The Highlands Labour Scheme – a personal experience
08 May 2018
KUNDIAWA - In the early 1950s, my father Kin - together with five other people from his Keri Hobelku tribe and more than a hundred other people from other tribes in the Gumine Valley - was contracted to work on a coffee plantation in Bulolo.
A white man came to their village at Deri and recruited them.
From South Chimbu they crossed the Wahgi River on the rope bridge below Yobai to Elimbari, then walked to Nambayiufa and over the Koko Mountains before crossing the Asaro River to Goroka. The walk took three days.
That evening Kin and his friends were given some bad medicine to drink, which he said he did not like at all. Many of them vomited. Kin said that, when they were working at the plantations, the bosses regularly gave them more of the same medicine and they got used to it.
The day after arriving in Goroka, Kin and his fellow recruits boarded their first aircraft, a cargo plane, and flew to Lae.
“This was our first time on a balus, our ears deaf we flew so high, higher across the heaven, clouds, everything below ants,” he told me many years later.
“We went to Lae, they say solwara (sea) we saw. Our spirits ran away, the water it was not too small.”
They stayed in Lae for one night before they were flown to Wau. On arrival they were issued with blankets, laplaps, one plate, one cup, one spoon and one bag.
At the beginning of every month they were given a new laplap, canned meats, rolls of tobacco, bars of soap, tea and one box of matches. They were also given some spending money.
Some of the men were assigned to work in the gold mines but Kin and a few of his friends were allocated to labour on the coffee plantation. They worked from sun up until afternoon. The coffee cherry season was the hardest time when they picked coffee from morning until noon, had a short break and worked till late afternoon.
Each person was assigned a number of rows and had to complete the task. There was so much coffee to pick and the coffee bags were heavy. In the non-coffee season, the work was lighter. They cut grass, dug drains and did other manual work.
Kin and his group were also given some land to plant their own food. They grew all kinds of crops and their white bosses admired their gardens and would buy food from them. Kin remembered these bosses names as Tom and Parker.
The workers both consumed their crops and sold any surplus at the local markets. Their friends on the goldfields did not grow food so Kin and his wantoks would provide some of their produce to them in return for tinned meat and rice.
Kin’s team worked in Wau for 18 months after which they were to return home. Before they left, they bought as many goods as they could carry. The items Kin bought included one yellow and one red set of bird of paradise feathers, one large tin of salt, one big axe, one tin of red paint and many plates, cups and spoons.
However, he said he was very disappointed because he was not able to buy any kina shells, which were one of the things he really wanted to take home. Wau and Bulolo were in the highlands of Morobe far from the coast so there were no shells. But, to compensate, he bought two blankets and many laplaps.
On the day of their flight home, there was much sadness and crying among the workers and their local Bulolo friends. They said good bye and flew to Goroka.
“When we came to Goroka,” Kin told me, “the town had changed so much since we left. We wondered if it was the same Goroka we saw earlier. There were so many houses now everywhere. There were wider roads there too. We were taken to an office and our names were called one by one and we were paid £1,000 each.”
Then they were taken to a big house and told to sleep there.
“That night we were all given many kinds of medicine to drink and the white men stood there to make sure all of us drank all of it. That night all of us were very sick and did not move around.”
Early the following morning they left Goroka on foot to Kama, crossed over the Ungai Range at Koko and walked into the Siane area. They slept the first night in villages there. The local tribesmen killed pigs for each of the hausman the men slept in that evening.
The contract boys returned the favour by providing some of the goods they were carrying. In Kin’s village the pig was a big one so they all contributed to give some red paint, salt, a belt, a laplap and five shillings.
The next day they continued to walk all the way to Elimbari, sleeping at Monono. There the people killed 10 chickens so they gave them some paint, salt, a laplap and some money. The next morning they walked to Giriu, down to Kula, crossing the Wahgi there and walking up to Yobai.
“We were the centre of attraction,” Kin told me. “In every village the people were saying ‘people from contract have come, people from the plane have come.’ They all wanted to see us, hug us and see and touch what we were wearing and what we have brought back.”
That night they continued to walk up to Dirima, Dawa and down to Deri village. As they arrived there was much crying in all the villages of the Keri Hobelku tribe.
“Our relatives cried because they were happy that we have not been kill-eaten by people whose nose and mouth they did not know and from places none of our people had been to. While we boys were away, many of our relatives have died so the next morning we rubbed mud and cried from one deceased family to the other.”
Kin agreed it was frightening being taken far away to unknown lands where he may have been killed and eaten. However in those days he was young and energetic and agreed it was very adventurous and they did enjoy it.
“We were going to nambisi (coast), to the kiaps’ place where all the things come from and our hearts was happy to go and we came back with many new things we did not own.”
Overall, the men from the highlands who went away to work, being young and energetic in their time, agreed it was a great adventure which they enjoyed.
They had been curious about the origins of the goods the first white men had brought to their area - the shells, the beads, the axes, the knives and salt - and reasoned that if they went away with the white men it would bring them closer to where these good things came from. And they wanted to go there to get them.
Other benefits were that they were the first people from their villages to learn Tok Pisin, which enhanced their social status in their clan, and that most of them came back wealthier, healthier and bigger than when they left.
The material goods they brought to their families ensured they owned things other families did not and they were seen as better off than these others.
They were also the first people to build houses on stilts. My father built his house on stilts – a first in the area. Prior to that, all houses in Chimbu were built on the ground and were only a few metres high. These houses were designed that way to preserve heat in the cold evenings.
They also improved family and village hygiene by introducing ways of life they followed while on the plantations. For example, these men and their families now cut their hair shorter and regularly washed with modern soap.
Mostly these men were welcomed home with celebrations and feasts. They would distribute the goods they brought among their relatives. If the men were unmarried, this wealth would immediately be used to pay for a bride. Sometimes married men, due to this new wealth, would take on a second wife.
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