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The story of Chief John, poet & radical

Portrait of Chief John Kasaipwalova placed on the casket for his funeral

| The National Weekender

PORT MORESBY - Her voice rose high and echoed in the big hall of the Reverend Sione Kami Memorial Church, drowning the noise of the heavy rain thudding on the roof.

The woman dedicated her song to the man she addressed as the father of her children.

Least to say, she brought the house down with emotion.

Linda Thomas Kasaipwalova was the first wife. After being together for a long time, the two went their separate ways.

In one of his short stories, ‘Betel nut is bad for airplane’, Chief John Kasaipwalova had addressed her only as ‘The Woman.’

Linda sang in tribute a song composed by her father in Kilivila dialect, loosely translated:

My tears flowed freely like flood waters
For the last time I cried for you
I was stunned that my love
Sweet talk and promises
All come to nothing.

Expectations and yearnings all over
It’s the end of all thoughts about Kilivila
And if I ever come your way
However, I will not see you till someday
I’ll meet you in Tuma (the spirit world)

At the end of the ceremony, she was among others outside the church but stood alone watching the funeral car take the casket away.

Renowned Papua New Guinean poet and playwright Chief John Ligogu Kasaipwalova died at midnight on Tuesday 2 May at Port Moresby General Hospital. He was 74 and the illness had been short.

It is said he was a smart kid in school. He became one of the country’s elite intellectuals.

His mentors say he was a talented poet and writer who helped promote literacy in Papua New Guinea. Others say he was a radical and activist in many fields.

He was a traditional chief in Milne Bay, a member of the Kiriwina Council of Chiefs under the Tabalu leadership.

A true Chief, but relate to him however you feel comfortable. That was how his acquaintances, colleagues and friends from various background describe the late Chief.

John Kasaipwalova was put to education at an early age at a Catholic School on Kiriwina Island and later at Sidea School near Samarai Island.

One of his acquaintances, Keith Jackson, wrote in PNG Attitude:

“He proved to be a bright and outstanding student, receiving a scholarship to St Brendan’s College at Yeppoon in Queensland and from there an Australian Commonwealth scholarship to attend the University of Queensland to study arts and law.

“His strongly nationalist politics and writing proved to be more important to John than his studies and he supported radical groups, including the Revolutionary Socialist Students Alliance.”

Jackson last met John early in 2017, when John was back at the University of PNG tasked with reviving its ailing press. The printery had been burned down during earlier student unrest.

The entire collection of books from Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands had been destroyed.

Jackson wrote how John had intended to rebuild the press.

“But his enthusiasm was never matched by support from government or development aid organisations, entities that never understood the importance of literature and the arts in nation building.

“John’s dreams, along with our own, have not been realised. And our generation is almost extinct, and the next yet to reveal what it can do.

“Another prominent figure from the Independence era is lost to us. These are sad times.”

John did not complete his studies at the University of Queensland. His involvement in the so-called radical activities led to the termination of his scholarship and cancellation of his Australian visa.

He returned home and enrolled at the University of PNG.

At the University of Queensland in 1966, John met a Central District lad, Moi Avei, and the two became friends and addressed each other as brothers, a relationship to last a lifetime.

At the funeral, Sir Moi Avei, recounted their time together in Australia: "While we, the island students, would shy back for being in a foreign society of white people.

"John would stand up amongst them and boldly express himself as the leader he was.”

Last Friday Sir Moi came with a peroveta group which sang a tribute on behalf of the Boera community. Their presence was greatly appreciated by Chief John’s people.

The friendship had forged a strong bond between their villages of Boera and Yalumgwa. The Boera people had once visited Yalumgwa on a cultural exchange and played a cricket match.

“Although we were the best of friends and soul brothers, John was always moving on,” Sir Moi recalled.

“And I always chased after him whenever I wanted to meet with him. Here today I meet him at last. Bamahuta, my soul brother.”

It was at UPNG where John’s talent as a poet and writer was encouraged and most of his short stories published. No less than 11 books were published under his name.

He also wrote plays and composed songs. ‘My Black Brother, My Enemy’ had his byline and he co-authored the play, ‘Sail the Midnight Sun’.

John became more radical at UPNG and pushed against the colonial administration of PNG. He became increasingly involved in issues of self-determination. His writings carried the voice of Independence.

A colleague and renowned early writer, Russell Soaba, described the passing of John as a sad moment for PNG literature. John’s work had inspired many young writers and poets.

“He was not only a wantok but more like a brother to me,” said Russell. “I will dearly miss him.”

Another prominent best friend from the intellectual elite wa, founding Chief Secretary Robert Igara.

He and John shared many views, Robert said, and he had greatly treasured John’s writing.

Perhaps John’s most important achievement in the Trobriand Islands was to establish the Kabisawali Movement.

In 1972 John withdrew from his studies at UPNG and returned to the Trobriand Islands to start the Movement, something that had a huge impact on the island people’s lives.

He took control of the island, was made president and won most seats in the local government council, leaving only a few to his predecessor and former member of the House of Assembly, the late Lepani Watson.

At its height, the Movement was aggressive. The council became an autonomous entity and cut ties with the colonial Administration in Alotau.

The island became politically divided and the only established guest house was burned down.

Foreign-owned businesses were closed, stopping development and denying people their major income earner, tourism.

A police contingent was brought from Port Moresby to quell the situation.

Sir Moi, who helped mediate the peace, said the Kabisawali Movement had similarities to the Mataungan Association in East New Britain and Papua Besena in Papua.

All these movements opposed outside influence and pushed for the progress of their own people.

An Okeikoda village mate of John, Allan Mokolava, described him as a natural leader when growing up. Mokolava was already working with a bank in Port Moresby when John approached him and many others to return home and help in the Kabisawali Movement.

Allan said they were persuaded because they believed John’s vision. Under the Kabisawali Movement, business and other activities boomed, expanding even to Port Moresby.

But when John was gaoled in 1978 things fell apart. That is another story.

One of John’s sons, Edrick Kelai, was honest to the roots of his hair when he talked about his father.

John was almost always away from home - elsewhere on the island, in Alotau and Port Moresby, on Muwo, a coconut plantation island offshore from Losuia, or on Woodlark Island doing things that Edrick did not know.

While he was in college, Edrick did not see his father for three years, although he would sometimes see his father’s picture in the newspapers.

Although emotional, Edrick stated firmly that Chief John Kasaipwalova “in life or in the spirit world will always be our father who ensured that I and my sisters received all help to face the world today.”

Farewell my brother. Rest in peace.

Mulai Robby is a retired journalist who formerly worked with the PNG National Broadcasting Corporation


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Michael Dom

Sailing the midnight sun, John Kasaipwalova

First verse:

"I am the midnight sun
My soul conceived to body
The love embrace of that night
When my Bwalai turned monster of the depths
Trembling for blood revenge on mankind
But instead summoned with burning desires
My naked Libra in her virgin love
Extasying the tender patience of the stars."

Last verse:

"Yes a dream
A restless flowing dream
Whose sopi was seeded
Where dark ocean currents cry
Whose waters I have drunk
To love you today
With the longings for the tomorrow
Sunshine and flowers
The flow of the mountain spring."

Michael Dom | Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing mourns the loss of Chief John Kasaipwalova, poet and radical.

May he always find his way home sailing the midnight sun.

Notice: https://plessingsing.com

And syndicating of this article: https://plessingsing.com/2023/05/21/the-story-of-chief-john-poet-radical

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