Our grand adventure was to fly over those mountains
05 October 2015
MY dream of soaring into the blue skies of Kandep in the belly of an aeroplane began with the recruitment of young men straight from the village to work on rubber, copra and cocoa plantations on the coast.
How I wished to look down upon the two great swamplands of Kandep with their many lakes and rivers teeming with wildlife, then disappear over the mountains to distant places.
I am sure, had I been old enough, I would have allowed myself to be recruited under the indentured labour scheme that operated during the colonial period.
My uncle Wariak Mainu, Pambuti Nawe, Bui Waion and Toank Londokai - all young men from my village - were loaded on that big plane with three propellers, two on the wings and one on the nose.
I stood at the top end of the airstrip at Kandep and watched the plane rumble down the runway scattering the ducks, cormorants, white cranes and other swamp birds which took to the air in panic.
With a mighty roar, it lifted off the ground and headed towards Tari, banked south and, as it gained height, turned north to disappear over the sloping hills of Yaik Kungu.
Then there was quietness and the birds of the swamp settled down to feed again.
Two years later uncle Wariak returned and gave my father a knapsack which everybody affectionately referred to as a ‘barasapen nuu’. My father hugged Wariak for the gift, treated it with care and used it for many years.
My uncle mentioned that he had worked in a place called Madang where coconuts grew everywhere. He said he had to cut grass, crack open coconuts and dry the white flesh. This was put in bags and shipped to faraway places over a huge body of water called solwara.
Uncle Wariak must have liked plantation work because later he said goodbye again. He left me wondering where he was this time. The answer came in 1974 when he sent a $2 note in an envelope with a letter from Wakunai in Bougainville.
By then I was in Grade 9 at Lae Technical College far away from my wantoks. I was happy to receive the money from my uncle. Two dollars was a lot of money then.
Young men from all over the highlands were recruited under the indentured labour scheme. Some went to Port Moresby to work on the rubber plantations while others were taken to Madang, Rabaul and Bougainville to work on copra and cocoa plantations.
When they returned home, they had learned to chew betel nut and their teeth were black. People milled around them to see their teeth and commented that they had become like coastal people.
They did not continue the habit because chewing and selling buai was not popular in Kandep in those days.
Other young men never returned home when their two year contract was over. The explanation was that they had consumed some sort of poison or a masalai (evil spirit) had entered their minds to make them forget relatives and their homeland. Their spouses would often remarry.
On 16 September 1975, I met some of these lost young men at Nenk Pasul’s residence in Port Moresby when we celebrated independence with a big mumu feast and drinks. These men had abandoned their jobs on rubber plantations and migrated to the city in search of better paid jobs like cooks, security guards and shop assistants.
Many lived like kings compared to plantation conditions. They had free accommodation with plumbing, electric light, health facilities and other amenities. They were earning good wages.
To supplement their income, they sold buai, collected bottles and even sold black market alcohol. Some wasted their pay at the liquor shop or found sex in the ‘K2 bush’ in what is now the Waigani and Gordons industrial areas.
One former plantation labourer was greatly envied. He had joined a major shipping line as a cook and travelled to the Pacific, Australia, Asia and the Americas. This was Andrew Kusit from Konari village. His friends wanted most to hear about Kusit’s exploits with foreign women.
“Once when the ship anchored at Sydney Harbour,” he began. “I went into a bar at King’s Cross and ordered drinks. It wasn’t long before a beautiful misis with red lips came and sat on a stool next to me.
“I offered her a drink and she accepted it. I knew she meant business so I offered her another one and some more until she agreed to come with me to a lodge.”
“How did you converse with this lady?” asked Toank Londokai.
“What does it matter to speak with someone who only wants to drink your money?” replied Andrew Kusit. “You can speak to her any way you wish – broken English, sign language, Pidgin, whatever. Important thing is to supply her with enough drink. That’s what she is after.”
He said, of all the women he came across, the most beautiful were those from the Pacific islands.
“They are really beautiful like the legendary Tapuenda Ipali from the sky. When you look at Pacific island girls, they are like the sun in your eyes,” he told the silent crowd of men.
The ship’s cook knew how to manipulate these poor sex-starved buggers, most in their thirties and still single. They had come on arranged flights over the mountains - they didn’t know how to go back on their own. Some didn’t even know in which direction home was.
