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Growing up in 60s Port Moresby

1963 Koki
The view across Koki Market in 1963

| My Land, My Country

PORT MORESBY – My mother, Eka Kama-Haro Kuku, was born at the Port Moresby General Hospital on 13 May 1965 to Kama Haro and Aiha Aee Kama.

This is her story.


MY father was a carpenter who worked with Douglas Airways, patching up little planes that had holes in them.

He had been a resident of Port Moresby since the 1930s. My parents had an arranged marriage, so my mum joined him in the late 1940s.

My siblings and I were all born and raised in Port Moresby.

Sometimes I look at all the things happening around me and I wonder what went wrong?

There’s so much violence, the prices of goods and services have risen and people are struggling to survive in the city.

My sisters and I used to go to beach in our miniskirts. We’d go swimming and hang out with our friends and no one would bother us.

Women and girls would be in their bikinis and swimsuits just lying on their towels or beach bed under their big umbrellas.

Food was very affordable. A cup of chips was 60 cents and the cup was big with crispy crinkle-cut chips served hot.

Lamb flaps were 50 cents or 60 cents depending on their size. Drumsticks were 70 cents. All the kaibars were run by Australians and Germans.

On the weekends we’d go to the Papuan Theatre in town (where the Town bus stop now is). It showed movies during the day.

We paid $1.50 to watch or $2.00 for the grand stage.

At night we’d go to Badili Cinema (where the Cholai wholesale shop is) or the one at Koki (near the bus stop area). The gate fee was 40 cents.

After the movies we’d walk home; no one would harass us.

Douglas Airways Britten Norman Islander flying over Hombrum Bluff
Rebecca's grandfather, Kama Haro, was a carpenter with Douglas Airways. The postage stamp shows the airline's Britten Norman Islander flying over Hombrum Bluff

Our favorite lunch spot was a kai bar at Koki where now City Mission is.

It served the best rice and stew for $2 or $3. And it was not like the rice and stew you get from kaibars today.

That rice and stew plate could feed a family of four. It was so big the stew would be pouring out from the big round plate they served it on.

Drinks were just 20 cents and, if you wanted juice, just 10 cents served in big cups with straws.

Sometimes when our parents didn’t give us money, we’d resell the coke bottles.

Four empty bottles were worth 20 cents. Or we’d just go to a shop and give them four empty bottles and they would give us a full bottle of coke.

At that time,  it was just us up at TALAI, Gorobe and Youths from Hanuabada. There was no Vanagi Village at that time or even the Wanigelas. They came and settled later.

Those days, we didn’t start school at a certain age. Instead we would put our hands over our head and if we touched our ears than we’d start school.

In 1970, I started school at the Salvation Army Primary School.

The school fee was $13. For Lunch we had cheese sandwiches or ham sandwiches, fruit and juice for 20 cents.

Our classrooms have since been turned into homes at the back of the Salvation Army property at Koki.

Now, I look at Port Moresby and I am sad.

I don’t know what the future will be like, prices of goods and services are increasing.

Before, we could buy a lot with just a $2. Today, K2 can’t buy you much.

Canned meat was less than $2. Rabbit, beef, squid, all canned. With $20 you could stock up for a fortnight. Bags of rice cost $5.

In the 1980s, after independence we started using the kina. A rice bag cost K8 and chicken packets were K6.

Sometimes, I think back and I look at you, my children, my grandchildren, and I worry what the future will be.

Now life has changed.


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Daniel Kumbon

Thanks Rebecca for taking me back down the memory lane.

Port Moresby was very much as your mother described when I flew over from Lae on a DC3 early in1975 to do Form 4 at Idubada Technical College.

I saw two women in grass skirts searching for shells after the tide along the beach between Koki and Ela Beach.

It was very much the same in the late 1970s. When I started training with the NBC in 1977 some of us boys walked from Five Mile down to the Papuan Theatre in downtown Port Moresby and walked back in the night, Port Moresby was a peaceful town.

In 1985, I flew to Port Moresby with my wife and our first child. But we lived in fear.

The army was patrolling the streets. Women were raped regularly. No longer were they seen sunbathing at Ela Beach.

Law and order was breaking down, corruption had set in, established government systems had started to fall apart.

