T G WILLIE
IT WAS THE MID 1960s in the old colonial Territory of Papua New Guinea and the English language was held in reverential awe.
Much of the coastal Papua region had been colonised. There were many primary schools scattered along the coastal villages. Children whose villages did not have a school usually went to live and board with relatives where there was a school.
Manumanu was one such village without a school, so some of the Manumanu children were in villages such as Hisiu to the west, and, Porebada and Hanuabada to the east.
John-Garia, a 13-year old lad at the time, came from a big, affluent family in Hanuabada. Hanuabada – a Port Moresby icon - was a modern village rebuilt after World War II. It had two primary schools: a government school and a Catholic mission school.
Young John-Garia attended the mission school run the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart order. The teaching staff included nuns, Australian volunteers and highly qualified national teachers.
The level of education was high. At 13 and in Grade 5, young John Garia spoke fluent English. He was a bright and promising student.
The end of the 1965 school year had come around. At the school’s speech day in early November, John Garia received first place awards for mathematics, religious instruction and English.
His father was very happy with his results and the family had rewarded him with a Christmas holiday trip to visit relatives at Manumanu, the last Motu speaking village some 100 kilometres west along the coast.
To every schoolboy, a visit to another village was a big deal as it meant going to see a new place and meeting new people. John Garia was going away for six weeks, and his excitement and expectations were enormous.
His father had arranged with a distant relative, Rabu from Manumanu villag, to come to Hanuabada and pick up a double hull canoe used for fishing. This gift enhanced and strengthened family ties, who would live in his father’s debt until a gift of a similar value was returned sometime in the future.
The relatives from Manumanu arrived in Hanuabada in early November to collect the canoe and sail it down the coast with help of the south-east trade-wind, laurabada. John Garia had met uncle Rabu on numerous occasions and was familiar with him.
For the return trip to Port Moresby in January, his father had reserved passage for him on the MV Kibi, part of a fleet of five diesel engine powered wooden boats owned by Steamships Trading Company.
These boats carried cargo and passengers along the Papuan coastline and were affectionately known as K-Boats as their names stated with the letter “K”; the others in the fleet being MV Kuku, MV Kone, MV Kaia, and MV Koke.
On the day of their departure, uncle Rabu and four other relatives loaded the canoe, made ready the sails and they were off sailing into the wind by mid-day. By the evening, the group arrived at Porebada, a Motuan village some 30 km down the west coast.
The group was to overnight and then continue on to Manumanu the next day. For their evening meal, the group had collected some tasty seashells from the reefs of Haidan Island, near Porebada to go with their boiled rice.
All this was an exciting adventure to the young schoolboy, for he was getting a first-hand lesson on Motuan life skills. Back at his home, most of the food came in tins and packets from the local tradestores, or from the Chinese supermarkets in town.
Sometimes his family bought local food from the market stalls at Koki in Port Moresby. Sometimes his family would harvest food from their gardens at Larroge (Laloki River), 14 km to the north towards the Koiari lands in the Owen Stanley Ranges.
And now, here he was collecting food in a way he had never experienced before. Of course, he had been to Era Kone (Ela Beach) and harvested small seashells such as periwinkles, cockles and mussels, and at low tide he had walked along the exposed reefs near his village, spearing small fish, octopus, harvesting seas urchins and sea cucumbers (beche de mer), but never had he dived on the reefs for big clam shells, trochus and conch and mother of pearl shells.
Back home, this was something only the older boys from the smaller villages did. His people at home referred to such villages as Hanuahanua, or small village, in a derogatory tone; the underlying meaning being that they were simple and primitive, unlike Hanuabada.
The next morning, the group was up early with the 5 o’clock tide to continue the journey. They arrived at Manumanu by evening, and uncle Rabu’s family came down to meet them. The villagers had seen the sail an hour or two earlier and excitement had grown as the canoe drew nearer.
On arrival, John Garia, being the guest and a child of their benefactor, found himself the centre of excitement and awe. He was taken to uncle Rabu’s thatched grass and bamboo house, which was very airy and comfortable. There he met more of his cousins, children of his own age group.
Many of these children he knew and recognised, for they had visited his family home with their parents in the past. At dinner he had specially prepared meal of sea shell flesh mixed in a thick gruel of flour broth with some hot tea. This really was a treat for him for he had never tasted a local dish this tasty before.
For the rest of the holidays at Manumanu, he would go down to the beach with some of his young cousins in the mornings to play amongst the old canoe hulls on the black sands. In the cool of the evenings, they would go wondering in the bushes, hunting for bandicoots, small swampy tortoises and crabs.
It was on one of the morning forays in the New Year of 1966 that John Garia came across a young girl visitor, a recent arrival from Port Moresby’s Hohola suburb.
This young girl, also aged 13, had relatives in Manumanu. She was of mixed parentage, being part Malay and part Manumanu, and was referred to as a half caste in those days. Her name was Helen and she spoke mostly in English for she also attended school in Hohola.
Many of the children she played with did not understand English, and so one of young John Garia’s cousins had dragged him over to meet the girl who spoke a strange language. On meeting Helen, he sensed she was most relieved to find a friendly English speaking young boy here in Manumanu.
Helen and John Garia became good friends, special friends in fact. They spend the rest of their holidays together.
All too soon the holiday was over. On the last evening they met before John Garia’s return on the K-Boat, Helen was upset and cried in front of him. He did not understand why this was so. However, years later he understood.
His own heart was broken when he had to leave his family and a special friend to go overseas for further education on a government scholarship. It was a thing called Love.
He had felt it back in January of the year 1966, but had not recognised it. That was the last year of his childhood.
For he had sailed in a canoe, dived on a reef for shell-fish, hunted for bandicoot and turtle, and experienced love.
Esto vir, Mr John Garia.