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The handful of men who made PNG a nation

Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare: a reflection

Paulini Mango
Pauline Wapen Mango, a third grader at Lahara Avenue School in Boroko, recited a poignant poem at one of Grand Chief Somare's haus krais


PORT MORESBY - The tears kept coming as I saw two elderly men - same age, same height - smile and hug each other tightly, as best friends do after missing each other for a long time.

And indeed, they were best friends – two of Papua New Guinea’s founding fathers, Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare and Sir Julius Chan.

I was at Kavieng airport in New Ireland and they probably suspected this would be their last time to meet, then wave farewell forever.

It was the last meeting for the two veteran politicians. It was featured in a video on the big screen at Sir John Guise Stadium filled to capacity by hundreds and hundreds of mourners from Enga.

For this was Grand Chief’s haus krai.

Friday 5 March had been Enga’s turn to mourn, along with Manus and Bougainville, as part of the two-week long national mourning for the death of the man who led PNG to independence.

Former Kandep MP, Jimson Sauk, who sat with me, also wiped away some tears.

We knew these men very well, tireless men who their people had returned to parliament for a lifetime until, eventually, Somare retired of his own free will.

We sat through to the end of the proceedings, which took over four hours.

A helpful outcome of Sir Michael Somare’s death has been the display of unity among Enga’s elected leaders, civil servants, business directors and city people who, painted in white clay, had turned up in huge numbers to cry and pay their last respects.

Who would have expected to see Enga Governor Sir Peter Ipatas, Sir John Pundari, Don Polye, Rimbink Pato, Sam Abal, Dr Lino Tom walk arm-in-arm to the funeral home?

Engans can be fierce rivals on the battlefield or in politics but they know when to hold hands and come together.

On this day they demonstrated respect, reverence and humility in expressing deep sorrow for the passing of a great man whose departure had shaken the entire nation.

The Engans had come prepared to pour out their heart but no member of the Somare family was in sight.

It is custom in Enga to directly express their sorrow, deliver speeches and present gifts to the relatives of the dead.

Only East Sepik Governor Allan Bird and Aitape Lumi MP Patrick Pruaitch were present to receive them.

With Sam Abal, Isaac Lupari, Sir Salamo Injia, Don Polye and Governor Sir Peter Ipatas they reminisced about their past experiences with the great leader.

Some of them, like the fay Somare’s government was hijacked, were painful to hear. The great man had absorbed it all with a forgiving heart.

Each spoke highly of Somare and likened him to Nelson Mandela of South Africa, George Washington of America and Ben Gurion of Israel, visionary leaders who always had the people at heart.

Governor Sir Peter Ipatas then presented an undisclosed amount of cash on behalf of Enga people to his counterpart Allan Bird to help the people of East Sepik with their haus krai preparations in Somare’s home town, Wewak.

If there was anything that could be deduced from the presentations, the death of the Father of the Nation had united the Engan leaders. Future prospects looked promising.

The moderator of the Enga segment of proceedings, Peter Mision Yaki, nailed it when he said Grand Chief Somare had united PNG not only as a people from a thousand different tribes but also through blood.

Yaki then introduced a confident young girl aged eight whose father is from Enga and mother from Manus, and her grandparents of Engan and New Ireland heritage.

She is Pauline Wapen Mango, a third grader at Lahara Avenue school in Boroko. She stood in front of a packed house and, from memory, recited a poignant poem.

Somare had been a constant visitor to Enga since 1973, before independence, when he was Chief Minister.

He was greeted at Wapenamanda airport by Pato Kakaraya, and I remember following them towards the Waso stores. Somare was wearing his familiar laplap or sulu and wore on his feet leather thongs.

Paulini's grandfather  Paul Mango
Paulini's future grandfather, Paul Mango, in full Enga traditional dress

The previous year, in 1972, Sir Tei Abal had come to Pausa Lutheran High School where I was in Grade 7 or maybe Form 1.

He said Somare was trying to accomplish the impossible by trying to “chew sugarcane and sweet potatoes” at the same time.

“Wanpela man ino inap kaikai kakau wantaim suka. Wanpela blo daunim na narapela bilong tromoi,” Abal said figuratively, meaning PNG had to experience self-government for some time before independence could be considered but Somare was rushing it when much of the country was not yet developed.

Two years later, on 16 September 1975 Michael Thomas Somare won through and successfully attained independence.

At that time the young poet Pauline’s grandfather, Paul Mango, was a student at Sogeri National High School.

He was one of many students dressed in traditional attire to escort visiting foreign dignitaries during the celebrations.

Now 46 years later, his grandchild was reciting a poem at Somare’s wake.

I had attended those independence festivities at Sir Hubert Murray Stadium along with the rest of the student body at Idubada Technical College where I was in Form 4.

Late in the afternoon, I went for refreshments at the late Nenk Pasul’s residence on Paga Hill. He was our local representative in the House of Assembly.

Nenk Pasul MBE and Sir Pato Kakaraya of Wapenamanda had been staunch supporters of Somare and his Pangu Party.

A couple of days before Somare passed on, my new book ‘Victory Song of Pingeta’s Daughter’ was released.

The great man is featured several times together with all the prime ministers who walked on Enga soil. The exception was Sir Mekere Morauta.

