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A place, a time & lessons learned

HighlandsJIM MOORE

WARRADALE – The Territory of Papua and New Guinea before independence in 1975 was a place that was unique in the experience of we outsiders who lived and worked there.

The differences between the traditional cultures we encountered and our own Western culture seemed so marked.

There were many Australians, especially those from the cities, who could cope only by retreating into various damaging aspects of the Australian lifestyle, often involving alcohol.

The central Highlands (we always capitalised the H) were largely isolated from outside influence until the 1930’s.

Those of us fortunate enough to have served among the tribes of that exotic place participated in what surely must have been one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary collisions of cultures.

I arrived in the Highlands as a patrol officer (kiap) in 1965 and participated in the final chapters of that great era of exploration, contact and pacification. We considered ourselves privileged to have been in that place at that time.

In the Jimi River area in 1968 or 1969, I was camped at Karap village supervising work on the Tabibuga-Banz road.

Early one morning, a middle-aged man ran into camp and stated he had killed his wife.

He had come from Kol, five hours walk away in the Upper Jimi, walking all night to surrender because he was in mortal fear of payback.

After hearing his story, I set off for Kol, taking a police constable and the man with me.

On arrival, we found the body of the woman in the haus sik (aid post). It was a gruesome sight. The man had hit her across the back of the neck with such force that his axe had almost decapitated her.

Witnesses said there was a long history of conflict between the two, and on this afternoon, the man had attacked her.

I made him view the body, and asked him what he thought about the murder. I don’t know if it was legally correct to make him view the body, it doesn’t really matter now.

He appeared genuinely sorry that his wife was dead, whether because he faced jail or because he was now remorseful. It wasn’t really clear. I arrested him and charged him with murder. We escorted him back to Tabibuga Patrol Post to await his committal and trial.

The criminal case was straightforward. He made a full confession and there were witnesses who testified clearly as to what had happened.

He appeared before the Supreme Court in Mt Hagen and was sentenced to nine or ten years in prison. There was nothing extraordinary about the man or his case.

What struck me at the time was that the human body is so fragile and so easily destroyed.

This was not the first murder case I had experienced as a kiap, but the savagery of the poor woman’s death left a permanent impression on me of the fragility of human life.

I ponder on whether there was much difference between that murder and what happens today where one more woman is killed each week by a partner. I suspect domestic violence has always been a major issue in both Australia and PNG.

In PNG today, there are flimsy excuses that police and welfare resources are unreasonably stretched but in Australia it seems that our society does not have the courage or the will to effectively confront the issue.

I was working in the Baiyer River in 1971 when a man’s second wife was accused of setting fire to the first wife’s house at night. The woman had died and there were no witnesses.

Trapped in the burning house, the first wife had died a horrible death. The clan came to the conclusion the second wife was the perpetrator and that jealousy was the motive.

There had to be a cause. Somebody had to be held responsible. Any unexplained death could be attributed to sanguma (sorcery) and a culprit would be found.

The whole clan arrived at the Patrol Post to denounce the second wife, who was overwhelmed struck with fear and terror. I was suspicious she might be admitting guilt to avoid being beaten to death.

We had to determine the cause of death so, under police supervision, the clan dug up the remains of the woman. Another sight not to again behold.

The corpse had been burnt beyond recognition, the limbs extended grotesquely from the trunk, perhaps because the effect of heat on the body tissue. There was a stump where her head had been.

I asked a doctor from the Baptist mission hospital at Baiyer to examine the body. He used a stick to lift some flesh from the thigh. Under the charred exterior, the flesh looked like roast beef. All he said was that the corpse had once been a human.

The accused murderer, under huge pressure to say she had committed the crime, had confessed so there was no option but to arraign her before the District Court in Mt Hagen. Magistrate Brian O’Neill (father of former PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill) committed her for trial.

In the Supreme Court, the prosecution witnesses hugely embellished their original stories, incorporating preposterous new details. Really, they lied through their back teeth.

The defendant said she had confessed only out of fear, and denied having anything to do with the fire.

