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An epic tale from PNG: Baby Peter and the return to Tingwon

Marian Comerford with 4 month old Peter Tolingling, Tingwon, December 1973PETER COMERFORD 

THE story really began at Kavieng one September afternoon in 1973. A patrol boat, HMAS Aitape, had made its way from Manus to Tingwon Island after receiving a radio call for assistance to transfer a woman in premature labour to Kavieng Hospital.

The patrol boat made the difficult entrance through the reef to the Tingwon beach where a signal fire blazed to attract attention.

Marian was on duty at Kavieng Hospital’s outpatients unit when the animated activity of patients and villagers attracted her attention.

The outpatients unit was located just metres from a beach where canoes from the offshore islands came ashore and patients could wander into the warm waters to wash.

It was here that the patrol boat with its patient and a village woman accompanying her arrived.

What greeted Marian was a terrible scene. The mother had given birth to a premature baby on the eight-hour journey to Kavieng. Despite all efforts, the poor woman had slipped into unconsciousness and bled to death in the boat.

The tiny baby – a boy - was wrapped in a blood stained towel. A nurse carried him quickly for medical attention. His mother’s body was covered in a laplap, placed on a stretcher and carried past curious onlookers into the hospital.

The little boy was so tiny that Marian and her colleagues, Chris Likeman and Dr Robert Likeman, didn’t hold much hope for his survival.

Meanwhile, his relatives decided who would be his surrogate parents.

Marian and Chris organised for breastfeeding mothers in the maternity ward to provide milk for him while he was tube fed. It was a simple intervention that provided him with the necessary sustenance to survive those early days.

The relatives organised to take his mother’s body back to Tingwon.

Week by week, the little fellow grew stronger and relatives of the dead mother came to Kavieng and told Marian that a mama lukautim (surrogate mother) had been found back on Tingwon.

It had been decided to call him Peter and he would be raised by this woman, who didn’t have any children of her own.

Two months later, in December 1973, Marian and I with a close friend, Gordon Doyle, travelled as deck passengers on a small steel-hulled vessel, Kuka, which traded basic supplies like tobacco, tinned meat and fish, sugar, rice and biscuits to villagers on the outlying islands of New Hanover. The return cargo was usually large mud crabs, kukas.

Our trip to New Hanover took us through a number of villages and it was near Umbukul village that we met up with an ex student who was from Tingwon. We were delighted to hear that little baby Peter was alive and progressing well.

Benson, the captain of Kuka, agreed to take us to Tingwon for an overnight trip. Everyone wanted to come with us so, when we embarked early next morning, we had quite a few extra passengers. They were mainly from Tingwon and had been awaiting an opportunity for a passage back to their island home.

The journey was slow as we chugged through the swells of the open sea with no visible landmarks. We were occasionally escorted by schools of dolphins who burst from the turquoise bow waves. Once, to our great excitement, we found ourselves in the midst of a pod of whales.

Then the chatter of other passengers had us peering towards the horizon and we saw Tingwon for the first time, which appeared on the horizon as a small, low finger of green with a backdrop of cumulous clouds and blue sky.

Two hours later we arrived and waded ashore to the beach. The journey from Aungat had taken over seven hours and impressed upon us the island’s isolation. The village councillors, students and their families offered us fresh coconuts to drink and we sat and talked.

Marian enquired about baby Peter and was led to a hut near the beach where the surrogate mother came shook hands and gestured to a small baby asleep on a pandanus mat.

In 2008 Marian and I returned to Kavieng. It was marvellous to be back and we revelled in catching up with former students and friends and visiting places special to us, including Kavieng Hospital.

We had taken with us a framed photo of Marian and baby Peter. We were not sure if he was alive or if he was still living on Tingwon but the word soon spread around the local community that we were making enquiries about him.

A few days later a group of men from Tingwon arrived, one of whom was an ex student from Utu, Junius Tongilok. They told us that Peter Tolingling was indeed alive and an expert at making traditional fishing nets.

He was married and had a family. We gave the photo and some gifts to them and asked that they give them to Peter when they eventually went back to Tingwon.

Early in 2015, our family conspired to return to Papua New Guinea, including Bougainville and New Ireland, and decided to include a visit to isolated Tingwon.

After many adventures in between, and much planning, in August – after 41 years - we once again spotted the thin hazy shape of Tingwon appearing low on the horizon.

As our boatman Joe skilfully maneuvered through the reef we saw people waving and running along the beach directing him to an area where we could disembark in relatively shallow water.

There were numerous handshakes and hugs and I recognised Junias Tongilok standing quietly in the crowd. He came forward to greet us with a shy red betel nut grin and explained a house had been built to accommodate Marian and I for the next couple of days and our backpacks and belongings were gathered up and taken along a sandy path to the dwelling.

No mention had been made of the person we had come to see, Peter. We were then told that Peter’s mama lukautim had died just five days before. Peter was around and a community meeting would be held tomorrow where we would meet him.

Marian speaking to villagers about the story of PeterLate the next day, armed with our gifts and my iPad which had numerous photos, including the photo of baby Peter and Marian, we made our way to a covered meeting area and were sat on chairs at the front facing a quiet audience seated on the sand.

When it was Marian’s turn to speak she told the story of the patrol boat arriving in Kavieng and of Peter’s birth and the tragic loss of his mother.

The villagers shuffled forward on their backsides to get closer to hear the story. Marian told how Dr Robert Likeman, Sister Chris Likeman and the nurses had kept tiny baby Peter alive. She said she had hoped to give a framed photo of Peter as a baby to his mama lukautim but would give it instead to Peter.

After a pause, Marian went on to say that she had still not met Peter so could not recognise him in the crowd.

A slightly built man, who had been sitting at the front wearing a white People’s Progress Party tee-shirt, shyly stood up and came forward, head down in embarrassment.

