| An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PORT MORESBY - To tell a classic story that happened nearly 100 years ago is almost impossible to weave together today.
As close as I could get was to discover a source from 20 years after the event. My grand-mama, born around 1939 and who lived through World War II, related to us kids this account that was passed down from her father.
It tells of how the first German Lutheran missionaries came to the Markham valley in Morobe in the early 1900s - and of the mission bell they installed.
The gigantic mission bell was brought to the valley in 1919, when the first church was built at Kaiapit station by Lutheran missionary, Fritx Oertel.
But the bell went missing in World War II and was never seen again. The Markham people could not account for it. Neither the Japanese nor the Allies could account for it. The bell simply disappeared.
And so, begun the story of the missing bell. It is one of grand-mama’s classics and everyone in my family knows about ‘stori bilong belo’.
If I asked you to travel from the old Kaiapit station to Lae city, a 200km journey, to bring back a heavier than 500kg hunk of metal, what would you do?
Well, you’d hop into your truck, hit the road, arrive in Lae a couple of hours later, get a forklift, chuck the metal on your truck, gun the engine and drive back to Kaiapit. The whole trip about five hours, easy.
But imagine the same trip 100 years ago. Back then there were no roads, not even a trail, no horses or carriages. No one knew what the load was. All they knew was that the missionary wanted them to help carry a big load from Lae to Markham.
The load was something he called ‘Maus Bilong God’ (God’s Mouth). The maus would stand in front of the new church and call out to everyone in the valley to come and listen to the skyman’s teachings.
In 1918, Fritz Oertel was appointed as Lutheran missionary in charge of Kaiapit station. He arrived in Markham with 12 local missionaries from the Morobe coastal villages of Bukawac, Labu and Apo, products of the Lutheran station in Gabmatzung in the Wampar area, established in 1910.
The team set up camp in Baba-padan, now known as Sauruan village, the site of the old Kaiapit station. There they built a new Lutheran church on the hill where the mission station still stands today.
Oertel asked the locals to go to Lae to bring back the bell and the villagers sent their strongest men and women to do the job - the men led the way and the women prepared meals for them. There were no roads and the Markham valley was just bush.
After about a month, they arrived at Ampo in Lae, the Lutheran headquarters. Several church bells had arrived by ship from Germany and the biggest would go up to Kaiapit as requested by Oertel.
He had specifically requested a giant bell whose sound would reach far and wide to all corners of the valley.
Many nights and days passed before the entourage arrived with the load. Not only did they bring the bell but also ropes, iron bars, nuts and bolts and other items like utensils, books and western food. There were celebrations as the load was laid to rest.
And when the first church building was completed and the posts were planted, the bell heaved onto the hanger.
On that Sunday, the din reverberated throughout the valley. The sound ripped through the air like thunder from the clouds. All ears were alerted.
That was definitely the voice of the skyman the missionary talked about, calling them to service. Nobody dared disobey the skyman because, according to the white man, the skyman killed people who disobeyed him.
That day more than 2,000 villagers showed up. Many were curious about the sound of the bell installed by the missionaries who sought to defy their traditional laws of living.
The church and its bell did have an impact on the lives of the people. It was the voice of the skyman but it was also the voice of the Western civilisation that was to change society.
My grand-mama told the story out of affection. It was the story of a revolution in Markham that was to transform the ancient lifestyle into a modern one.
Dedicated to all the Markham folks who made that bold trip 100 years ago. Thank you to Simon Vandestadt and papa Tom for the photograph. And a special thank you to my grand-mama, Ngawio Amon Lariang, who is as ancient as time itself who loves nothing but watermelon, Panadol and telling stories to her grand kids.
Top image - Kaiapit, 9 September 1943. Men of the 2/6th Australian Cavalry (Commando) Squadron patched up the bellows of a bullet-riddled organ from the Kaiapit Lutheran Mission and had a sing-song beneath the bell tower on a hill overlooking the Markham Valley. Members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion soon gathered around (Australian War Memorial)