In praise of people who are different
23 January 2014
SHORTLY AFTER I ARRIVED IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA in 1967 I met my first so-called longlong. I was camped at a place called Paiagona on the road between Mount Hagen, Tambul and Mendi trying to repair and keep it open after a month of very wet weather.
Paiagona is high up in the ranges and the stretch of road we were working on was at about 8,500 feet and very cold. I had with me an old sergeant who was trying to teach me the ropes about being a kiap.
There were also a couple of new graduates from the Police College at Bomana learning to be policemen. The sergeant had arthritis in his knees and the weather, along with us greenhorns, wasn’t doing his temper much good.
The four of us did the usual flag raising and parade every morning. I would stagger out of the haus kiap at the crack of dawn to be confronted by the sergeant standing at attention with the phalanx of two tenderfoot cops arranged behind him.
It was a fairly pointless ceremony but it gave the shivering locals something to watch and seemed to take the sergeant’s mind off his aching knees.
One morning when I lurched into the mist for the ritual I was confronted by the sergeant and what appeared to be three constables. I squinted through the fog and returned the sergeant’s crisp salute and said, “We seem to have gained an extra body, Sarge.”
The sergeant turned around and inspected the apparition. The two young constables looked decidedly nervous. “Where did that come from?” the sergeant said to the two constables. They smiled weakly and shrugged.
The new recruit seemed somewhat advanced in years and was wearing a black jumper over a wide bark belt, a blue towelling apron and arsegrass. On his head he wore a beret constructed from a banana leaf with a label from a can of tinpis in place of a RPNGC badge. He threw us a very smart salute and snapped his heels together.
He was there the next morning and the morning after that so we decided to humour him and took him out with the road crew. Repairing roads in the cold and mist is a tedious business and he was an amusing distraction. Even the men working with the picks and shovels humoured him.
When he yelled and berated them they jumped and made a great show of appearing to be afraid of him. A little later I had to confiscate the length of kunda that he was wielding but he took that graciously.
One morning the OIC from Tambul came out to see how we were going. Our old longlong saw him coming and quickly dispensed with his banana beret and high-tailed it for the bush.
It appears that he had been doing his cop masquerade on the station one day when a local Papua New Guinean politician had arrived for a visit. The longlong took issue with the familiarity shown by the polly to the kiap and promptly ‘arrested’ him.
Suffice to say he was run off the station. His short-lived comeback enlivened our working day and we missed him sorely, the sergeant included.
In another part of the highlands I was on a routine census patrol. The people in the area had got so used to the annual body count that they lined up in the order in which their names appeared in the census book.
Everyone lived in extended families in dispersed hamlets and the census was an opportunity for them to get together in safety in the one place. There was a singsing and gift exchange arranged for the afternoon and everyone was in a jovial mood.
Running my fingers down the page I came to an unusual entry: a single middle-aged man with no family. I looked up and since he hadn’t fronted called out his name. No response, just smiles from the crowd. I called his name again. Still no response.
“Is he dead?” I asked the attentive luluai. The luluai shook his head and made a gesture towards the front of the table. Then I heard a voice. “Down here kiap,” it said followed by a chuckle.
I peered over the edge of the table and sure enough there was a man down there lying on the ground. Okay, I thought, I’ll play along with the game and ticked him off in the census book. I called out the name of the head of the next family. It was then that I noticed the annotation against the single man’s name. It was one word: ‘cripple’.
While the new family arranged itself in age and height order I watched the single man crawl off. He appeared to have no control from the waist down but propelled himself expertly on his elbows in a sort of crabbing motion.
After the census I went to see him accompanied by the luluai. It turned out that he had been born with a spinal abnormality. However, he had a strong and stubborn mother who refused to give in to the entreaties of the father and the rest of the clan to dispose of him. She had carried him around until he got too heavy and then she died.
Various kiaps had tried to help him over the years without success. The mission doctors just shook their heads and the attempt to get him into a wheelchair had been a failure; the body strength was just not there and he just slipped out of the seat and onto the ground where he crawled away. He should have been strapped into a special electric wheelchair but in the 1960s in Papua New Guinea that was not possible.
He was a reasonably intelligent man and could speak tok pisin but he had developed some distinct eccentricities. In his condition you couldn’t blame him. Apparently he played the same trick on the kiap doing the census every year.
He also had a reputation for looking up girls’ pulpuls and would howl loudly when he scored an especially good view. He said he could recognise every kneecap in his clan and many others outside too. His stomach was permanently caked with the orange clay of the paths and was calloused like the bottom of a foot. He invited me to feel it and giggled because it tickled.
I’ve no idea what eventually happened to him but I hope he lived a long time.
Now that I’ve retired I live in a quiet Queensland seaside town. Where I live used to be the working class side of town where the railway ran to the shipping wharf. The railway is long gone and the wharf had become a pier for the tourists to walk along. The area is slowly becoming gentrified but there is still a nice mix of yuppies and battlers. Some of them are quite crazy.
There’s Kevin, who rides around on his bicycle armed with a rake and broom. He randomly weeds the roadside verges and occasionally rescues errant shopping trolleys. When you talk to him he grins and nods but doesn’t speak.
Then there’s the woman on the powered three-wheeler bicycle who drives down the middle of the esplanade at 15 kph collecting a long line of irate drivers behind her. One day some impatient hoon will skittle her but in the meantime she’s a joy to watch.
Another lady collects rubbish off the footpaths in the early hours of the morning. I first saw her when I was walking the dog. She’s armed with a wheat bag and rubber gloves. When I greet her she glowers back as if to say, “Look at the mess you’ve made!”
They are all relatively harmless. Sometimes they are amusing and funny. Others are infinitely sad. Many are persecuted by nasty little boys. One mad old lady I often see opens her purse and throws coins at them. When I piss the little buggers off and collect her coins for her she just grins inanely and scuttles off. I put the coins in the guide dogs money box.
These days I resist trying to find out what happened to make them that way. Trying to help usually ends up not helping at all. They live in a different world. I just accept them and their eccentricities. They are just the topping on the icecream of life I reckon.
Enjoyed this read Phil. Yes, sometimes we just have to respect them the way they are. Life's a mystery, maybe trying to solve it, sometimes makes it, just too complicated!
Posted by: Marlene Dee Potoura | 23 January 2014 at 02:09 PM