Late night drama at Rumginae as a mother struggles for life
PNG politicians have differing views on benefits of APEC

A faith healing and a farewell: a final return to PNG?

Sean Dorney (Craig Berkman)
Sean Dorney back in Manus - "I have motor neurone disease and may have only two years left to live"

SEAN DORNEY | Australian Broadcasting Corporation

MANUS - These committed Catholics in my wife's village are praying for me to be healed. But, my God, it is quite intimidating.

I witnessed a lot during my years as the ABC's foreign correspondent in Papua New Guinea, but this level of fervour still comes as quite a shock.

The chanting, the clenched rosary beads, the tears make a powerful impression.

Pauline sits beside me in front of a crucifix which they have carried through the village.

They are convinced there is a spiritual solution to this rotten condition that now ails me — despite intensive and costly research, it has so far defied a medical one.

I have motor neurone disease and may have only two years left to live.

We have come back to Tulu, Pauline's village on Manus Island, in what could be my final visit. This is a place I have come to love, where people live in harmony with nature.

To most Australians, Manus is almost a dirty word because of its hosting of Australia's asylum seeker processing centre.

But Tulu, a traditional Melanesian coastal village where many houses are still constructed out of bush materials, defies the stereotype.

It's impeccably clean. This is not the hell-hole some asylum-seeker advocates wish to portray Manus as.

The first time I went to Tulu with Pauline was in 1976.

Back then, I leapt ashore and joined in vigorous activities as people hunted for food and prepared a feast to celebrate the end of the school year for the village primary school.

This time, I had to be picked up out of the boat and carried onto the beach by a nephew.

Pauline's brother, Bernard, is the Paramount Chief on Tulu. He has decreed that on this visit I be initiated as a chief of his and Pauline's clan, the Petepwak.

This could be my last opportunity to be with Pauline's family and the people who have so generously enriched my life.

And it is also a chance to return to a subject that continues to fascinate me — how so many Australians have completely lost touch with our former colony.

Pauline and I have been married for more than 40 years.

She was a radio broadcaster with Papua New Guinea's National Broadcasting Commission in the 1970s when I, as a young journalist, was working for the PNG NBC on secondment from the ABC.

She is a proud Papua New Guinean who has retained her citizenship. Her father was the head chief of the Tulu people and she has real status on Manus.

Sean & Pauline - wedding day
Sean and Pauline's wedding day - married more than 40 years in a loving commitment to each other and to Papua New Guinea

I arrived in PNG in 1974, the year before it gained independence from Australia. I was fortunate to be one of the NBC's parliamentary reporters and so I covered all of the debates as PNG developed its constitution.

And I got to know the leading figures of the day like the father of the nation, the Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare, and his then coalition partner, Sir Julius Chan.

We left PNG at the end of 1976 but, in 1979, the ABC appointed me to be its Papua New Guinea Correspondent.

Five years later, I was deported over a Four Corners report on PNG's then troubled border with Indonesia that the government objected to.

But all was forgiven and after being allowed back in 1987, I served for another 12 years as the ABC's PNG Correspondent.

In fact, in 1990, the PNG Government awarded me an MBE. That's Papua New Guinea — they throw you out and six years later give you a gong.

A world away from Tulu, Papua New Guinea's capital Port Moresby is changing in many ways.

This city has possibly five times the population it had when I first set foot there in 1974, and is bursting at the seams because of the constant influx of people from PNG's 21 other provinces.

The original owners of the land, the Motu people, built their villages on stilts over the sea. They still exist and Port Moresby now has a mix of modern buildings, traditional houses and huge squatter settlements.

But in other ways, Port Moresby remains the same.

Crime is nothing new in the capital. I was mugged twice during my time as the ABC's PNG Correspondent.

Once, I had a gun put to my forehead and the rascals (as criminals are called in PNG) then punched me to the ground and stole the ABC vehicle.

The city is currently undergoing a massive clean-up in preparation for hosting APEC in November.

The summit is a huge deal for PNG — the tiniest economy of all APEC members. You can hardly move in Moresby for the Chinese roadworks.

There are grumbles over why so much money is being spent in the capital, and Australia and China appear to be in competition over who is going to pay the most to help make it happen.

I suspect the next ABC correspondent posted to Moresby will be spending a lot of time reporting on China's increasing influence.

My extended posting for the ABC in Port Moresby came to an end in 1998, but I have visited the country on average once a year ever since.

The Lowy Institute commissioned me to write a book about the Australia/Papua New Guinea relationship 40 years on from PNG's independence from Australia.

I called it The Embarrassed Colonialist because of how I feel Australia, and in general Australians, have seemingly done our best to erase from our collective memory our stewardship of a country we ran for 70 years and were responsible for bringing to nationhood.

If we were proud of that achievement, surely, we would teach our kids about it. But our colonial history as the administrating authority in PNG is almost nowhere in any school curriculum in Australia.

What I find depressing is that, with the exception of the ABC, the Australian media these days is exceptionally ignorant about Papua New Guinea.

Earlier this year, there was a catastrophic earthquake in the PNG highlands which killed at least 150 people. The coverage in the Australian print media was almost non-existent.

However, a recent natural disaster in Central America with significantly fewer deaths garnered days of articles.

Why? Well, some of the international news agencies had reporters on the ground in Central America.

