Project Infiltration
An odious comparison: PNG & Australian hospitals

How Francis Nii became an editor & publisher

SWA
An early meeting of the Simbu Writers Association. Francis Nii seated left and Arnold Mundua standing above his left shoulder

ARNOLD MUNDUA

KUNDIAWA - The 2014 Crocodile Prize awards were held at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby in September, as they had been for the previous three years.

President of the Simbu Writers Association, Jimmy Drekore, was there, and so was Francis Nii, who had won the award for essays the year before, Roslyn Tony, Mathias Kin, Jimmy Awagl and me.

It was quite a representation from SWA, in Simbu colours too.

Jimmy had been invited to be master of ceremonies of this prestigious event attended by government ministers Charles Abel and Boka Kondra, prominent parliamentarian Gary Juffa and Australian high commissioner Ian Kemish.

Crocodile Prize organisers Phil Fitzpatrick and Ben Jackson were also there.

When Jimmy got up to speak he astounded everyone at the gathering – including us SWA members – when he dropped a bombshell.

He told the large audience that the SWA had been established only earlier that year but that it would host the next Crocodile Prize awards in Kundiawa, Simbu Province.

Everyone realised this was a major challenge for the new association. And they also understood that this was a momentous decision: to take the Prize away from Port Moresby for the first time and bring it to the middle of the remote highlands of the nation.

Early in 2015, as well as continuing school visits and organising the Simbu writing competition, SWA embarked upon a major fundraising drive to host the 2015 Crocodile Prize awards.

At a dinner hosted by the Kundiawa International Primary School, then Governor Noah Kool MP committed K100,000 towards SWA’s cause. The offer surprised and delighted us. But it turned out to be a commitment that was never honoured.

The 2015 Crocodile Prize competition included entries for two new categories - a Young Writers Award and a Creative Arts Award. All schools in the province were notified and were asked to encourage their students to enter the competition.

Entries from students all over Simbu flooded the SWA desk and again, it was Francis Nii who spent sleepless nights going through all the entries on his hospital bed, editing and polishing them before sending them away to the competition.

Many of these entries were later published in PNG Attitude and in the 2015 Crocodile Prize Anthology.

The Crocodile Prize Awards ceremony was a national event and a mammoth task.

Francis Nii, Mathias Kin and Jimmy Drekore focused their efforts heavily on publicity and fundraising.

While the Crocodile Prize itself paid for the awards, it was up to us to fund the event itself and, also for the first time, provide travel to enable the prize winners to get to and from Kundiawa and accommodation once they got there.

When November 2015 came, the event was an absolute success. All prize winners were flown from Port Moresby to Mt Hagen, picked up by waiting buses and driven to Kundiawa.

Also in attendance from Australia was Bob Cleland, son of Sir Donald Cleland who had been Administrator of PNG when it was still a colony.

As a young kiap, Bob had been stationed in Watabung and Chuave supervising construction of the Highlands Highway. He later wrote about this in his book, The Big Road.

The guests and winners were accommodated for three nights at the Mt Wilhelm Tourist Hotel, participated in a writers workshop at Riverside Lodge and were taken on a scenic tour of the Upper Simbu to the base of the country’s highest peak, Mt Wilhelm.

After the presentation of the awards at a wonderful event, they were farewelled and returned to Port Moresby via Mt Hagen. The huge cost of hosting the awards was met entirely by SWA, a feat never since matched anywhere in PNG. It was a benchmark unxertaking.

Full credit goes to Jimmy Drekore, the late Francis Nii, Mathias Kin and Jimmy Awagl who worked tirelessly to see that the event was a success, indeed a mega-success. To celebrate this and close a successful 2015, SWA funded a barbecue for all participants at the Wara Simbu Riverside Lodge.

After that momentous year, 2016 turned out to be something of a shambles for SWA. Interest in rolling out the Simbu for Literary Excellence program waned. And at our first meeting for 2016, it became evident that members were depressed that Simbu writers had not been recognised in the 2015 awards.