They had no clue how to go back, get married, bring the wife to the city and raise a family. It was even harder for them to approach the Motuan, Koari and Kerema women in Port Moresby let alone single female office workers.
One of my cousins, Raphael Apin, was smarter than the rest. He saved money, went home, paid bride price for a village lass and brought her to Moresby. They lived at Goldie River Army training depot where he was a chef. He sent his children to school and his first son Mark is now a senior medical doctor in Port Moresby.
And Andrew Kusit brought home a beautiful lady from Malaita in the Solomon Islands. He met her in Honiara on one of his sea voyages. She was a kind and humble woman who never complained about serving a plate of food to people who went to her house at Morata Two.
This initial marriage into Malaitan culture paved the way for Sakias Tamao, Paul Steward Itiogon and David Kaiao to marry three of Andrew’s tambus.
Now, Kambrip tribesmen from Kandep have land at Malaita and regard it their second home, which of course is the Melanesian way.
The time for me to fly overseas on an Air Niugini Airbus was just around the corner.
Daniel, it was good to read of the other side of the contract labour scheme that plantation expats used to their financial advantage.
Possibly 1972, I think, I was sitting with other kiaps in Taskul one day when we heard on the radio that the government was going to introduce cash wages in lieu of the wages-in-kind that was part of the contract till then.
With us was Jim White a long term Pommie planter, trader and ship owner who, when I first met him, I thought was an Ozzie because having been up in Wau pre-WW2; then fought with Australian Infantry in North Africa moved to ANGAU as the Japanese war ended and got a clutch of plantations on Lavongai Island - so that by my time he sounded like a dinkie-di Australian, certainly not a Pommie.
Anyway Jim almost spilt his cold-one as he exploded, “That's the bloody end of me then!” Or words to that effect.
He later explained to me that fortnightly, under the now soon to end scheme, he would pay his 'contracts' with some basic items such as soap, rice, tin fish, ti-lif but especially black sticks of 'Muruk' tobacco plus occasional tee-shirt and some 'Rami' - laplap as we of the New Guinea side called the forty odd inches of cheap Hong Kong material that nearly everyone was then wearing round their waists.
I think there was a tiny cash payment to purchase odd and ends from the plantation's own store.
Gradually Jim and his fellow planters saw their lines of indentured labourers 'pinis-taim' and depart the islands for the long trip home - three ocean trips for them as most were not flown home.
For the Tari and Kopiago, it would then mean a long dusty bumpy ride up the Highway. Many of these mostly young men proudly carried their small red wooden box in which were the material rewards for their two years or longer contracts.
Each also had an official copy of a government form that entitled them to collect a small cash reward from their home area's district cash office. This small cash payment was a legal requirement for each employer to provide under the scheme.
Of course many young men, as Daniel states, couldn't resist the beauty of the island girls and so decided not to go home at 'pinis-taim' but pay a tiny brideprice to marry and raise families.
By the seventies there was a scattering of 'redskins', as the darker islanders called these Highlanders or Sepiks, throughout Lavongai with children who would never see their father's home area.
Particularly as the island follows a matrilineal land inheritance system so the clan affiliations of the father were of almost non-importance. So it didn't matter that I was an outsider when I too married locally.
Jim didn't like the cash wages idea because it meant he would have to now increase the percentage of locally hired workers, “and that's not the best Arthur,” he explained.
“It means that I never know who will turn up for work because someone will always have a funeral, brideprice ceremony or other customary duty to perform rather than work. Hell I've had workers who have apparently buried their grand-dad three times over the years! My old contracts never gave me that problem.”
From that momentous change in plantation wage regime Jim would never bother to do extra horticultural jobs on his numerous plantations.
Some seven years later I temporarily worked one of his smaller ones and found his once very fruitful cocoa trees had been unpruned for a very long time.
I personally pruned many of them to the delight of the next itinerant manger who benefitted from my hard work that had provided him with bumper flushes of ripe pods.
The waste of time pruning idea was obliviously also shared by a couple of ex-contracts who had married locally were squatting inside the boundary of the plantation. They had harvested over the years from the sometimes decaying overgrown trees.
I recall having brief arguments with one who claimed the cocoa beans he wanted to sell me were from his own trees that he had planted in anticipation of Masta White never coming to inspect the place.