Then, as Marian put her arms around his shoulders, they hugged and wept.

The tears flowed and people wiped their eyes as Peter, mourning the loss of his adoptive mother, was now overwhelmed by Marian’s story and by the meeting.

Marian and Peter, August 2015Marian gave Peter the photo taken all those years ago of her holding him as a four month old baby. I presented him with a fish finder and a combination tool, although - after watching the swift manner in which the villagers caught fish on the afternoon of our arrival - I doubted how useful the fish finder would be.

More emotional speeches followed and then a presentation of library books by Marian and me to the headmistress of Tingwon Community School.

That night there was a feast at Peter’s house consisting of Maori wrasse, trevally (butbut) and baked baby pigeon - absolutely succulent and delicious. After we had eaten we were introduced to Peter’s wife and children.

We had come with an arsenal of things for the village children so and gave them writing materials and tennis balls with the piece de résistance being fluoro sticks that could be made into bangles.

To our amusement everyone lined up to receive one, including the lapuns. For the rest of the evening the rainbow glow of the sticks could be seen shining eerily on the beach, the reef and throughout the village.

The next morning, as we packed our things and made our final preparations to depart, Simon Darius approached me and solemnly and emotionally presented me with a fathom of mis, traditional New Ireland shell money, placing it around my neck. It is something that will always be very special to me.

After numerous hugs and shaking of hands we launched through the reef, and motored out into the open sea. 

Comments

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Richie Emos

A great story I never heard. Thank you for sharing this. Will be pleased to meet you in your next trip to Tingwon Island. And your concern for books for our school is very much appreciated. From Tingwon Island, we love and appreciate your sincere connection with us.

God bless you and family.

Fred Griffiths

What a magnificent story of Peter and Marian. My wife Wendy and I also have a special connection with Tingwon, though certainly not as dramatic as yours.

I was working as a Broadcasts Officer for the Department of Information & Extension Services (DIES) in Kavieng in 1968. Wendy & I made a trip from Kavieng to Tingwon on the Latter Day Saints mission boat with officers from the Department of Civil Aviation.

Your description of your first arrival at Tingwon triggered such clear memories that Wendy & I still have - seeing the island appear out of the sea, and watching the anchor drop through the sparkling clear water till it made a "poof" of white coral sand when hitting the bottom.

We were taken ashore by men paddling dugout outrigger canoes, and after walking through the avenues of coconut palms to the airstrip with the DCA officers to make their inspection, I presented a large transistor radio to the local councillor.

The radio was placed in the village haus win where it could be heard by the whole village. This was a gift from the PNG government to help spread news, information and education to all corners of the territory, as it was then.

The news, traditional stories and songs I recorded there would be broadcast over Radio Rabaul to the whole of New Britain and New Ireland, hopefully helping to unite the various clans and language groups heading towards independence.

Unfortunately we never got to meet Peter or any of the other protagonists of this great story. We had discussed returning to PNG many years later, but thought it better to leave the old memories as they were in our minds.

Your story just brought them to the surface again.

Joe Lapan

Hi, I never had the chance to come across a warm and wonderful story about Peter, who is my cousin brother. I was also born around this time and must have been little when this was happening.

You are wonderful woman. I have been working for the government outside the capital city Port Moresby, and I just came across this heart warming story.

Thank you and God bless you.

Annette Embery

Wonderful story which touched my heart,may you both continue to bring joy to all you can in PNG. When will your book be available digitally Peter? Christmas greetings to you and your family.

John M. Glynn

Lovely story Peter! God bless you and Marian. We'll meet again one day.

Frank Earley

L O V E ;- is universal, everlasting.

"Love one another as I have loved you".

Had the joy of holding PNG babies 50 years ago working in Rabaul but not like this special story.

Just had to read this twice.

Thank you Marian

Charles Galea

Hi Peter and Marian. What a wonderful story this is. Peter is the best master storyteller I have ever met. When teaching with him at Redfield College, I would stay mesmerised when he starts a story of his life at PNG. I would stay put for as long as it takes to relish the last bit of the story.
Thanks both of you for enriching the lives of so many.
Wish you both a wonderful Christmas and a happy and healthy new year.
Charles and Grace

Stan Keilty

Well done Peter and Marian. What a wonderful story and also what you both have achieved over the years together in PNG. Take care. Cheers.

Edward Siavor

This is an amazing story.Could not back my tears to admire Marian's unconditional connection with Peter and the people of Tingwon.
This wonderful act shown by a wonderful person will not be easily erased from the memories..
I'm greatly encourgaed!

Edward Siavor

Daniel Ipan Kumbon

The picture of Marian holding Peter is priceless.I see a concentration of deep mother's love connecting with infant Peter which continues to flow today. A great enduring tale of human love and care.

Peter Comerford

Thank you for those lovely comments.... I desperately need to learn more about the history of Tingwon. We are endeavoring get to collect resources for the school which has wonderful and committed teachers but is sadly neglected..even by the school inspectors who rarely visit. The lack of resources is PNG wide but the committment of the teachers is truly humbling.

noel pascoe

what a marvellous story, Peter and Marian. It also goes to show how well you mixed in with local people in your early days in PNG. It certainly brought tears to my eyes.

Jack Klomes

Wow! A beautiful story and I know both of you will have found a special place in this community's heart and your names will be held in high esteem.

I guess in PNG this is the stuff Tumbuna stories are made of and your stories will no doubt be recorded in this peoples hearts and minds and will be told over and over around fires and be passed down generations.

Tessa Gizoria

A truly beautiful, very well told story. I have family from Tingwon and usually here of the struggle to get to Kavieng town for the basic services especially health related. Peter is a miracle! Thank you for sharing this story.

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