in Kundiawa was to attend the provincial administrative offices for a meeting to welcome us and, through Provincial Administrator Joe Kunda and other dignitaries, to convey the good wishes of the Simbu people to the people of Noosa. There were many speeches.
I will have more to say here about Projek Wantok in future months as we navigate the processes involved in turning it into a reality.
The thaw between SWF/SCF and the provincial government had also led the government agreeing to fund many expenses associated with our visit – including the provision of motor vehicles and the two official dinners. At which there were many more speeches.
On the morning of the second day, we made our way north along the precipitous Gembogl road to Barengigl High School, where I was to address the students and teachers on the benefits of reading and writing.
Serendipitously, the school’s new principal, Roslyn Tony, a founding member of SWF, had just had an essay and a poem published in My Walk to Equality, which will be launched in Port Moresby on Wednesday and in Brisbane on Thursday next week.
So, as I concluded my remarks, I was able to extract from my bilum a fresh copy of the book and present it to a delighted Roslyn Tony in front of equally elated teachers and students.
After a wonderful lunch of local produce – strawberries, pineapples, pawpaw, trout, chicken and all manner of vegetables – and with Francis Nii telling us increasingly stridently that bikpla ren ikam, we made our way down the steep, deeply rutted clay track from the school to the main road and returned to Kundiawa.
There was a final dinner that night at which gifts were exchanged and, at six the next morning, three vehicles were on their way to Kagamuga airport, three hours’ drive covering the 100 km, to see us safely on our way to Port Moresby.
Beforehand, I was able to sit down with Mathias Kin to discuss the publication of his important and long-awaited history of Simbu. It's now in manuscript form and we'll spend a couple of months in editing before a launch date later in the year.
So to Jack, Paul, Merrilyn, Kathy, Mathias, Arnold, Roslyn, the two Jimmy’s, Francis, Philip and the many other angra and friends who made this return to Simbu such a memorable and important occasion – tenku tru. Wagai wagai!