My antagonist told me one of the reasons for his squatting was to be near to the matmat where a couple of his wantoks had died while working for Jim.
While managing the Catholic Mission's three south coast copra/cocoa plantations on Lavongai I had a few pinis-taim workers who had married locally too.
The last of the batch was a Menyamya convicted sorcerer.... “I was only getting the jawbone from his body in the new grave to make some magic" he once told me.
He was proud owner of #1 mark on his five daily sacks. He was fantastic worker – every day he would provide 5 x 100lbs shelled or Ceylon copra, we didn't use the finger cutting method.
Towards dusk I would see him set off with his bags for the block he would work in tomorrow. Soon you would see anti-mosquito smoke arising from burning coconut fronds near the spots where he was loading his drai-nuts into heaps.
He never made use of the plantation's store dinau book which many of my workers used to exist for the last few days of the second week of a fortnight when their meagre wages dwindled.
I was a help to him in several ways sometime later when he decided to woo and win a no longer young women from inland Lavongai. Even took a few polaroid pix of the pig and traditional money he used to buy the lady and especially of the small block just off the plantation land that he had paid for traditionally.
One of these photos would come in handy some years later when another pinis-taim, wantok, married locally too, wanted to claim the land after my old worker had died.
Another character known on my roll books as Peter-Sepik a very strong tall labourer no prizes for guessing his expat given name.
One memorable afternoon he came to the store at the end of the day asking for an aspirin. When enquired if he had fever he replied, “Nogat boss, wanpela drain emi pundaun long het bilong mi!” I was amazed as he had apparently continued for several hours after the nut had fallen from tall maturing palm ... enough to kill you.
But Peter's very strong bald head - in the village he was known as Peter-Kela (Peter the bald) - had luckily protected him safely. He suffered no other effects from what could have been a fateful meeting with death.
One week the Bishop had sent a tok-savi for anyone interested to work at his distant Rakunda Plantation in the Duke of Yorks, any volunteers must assemble on the beach in Metekavil.
On Sunday morning MV Margaret anchored in our bay and several men said farewell to their wives etc. I noticed a commotion as Peter's lame wife cried in sorrow at seeing her breadwinner wanting to get in the dinghy to be taken out to the ship. He eventually managed to loosen his distraught wife's hold on his arm and left her behind.
Much to the villagers amusement she wouldn't stop wailing as the ship stared moving out of sight and cried a plaintiff “Peter!” many times as she walked along the bush track paralleling its eastwards voyage.
Her pleas were answered as apparently the vessel was late in reaching Kavieng and the recruits from elsewhere had already departed on a Rabaul bound ship. With great relief her Peter-Kela came home to her and rejoined my workers the next fortnight.
Anyway Daniel, inap pastaim no-gut mi maus wara. Thanks for jogging my brain cells back to many moments with lots of pinis-taim I have known.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 05 October 2015 at 08:06 PM
I like this one Daniel. Great story. Thanks.
Posted by: Arnold Mundua | 05 October 2015 at 01:03 PM
Ahahahah! Daniel truly I am laughing, I am happy now...I wasn't well 2 hours ago...Beautiful story.
Posted by: Philip G Kaupa | 05 October 2015 at 09:32 AM
Great story, great writing.
PNG social history, worth collecting.
Posted by: Barbara Short | 05 October 2015 at 09:31 AM
Terrific piece Daniel.
The architects of the Highlands Labour Scheme would be pleased to hear that it had the sociological impact that they had planned for it, as well as meeting the economic need for labour.
A lot of people didn't like the scheme: they thought it amounted to a thinly disguised form of slavery.
Despite this, it was hugely popular and, during my time in the Southern Highlands, and I can recall many plane loads of new recruits heading off to Lae or Madang, while the returnees came back with ideas about becoming a bisnis man.
Whatever its faults or merits, the scheme opened up a new world for many highlanders as your article so beautifully illustrates.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 05 October 2015 at 08:58 AM
It is a shame that you only discovered PNG Attitude in February this year Daniel.
If you had discovered it earlier we would have been able to enjoy your entertaining and informative articles for a lot longer.
Still, plenty of time to catch up.
Posted by: Phil Fitzpatrick | 05 October 2015 at 08:26 AM