I first went to Papua New Guinea in 1967 when I was 19, a real babe in the woods. I’ve been going back ever since. Sometimes for work but often just to catch up with old friends.
I’m now close to 68, still a babe in the woods compared to some of the living fossils who went there long before me. Some were there before I was born and are still going strong.
I’ve reached a stage in life when one tends to become reflective. That is, I think about the past a lot, what I’ve done and most importantly why and what it all might mean.
Having a memory that now has no trouble recalling what I did when I was 10 years old but cannot remember what I did half an hour ago powers this change of mental direction.
At least I think I can recollect what I was doing so long ago. I may, in fact, simply be having memories of memories, if you know what I mean. That means that while I can recall what happened back then I can’t really vouchsafe for its authenticity.
There is one thing about those memories, perhaps it’s an inevitable truth, and that is that things have changed remarkably in my lifetime.
At my age, three score and eight, you realise that the end is not as far away as it once seemed. When you know that, the significance of the future diminishes. Somehow there has been a subtle switch to children and grandchildren. Simply put, it is the realisation that you are mortal. If I plant an oak seedling today, I’m pretty sure I will never see it as a mature tree.
When you stop being pre-occupied with the future your mind seems to switch to the past. And, by and large, it is a pleasurable diversion; we tend to forget the bad things but remember the good.
Sometimes, however, it is not so pleasurable because there are regrets mixed with those happy moments. And these regrets are not always personal.
For example, my recollections and musings about Papua New Guinea. Just what has it all meant?
Over my lifetime I have watched a young and vibrant country, with the world and the future at its feet, slowly but surely descend into an abyss largely of its own making.
It’s been like watching a nightmare evolving in slow motion, a stricken ship slowly sinking into the deep ocean….
The popular American writer, Leon Uris, once described my Irish homeland, my asples, at the height of the so-called ‘troubles’, as a land having a ‘terrible beauty’. He may have borrowed that term from somewhere else but I sometimes think it might also be an apt epithet for Papua New Guinea.
It is not every day that you get to watch a whole country slowly unwinding and beginning to fall apart.
Just before I left for Papua New Guinea in 1967, I had second thoughts about what I was getting myself into. I had picked up the scent of redneck among the expatriates in Papua New Guinea and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be counted in their number.
I discussed this misgiving with Fred Kaad, an experienced and enlightened kiap who was teaching at ASOPA at the time.
Fred basically explained that I was about to witness something remarkable, the end of the colonial era in a significant country and the passing of an historic epoch. He thought it was something not to be missed.
Fred had been in a plane crash in Papua New Guinea and was in a wheelchair suffering bouts of excruciating pain. Sometimes in class he would stop talking, grit his teeth and grasp the arms of his wheelchair and buckle up until it passed. He was the kind of brave man who commanded respect and who you took seriously.
So I went to Papua New Guinea. But what happened after that I don’t think even Fred envisioned.
I guess a lot of British colonialists from Africa experienced much the same sad process.
Those seeds of democracy and modernity we planted, and which were strong and vigorous shoots when we left and should have grown into mature and productive plants, for some inexplicable reason faded and then withered away.
The bad old ways came back and grew like weeds, choking the new growth and creating a garden that was neither the old nor the new but a strange and dysfunctional amalgam of both.
As I reflect on this sorry history, I can’t help thinking that maybe I wasted my time after all. All those years of work and sweat and this is what happened!
It is in that sense that I can sympathise with those expatriates who have never been back to Papua New Guinea and refuse to do so. They have good memories of their halcyon days and they don’t want them shattered.
We’re all too old to do anything about it now and nobody listens to us anyway, least of all the people supposedly in charge both here in Australia and in Papua New Guinea.
Anger turns to sadness and, while we think we’ve finally turned our backs, we can’t help worrying about those wonderful people we once knew and those children and grandchildren they must now have. What will happen to them?
All that is left are tainted memories, the good rendered bad and a bleak future for a people we once called friends.