I turned 50 on 18th July 2009. Here is my life. There is no audio.
By the time we got back to Arigip I was limping heavily and in some pain from the sprained ankle that I sustained on the way down the mountain. So I rested a few days. Then we went on to another village around the base of the mountain. My main host in Arigip asked me to take a bag of rice and a few other supplies to share at that village. I was only too happy to comply. Arigip had a small store that kept a few food items like canned fish and rice. Mostly it was too expensive for anyone to buy regularly, so it wasn’t strange to think that this would be a good gift from a stranger.
This time we trekked off through the tall Kunai grass. In this photo you see a women with a bilum around her head. You could never tell what was being carried. I think, in this case, it turned out she had a piglet in the bilum. Sometimes it would be a baby. Sometimes food collected from the garden. Even wood for the cooking fire.
Eventually this trail came to the rainforest and we entered in single file. The trail wound through trees in a barely discernible manner. Then it came to a steep dry creek bed and my companions turned down the creek bed. Well, there was no real track here, so if I had to find my way – well, no way. After some time walking over rough creek rocks, my companions found the exit trail and we went on through the rainforest. We came across the village all of a sudden among the trees. The ground was completely bare. I can’t remember being met but we were ushered into a largish hut in which a number of older men were already sitting, chewing beetle nut. I was show a place to sit against the wall near a doorway to another room. Some younger men came in and also a young woman who sat a little apart but near my end of the group. A young man, maybe 17 years old, sat near to me. He spoke a few words of english and made clear he would translate, as we didn’t have another English speaker with me.
However my translator was quite weak in English (not surprising, I was more surprised he spok any English at all). He asked me, “Do you have some food.” I said “yes” and immediately took the rice, canned fish, and tea out of my backpack. The young woman set to and put the whole rice on the boil. Still it was a very slow meeting as we waited for the rice to boil but as soon as it was ready, everyone stopped and shared out some rice and fish. There was not much lunchtime conversation. Then everyone had tea.
At one stage, there was a brief conversation between one of the old men and the young woman which ended with the young woman standing up and facing me. The lad said, “She wants to go into that room behind you” I nodded, not taking much notice. She stood there. He repeated his comment. Then it dawned that she wouldn’t walk in front of me to go there, so I got up and moved away so she could go in. Later she came out with something (I can’t remember what) and we did the same little ritual.
Then, all of a sudden, a shout went up from outside, and all the men got up and grabbed spears and bows and arrows and ran out. I was left sitting in the hut with the young woman. Out of surprise I said out loud to myself, “Where did everyone go?” To which the young woman said, in very clear English, “There is a pig that has been coming down the montain and destroying our gardens. They saw the pig and everyone has gone out to catch it.” I was a bit gob smacked. Her english was much better than the young lad. I asked her a hundred questions. She explained that she had done a few years of highschool on the coast and learnt English. The young lad was her brother. The pig was from a village up the mountain and had got away. It had destroyed all their gardens and that was about 6 months food supply. They had been very hungry. I was quite aghast at this. It brought home to me how precarious was such a life, not at all idyllic. And it occurred to me that what I had though was a laid back quietness in the village, was probably lethargy from lack of nutrition. The only way they would eat is if a close relative was married to a person in another village, and then they would send some food across every now and then. But this was limited when everyone was living hand to mouth.
Slowly the men came back to the hut. They had not caught the pig. However they seemed more animated and spoke with more purpose. I asked the young woman to help her brother with translation and discussion went well then. After the general conversation about the Baha’i Faith and some other things, the surprise question came. I say surprise, because in Australia, these questions were more theoretical, but here they were fully about how they would govern their social lives in a practical way. The surprise question started with the statement, “We are very angry. One of the men has run away to the coast with one of the women who was another man’s wife. What should we do about them?” An unmarried young Australian is hardly the best person to be asking advice of such sorts, but I think I managed to have a discussion about Baha’i law on marriage, divorce, but I don’t think they were adequately satisfied that there was no firm punishment for the perpetrators. Perhaps I recommended they write to the National Assembly for advice.
We didn’t stay in that village even for one night because hospitality on their part would have been too great a strain. Late in the afternoon we walked our way back along the creek. I had no hope of finding the trail again. Yet we were soon back in Arigip.
Four of us walked down the other side of the mountain. I am still disappointed that I lost my film of this part of the trek. In fact I lost two of three rolls I took in PNG during this visit. The other roll was of the Highlands. The first part of our walk that day was across a narrow ridge. The clouds drifted past at our level. The rainforest trees were thick with mosses. When the path took a downward direction, it was very uneven and rooted. I sprained my ankle about three quarter way down. It slowed me down but didn’t seem to bad, although I carried the soreness for another week.