Australian prime minister Bob Hawke graces the pages, meeting public servants and local leaders on a visit to Porgera gold mine. The photos are safely tucked away in the book for posterity.

And Paul Kurai, whose family story is told in the book, was branch president when Somare’s National Alliance Party won four of the six Enga seats at the 2002 national elections.

Somare demonstrated what leadership is all about when he brought his full cabinet to have a National Executive Council meeting at Wabag, as if to share power with the people.

And he chose to sleep at Pawas village in the humble home of the late Sir Tei Abal, who had been his great political rival during PNG’s formative years.

Later, before he left for Singapore to receive prolonged medical treatment, Somare handed over the prime minister’s post to Sir Tei’s son Sam.

I had my share of personal contact with Somare. I saw him endorse Nenk Pasul as a Pangu Party candidate in our village at Komblos in 1977.

Twenty years later, he came to endorse me as a National Alliance Party candidate in 1997.

Jimson Sauk won back the seat to serve a third term before Don Polye defeated him in 2002.

If I had the opportunity to speak at the haus krai, I could have talked about a time in New York when Mrs Renagi Renagi Lohia, wife of the PNG Ambassador to the United Nations, wept bitterly after Somare lost the race for the presidency of the 46th UN General Assembly.

Mrs Lohia and her daughter were the only women in our small group as we stood at the gate of the UN building watching Somare shake hands and calmly thank foreign dignitaries who had supported him.

It could have been a perfect gift for us Papua New Guineans if Somare had won, for it was September 1991, our independence month.

Somare after his defeat for UN presidency. At rear is Ambassador Renagi Renagi Lohia
A graceful Michael Somare after his defeat for president of the UN general assembly (Daniel Kumbon)

Afterwards, we walked across the street to a restaurant and sat together at two tables to have lunch and discussed how we had lost a race we had all expected to win.

Somare was the hot favourite but managed only 47 votes against Saudi Arabia’s Samir Shihabi who received 83.

“We lost out of Europe or Africa,” Ambassador Lohia said bluntly. He believed many of the African leaders were bribed. “They were bought off.”

Education Minister Utula Samana blamed the defeat on the Gulf War coalition partners and Western Europe.

“They voted for Saudi Arabia as a way of saying ‘thank you’ for the role it played in the Gulf War,” Samana said.

Most of our votes came from Asian countries, other Pacific Island states, the Caribbean and Latin America. The only definite vote from the Middle East was from Israel.

“The Middle East is always in the news. We want somebody impartial to deal with issues affecting Israel,” Arie Tenne, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, had told me at a pre-election gathering the night before.

Somare remained calm as the results were declared. He sat through to the end as president-elect Samir Shihabi read a very long prepared speech in Arabic.

I was proud of Sir Michael’s great patience and diplomacy.

I did not want to read or see Somare’s defeat on television that evening or read about in the newspapers so instead I explored New York City.

With me was Perai Manai from Tapini in Central Province. He had come to America with Samana.

First, we headed for the Empire State Building which was always open until midnight. From the 102nd  floor we could see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre shining white in the distance, the only building taller than any other on the New York landscape.

A decade later, the Twin Towers were destroyed by Osama Bin Laden’s Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda which flew two hijacked passenger jets into the buildings on 11 September 2001, now referred to as 9/11.

America immediately declared war on terrorism. Osama Bin Laden the mastermind evaded capture for almost a decade before he was located in Pakistan by the US military in May 2011 and shot dead.

Rimbink Pato Don Polye Sir Ipatas and Sir John Pundari
Rimbink Pato, Don Polye, Sir Peter Ipatas and Sir John Pundari in sombre mood entering the haus krai for their mutual friend, Grand Chief Michael Somare (Daniel Kumbon)

Just like the memory of the Twin Towers keeps flashing in my mind, so too will the memory of Grand Chief Sir Michael Tom Somare - not only among my generation but generations to come.

His presence will remain with the people. Generations will continue to appreciate his efforts to unite a country of a thousand tribes.

Pauline Wapen Mango’s poem was entitled, ‘What it means to be a Papua New Guinean’.

Independent and free
You helped us to see
What life could be
Living together in unity
A thousand tribes and me

Thank you, Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare.
From the children of Enga (and Papua New Guinea)


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Daniel Kumbon

Arthur, I think that was the photo of the great chief, Sir Michael and Sir J that moved me to more tears.

Yesterday, Prime Minister James Marape said in Wewak that from now on Sir Michael forever be known as Great Grand Chief Sir Michael Thomas Somare, a title that nobody else will claim. And monuments will be built in both Port Moresby and Wewak.

Governor of East Sepik, Allan Bird said it was God's plan that Marape should be at the helm when he died because he was PANGU PATI leader - the party that the Great Grand Chief had started to take PNG to independence.

The welcome of the great chief was as moving as it was in Port Moresby.

Arthur Williams

Good read Daniel. As you wrote, little things can trigger a special memory from our life's journey.

My only memory of The Chief was selling the Post Courier to him in Pasuwe's Korobosea shop around the late 1970s.

He also made the manager there remove the PNG flag from the shelves as apparently, for a time, the only retailers of the flag were Steamships and one or two other major retailers.

Yesterday's photo in The National of Sir Julius Chan and Sir Michael at Kavieng last Independence Day was very poignant.

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