NOOSA – We have to be grateful to James Kidd, the surviving son of Valerie Bridget (Val) Rivers, who died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital four months ago aged 78.
It was James who meticulously went through Val’s papers to ensure that friends and colleagues learned of the death on 2 July of the woman I call the Baroness of Burra.
It was a kindness reminiscent of his mother that he should do that. That class of 1962-63 was a close-knit bunch of young men and women who had decided to embark on something a little more exotic than the average - careers as teachers in Papua New Guinea.
Val’s own stint in what was then called 'the Territory' covered six years teaching in some of the toughest and remotest places in Papua New Guinea
After this she returned to South Australia, where she became the Education Department's teaching English as a second language (TESL) specialist and chief examiner when, under her leadership, it became an examinable subject in the high school curriculum .
Her final and radical move was to Burra, a historic former copper mining town two hours north of Adelaide in the Bald Hills Range just to the east of the Clare Valley wine region.
Val was born on 7 September 1942 in Broken Hill, which has more affinity with South Australia than New South Wales in whose far west it dwells.
So she was in Adelaide where, as a 19 year old, she was awarded a scholarship to the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney to train as a school teacher for service in Papua New Guinea.
“Without ASOPA I would not have had a working life with such rich rewards in the multicultural arena,” Val told me many years later.
“Meeting up there with a group of people who were even then showing they were individuals of talent – drinking, writing, acting, arguing, learning, organising, playing and developing themselves.
“I’m a little sorry that I didn’t join in a little more,” she added.
But unlike some of us, who scratched out an accreditation as a result of last-minute late nights, Val had been a dedicated student - and she was to become an accomplished teacher.
Sixty years later I recall her as a pleasant, cheerful, companionable young woman who seemed much more than two years older than my immature 17.
All 40-plus of us cadet education officers completed our exams and flew to PNG in November 1963 and were immediately dispersed around PNG to complete the final round of ‘practice teaching’ that would make us fully fledged teachers. Val wrote of the youthful horseplay of this time:
“During those few weeks of final prac in Lae a group of us girls were invited to go on a TAA social charter for a picnic to Butaweng near Finschhafen.
“The plane was a TAA DC3 in cargo configuration, and most of the people on board were TAA staff. The cabin had webbing seats along the sides for the lucky ones while the rest sat where we could on boxes in the middle.
“Strategically located at the rear of the cabin was half a 44-gallon drum filled with ice and drinks.
“As slight movements take place on an aircraft, the pilot usually adjusts the trim. On this trip, with mischievous intent people started moving to the back of the aircraft at 20 second intervals.
“Then, with stability re-established, and at a pre-arranged signal, we all raced to the front.
“The aircraft nose-dived and I, along with others, thought my time in TPNG did not have long to run.
“The pilot, however, proved the capability both of himself and the DC3 and quickly corrected the situation. And, yes, we had a great picnic at the waterfall.”
Val was to return to the Finschhafen area to teach but, initially, was posted to Daru in the remote Western District. Of this she wrote:
“The maximum elevation of Daru Island is about six feet above sea level. It is a swampy and muddy place indeed. It is always under water.
“The airstrip, too, is mostly covered by water. But I flew out in a flying boat.
“During my time in Daru, there was not even so much as a tin shed on the airstrip. And if there had been one, it would have been ankle-deep in water.
“One of the practical things I learned at ASOPA was how to construct a septic toilet. But septic systems are a special problem in a swamp. The effluent floats. It’s a real health hazard.
“Despite this the local doctor, who hated Daru, gave me permission to install one of these devices, declaring: ‘Well, we’re all up to our necks in shit on this island anyway.’ The dunny was built to the exact plan I had in my notes from ASOPA.”
Val’s next posting took her back to Morobe for two years, one at Dregerhafen, the other at Gagidu.
Then in 1967 she was posted to teach at Wabag, now in Enga Province, followed by an appointment to Kavieng in New Ireland in 1968.
Val was moving around the Territory more than anyone I knew, and there was a reason. She was an excellent teacher and administrator and her career was on the up.
By 1969 she was teacher-in-charge of the demonstration school at Goroka Teachers College – it was a high status role. “It was my favourite posting,” Val said.
It was also her last stop in PNG. Her time there had been accompanied by great success but also great instability – seven postings in seven years took its toll.
New schools and new demands were exacerbated by the recurring uncertainty around securing accommodation every time you hit a new place.
“I return to PNG in dreams - nightmares,” she told me later. “And there are always problems with housing. No, I don’t want to go back.”
So in late 1970, Val returned to South Australia as a classroom teacher. By 1973 she had joined the Child Migrant Program teaching English as a second language (ESL) at the Gilles Street Language Centre, Adelaide High School and other secondary schools in the city.
Val became South Australia's guru in ESL. Eventually she was assigned to introduce English as a Second Language as a matriculation subject and for three years in the early 1990s, was in South Australia's chief examiner in the subject.