Judges were warning politicians that PNG would fall apart if nothing was done.

I am glad I recorded this in my book 'I Can See My Country Clearly Now. I also expressed my feelings on the plight of women in a poem in my third book, 'Can't Sleep'.

Rebecca, write more about your and your family's early experiences for the benefit of our bubus and future generations.

Tell them, there was peace and living standards were high immediately after independence.

Chris Overland

Rebecca Kuku's article is describing Port Moresby as I remember it too. Although colonial Moresby always had its problems, it was a generally pleasant and mostly peaceful place to live at that time.

The same could be said for other major centres like Lae, Rabaul, Madang and Mount Hagen.

Sadly, in post colonial PNG, it seems that these centres have become much less attractive places to live.
Infrastructure has decayed, many public services appear to have suffered a serious decline in both quantity and quality and there has been a large influx of immigrants, many of whom live in poverty and some of whom resort to crime to survive.

The PNG public service and government are riddled with incompetence and corruption which has hugely diminished the effectiveness of many government services, as well as inflating their costs.

These are depressingly common characteristics of many post colonial societies. Decolonisation has all too often led to decline or even disaster, especially for those countries which started life as essentially colonial constructs. Such countries frequently have no unifying ethnic, linguistic, social and cultural ties. Indeed, all too often, they seem to be divided by these characteristics.

Papua New Guinea is a colonial construct carved out of half of the island of New Guinea mostly as an accident of history. While the entire island would have a certain coherence as a Melanesian nation, there are many points of difference and division within it that would always make effective governance hard to achieve.

When those like Rebecca's mother, who lived in the colonial era, look upon it through a haze of nostalgia it is difficult not to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong for PNG.

PNG's colonial experience was relatively benign. The colonial power generally asserted and extended its power and authority mostly by peaceful means. Although there was resort to violence in some instances, this was sporadic and fell far short of the open warfare experienced in other places. Its peoples were not enslaved nor dispossessed of their land. The rule of law was imposed in an equitable and mostly culturally sensitive manner. Independence was achieve peacefully, with minimal discord.

When the decolonisation process has gone badly wrong it often is easy to attribute this to the sins of the former colonial powers. Because history is replete with examples of sometimes appalling behaviour by the former colonial powers, such attributions are often accepted fairly uncritically.

This process of blame attribution sometimes results in the overlooking to the subtleties and complexities of the relationships between the colonizers and the colonised. In particular, it tends to cast the colonised in the role of helpless victims of a domineering and authoritarian colonial regime when the truth may be rather different.
This problem has been the subject of a sometimes heated debate by historians.

Some, such as John Bowle (in "The Imperial Achievement") have argued that the positive aspects of imperialism receive considerably less recognition than they deserve. Others, such as William Dalrymple (in "The Anarchy") argue that the colonisation process was very much the product of ambition and greed, not the noble sentiments put forward by some of those involved in the process.

Interestingly, both of these authors acknowledge that the imposition of colonial rule required the active collaboration of at least some of the colonised. This is certainly what happened in PNG.

Indeed, I would argue that many Papua New Guineans, implicitly at least, recognised the colonial regime as a mechanism by which they could gain access to the many benefits that modernity and the rule of law can confer, albeit at the cost of enduring the mostly petty annoyances that accompanied a sometimes patronising and authoritarian mode of governance.

It seems to me that in post colonial PNG the removal of the sometimes heavy hand of the colonial regime has been both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing has been the achievement of the opportunity to take control of the the country's destiny into the hands of the people. The curse has been that the people into whose hands power has been placed have, all too often, chosen to further their own interests or those of their closest supporters rather than the country as a whole.

One result is that Rebecca's mother remembers the colonial era fondly because it conferred the safety, stability, certainty and even freedom that is now all too often conspicuously absent.

This is a tragedy for the great mass of Papua New Guineans who deserve much better. I am truly sorry to say that, to some extent at least, Australia is implicated in this because it failed to leave behind sufficiently robust institutions to resist the forces of incompetence and corruption.

However the current situation came about the future of PNG lies firmly in the hands of its people. Only they can change the situation for the better and I hope that they do so.

I hope that the situation as it was in the 1970's can be restored, so that Rebecca might one day experience the sort of world that her mother lived in.

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