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Mateship & friendship stand side-by-side on the Kokoda Track

Peter O'BrienPETER O’BRIEN | The Interpretive Design Company

“Australian-funded projects have removed “mateship” from the lexicon used in Papua New Guinea to describe the heroism of Diggers fighting the Japanese on the ­Kokoda Track, in what a prominent critic [Charlie Lynn] describes as politically correct revisionism to “demilitarise” the battleground’s history in the lead up to its 75th anniversary” – Ean Higgins, The Australian, 20 March 2017

FROM November 2015 until May 2016 The Interpretive Design Company was contracted to provide a range of services for the Australian Government Kokoda Initiative Taskforce.

At the time we partnered with communication specialist, John Pastorelli of Ochre Learning.

Working with the Australian government and the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA) we consulted with key partners from both nations to develop an interpretive display that primarily presented the wartime experiences and cultural heritage of the Papuan and New Guinean people.

The project involved workshops for stakeholder engagement, capacity building, story writing and design. The stakeholders included the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery, the PNG Department of the Environment, Koari villagers (the traditional owners of the land at Owers’ Corner), local government representatives from Central and Northern (Oro) Province, The Department of Veteran Affairs and the Australian War Memorial. The Department of Foreign Affairs was not involved.

The interpretive themes and key messages were distilled from these workshops and the language of the content on the installation at Owers’ Corner comes directly from Papua New Guinean people. It is the language they wanted.

Friendship referenceThe fact that they chose not to use Australian vernacular to tell their stories is not intended to insult Australian veterans. They just wanted to tell their stories. Some of the content is drawn from Voices of the War, which is based on over 70 oral history interviews, including interviews with Papua New Guinean Kokoda veterans and descendants.

The collection of these oral histories was funded by the Australian and Papua New Guinea Governments.

We recognise the importance of keeping alive the stories that give the Track its historical value and significance. The stories about the involvement of Papua New Guineans have been misplaced over time and this project is the first of its kind to recover and preserve what can be captured before all is lost to history and to memory.

With specific reference to Mr Lynn’s comments, the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Australian War Memorial were stakeholders in the project and therefore privy to the content that appears on the installation at Owers’ Corner.

No Australian veterans were consulted in the process as the main focus of the project was to portray the Papuan and New Guinean experiences during WWII. These experiences have largely been eliminated from the written history which narrowly focuses on the Australian military heritage.

Mr Lynn and [The Australian’s] editorial staff appear blissfully ignorant of the fact that four nations fought and died in Papua and New Guinea during WWII – Papua, New Guinea, Australia and Japan.

In attempting to provide information about the Papuan and New Guinean experiences there was no deliberate attempt to play down the Australian experiences that have been so well documented and memorialised.

MateshipIn fact the original text contained the word ‘mateship’ but it was replaced with ‘friendship’ by our Papua New Guinean stakeholders. Also, they did not want reference to ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, preferring a modern treatment and connotation of the phrase. The direct quote from the panel is: ‘Friend I'll walk with you’.

In his poem, 'Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels', Sapper Herbert Baros praised the care and dedication of the carriers along the track.

"My father says the hard work of Papuan carriers was recognised by Australian soldiers, and he gave the name, the fuzzy wuzzy angels. The Papuan carriers thank him for recognising their work" (Sarah Sau Hiari, Papaki village).

Today the local people have taken ownership of the term ‘fuzzy wuzzy angel.' In the traditional language, Motu, ‘Fasi’ means friend and ‘wasi’ means leg.

"Friend, I’ll take you and I’ll walk you is what my father used to tell me. I remember that." (Inoa Bobogi Ovia, Nainumu 2 village).

Mr Lynn’s assertion that the phrase ‘Friend I’ll walk with you’ is linked or was purposely used to “mimic the fake media campaign -I’ll ride with you” – is grossly inaccurate. I should know; I wrote the text.

Regarding ‘mateship’, the use of the word ‘mate’ pre-dates Australian colonisation and probably dates from the 14th century. It comes from the word for "meat", and the original meaning - comrade - has the sense of people who eat together.

Therefore ‘mate’ and ’mateship’, while in general use in Australia for over 200 years , is not distinctly Australian nor derived from any military heritage.

Friend I'll walk with you

Having said this I recognise the significance the use of ‘mateship’ in Australian memorials but not in Papuan and New Guinean memorials.

This is the fundamental problem with Mr Lynn’s comments and those in [The Australian’s] editorial.

Neither you nor Mr Lynn attempted to research the facts and the fundamental goal of the project.

It is very lazy journalism and as far as Mr Lynn is concerned my advice is he should look over his shoulder at the future.

Further, those of us who live in privilege have no right to tell the stories of those who live in poverty. We should not determine which stories are told nor the language used.

Finally, with reference to gender equity, it is appalling that women and children are invisible in the post WWII stories of Papua and New Guinea.

When the men were pressed into service by the Australian and Japanese forces, women and children had to leave their villages and seek refuge in mountain caves. Many did not survive.

Why is their story so meaningless and the Australian story so revered? Why is the male story so important and the female experience to be ignored?

Papuan and New Guinean people, male and female, suffered in their thousands and they deserve to have their stories told. The PNG stakeholders knew this but it is apparent that Mr Lynn and journalists at The Australian are ignorant of the facts and dismissive of women and their experiences during World War II.

More information and images are available at


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Gregory Bablis

Thank you Peter for your article and highlighting the error in Lynn's thinking.

Lindsay F Bond

Disruptive visitation vs indigenous ownership.

Ruins of intrusive exploration and exploitation are assets for commercial and sociological advantage of the citizens of that land and new nation so vandalized by the range and magnitude of events and instruments visiting. Small compensation for those indigenous to the place(s), too late for those directly impacted.

From the ‘goings-on’ down a ‘road’ from Gona, till cessation of conflict foreign to that long-lived land, remembrance is celebrated by facts and acts of retelling, according to tellers and audiences.

Gold of mines in 19th century and boldness of wars in 20th, now in 21st yield awe for minds near and afar.

Can visitors stand in shoes of earlier indigenous folk, where shoes were not yet known?

Ed Brumby

Thank you for the enlightenment, Peter. I, like many, had never given any thought to the wives, mothers and children of the Angels, and their suffering. Your tale and the tales of the villagers deserve much wider currency ...

Genevieve Nelson | CEO, Kokoda Track Foundation

Finally. A considered & thoughtful response. Thank you Keith.

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