KUNDIAWA - My friend Francis Nii rang me on a Friday afternoon in early January to say he wanted to meet me about something that had been bothering him.
He briefly told me over the phone that it was about the terrible Australian bushfires and that he was surprised the Papua New Guinea government and other organisations were not doing anything about it.
We met the next day as usual in the Mt Wilhelm Hotel foyer to further the discussion. The outcome was that we decided the Simbu people needed to do some fundraising to assist the affected people of Australia.
As a first step, we called a meeting of friends to gauge opinion before asking other interested people to join us.
That afternoon Francis put up a notice on Facebook and I pinned notices around town. On the following Sunday, I went to the hotel to find 15 interested people, mostly our own gang, already waiting with Francis.
During the course of the meeting another five likeminded people joined us.
I was elected unopposed as chairman of the appeal, Francis treasurer and various other positions were filled. Simbu Administrator Michael Temai Bal was appointed patron.
We called ourselves the ‘Simbu for Australia Bushfire Appeal’ and, at this stage in early January 2020, ours was the first group to commit to assisting our friends in Australia.
Among other goals, our target was to raise K400, 000. That was one kina for every person who lives in Simbu Province.
Francis was adamant about the huge amount of money and also that we raise it in just one month. Many wise people in the group, including our great author Arnold Mundua, questioned the possibility to raise this much money in just one month.
As usual, Francis stood his ground.
Our plan was to do a launch on Friday 10 January. So we carried out an awareness campaign on Facebook and Radio Simbu, and distributed signs to business houses, government agencies and notice boards around town.
On the day after the launch, various groups of people pushed wheelbarrows around town and shouted through loudhailers starting at each of the foa kona of Kundiawa and converging on the town centre.
Francis and I were together and I enjoyed pushing the bugger’s wheelchair while he did most of the shouting.
Money started flowing in toea and kina. Table mamas and street vendors, PMV commuters, policemen, students, teacher, nurses, doctors and other public servants all contributed. We had a permanent station at the front of the former NBC and the BSP Bank and played old Slim Dusty records and other Australian music at peak volume on PA systems.
Big crowds assembled at these two stations every day, many of the not so young along to enjoy their favourite Australian country music. On the first day we raised K390, most of it in coins and K2 notes. Only a few 10s, 20s and 50s. Simbu is not a rich place.
We continued doing this daily. At about 4 pm each day in the hotel foyer, the takings were poured onto a table and counted and banked the next morning.
By the end of Thursday we had collected over K1,000 kina. K400,000 was still far away. During the week we planned a bigger launch on Friday 10 January.
As the big launch approached, Francis told me he was developing pressure sores around his backside due to the continuous sitting in his wheelchair and being pushed and bumped around, the heat of each day also contributing to his condition.
I knew what Francis was going through but cracked a joke like I always did: “Put some bloody bandage on your ass and be up here early tomorrow.” I didn’t want to mention it, didn’t want to impose on his psychology, great man that he was.
On the Friday, we prepared the NBC area early with big banners, Australian and PNG flags flying high and loud and Australian blaring from the big PA system.
As usual Francis was at the venue early, being pushed up by his uncle Maima. The crowd got bigger and people gave speeches. By midday a lot of important people including government officials and business houses representatives had said something. Many ordinary villagers and church elders volunteered to take the messages to the villages and parish. A lot more people contributed to this day.
At the usual 4pm meeting at the hotel, all the members high fived each other and expressed overwhelming gratitude at our success.
Throughout that day, however, I could see that Francis was not well.
Every time I asked he kept on telling me, “It’s OK, this is important, I need to see it through”.
Straight after the event, I got him into the front seat of the car and threw his chair in the back and drove him straight to his hospital bed.
When he was finally lying down, I took the nurse aside and told her that Francis was not well and would need attention.
By the next Saturday he seemed to be recovering but did not attend our wheelbarrow pushes. I noticed that he was absent at several times during the appeal. Only our close friends knew of his condition.
It was Francis’s way to always tell us not to worry too much and not to tell others about it.
Meanwhile, we would go to the parish churches to share the message of the bushfire appeal. At Goglme we were welcomed by parish priest Fr John who invited us to attend mass with the 1,000 people in the big old church.
The priest put a small box in front and the Simbu people contributed 10, 20 and 50 toeas. It really touched me to see this outpouring of sincerity from simple people who themselves hardly had enough to live off among these mountains and gullies.
On 18 January we had a breakthrough moment when Greenland Motel presented K5,000 kina to the appeal. As chairman I was to speak but instead I asked Francis to talk. Before he could say a word, Francis broke down. It was the first time I had ever seen my sturdy friend in this situation. On seeing this, a number of us present freely shed tears.
After our struggle, this was the biggest amount we had ever collected. Over successive days we were to receive large amounts from other companies, with the next major donation a week later being K5,000 from the great people of 350 Limited.
Each evening Francis’s other duty was to update Simbu and other friends on Facebook about our efforts each day.
I still find it hard to imagine my good friend Francis sitting up each night after a hard day’s activities to write the inspiring lines in his posts.
These daily updates had a great effect. Now thousands of kina were coming in to our appeal from our Simbu friends overseas. As Francis would often say, the heart of a Simbu man is as big as our mountains.
Each day in town, Francis in his wheelchair was always the attraction and the leader.
Jimmy Drekore, a few others and I took turns pushing his ‘car’. We had an Australian flag and Simbu flag flying side by side as we walked through the streets, always attracting attention.
We never organised meals or drinks and at times a Good Samaritan would appear to give us K100 kina for lunch or water bottles. Only the Good Lord knows your hearts.
One afternoon I saw that Francis was not his usual self.
Despite looking ill he volunteered to chair the usual 4 pm meeting but afterwards, as we were driving back to the hospital, he told me he had not eaten the whole day and that he had diarrhoea for two days or more.
He was also worried about where he would get money to get Digicel flex cards so he could post his regular report on the day’s efforts.
With the only K10 kina I had I bought him some flour balls, a couple of cans of Coke and a K3 flex card.
Our major breakthrough came in early February when our patron broke the news that all seven Simbu MPs led by the member for Chuave Wera Mori had pledged K50,000 each to the appeal. We organised Friday 7 February to be the day for the MPs to give their contributions.
Francis made a speech that included these words: “We know Australia is a big wealthy country with a strong economy and capable of taking care of itself during disasters like this. “Our Simbu people’s contribution, however small, comes from our hearts and will only be token of appreciation of the mother-child relation between our two countries.”
Francis as always was resolute in his actions and speaking and writing on Facebook and PNG Attitude. The social media attracted more attention to the cause and contributions and applause from in PNG and Australia and other places around the world.
By mid-February the gallant efforts of Francis Nii and our volunteers gradually phased out. From K390 on day one, we had raised the final total of K174,000.
Francis Nii was somebody I came to know really well and like very much.
Everybody who stumbled upon him liked him. Apart from his writing talents, he was a leader of men and such an indomitable character.
He always stood for what was right, never taking a back step as he fought what was ill in society, especially official corruption among elected officials and the bureaucrats.
His urge at the end of his life to help Australia because Australia had helped us was huge.
We are going to miss him.