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Uechtritz family history changed Kalo

Mary Lou and Alf Uechtritz (Kalolaine Uechtritz Fainu)
Mary Lou and Alf Uechtritz (Kalolaine Uechtritz Fainu)

ALICE MOLDOVAN
| ABC Radio National

SYDNEY - In Papua New Guinea, the catchcry is 'expect the unexpected!'

It's a familiar concept for Kalolaine Uechtritz Fainu, a Tongan-Australian woman who grew up around Pacific communities in Australia.

Still, she didn't realise how accurate the phrase would become when she arrived in East New Britain province in PNG last year for what she thought would be a three-month stay.

Kalo, as she is known, had put her hand up as a contact on the ground, to help a family committee repatriate her grandparents' ashes from Australia to PNG.

But it turned out to be a bigger job than she anticipated — and it's radically altered the direction her life was travelling in.

But Kalo isn't the start of this story — over the years, history has repeated.

Since the late 19th century until 1990, generations of Kalo's family lived in East New Britain and other parts of the country, and the stories of life there have been embedded in family lore.

For her grandparents, Alf and Mary Lou, and their 10 children, PNG is full of memories and has shaped much of their collective identity.

"My grandpa always talked about it in a very romantic sense ... he always said: 'We didn't need a honeymoon because we had everything we needed. We lived in paradise'," Kalo recalls.

"They had all the fruit that they needed, a sea full of ocean, palm trees and sunsets."

The family's connection to the Pacific islands goes back to 1838, when American consul Jonas Coe was shipwrecked off Samoa.

He married a Samoan princess and had two daughters, Emma and Phebe, in addition to 16 other children by five women.

Kalolaine (Kalo) Uechtritz Fainu
Kalolaine (Kalo) Uechtritz Fainu

Phebe Parkinson, Kalo's great-great-grandmother, was a linguist and a translator for her anthropologist and botanist husband Richard, who established PNG's first coconut plantations.

As a mixed-race Pacific Islander woman, Phebe is a special cultural link for Kalo in their family.

The matrilineal Indigenous Tolai people of northern East New Britain loved Phebe, whom they called Miti, a term for "mother".

"She was revered by them and she was regarded as one of them," says Max Uechtritz, Phebe's great-grandson and Kalo's uncle.

"They saw this woman who was half Polynesian, not Melanesian like themselves, who bothered to learn and speak their languages and integrate into this society and become one with them.

"They saw it as something really, really special."

Max, an Australian journalist and career news executive, has studied his family's history extensively, including a chapter that may sit uncomfortably today — Phebe and her family were responsible for up to 4,000 artefacts donated to the Australian Museum.

"In comparison to the de rigueur actions of colonials around the world at the time the Parkinsons at least had a really inbuilt sense of justice," Max says.

"It's recorded by the historians at the Australian Museum that Parkinson could see that the people's customs and history and traditions were being lost early by all these rapacious artefact collectors. So he was keen to keep and preserve them forever."

Members of Kalo's family have some experience when it comes to repatriating the remains of their ancestors — the last time they did was in 2004.

Phebe Parkinson died of malnutrition in a Japanese prison camp in Papua New Guinea in 1944 after she and one of her grandsons were accused of helping American soldiers.

"They treated and tended some downed American airmen who crash-landed in front of their plantation," Max says.

Phebe was hastily buried in the forest, far away from her beloved husband's grave with no headstone and no official record of her location.

The family were able to track down her grave with help from a man who had been with her when she died and who remembered the spot they chose as her resting place.

In 2004 the ABC's Australian Story covered the family's pilgrimage to honour their extraordinary ancestor, led by Kalo's grandfather, Alf.

The large family gathering took Phebe's remains, had a Catholic funeral and buried her next to her husband at Kuradui — the property they had loved.

"As descendants of the Parkinsons, [the Tolai people] regarded us as part of them and their clan," Max says.

That meant the Tolai clan insisted on special honours when Phebe was re-buried next to her husband.

The same thing happened when the Uechtritz family brought the ashes of Alf and Mary Lou over from Australia.

Like her grandparents, Kalo feels a sense of belonging in East New Britain — that's why she put her hand up to be part of the family organising committee responsible for the repatriation.

"It's a different concept for Westerners in some way. Land here is very important and you know where you come from, you belong to the land ... when it comes time to rest, that that's where you will go," she says.

Kalo and her family wanted to make sure her grandparents' final wishes were a reality.

It meant coordinating 80 family members from around the world and working with Indigenous village leaders in the area to make sure ceremonial preparations were ready.

She stayed in PNG for months beforehand, getting everything in order.

Phebe Parkinson with her grandsons (Uechtritz Family)
Phebe Parkinson with her grandsons (Uechtritz Family)

In addition to honouring her grandparents' wishes, she was also looking for the link to place that she'd heard her family talk about for so long.

"I felt there was a big disconnect for me. I hadn't spent time here. I didn't really know the people. I just knew the stories that were handed down," Kalo says.

"This is the place where [my grandparents] met. It was where they married, it's where they started their family."

When Kalo put up her hand for the trip, she thought it'd be a short stint and then she'd return to Sydney and her usual life, working in the fitness industry.

It didn't work out like that.

What started as a three-month trip has doubled — Papua New Guinea has gone through a state of emergency because of coronavirus, with travel cancelled.

But the unexpected stay isn't necessarily a bad thing.

"I've been really touched by being here ... there's so many challenges about living in a place like this, but it's still very appealing for me to try and build a life here," Kalo says.

"And right now it's where I feel more at home."

While she's not allowed to leave the province, Kalo has been volunteering her time to produce and share infographics on public health, and is helping to distribute equipment around the island.

"The hardest thing is to drive a sense of urgency to people but also reaching really remote villages," she says.

The messy reality of life in PNG hasn't put Kalo off — instead it's let her understand why the country has played such a large role in her family's life.

"Rather than living it all through storytelling and a very brief experience, I've been here, I've touched places, I'm spending time with people. So that gap that was missing for me has definitely been filled."

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