CARDIFF - My wife’s extended family in rural Papua New Guinea are subsistence folk. Any of their children able to reach higher education rarely find paid employment back home where they can use their learning.
So they migrate, often forever, to the urban areas of PNG where they live in sub-standard homes in settlements or on the fringes of town.
They are expected to repatriate some of their salaries to help mum and dad pay for sibling to get educated, with a little money left over for a bag of rice and some sugar.
Thus, when the Malaysian loggers come along accompanied by an educated wantok spiv, the opportunity of getting a 20 kina note or more is hard to resist. After all, they only have to say yes and sign an official form in English legal jargon.
In the late 1980s, I worked at Gogodala in the Western Province employing mostly local staff. One of my female workers decided to get married to a recently qualified wantok policeman stationed in Moresby. So she sailed away to live with him in the big city.
I didn’t see her again until some years later when I was working in Moresby and she came looking for a job in a new tiny retail unit I had built at the side of my company’s head office. I remembered her well and had always thought highly of her work so gave her a job.
One day I drove her home so I could meet her husband. I was amazed that they lived underneath a wantok’s small fibro-walled home near Badili. Their one room was on the sloping rocky land of the hillside on which the original house had been built.
I can’t forget them. Two young married people both fully employed and yet with no real home in which to bring up their first child. The three of them were still there when I returned to New Ireland a couple of years later.
They had some relatives who I also met. Mr X (not his real name, as I think you’ve guessed) was from the Gogo area too and worked as bookkeeper for our company.
I asked him if he was hoping to go home for Christmas and was amazed when he replied, “I hope I never have to live with those primitives again!” His exact words. And he was a young educated Christian man. I still wonder if he was really as bad as he seemed.
On the Aramia River in the Western Province I was piloting my flat bottomed ‘river truck’ when its outboard engine gave out. We had about mile or so of our up-river journey to go and daylight was dwindling.
We had three paddles for the three of us. My Highlander Huli colleague grabbed one; I took another and we both looked at our passenger, John, who just sat there.
He was a local Gogodala man who worked in our Moresby office and home for the weekend to attend a customary feast.
“What’s a matter John?” I asked.
“I don’t know how to paddle Arthur.”
“But you’re from here!”
“But I haven’t lived here since I was two. I’ve lived in Moresby all my life.”
So a Welshman and a Huli highlander managed very, very slowly to paddle safely home.