By 1994 Val had given this career nearly 25 years and determined it was time for a change; time to leave the Education Department behind and head north 160 kilometres to Burra, population 900.
She had scouted out Burra as a great place to slow down, set up a small tourist business and, when cash flow was slow, earn some extra money from temporary relief teaching.
Burra, perched precariously between the lush vineyards of Clare Valley and the red dirt of the Australian Outback, suited Val to a tee.
She purchased Dove Cottage and the heritage-listed former Smelters Home Hotel as visitor accommodation and set up a Smelters Home Gallery.
In mid-2013 I received an unexpected phone call from Val. We’d caught up at ASOPA class reunions in 2002, 2005 and 2012 but otherwise were not in regular contact (except through this blog, I guess).
“I read your PNG Attitude blog,” she said. “I’ve a few artefacts here I don’t need. Do you think you could sell them through the blog. I’d like to support PNG writing.”
I was still pondering how to turn Val’s material offer into cash for PNG writers when the artefacts arrived.
Val expressed enthusiasm about Papua New Guinean writers turning their talents to deal with questions of peace and harmony.
So we agreed to create The Val Rivers 'Write for Peace' Prize. Val didn’t want to mention her name, but I did. It was Val's idea and Val's gift and to Val should the credit go.
In the first year a prize of K500 was awarded for the best piece of writing by a Papua New Guinean. Writers were asked to submit essays, articles or poems on the subject, ‘A good life for the people: Is there a Melanesian way?’
The response was solid without being sensational but Val was delighted.
After the winner was announced in early 2014, Val told me she wanted to do it all again. Except this time she would greatly increase the prize money to K5,500 as to recognise the 10 best writers on a topic related to peace and harmony.
The general theme was ‘What I Was Told’ - designed to link traditional values and civility in the context of modern day breakdown.
Val said she wanted to get contributions of articles, essays or poetry in which writers told what they had learned from others about how to live a peaceful and harmonious life in Papua New Guinea.
Writers were encouraged to include traditional stories offering guidance about peace and harmony, present day advice about the management of behavioural issues, true stories of how conflict had been resolved, and insights into policies that could be implemented to create a more harmonious society.
When the contest closed there were 115 entries, all of them judged by founder and benefactor Val Rivers, with a little help from me.
Val was a tough judge and felt able to remark that there was “some great writing presented but no one great piece”.
But, she said, the successful 10 writers did not stray from the prescription to write about both 'peace and harmony' and 'what I was told'. Each winning entry received K550 and was published in PNG Attitude.
I think the titles of the winning pieces give a good indication of the flavour of the competition:
‘How escalating tribal war was prevented & Kaharo was saved’ by Agnes Rita Maineke, Bougainville
‘The passage of peaceful practice down the generations’ by Madeleine Ruga, Boroko, National Capital District
‘Peace & harmony is accepting the flaws in others’ by Maria Court, Port Moresby, National Capital District
‘The double standard’ by Pastor August Berita, of Jiwaka Province, Asia Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary, Rizal, Philippines
‘Love peace, seek harmony – win gold’ by Dr Michael Theophilus Dom, National Agriculture Research Institute, Lae, Morobe
‘Then I remember’ by Dominica Are, Goroka, Eastern Highlands
‘The Bougainville crisis and peace and harmony in PNG’ by Keith Angen, Wewak, East Sepik
‘Five truths about life and peace’ by Raymond Sigimet, Dagua, East Sepik
‘Only a forgiving heart can foster peace and harmony’ by Roslyn Tony, Barengigl, Simbu
‘How I benefited from the wisdom of my mother’ by Simon Davidson, Sonoma Adventist College, Kokopo, East New Britain
Sadly, the second year of the competition was its last. It had been a success but in the end the work proved a bit too much for both of us.
Val’s son, James, has told me that she wasn’t able to travel much in the last 10 years, her last major trip being to the ASOPA reunion of 2012. But she had still been busy, James said:
“She was actively renovating the former hotel and regularly accepted visitors, local or from far away. She kept in touch with many people by phone.
“In her decline, her movement became restricted but she sorted through many of her collections. She had a massive number of books in the collection, so found time for reading somehow.
“She watched many movies, and Australiana series of all sorts were on in the background while she was pottering around the house.
“My mother loved hosting lunches (including champagne) and was still able to do this until a few months before her death.”
Eventually Val's decline turned into severe illness. Finally the Burra Ambulance Service had to be called to rush her to Emergency in Adelaide.
Val was not able to return to Burra, the place she had chosen to live and which she loved so much. On the first Friday of July, Val died peacefully in Royal Adelaide Hospital.
The Baroness of Burra - treasured mother, Aunty, teacher, friend who always had champagne on ice if you popped in for lunch - had slipped away.
A smart, passionate, kind and good woman who, even 35 years after leaving Papua New Guinea, cared enough for the country and its people to want to address an issue which is so elusive: How can we can live in peace and harmony? It's a pity there are not more Val Rivers.