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.