There was no way she could be convicted. I remember the defence counsel asking me, the investigating officer, whether I thought at the time she might have confessed out of fear.

I suppose I should have said, ‘I could see absolutely she was scared out of her wits. But she had confessed and I had no option but to go through with the legal process. If she had denied complicity and I let her go back to her ples (village) she would likely have suffered injury or death as payback. Ensuring she was in wet kot (on remand) probably saved her life. So, Mr Smartarse Defence Counsel, what would you have had me do?’

In reality I muttered, “Um, um, ah, well.” I’m sure His Honour thought I was a dill.

This was a classic example of an incident where the exact circumstances and whether an individual was responsible could not be known for sure.

The result was that the poor second wife wore the blame and the legal consequences. It was fortunate that at trial she had the nerve to say, “I didn’t do it, they forced me to say yes.”

I am reminded of the Lindy Chamberlain case, where the young mother was jailed because the courts believed a dingo could not possibly have taken her baby, this miscarriage of justice later remedied.

Public opinion can be very, very wrong – and so can the courts.

There was a recent case of a Cambodian-born member of a local council in Adelaide, 20 years in Australia, who was abused and spat at because, in the words of her uninformed and ignorant assailant, “You Asians bought the virus here”.

Vox populi, the voice of the people, can be very distant from the scales of justice.

We humans share so many common traits and characteristics that transcend time and place.

I must be honest and admit that at times, I thought unfairly that Papua New Guineans were not quite up to our standards. For that, I am now sorry.

We  need to recognise that we don't know it all, that we’re not members of an exceptional tribe.

At least if we learn, if we adapt and if we change, we may have done some good.

And if our generation doesn’t leave this world a better place, there’s always the next generation to improve on our efforts.


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Garrett Roche

Jim, the walk from Karap to Kol took me at least seven hours. That was back 1971-72.

As you write, "We need to recognise that we don't know it all, that we’re not members of an exceptional tribe." That is very true.

Philip Fitzpatrick

One of the things expatriates were warned about at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) before departing to take up various positions in the Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea Administration was culture shock.

Culture shock is the feeling of being out of place in a new and unfamiliar environment. People who suffer from it experience feelings of stress, homesickness and frustration until they are able to adapt to their new setting.

Many people who went to Papua New Guinea to work prior to independence know of others who succumbed to the phenomenon. Some of these unfortunates didn’t even make it out of the airport before they decided to turn around and go home.

For new kiaps the adaption process was particularly stark. Suddenly changing from a life in the Australian suburbs or regional town to life on a remote and isolated patrol post was a sure fire way to test one’s cultural resilience.

Fortunately, the recruitment process was well-attuned to selecting candidates with the characteristics to cope in such situations and dropouts were limited.

What those particular characteristics were has never really been made clear. The closest I ever got to understanding it was when kiap Jack Baker, one of our lecturers at ASOPA, wryly observed that we had been selected because we were all natural born ‘misfits’.

Whether that characterisation was responsible for the apparent ease with which most of us adapted and actually enjoyed the sudden cultural changes we encountered is probably a moot point.

That’s not to say we were impervious to these changes and didn’t think about them. They were part of the steep learning curve we had to undertake and they had to be absorbed and mentally processed so that we could perform our duties in the best possible way.

While I’m pretty sure I didn’t suffer any significant cultural shock some things still stand out in my mind all these years later. Strangely enough they are small things that hardly seemed relevant at the time.

As an Australian, for instance, I was accustomed to seeing roadkill on country roads. The bloodied and bloated corpses of dead kangaroos, wombats, birds of various sizes and such things as cats and the occasional dog was commonplace.

When I arrived in the Western Highlands in 1967 there was an established network of roads and as I drove around I slowly noticed the absence of anything like roadkill. There was not even a squashed bird in sight.

A little while later, while sitting on the verandah of the single kiap’s house in Mount Hagen, I and the other kiaps there witnessed a dog being hit by a speeding driver. It was an old blue heeler cross from memory.