Finally we the path started to flatten out and showed signs of more regular wear so I knew we were close to another village. Soon we came across a couple of fresh graves on the side of the road. The other men spoke briefly and then the translator told me, those graves are two youth who committed suicide after being told they couldn’t court. I felt sad for them. We said a prayer by the graves. Although outwardly quite peaceful in these villages, there were signs of the relationship problems that pursue people everywhere in the world. Signs that speak to our commonness as human being, a commonness of struggle to find a path through life.
Then we came upon the village of our destination. The translator told me that half of this village had accepted Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God, and half had not, keeping to the Anglican church. Within walking distance of this village was a town with a church and minister. We were met by a man who directed us to his hut. I put my pack down and waited while the others went through the village talking to people. Eventually a group started to gather with mats to lay on the ground. We sat around and began talking about Baha’i teachings.
Not long after we started, we were interrupted by a noisy group of people entering the village from the other end. Then we saw a group of men with bush knives walking determinedly towards us. Everyone stayed seated and the group came up to us. A couple of the men at the head of the group began shouted questions. It was obvious we couldn’t carry on with our discussion. There was some responses from the group sitting around. One of the new group, a very large man, walked around and sat on the mats and conversed quietly with some of the others. One of our group stood up to talk direct with the man who was obviously the leader. I decided to stand up with him. That leader asked me in english who I was and what I was doing here. As I started to respond, he shouted at me that he didn’t care about that, and some other remarks. As I was listening to his tirade which included telling me to get out of PNG, white people weren’t wanted here, etc etc., another group of people with ministers of the church at the head came into the village, and took up a position on the groun, under a tree not far from us. They didn’t seem interested in becoming involved but I certainly felt the heat of their scrutiny, perhaps more than the heat of the veiled threats from what I was now informed by its leader, the marxist group. After a while the local people, perhaps dismayed at the groups attack on me and their attack on the Faith, began to argue more vigorously with them. At this point I returned to sit on the mat to minimise any escalation of argument that might become centred about myself.
As I couldn’t understand what was being said during the argument, I began looking around at the group. I noticed that the large man who had entered with the Marxists was now involved in the argument in support of the Baha’i group. As I began taking some interest in the church group which had in it a white man in minister’s clothing, this minister beckoned my over to their group. I went over and he offered me water which I took. We had some small talk about our respective backgrounds. He was an Australian as well. Then he said, “The villages shouldn’t be divided by religion. They should all be one thing or the other. Perhaps they should all be Baha’i or all be (Christian). Perhaps we should make a decision about that.” I must admit I was a bit confounded by this. I had known that the Christian churches had divided Papua New Guinea into jurisdictions, but I didn’t realise the idea was so matter of fact, that it might be raised with a young man (myself) without reference to my credentials. Of course I had no authority to make any decisions on behalf of the Baha’i Faith, so I replied to this fact but also that Baha’u’llah taught that faith was an individual choice, “For the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143).
After a while I left the church group and went back to sit with the arguing groups. By now it seemed that the arguments had developed a pragmatic less vigorous tone. However there was no indication that it was coming to any conclusion and in anticipation of a long afternoon, with some thought that maybe the removal of my presence might relax things further, I went into my host’s hut which was directly next to the groups. Here I stayed until the argument concluded and the groups dispersed.
Later I heard that news had reached the nearby town that I was in the vicinity. The marxist leader was a schoolteacher in that town who had political aspirations. The large man was a Baha’i who lived in the town. When he heard that the marxist group was planning to go to the village when I arrived there, he decided to tag along with them, for support and protection. I think the church group also heard I was in the district and they had followed the marxist group at a discrete distance. Perhaps they also intended their presence as protection. Of the argument, nothing had been resolved except that nothing had become particularly rancorous. On the way out of the village, and going to the next village further away from town again, I noticed a tractor. I asked if it was good to have a tractor here. I was told it was very helpful when it first arrived to haul some goods from the sea port (50 kilometres away) but it now didn’t work. If anything breaks down it can’t be fixed, not even the battery replaced. In first world towns we often take for granted the access to the very many inter-related products and services that have to be brought together to make a modern technical world functional.
Post script to this story. Several years later i had become friends with an american Baha’i who went to live in Alotau, Milne Bay. He got to know a lot of people in Alotau, and the Baha’is of Dagga. One year he rang me from Alotau. He said, “do you remember P (my tranlator)”. I said, “of course”. “Well, he asked me whether you remembered the day the Marxists confronted you in Dagga.” Again I said, “of course.” “Well P was telling me that the Marxist schoolteacher who was leading the mob, is the current member of parliament and lives in Alotau. In fact, we know him and he is very amicable towards the Baha’is. P says he is also very friendly to the Baha’is when he is in Dagga.” So life goes on, people accept new things, especially with an eye on peace and progress. I wonder where he is now.
