WARRADALE - In the late 1960s, as a young kiap based at Mt Hagen Sub-District Office, I was assigned to supervise work on a new feeder road.
It led off the Hagen-Togaba main road and heading north towards Bukapena in the Mul Council area, perhaps eight kilometres out of Hagen.
Part of the construction through a small hill had resulted in a cliff 10-15 metres high that had to be reduced to allow the road to be widened using the stock tools of the time - picks and long-handled spades.
Best practice was to dig the cliff away from top down to minimise danger. However the clan had decided to save time by undermining the cliff and letting it fall.
Despite my warnings a number of men continued digging below the cliff, displaying a bravado that trumped any appreciation of risk.
The inevitable happened when without warning some 35 tonnes of heavy red clay collapsed. All but one of the men jumped away, but this poor fellow disappeared under an enormous pile of earth.
I was standing just four metres away when the fall occurred and with a number of other men jumped forward to frantically scrape the away clay with bare hands. We knew exactly where he had been standing.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man raising a pick. We didn’t know if the victim was two feet under the clay or two inches. I screamed and managed to stop the pick falling.
While we continued the rescue, grief stricken men gathered around, wailing, pulling their beards and swaying to and fro in desperation.
All I could think about was how long the victim might survive. Finally, I don’t know how much time had elapsed, we found and freed him. Two dozen men grabbed at him to hold and comfort him.
My thoughts of rendering first aid went nowhere. The clan manhandled him into a Toyota Stout to take him to Mt Hagen Hospital. To me, it looked like they were competing to hold him. He was a young man, his face contorted by pain, fear and shock.
A dozen of them jumped on the Stout to accompany him. I joined them and for the first time was able to see his injuries. The crazy angle of his leg showed he had a badly broken femur.
He gestured to his leg, which was obviously causing him excruciating pain. I yelled at the driver to stop the vehicle and used some men’s belts to fasten spade handles around the leg as a crude splint.
The resultant pain caused him to lose consciousness, which convinced the others he was dead or about to die. The grief and wailing intensified.
Upon arriving at Mt Hagen hospital (our first son was born there four years later), the victim was rapidly admitted and treated. I was still there two hours later when the sound of wailing and keening became audible in the distance and gradually grew in volume and intensity.
The entire clan group, consumed by grief and covered from head to toe in mourning clay, had jogged into town.
They were convinced their clansman was dead and it took some talking for them to accept he was alive, being treated and would be fine. Eventually, most of the clan went home, the police, alerted for fear a tribal conflict had erupted, stood down, and life returned to normal.
I was transferred to Baiyer River not long after, and did not see the victim for many months. It was at the Mt Hagen Show and he saw me in the throng to tell me he had not been compensated for his injuries.
The hospital had done its best but his leg was severely impaired, which would have lifelong consequences for him. The Australian Administration did not have rules about compensation for injuries incurred on self-help projects so, other than telling him to take up his case with Sub-District Office, I had nothing to offer him.
If a serious incident like this took place in an Australian context, people would feel empathy, offer support, rally around to do whatever they could, but there would rarely be an open display of the raw emotion and communal grief I saw that day, and on many other occasions in the Highlands.
Different cultures express grief, be it individual or communal, in diverse ways.
In Western societies, when a catastrophic accident occurs, the grief of family tends to be private, inward-focused and restrained and the grief of friends and workmates doesn’t typically display strong outward emotion; perhaps some public tears or halting words to express shock and sympathy.
I contrast that with what I know of how grief is expressed in Papua New Guinea where it is collective, strongly expressed and infectious. It’s almost an expression of, ‘What happened to you happened to me, and I feel your pain and distress’.
Those of us who have witnessed such spectacles don’t easily forget them. Many of us will recall our own strong emotions at the very mention of them.
My explanation is that Western societies are nowhere near as ‘tribal’ in our social structures and practices. In truth, particularly in cities, few Australians know the neighbours in their own street.
Contrast this with PNG, where in the clan structure one is an integral part of the community where care for others is an integral responsibility of membership.
As Martyn Namorong has pointed out in arguing for a new PNG Constitution, Melanesian society is pluri-national – a land of different and once empowered tribal nations. The tribe and clan are still meaningful structures for perhaps 85% of the population.
It is a source of great argument, but I believe future historians will judge that Australia granted independence at an appropriate time but critically failed to grasp that the Westminster parliamentary system was just one option and probably not the best.
The same government has failed to understand and accept our own Indigenous society on its own terms, so perhaps the lack of imagination in the early 1970s was not surprising.
Nor did the Constitutional Development Committee under Fr John Momis seriously consider a more traditional system of government.
So what’s the moral here? Just that when a ‘lapun bipo’, an old colonial you might say, starts reminiscing, the thoughts drift and weave from what was, what is and what could have been. That’s all.
Perhaps if those cultural differences had been better understood and valued, PNG might be somewhere else.
But there’s no reworking the past, we can simply hope for the future.