FIFE, SCOTLAND - The Oral History Project of Papua New Guinea’s National Museum & Art Gallery and the Military Heritage Project are essentially a national search for common identity and, dare I say, a national consciousness, in a country where divisive diversity is the norm.
The former participates in this search through a blending of different stories while the latter does so through the preservation of the materiality of World War II.
Ironically, war - one of the most destructive of man-made events - often leaves in its wake a regenerative compulsion among the humans affected by it.
The ironies of war have proven fertile ground for the structural amplification of the cruelties and common and individual sufferings of those displaced or decimated by war.
The trope of PNG’s Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels or the Green Shadows, for instance, are stories of individual sacrifice writ large but the metanarratives they feed into often fail to recognise the individuality of suffering and sacrifice.
The Oral History Project seeks to identify, individuate, honour and recognise while concurrently amplifying Papua New Guinean agencies to a national and international scale.
Gallipoli held sway over the Australian national psyche for much of the twentieth century just as the Revolutionary War and Civil War did in America or Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele did in Canada after World War I.
Today, many Australians see Kokoda as being a true test of Australian mettle in a war that, at the time, many people saw as being fought at their doorstep.
An important question for the project continues to be what Papuans and New Guineans were fighting for. The answers gleaned from the participants in the project are nuanced and there is no necessary conformity.
The Oral History Project is a grand project in developing a national consciousness especially in a country that struggles with a weak sense of the nation and in which tribal affinities are often prioritised.
Wartime service can be constructed as a period in which people from across the then territories of Papua and New Guinea worked together on a common project.
The majority of wartime carriers did not come from the local region of the Kokoda Track, whether Koiari, Biage and Kaiva. These people were directly displaced by the fighting.
Most of the carriers were recruited from existing labour pools in Port Moresby and further along the Papuan coast from Daru and the Gulf to Milne Bay.
New Guineans, conscripted and shipped to Buna, carried for the Japanese, many of those who survived escaping and joining the Australians.
Men from Bougainville, the Sepik and Rabaul also walked the Kokoda Track.
Most of PNG’s World War II veterans have died and the Oral History Project is literally a race against time to capture their voices in the first person – although this urgency is not always appreciated or taken seriously enough by the PNG government.
The fact that we have now lost another one of these old men, the late Nepe Kumaniel who passed away on 20 September 2020 in Port Moresby, is sad but we are thankful he shared his story with the Museum in 2015.
Kumaniel’s story is unique as he is the only person from the Highlands region whose war service story the Museum has recorded.
That most of the carriers of the Kokoda Track came from other parts of Papua New Guinea and were recruited from existing labour pools, explains how Kumaniel, from Simbu, was pressed into service.
I interviewed him on 14 August 2015 at the Museum and he told how he started carrying cargo for a kiap he knew only as Master Kyle sometime in the 1930s after Australian gold prospectors and kiaps had intruded into his region.
Kumaniel said Kyle paid them in shell money which was more valuable to them at the time.
In 1942 he was in Wau with other Simbu carriers when war broke out.
ANGAU, the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, recruited Kyle as a Coastwatcher and intelligence officer and in this role he continued to use the same Simbu carriers he had employed in the trek to Wau from the Highlands.
From Wau, they walked to Salamaua and then further south to Oro where they met up with Australian forces at Kokoda station.
Kumaniel met other Papua New Guineans at Kokoda but could not communicate with them because they all spoke different languages. He said they would signal with their hands over their bellies to indicate to the white man that they were hungry.
Kumaniel served as a carrier and later went to Port Moresby where he received training to be a medical orderly.
In the high diction of war and its aftermath, normal language and terms are often elevated to give them more commemorative and emotional force.
Friendship becomes comradeship or mateship; bravery becomes valour or courage; determination becomes endurance or the Kokoda spirit; soldiers become warriors
And carriers, whose tasks included menial labour, have been described as angelic beings whose intercession and assistance, especially on the Kokoda Track, has been immortalised in poems, prose, photographs, paintings and popular merchandise.
In short, the humble carrier has been reformulated in locution almost worthy of divinity.
Alas, and here the irony, this still disavows the individuality of the carriers’ suffering and sacrifice.
What is perhaps most fuzzy about the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels was official recognition and, to state it bluntly, lack of monetary compensation, by the colonial Administration and the PNG government.
In 2009 the Australian government offered symbolic compensation through a Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel commemorative medallion which it bestowed on surviving carriers and the descendants of those who had died.
Kumaniel showed me his medallion when I interviewed him in 2015 but lamented the fact that since the end of the war he had never been paid anything.
Apart from his medallion, Kumaniel and his daughter, with whom he stayed, looked forward to the annual Remembrance Day celebrations and its free meals. This all seems but shallow tokenism.
This year’s Remembrance Day celebrations, which would have been Kumaniel’s last, was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kumaniel’s is an extraordinary story made all the more amazing because he lived in a region that at the time had only recently been intruded upon by the Western world.
He was likely in the first generation from his place to see white men and experience that quantum leap in technology which was then accelerated tenfold by the war.
A common expression from the oral histories is that these men were like “meat in a sandwich”. They found themselves in an unexpected position through no direct agency of their own.
Another irony was that some of them saw no racial differences between the Australians, Americans and Japanese, as was initially the case for Kumaniel.
For me, as a Papua New Guinean observing the war and studying its effects in the present, there is irony in Papuans and New Guineans helping one colonial master to fight another foreign power who might have become the next colonial master.
And yet the outcome of the war, as it turned out, was so important to the disintegration of the colonial complex and PNG’s future path to self-determination.
Nepe Kumanyal’s funeral service will be held from 1-4pm today (Monday 19 October) at the Reverend Sioni Kami Memorial Church, 5 Mile, Port Moresby. Nepe will be laid to rest at his home village, Konoma, Sinasina-Yonggomugl, Simbu Province. For more information or to make contributions please contact Nancy Kumanyal on (675) 71404055