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A signature in the sand

Sir-mek
First graduates of the University of Papua New Guinea, 1970

ANDREW MOUTU
| Ples Singsing | Edited

PORT MORESBY - The boy grew up in the village of Kukipi, and at the right age he was enrolled at its small primary school.

There were no blackboards, no chalk and no desks where the children could sit, so the school and the village had to be innovative and work within the constraints.

This Toaripi-speaking coastal village was located close to the beach and there was as an abundance of sand.

Makeshift classrooms were built and students attended lessons in these temporary structures. Each day the students sat on the sandy floor and wrote their lessons and assignments with their fingers.

They used mats and leaves to cover answers until the teacher came to assess them. Then the sand was wiped clean ready for the next lesson. The sand was both a sitting place and a writing board.

So this was the environment in which the young man went to school maintaining the routine of learning in the village hut surrounded by his peers, teachers and elders.

For six years he was schooled sitting and writing on the sand.

After six years of primary school, he went west to the high school in his local town, Kerema.

Arriving in high school, he was greeted by students from other parts of the Gulf Province and teachers, some of whom were expatriates.

In Kerema, he was exposed to the routines of boarding school and writing using pencil and paper and eventually ink pens and exercise books.

The erasers, pencils and paper bore some resemblance to the sand in his classrooms but ink pens and books were more durable.

Four years of high school passed quickly, and the young man graduated with distinctions and moved on.

The senior high school at Sogeri received him in an embrace. More expatriate and fewer Papua New Guinean teachers taught at Sogeri.

He adapted quickly to the standards and expectations of the school. Two years later he matriculated with a record of excellence steeped in science and mathematics coupled with a poetic disposition.

The University of Papua New Guinea was just receiving its first set of students and he was enrolled there in the preliminary year.

He was studious and applied himself to his studies. His strengths in the sciences, mathematics and the arts left him with many options for a career path.

Around the university and the country, conversations and aspirations for a new and independent Papua New Guinea were in the air.

He considered his preferred options - medicine or economics, eventually being persuaded to take a bachelor’s degree in economics.

He moved through the course with a similar spirit of dedication and commitment - also studying for a few semesters at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.

He returned home to graduate amongst the pioneering class of the University of Papua New Guinea.

Upon graduation he took a job with the Department of Finance when Papua New Guinea.

He listened and learned and surrounded himself with the pool of expertise that made up the intellectual hub of the department.

He learned the ropes of administration, threw himself into intellectual conversations and took up the call of challenges, risks and opportunities.

Soon enough his leadership and talent as a strategic and prudent economist became obvious.

He was promoted and became the first Secretary of Finance in the era surrounding PNG’s independence (1972-1982), serving alongside other notable Papua New Guineans including Tony Siaguru, Charles Lepani and Rabbie Namaliu.

He helped with the establishment of PNG own currency, the kina, with the establishment of the PNG Central Bank and with the many economic policies developed in the post-independence era.

He moved to the PNG Banking Corporation (1983-92) and the Central Bank (1993-94).

In 1997, he entered politics and became the member of parliament for Moresby North West.

And in 1999, when Papua New Guinea was ransacked by the economic mismanagement of then prime minister Bill Skate, he raised his hand in a critical move that saw him become the seventh prime minister.

He was renowned for his insights and leadership, strategic reform and governance.

After a period out of politics, he returned in 2017 to fight systemic corruption in government and in 2020 has now gone home to rest in eternal peace.

Thinking of his life and accomplishments of that young boy, I am left to ponder about the values and aspirations of this simple village, Kukipi in the Gulf Province, that raised up a man of such a grace, wisdom and intellect.

I wonder what kind of mathematics is found in the sand drawings of Kukipi village and what lessons exist in the art of sand writing.

It formed a man with a signature that born of sand and who was able to deal with the politics of fluidity in PNG and provide the economic reforms it required at the time.

Vale, Sir Mekere Morauta.

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