The highest village in the Dagga language group made for a cold november. The sunny days were quite mild. The man who met me at the previous village, to accompany me as a translator was not a local from Dagga, but rather the husband of a schoolteacher who had come there. You will notice in the flickr photos, he has a bright blue tracksuit top.
This village had a large central grassed ‘square’. When we arrived, we walked straight on through, hearing a few shouted voices from within huts. It was common to hear shouted voices either from within huts or from outside. They were not voices of anger, but voices of messaging. As it came to be often translated, this was the efficient method people would relay information about needs, decisions. So, at what seemed to me like any time of day, a loud voice would be heard. When I asked the translator, “What is he shouting about?” I would be told something like, “Oh he says that a hut is being erected for a person, and men are needed to cut down trees for posts, tomorrow.” and then replies and questions would issue forth from huts.In this case, as people saw us enter, they simply shouted that we were here, that to go and put things down and then come back and meet the chiefs.
So we left the main square of the village and crossed a small stream to a large grassed paddock. To the left side of the paddock was a large hut with broken panels. On a slope from it was a yam garden. Across the paddock, was the translator’s hut. As we crossed the stream we heard a child’s voice calling out. As I looked toward the voice, I saw a child perhaps 3 years old, coming down the steps from the hut. As she got to the bottom of the stairs and began running toward us, the translator said proudly and happlily, “this is my daughter”. Then a strange thing happened. As she was running towards us, she suddenly stopped running and calling. Then she started calling againg in a strident voice. Then she ran two steps forward, calling to us as if for help, then she ran back a little, and continued so that she began making circles. By this time she was quite keening in her cry. Perhaps, then, her mother called for her, as she then turned and ran back into the hut. I asked, ” what happened?” My translator said, “Oh, she hasn’t seen a white man before. She got frightened. She wanted to come to me for safety but I was with you so she got confused.” It reminded me that nine or ten years without a white person meant that anyone under 12 probably wouldn’t remember or wouldn’t have seen a white person. And without books, no way to show what one might look like or tell stories. Of course the stories they had about ‘different’ people weren’t that good for children. Nonetheless, I think she almost got used to me during the few days I was there.
And a few days it had to be. Once we set down and had some yam for lunch, we went back to the main village to meet the village. First we met with some chiefs in a hut. Here they told us that they had organised a Feast with a few of the nearby villages. A feast meant that these villages would all come with a pig and hauling yams. Then they would spend the afternoon slaughtering the pigs and butchering the meat. The men particularly would get prepared for traditional dancing. Then they would cook the meat and share it and the yams out into portions according to families. Then, by village, there would be a ‘dance off’ in teams of dancers with drums (kundus). They would all have a large meal during the dancing, with families keeping a portion of the cooked pork for the next day (maybe longer).
During the afternoon, I went to a few huts to have conversations about the Baha’i Faith with groups of people. In one of these huts, a man about 30 years of age, spoke to me in very clear English, asking me where I was from? Did I know Melbourne? “No I had never been” “I like Melbourne”, he said, “better than Frankfurt.” I think since I have never heard comments that caused such a dissonance for comprehension. The voice in my head was reflecting, ‘yes he is speaking very clear english, yes he did say Melbourne, and, it did seem that he was talking about Frankfurt, ?Germany. “How do you know these places?” I asked. And so he told me of being a merchant seaman and the routes he had travelled, cities he had seen. And that know he was homesick and needed a rest so he came bnack to Dagga, where the company can’t find me. “But people here are quite ignorant, so it is hard to stay for long.” I though he was a little harsh in his comments about his ‘onetalks’ but looking back I suppose he was just telling it as he experienced a life on both sides of two vastly different worlds. He wasn’t so interested in the Faith, and was committed to alcohol, cigarettes and perhaps other enticements of a seaman’s life. Yet he was not hostile towards the idea of the Faith, perhaps with the pragmatic view that it might help the progress of the people.
In another hut, I met with what I found out were members of the elected Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i Faith. See here, for information about the administrative order of the Baha’i Faith. I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of women sitting in this group. We spoke about a number of things to do with Baha’i principles, elections, the work of the Spiritual Assembly including socio-economic development. Then, in a sedate manner that I didn’t see coming, I was asked, “so if the Spiritual Assembly can make all the decisions with the community, what do we do with the chiefs?” I was far too nervous and felt far to young to provide the flippant responses that comes to my mind’s bidding today. I remembered Baha’u’llah’s teachings on Kings, so I referred these to them, “”Erelong will God make manifest on earth kings who will recline on the couches of justice, and will rule amongst men even as they rule their own selves. They, indeed, are among the choicest of My creatures in the entire creation.” (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 73), and suggested that they consult with the chiefs on the role that the chiefs would now play. I never heard how such a question has played out.