SWA had had high hopes to bag the Young Writer’s Award to boost the morale of its young writers. Failing to win that award shattered SWA’s dreams and expectations. There was a strong feeling that the judges had been unfair and inconsiderate towards SWA’s efforts to promote writing in the schools, let alone hosting the event.

Perhaps the young writers’ work may not have met the judge’s standards but the effect this had on SWA and Simbu’s young writers was devastating.

The fire went out immediately and was not there in 2016. Had that goal been achieved in 2015, SWA would have volunteered to host the awards again.

SWA also realised its own mistake. Being over-confident on the Young Writers Award, it failed to have in place a Plan B, which would have taken the form of in-house awards for its young writers. And when the unexpected occurred, SWA regretted this and regretted it for a very long time.

This defeat was to have a major effect on contributions from SWA members and Simbu based writers to PNG Attitude and the Crocodile Prize. Writings declined dramatically in 2016, and I believe that this continues to this day.

However, in spite of the remorse amongst SWA members, Francis Nii, in his usually cool and composed manner, said, “It’s gone! Forget it. It’s all water under the bridge. Let’s move on!”

But paradoxically SWA’s silence in 2016 opened a new door for the veteran Simbu writer Francis Nii. It motivated him to break new ground.

Since the creation of SWA, Francis had mentored countless aspiring writers, including Jimmy Awagl and Phillip Kai Morre. In collaboration with Phil Fitzpatrick, he had published more than 10 books under the SWA imprint. The experience of over 500 students’ competition entries passing through his hands had greatly elevated and enhanced his editorial skills and publishing knowledge.

And he had listened intently to a presentation by Eastern Highlands author Baka Bina on self-publishing through Amazon’s CreateSpace.

This set Francis off on a new path – publishing.

After exploring how he might do this through research on the internet, Francis started decided to start publishing under the Simbu Writers Association’s imprint.

Books by Phillip Kai Morre and Jimmy Awagl were the first to be published. Then followed a major undertaking of a major work, the publication of the Mathias Kin’s My Chimbu, an epic, exhaustively researched 420-page history of Simbu.

Shortly after Francis published John Pole Kale’s From Firewood Selling to Yale University. John Pole Kale, later became an active member of SWA and made regular visits to Francis’s bedside until his death.

SWA’s success story reached far and wide, both domestically and internationally. Francis Nii and Jimmy Drekore’s adept journalism skills kept the outside world well informed of SWA activities, progress and achievements.

In September 2016 Francis Nii was rewarded for his contribution to literature in PNG when he was sponsored by the Paga Hill Development company, along with writers Daniel Kumbon and Martyn Namarong, to attend and present at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia.

In Brisbane, Francis met with many friends of Simbu, Australians who had previously lived and worked in Simbu between the 1950s and 1970s.

In his presentation at the festival, Francis showed to the Australian audience how SWA promoted writing and literature in Simbu schools.

SWA’s efforts were being heard in Australia and Francis learned that the Australian friends of Simbu, were preparing to support the cause with donated books under the leadership of the late Murray Bladwell, a former head teacher at Chuave Primary T School.

Francis was taken on a tour where he saw the process taking place. A huge steel shipping container was being loaded with more than 1,000 library books, desks, tables, chairs and bookshelves for Simbu schools. Francis was also given a new wheelchair, which he later donated to Kundiawa Hospital.

The container was later shipped from Brisbane to Lae and trucked to Kundiawa. This was all paid for by Terry Shelley, a Goroka businessman and another good friend of Francis. It seemed that wherever Francis went he made friends who were willing to help him do things.

In Kundiawa, the huge container was unloaded and the library books packed into cardboard boxes which were distributed by SWA to about 100 schools in Simbu. Each recipient school received close to 50 assorted reading books for their library, desks, tables and chairs. I am sure the kids are enjoying these books now.

National election fever in 2017 forced a complete scale-down of SWA activities and zero support from government institutions and authorities. SWA could not continue and had to be put on ice, at least for the time being. Pity!