The expatriate driver was most upset by the dent in his mudguard and was ranting and raving and threatening the badly injured dog.

We told him to piss off before he got another dent in his other mudguard and carried the dog to the house where we gave it a drink and looked after it until it finally expired.

We dug a hole in the back garden and buried it. In the morning the dog’s body was gone and all that was left was an empty hole.

It took me a while to work out that the highlands were so densely populated that sources of animal protein were quite rare.

And, of course, I learned that a significant clue about the value of animal protein in the highlands was the seemingly overstressed importance placed on domesticated pigs.

The body of a dead dog was, therefore, not something to waste by burying it. Rather, it was an opportunity for a good meal.

My coming to terms with what was to my Australian sensibilities an abhorrent idea was later further dispelled by Joe Nombri’s vivid tales of nocturnal hunts for tasty domestic cats in Port Moresby during his student days.

It is only recently, however, that I’ve realised how prescient that experience involving the lack of roadkill and the consumption of a dog was for the future.

Just like the microcosmic overpopulation of highlanders back then led to the decimation of local wildlife now too has the current overpopulation of the world led to massive wild animal extinctions.

There are about 8 billion people on the planet at the moment. The combined biomass of all those people apparently now outweighs that of all wild animals. For every wild animal still alive – we have eight people on earth.

Further, the combined biomass of human beings and the livestock we keep to eat outweighs all other animals with the exception of fish, but given the current rate of overfishing, that will probably change soon too.

There was a lesson back then in the highlands of Papua New Guinea but we failed to notice it.

I wonder what else we missed.

Bernard Corden

Another piece of fascinating discernment Chris that left me thumbing through a rather battered copy of Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas:

Chris Overland

Thanks for another insightful piece, Jim.

While we humans do indeed share many common characteristics, our different cultures create endless opportunities for misunderstandings and conflict.

Superimpose upon these many fracture lines a whole range of philosophical, religious and ideological ideas that we sometimes unthinkingly adhere to and the opportunities for misunderstandings and conflict are multiplied many times.

The people who created what we call the Age of Enlightenment sought to, amongst other things, replace what they understood as irrationality and illogic with something profoundly different.

In doing so they invented the modern world and its crowning jewel, the scientific method.

A necessary feature of the scientific method is that while much can be learned and known about our world with a high level of confidence in its basic truth, the inherent uncertainty of our universe means that there must always be an acceptance that there will always be gaps in our knowledge.

This means that as new things are discovered or understood so we must adjust our understanding of the world. Thus a scientific 'truth' can change with the acquisition of more and better knowledge and insight.

The radical doubt and uncertainty required by science is intolerable to those whose dogma requires uncritical acceptance of and adherence to a particular world view, be it religious, philosophical or ideological.

This leads to anti-intellectualism and anti-scientific thinking. This is vividly on display in our supposedly developed world at the moment, where people are literally choosing to die rather than accept what is demonstrably true, such as that Covid-19 is a real and lethal disease.

As you have noted, the vox populi is apparently distant not only from justice but from observable reality as well.

Seen in this context, some of the behaviours, attitudes and thinking that we confronted in PNG long ago are more explicable.

They reflect the sort of pre-enlightenment thinking that our own ancestors manifested only a very short time ago and which still persist today despite, for example, an education system that was supposed to consign these ideas to the dustbin of history.

We kiaps and many other representatives of the colonial regime attempted to reconcile the belief systems of Papua New Guineans with the concepts and ideas of what we regarded as the 'modern' world.

Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn't. This still seems to be the situation today but then it is in Australia, the USA or the UK as well.

So here we are, 50 years later, still baffled at how our species can keep repeating the obvious errors of the past despite all of the advantages conferred by our fantastic science and technology.

Someone said that we humans have medieval minds combined with modern technology and I think that is a fair description of the situation for perhaps the great majority of humanity.

In that sense, PNG probably is hardly different today than it was in 1960.

It seems that the road to true modernity is likely to be much longer and harder than anyone could have anticipated.

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