There has not been a news agency journalist based in PNG since Australian Associated Press (AAP) withdrew their resident correspondent about five years ago.

When I first went to PNG in 1974, there were five correspondents based in Port Moresby reporting for the Australian media.

By the early 1980s, it was down to two. Now it is one.

Eric Tlozek, now in the Middle East, was until very recently the ABC's man in Moresby. On this visit, he told me of the frustration he faced being the solitary PNG foreign correspondent, but also the exhilaration the job provided him.

I found PNG to be an endlessly fascinating place and I am sure the new ABC Correspondent is going to be equally enthralled.

One of the more insightful comments made by a journalistic colleague who spent several years working for the PNG media was that the country exacts a terrible toll upon one's assumptions.

Back on Tulu, my initiation as a chief of Pauline's Petepwak clan takes place in a newly constructed, traditional men's house — a Kemel, in the Tulu language.

The ceremony includes me being dressed with headbands, belts of dogs' teeth and layer after layer of woven Manus baskets.

I'm presented with a live pig — which, fortunately, I do not have to kill. Others do that and, later, we feast on it.

Pauline is exceptionally proud of her village and has retained her PNG citizenship despite having lived for many years in Australia.

Her identity is as a Papua New Guinean, just as mine is as an Australian. I just wish that mutual respect was more broadly shared in Australia.

One visit I was very keen to make while we were in Tulu was to the primary school where our nephew, Alex, is the headmaster.

He's a great teacher and the community demanded that the education authorities post him back home. His students at previous schools had topped the province in national exams.

Alex is determined to ensure his students not only succeed academically but keep their cultural traditions alive.

We often hear about all the problems in Papua New Guinea and there is no denying it has its share. But Australians deserve to know about the positives too.

And if village life remains as joyful and fulfilling as it is in Tulu then that is a great thing. And I wish them all the best.

As we say goodbye to the people of Tulu — for me perhaps for the last time — I can't help but feel that as someone who has spent so much of my career attempting to unravel the complexity and foibles of Papua New Guinea, I'm not that much closer to getting it right.


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Martin Hadlow

An outstanding television program this week, Sean. Well done to you and Pauline.

Truly emotional and uplifting.

Apart from celebrating your family, your life and your professional career, the program provided a positive view of resilient Papua New Guinean people achieving good things in their remote villages.

The school teacher and his commitment to his students, the women ensuring a fresh food supply, the men keeping the village area in good order, the children displaying their culture and heritage. All done without huge amounts of foreign aid money.

Sean, this insight into life in the country today was very encouraging for folk like myself who have a passion for Papua New Guinea, but have been distressed by endless news of corruption, civil unrest, social ills, poor health outcomes and so on.

Sure, they all exist....and, in some places, in abundance. However, your program told us the other side of the story and led us to see the positive things being achieved by people in their home environment.

For that reminder, wantok, I am personally grateful.

Mathias Kin

I was fortunate, a life time experience really, to travel in the same vehicle as Sean Dorney driven by health minister Sir Peter Barter from Kundiawa to Gumine in November-December 1997 to observe the effects of the El Nino drought.

There was a convoy of vehicles, each carrying important people from the World Bank, the Australian and PNG government and NGO people.

Peter Barter talked of his flying days with Talair along the Wahgi river and once being shot at with an arrow by a tribesman from a point above the ridge near Dom on his return from Omkolai. The arrow was stuck in the under belly when they landed in Kundiawa.

I asked a few questions and Sean talked of his rugby league days as halfback for the PNG Kumuls in 1976.

That afternoon, as we were returning from Gumine, the first rains came after more than nine months, and it came in tank loads. It was a trip I shall never forget.

Thank you Sean for these memories.

William Dunlop

I recall being introduced to you in the Chimbu Club around 1970.
By 1971 I had transferred to Popondetta.
And have followed your reporting through the years.
I commiserate with you and your family on this medical misfortune that has befallen you.
I wish you and yours all the very best.

Paul Oates

Sean you raise a very sore point about the Australian curriculum having no mention of PNG and our shared history.

I personally wrote to the then PM Gillard when the offer of commenting on the proposed changes to the School curriculum were being touted. I offered a brief outline of what should be included about PNG, her people and that fact we are neighbours with a common border.

Not a word in return. Answer came there none.

I have also met total opposition to my suggestion of having Tok Pisin included in the school curriculum as a way of connecting Australian school students with their PNG counterparts. I have met with total obstruction and dismissal from both the Federal and the Queensland State Education Department's and their representatives at all levels.

Clearly Bahasa, Mandarin, Japanese, German, French, etc. rates so much higher then our next door neighbour.

Obviously the ABC along with all other Australian media are fixated in their own mind games and prepared to have our Australian people totally ignorant about PNG.

I spoke yesterday to someone who had just returned from a short tour by small ship of PNG, Alotau, Rabaul, Kiriwina, etc. When I asked what they had learnt about the country and what contact they had had with the PNG people the answer was; 'None at all'.

What use is that therefore in helping mutual understanding?

Lindsay F Bond

About a magic potion recalled by Alwyn Hicks 12/7/2018, A G Sitori playfully noted grounds for “list of mystic and mysticisms”. To a league exemplary, and memorably from Mysterton, came tread and thread of Sean whose manic mix of dance and dinkum reporting, invites "deeper engagement with PNG" populace.

Garry Roche

Sean, no mention of your rugby league career?

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