However, the many experiences acquired since the creation of SWA had turned things around for Francis Nii to break new ground in literature. He could mentor, edit and publish. And so he did.

Francis was a family man, father and grandfather and his newly acquired skill was a blessing that helped maintain his family’s basic needs. He went public in the social media promoting his new-found business and called for writers who wished to publish their work with him.

Many aspiring writers responded with their manuscripts and in the last three years before his death, Francis went on to mentor, edit and publish many books by aspiring writers includingd works by Simbu writers John Pole Kale, From Selling Firewood to Yale University (2019), Mathias Kin, My Chimbu (2018) and Dominica Are Prized Possession: A Collection of Poetry (2020).

Francis Nii was working on the Member for Jimi and Minister for Community Development, Wake Goi’s book from his sick bed and just published the book, Flight of the Jungle Eagle, when he passed away.

Some three weeks before his death, I visited him in his hospital bed. He was not yet in a critical condition but someone was attending to him.

Like always he exploded with a smile and told me of his condition and what happening to him.

“You might not see me again because my knees are no longer working properly”, I told him.

“Don’t say that,” he said, laughing. And that was the last time I chatted with this great man from Yobai, my brother and chief editor.

When Francis’s passing was announced, SWA members (Phillip Kai Morre, Jimmy Drekore, Mathias Kin, John Pole Kale, Dixion Dai and I) convened an urgent meeting and visited the hauskrai held at a residence near the hospital gate.

There SWA announced that Francis’ body would be sent to the funeral home in Goroka. On 13 August when the body returned, after a motorcade around the township of Kundiawa, SWA interim president Phillip Kai Morre made a moving speech and formally handed Francis Nii’s casket to his family and relatives in front of Chief and Salt local level government president, Thomas Bare, for Francis Nii’s last journey to his home of Yobai.

Bro, may you rest easy and in peace until we meet again on the other side.

Comments

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Arnold Mundua

Thanks, Angra Daniel and Phil.

Daniel - yes, my article on late Francis Nii was supposed to be sent away early for inclusion in Francis's book but constant power blackouts in Simbu caused a lot of inconvenience to get it done quickly.

I hope it's included if there's a reprint of the book in future.

Phil - Philip Kai Morre has assured us (Kundiawa based SWA members) for a meeting soon. I really don't know when, but it will be held anytime before Xmas. In this meeting we will discuss where to go from here.

One of the new member joining the association is John Pole Kale, whose book Francis Nii published lately. I have done a review of the book and will post it in PNG Attitude soon.

As Mathias Kin highlighted earlier there is also muchy new interest shown.

So, we'll see how it goes after the meeting.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Your article was most insightful Arnold and provided some useful feedback, particularly about the workings of SWA.

Considered and critical feedback is extremely valuable to enterprises like the Crocodile Prize and is a refreshing change from the some of the personal animosities that surface during such events and have such a detrimental affect.

I think it's absolutely crucial to PNG literature that the SWA continues. Not only for Simbu people but also for people elsewhere in PNG.

SWA has provided a very useful template for other provinces to follow. Hopefully we might see that it the future. So far the SWA is the only effort still in existence.

Daniel Kumbon

Angra Arnold,
I have just read the e-book 'Man Bilong Buk' about Francis Nii's work as a writer. Your thorough article could have perfectly fitted in the book. But still, your article and the book is the final salute from all of us for this great man. I am glad I knew him.
Stap gut


Arnold Mundua

Thank you Kenny, Phil and Mathias for your comments.

Kenny - Our brother Francis' contribution to SWA and its creation was such that I felt necessary to start from the very beginning. Hence, this article is the result. But I think I really did not cover it well. I hope other members can add their bit to cover what I could have missed out.

But if you are writing something in gratitude of something about late Francis Nii, PNG Attitude and SWA, then that's good. Thank you.