Later, once the feast had begun and the drums and dancers were in full swing, a few of the chiefs came to me with a gift of a ‘peace’ bilum. They told me whenever villages come together for a feast they would first plant this bag on a spear in the square and that would be a sign that there are no aggressions while the peace bag was standing there. It seemed they were saying that they no longer had need for the peace bilum to be set up, for now they were always at peace with each other. I still have the bilum hanging in my cupboard and it reminds me of the mission for world peace, how easy it is forged in some cases, how immensely difficult in others.
The drums played on all night. I went to the hut to sleep much earlier than most of the village (yes I know, party pooper). It was freezing. I wore my tracksuit and two pair of football socks and in my sleeping bag and was still cold. I woke to see a few people sleeping around the fire, but many young people just sleeping in skimpy clothing on the dew laden grass. Perhaps they had a good dose of ‘beetle-nut’ to get them though the night. I understood from them that some ‘beetle-nut’ was just taste but some types would make a new taker fall down.
Slowly our hut came to life, and, after some breakfast of yams, we went off down the other side of the mountain.
While in Alotau I had bought a half a back pack of tinned fish and rice, and a packet of tea, to share while in the Dagga area. I had learnt on an early trek in Central province that sugar just won’t last, as it tends to get added to the tea by the tablespoon. I thought it must be a response to having little in the way of sweet foods. The staple diet was varieties of yam. I actually put on weight after a week in Central province and two weeks in Dagga. Yes, no dysentry, and years of training by mother to finish what was on my plate, and a tendency for young men to have two plates of yam per sitting. One morning, when getting ready to trek up the mountain to other villages, an older women who was boiling yam fo rbreakfast mentioned, “Good for walking up mountains”. A pineapple crop began to ripen at the end of my visit and, after just a couple of weeks on the straight stuff, I found myself eating half a pineapple in one sitting.
One evening in Arigip I was sitting on the floor for a meal with four men two women and a pre-pubescent girl. The older men (chiefs of the village) were speaking to me throguh my host who spoke English very well, and had, I understood later, had spent a couple of years in tertiary education of some sort before the death of his father brought him back to Arigip. It had quickly become evident to me that there was a clear differential in body types of these people who lived by subsistence farming. The youth and young adults wer clearly ‘chubby’, especially women. Adults by 30 were relatively lean. An old person was probably only in their 40s, and I doubted anyone was as old as 60 years
Anyhow back to dinner. In a fashion true to children the world over, the girl was nagging her mother about something. I couldn’t imaginge what as there are no retail shops, no fashion lable, no money. Perhaps she just wanted to get out of a day tending the yams. Or maybe even school (yes they had a primary school). I wasn’t paying much attention to the girl, but after a while the mother said something tersely to her. While the terseness of the words were enough to draw my attention, the effect on the girl and the others at the table were astounding. On her mother’s words, the girl looked to me momentarily with eyes wide with terror, shut her mouth firmly closed, then hung here head. The men at the meal, immediately fell about laughing with the most gleeful delight. The girl watched me through the top of hooded eyes, now more sullen than frightened. I sat very puzzled but very very intrigued. When my host had gathered himself I asked, “What did she (the mother) say to the girl? My host patted me on the shoulder, “She said”, he laughed, “if you don’t behave, I’ll give you to that white man and he’ll eat you.”
I must admit, I couldn’t help smiling a bit myself. But I remember thinking, this is the foot on the other shoe, and , if I try to smile at the girl and reassure her, will it just frighten her more. Thankfully, after a few, more sedate comments between men and women, they all came back to the earlier thread of conversation. The girl finished her food in silence, politely and quietly spoke to her mother and then removed herself from the room. I worry somewhat as I tell this story that the girl is now in her mid to late thirties and may read this one day and still not see the funny side. Because the other shoe I mention, is the one I grew up with which was a saying from an older anglo generation to their children that if we didn’t behave they would feed us to a black man. While I thought it was funny when applied to me as the ‘ogre’ – because after all, what a strangely weird idea – I can feel that it was probably a saying similar to this that helped create in me as a child a certain anxiety about black people. I don’t want to spend time in this story on the psychology of discrimination within myself or any one, but to note that every prejudicial statement to a child may create emotional responses that can never be fully overcome by the sheer force of prayer or intellect or intercultural emersion, at a later time in life.