PORT MORESBY – For a while I did not realise that Good Friday was April Fool’s Day and joined my family to cry when I received news that a long-time friend, a retired public servant, had died on Manus Island.
Whoever fabricated the story was senseless to circulate such a joke on social media. He lacked all understanding of human relations and etiquette.
He did not think for a moment of what Covid-19 is doing to Papua New Guinea.
People are dying, their families, relatives and friends living through traumatic times, crying every day for people who so easily succumbed to the onslaught of a virus sweeping through the country like wildfire.
The perpetrator of this cruel hoax was not concerned that a number of senior public servants and community leaders around Wabag have died over the last few weeks. Others are reportedly fighting for their lives.
So I wept when the sad news came that Michael Yahu died on Good Friday.
Michael and his family had been our next-door neighbours for many years at Premier Hill in Wabag town.
Even when I was at school in the 1960s, I had seen him working at the Kandep district office.
How could I stop my tears, now that Covid-19 had killed Michael just as it had killed my former classmates, neighbours, friends and workmates?
Michael Yahu is about 75, in an age group susceptible to Covid-19. He worked in Enga Province as the provincial personnel officer. He was directed to retire at age 69 in 2015.
I was very close to Michael from Manus, and I still am.
Senior public servants who have died recently included Michael’s former boss, Lucas Sikin, who was director of human resource development; former district administrator, Jeffery Dia; former deputy administrator Albert Macsaene; education officer Danny Titakai; director of assembly services Aino Neakson; and Demmy Yakapo Kandelyo, a senior audit officer.
There have been so many others.
The official figure for Covid-19 victims in Enga is recorded at just over 50, but hundreds of people are believed to have died unrecorded in the villages.
The onslaught of the virus has forced hospitals and schools to shut. Wabag General Hospital has reportedly run out of testing equipment.
As soon as the cruel prank was published on social media, my family rang me in Port Moresby to say they were crying around Michael Yahu’s house across the street. They said he had died on Manus.
I immediately dialled Michael’s phone number. I dialled it many times.
When it went dead I was certain he had died.
I hoped his wife Susan, or James, his small son, or some relatives I had met on a recent trip to Manus would pick up the phone.
I thought that he might have died not from Covid-19 but from a heart attack. That was because early this year when I visited Manus, he complained that he was still waiting to get his ‘pinis pei’ and other public service entitlements.
He showed me the location where he had been planning for five years to build his retirement home. The timber was prepared but had begun to rot.
He said he had brought his thick personnel file with his claims to Manus so he could travel to Port Moresby himself to lodge his claims when government finances improved.
Michael had complained to me that it was due to deep-rooted corruption that he and other retired public servants did not receive their entitlements on time.
They were forced to wait many years, numerous of these dedicated people dying without knowing if their next of kin would receive an inheritance.
I was distressed now to hear that Michael had died without receiving his entitlements. It seemed he had wasted 50 years of government service for nothing.
Did the government not respect, appreciate or care about the welfare of these ageing people who awaited their hard-earned retirement savings?
It was not much of a consolation that Michael, a devout Catholic, had gone to join his Creator on the day Jesus himself had died, on Calvary, to save the world from sin.
Michael hag grown tired of waiting for his pension money, so last year he asked Enga provincial administrator, Dr Samson Amean, to provide he and his family with tickets so he could take them to Manus.
They planned to return to Wabag later.
A friend of mine, Ted Taru, were fortunate to meet up with Michael, Susan and James in their village inland from Lorengau along the 32 kilometer Manus Highway.
Michael smiled when I told him I had featured him in my latest book ‘Victory Song of Pingeta’s Daughter’ because he was among a handful of senior public servants from outside Enga Province who had come to serve the people as young men and still live there today.
A s a 16-year-old in 1972 he had accompanied his uncle to cold Kundiawa in the Highlands travelling over the vast expanse of water and rugged mountains.
But it was in Enga that he found permanent employment with the colonial Administration.
He settled there to live among people he describes as generous, friendly and innovative.
When he retired in 2015, he could not go back to his Manus birthplace because the government he had served faithfully for nearly 50 years said it had no money to pay him his rightful retirement benefits.
“Mi mekim wanem rong na ol mekim olsem, mi no save,” Michael told me. “I don’t know what mistake I made for them to do this to me.”
A couple of hours after receiving the sad news about Michael Yahu, I received another sad text message advising that my cousin-brother, Tolao Pupukai, had died in our village at Kondo in Kandep district.
My family told me they were making arrangements to travel home for the funeral. I told them to take precautions and wear a mask at all times.
When my family had left for home, I received another call from a phone number I didn’t recognise. I hesitated at first, but then answered.
It was Michael Yahu, ringing me from Manus.
“Daniel,husait tok me dai? Mi no amamas long lukim stori olsem mi dai long Facebook.”
“Daniel, who said I had died. I am not happy to read about my death on Facebook.”
I told him the name of the person who it was said had made the announcement.
“Ring him and find out. I am here in Port Moresby,” I said
“OK, I’ll do that. But I’m coming there to POM in three weeks to check if we retirees will be paid our dues.”
“I hope they pay you this time,” I said.
And then both of us burst out laughing for a full minute. We will laugh some more when we meet again here in Moresby.
But we’re certainly not happy with the person who perpetrated that foolish prank on Good Friday as if it was a fun thing to do on April Fool’s Day.