KUNDIAWA – Sometimes great people’s legacy – their influence on and contributions to society - only becomes fully recognised after their passing.
The late author Francis Nii was such a person. His passing on Sunday 2 August at the Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital in Kundiawa left a huge vacuum in the lives of the many people who knew him personally.
Francis was an economist by profession. However, a dreadful motor vehicle accident in 1999 ended his well-regarded career as a banker and he spent the next 20 years of his life in a wheelchair.
But despite his physical condition after that tragic accident, he never gave up on anything he pursued and in many of his undertakings he was a silent achiever.
I first heard Francis Nii’s name mentioned by Sir Paulias Matane when I visited the great statesman and prolific writer in his Takubar office in 2004.
I was seeking publishing advice and assistance for my first novel, A Bride’s Price.
Realising I was a Simbu man, Sir Paulias told me of Francis Nii, who he was also assisting with his first book.
I did not know Francis, but the statesman spoke very highly of him and his writing, adding, “He is bound to a wheelchair.”
And that was all I knew about Francis Nii.
Some years later, in 2008, Sir Paulias Matane, by this time Governor-General of Papua New Guinea, met and greeted Francis in person in his wheelchair at Kundiawa Airport, before inspecting a guard of honour.
Sir Paulias was in the province to scale PNG’s highest mountain, Mt Wilhelm.
At the official dinner that night, Francis was invited by the Governor-General to sit beside him, opening the eyes of many VIPs, public servants and guests to who Francis was.
Four years later in 2012 I settled in Kundiawa and caught up with this remarkable man.
I found him a great person to associate with. He was humble, quiet and intelligent and we became very close friends.
He was from the far south of Simbu and I was from the north but we were both Simbus and we were both writers.
Francis’s humility and his talent as a writer were the same attributes that had brought him close to the Governor-General.
From 2012 until his death this year, we maintained close contact. In spite of his disability, I found Francis’s passion for people and his contributions to charity and community projects to be relentless.
There have been so many community projects that Francis either initiated, spurred along or participated in.
Most people who were associated with Francis have their own stories of this great man and, in this two-part article I pay special tribute to the man I called ‘brother’ because of his effort and contribution to establish the Simbu Writers Association, which we started together after a casual conversation.
That conversation took place one afternoon in 2014 inside one of the wards of Sir Joseph Nombri Memorial Hospital, which was Francis’s home.
As always we talked about any subject of interest that crossed our minds. On this occasion we talked about books, writing, publishing and the struggle of marketing.
We also talked about the growing interest shown by aspiring writers in Simbu and the lack of interest shown by relevant authorities to promote locally written books.
It was somewhere in our discussion that we realised, with the absence of a publishing house in PNG, local authors and aspiring writers could not succeed alone in publishing or marketing their work. But collectively as a group there could be some success.
And here the idea to start a writers’ association in Simbu – an association to promote local writing and locally published books - was born.
We also knew that through an association, writers could come together, share ideas and assist each other and aspiring writers to get their works written and published.
Immediately after our conversation we mooted the idea to Jimmy Drekore, president of the Simbu Children’s Foundation and also a published author.
He welcomed the idea without reservation and urged us to call up Mathias Kin who was at that time researching his history of Simbu (to be titled, My Chimbu and published four years later by Francis Nii).
From his Wara Simbu home Mathias welcomed the idea, and the first informal meeting of the four of us - Nii, Kin, Drekore and Mundua - was held at Kundiawa’s Gum Tree Coffee shop in late April 2014.
With the exception of me, the other three were men experienced in charitable and non-government organisation work, especially, Jimmy – a man blessed with the gift of creating something out of nothing – who was running the highly successful Simbu Children’s Foundation as president.
The meeting brainstormed ideas and we agreed to communicate publicly that a writers’ association was to be formed and that it was open for membership.
On 3 May 2014 a huge turn-out of established and aspiring writers convened at the Mt Wilhem Tourist Hotel for the first meeting of SWA, the Simbu Writers’ Association.
People from all walks of life including resident magistrate Josephine Kilage, Jimmy Awagl, Philip Kai Morre, David Herman and more than 15 other aspiring writers attended the meeting.
Office bearers were elected: Jimmy Drekore as president, Jimmy Awagl as vice president, Mathias Kin as secretary, Francis Nii as treasurer and David Herman as Patron of the association.
At the gathering, Jimmy Drekore and Francis Nii introduced Keith Jackson’s blog, PNG Attitude, and the national literature competition it had spawned, the Crocodile Prize, facilitated by Australians Keith Jackson and Phil Fitzpatrick.
It turned out that both Jimmy and Francis were regular contributors to these publishing outlets but most (probably all) of the rest of us had never heard of PNG Attitude or the Crocodile Prize.
Later in 2014, through Francis Nii’s constant encouragement to enter the competition, I went on to win a Crocodile Prize award in the heritage writing category for the only article I had submitted.
That year witnessed a huge number of entries from SWA members, including one from the youngest SWA member, 14 year old Tom Kaupa, ‘The Red Fish’, which did not win an award byt was good enough to be published in the 2014 Crocodile Prize Anthology.
Many Simbu writers remain regular contributors to PNG Attitude to this day.
With an executive team in place, and a helping hand from magistrate Josephine Kilage, SWA’s constitution and objectives were drafted and the association formally registered.
It was literally a dream come true for Francis Nii and myself who had carved out the idea from one of our regular chats in the hospital ward.
Immediately it was registered, SWA went into full swing.
One of its primary objectives was to promote writing in schools under a program called Simbu for Literary Excellence.
The program developed an annual high and secondary school writing competition culminating in an inter-school debate every September after which prizes were awarded to the winning writers. Kind-hearted-Simbus from elsewhere in PNG and overseas sponsored prizes for the various writing categories.
To promote the program, SWA members including Francis, visited high and secondary schools in Simbu giving talks to students on the importance of reading and writing. English teachers in participating schools guided their students in submitting entries to the SWA for judging.
Schools were asked to host the end of year prize giving and debates and to reward the host school, SWA compiled the best entries from students of the host school and published them as an anthology.
It was a mammoth task and SWA members reviewed all the entries submitted. But it was Francis Nii who painstakingly went through them and prepared them for publication.
While Jimmy Drekore oversaw the poetry entries, Francis spent sleepless nights on his hospital bed editing and polishing the essays and short stories.
The Ku High School Anthology and later the Kondiu Secondary School Anthology were the results of his efforts, the books being published in collaboration with Phil Fitzpatrick in Australia.
During the school debates held at Ku High School (2014) and Kondiu Secondary School (2015) the two schools launched their respective anthologies and full credit went to Francis Nii who was the mastermind behind these two publications, the first of their kind in PNG.
Present at the Ku High School event in 2014 was the member of parliament for Sinasina-Yogomugl, Kerenga Kua. Impressed with SWA’s production of the Ku High School anthology Mr Kua donated K20,000 to SWA.
It was the first recognition given by a parliamentarian to SWA for its contribution to literature in Simbu. At a dinner hosted by Ku High School that evening, principal Ware Mukale passed on the baton to the then principal of Kondiu Secondary School, Gabriel Aina, to host the 2015 event.
It was a fitting ending to a wonderful program rolled out by SWA in its maiden year, witnessed by all SWA members, including the humble workaholic Francis Nii, who had even bigger ideas for the development of literature not just in Simbu, but in Papua New Guinea.