Like I said Francis is a remarkable man and we all really missed him now and already felt his absence amongst us (Francis' friends & mates) here in Kundiawa

Phil - Thanks for your comments. What I put down here was really an 'in-house' matter for SWA, was discussed and never disclosed to the public after a post-mortem of the 2015 programs and events was done by SWA members in a meeting early in 2016. And what transpired thereafter.

I felt it necessary to put it down in this article to indicate the turning point in Francis's writing career, i.e., where and when he decided to go into publishing and take it up as a profession.

Like the late Francis had said, 'it's all water under the bridge' now and need not be discussed further.

But one thing I should point out here is that SWA was never too keen about the prize money. (Perhaps our writers did, when they were writing.) All SWA aimed for was to win one of the national literary awards, especially to boost interest amongst its young writers and artists that ultimately would compliment for the efforts we (SWA) put in towards promoting writing and literature in schools.

Further it would put icing on the cake for all our efforts in 2015, including hosting the event. Prize money was never in our minds. If prize money was the bottom line of SWA's efforts then I don't think SWA would really go to the extreme of hosting the event. (My personal opinion. Other SWA members can have their say here.)

But I should thank you and Keith and hold you both high for facilitating this national writing competition (Crocodile Prize). It was truly exciting and exposed many unknown writers, aspiring writers and young writing talents in Simbu and across the country. I really don't know what has happened to the competition and who is running it now.

Mathias Kin - Philip Kai has proposed to call a meeting sometime sooner or later this year, so stay tuned for his call.

Kenny Pawa

Arnold, thanks for taking me through who the late Francis is and how SWA came about.

As you dig so deep, I feel I'm missing out so I'm writing an article titled 'Thank you PNG Attitude, Francis Nii and SWA' to indicate that I benefited from SWA.

Mathias Kin

Thank you for this post and also your earlier post (Part 1) of our brother Francis Nii. Your recollection and research on Simbu Writers Association since 2012 is correct and in order.

I personally think we can pick up the pieces from where we left off at end of 2015.

After the publication of My Chimbu and other books by Simbu authors, the interest among our elite Simbus in Simbu and outside Simbu had grown.

The interest in writing among our children at Simbu schools has always been high.

I still have great hopes that our brother's Francis's death should push us on from where we left off in 2015.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think at one stage we were actually counting the contributions from each province Arnold.

The intention was not so much to highlight the province with the most entries but to encourage provinces with few or no entries to participate.

In the end the approach didn't work particularly well..

I think that had more to do with internet reach than some sort of proclivity for literature in particular provinces, although it can't be denied that Simbu punched well above its weight, as it also does in other fields.

There is an innate problem in projects like the Crocodile Prize and that is the necessity to offer prize money as an inducement.

In the process of editing entries for the prize it became quite apparent that some writers had the prize money at centre of mind. These entries were invariably smaltzy and formulaic.

It would have been much better if people had contributed entries on the basis of a recognition as a good writer rather than simply for the chance of winning a prize.

It's not a problem peculiar to the Crocodile Prize, it bedevils most literary awards.

We selected our judges very carefully to make sure there were no biases and literary excellent informed their selections of winners.

I guess we knew that there was a competitive edge in Simbu based on provincial pride that didn't really exist in the other provinces but I don't think we realised that not having a winner in a particular category would have the impact you describe.

I find it hard to believe that Francis would have thought that way either.

I guess it doesn't matter now because it seems that our efforts to encourage literature in PNG seems to be bearing fruit, albeit a bit later than we expected.

In that sense the Crocodile Prize probably outlived its usefulness after 2015. The seed had been planted and although the resultant plant was a bit spindly and delicate it seems to have survived.

Now all we can hope for is a bountiful progeny I guess.

Arnold Mundua

Thanks Keith, you've done a great job here. Excellent work.

Just two names to add here are Mathias Kin and Jimmy Awagl. We all attended the 2014 Crocodile Prize Awards together at the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby.

It was quite a show to have a handful of SWA members and families attending that event in Simbu colours on that night.

But thanks again, Keith, for the excellent job.
________

Thanks Arnold. I've added Mathias and Jimmy to the list to make sure the story is complete - KJ

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