Monday, March 29, 2010

A tear for a stranger in a strange land

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

“Bomana” means “comrade” in what must be one of the most beautiful languages in the world, Motu, the language of the people who live along the stretch of the Papuan coast around Port Moresby.

It is a fitting name for the war cemetery outside Port Moresby where 3,819 troops killed in World War II lie buried. Australian, British and a handful of Papua New Guineans from the Volunteer Rifles lie here, most victims of the Kokoda Track horror.

No “fuzzy-wuzzy Angels” though, the carriers who gave their lives to supply the troops and made themselves famous in Australia by carrying wounded to safety or at least to have the consolation of dying among friends. The carriers paid a horrendous price in suffering and death on the Track which has only recently been publicly recognized..

The dead lie under serried ranks of marble headstones in a meticulously maintained green field which is almost shocking in contrast with the dusty scrub beyond its boundaries. A disturbing number of the headstones carry only the legend “Known Unto God”. Others give name, rank, serial number, home and address and age.

Although I lived in Port Moresby for five years in the 1970s and have visited the Papua New Guinea capital on a number of other occasions, I visited Bomana for the first time only yesterday.

I am glad I delayed my visit for two reasons. The first is that if I had visited before, I would not have known as much as I do now of the story of the battle for Kokoda and the other battles around the islands in which these soldiers died, to say nothing of their comrades whose bodies have never been found.

The second is that I was taken to visit yesterday by a group of Papua New Guineans who were totally separated from the war and Kokoda.

It was a Sunday family outing. All except one of the group were Highlanders, people who had no history of WWII, the first contact between them and the outside world, represented by Australians, had occurred only 10 years before the war began and neither invaders nor defenders took the war to their region. It offered no strategic advantage. This group was also separated from the war by a generation or more; all the adults were in their thirties, born 30 or so years after WWII ended.

While the children chased each other around with happy cries and wrestled and rolled on the soft green grass, one cousin -- your average working man, does a bit of driving, a bit of clerical work, a bit of labouring, took me aside to talk about it all.

“One of them was only 16!” he said in stricken wonder, a tear in his voice.

I was somewhat taken aback. When you think of Highlanders in Papua New Guinea, you think of tough blokey blokes who look as though they’d as soon have a fight as have a good feed. Of course, that’s a gross generalization, but I’ve never seen a wispy Highlander.

So I told him about the Australia of that time, the Australia I had heard about from my parents and other relatives and friends of the same era -- the Australia I had seen disappearing as I grew up in the immediate post-war period. The Australia where 16 year olds would lie about their age to enlist out of bravado, out of a wish to emulate older brothers or friends, out of fear of community disapproval, or out of sheer boredom.

He understood that. He came from a small village near a small town in the Eastern Highlands, and had run out of options there himself.

I also told him what I had read of the shocking way those young men were lied to, dumped on ships bound for Port Moresby without so much as the chance of a good-bye kiss from their mothers, wives or girlfriends. Thrown ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-clothed, and under-supplied into combat against a vastly superior force by incompetent generals sitting on their bottoms in Australia who were judging their bravery by the body count.

“But they wouldn’t know the country. They wouldn’t know what was good to eat, or what leaves to chew to give themselves strength, or what to dress a wound with,” he said.

No, they didn’t; and they died all the more miserably for it.

He left me to wander further among the gravestones. “There’s a woman buried here!” he called back. “A nurse?” “Yes, she was a nurse.”

He contemplated the nurse’s grave for a while, then ambled over to the visitors’ centre. He opened the little door which gives access to a visitors’ book and the list of the dead. He leafed through the list, picking up names he had seen, then opened the book and borrowed my pen to add his line.

“Only 16,” he muttered as he recorded his visit.

There’s a bit of a mania in Australian political circles these days to “bring home” the war dead.

If there is ever a move to empty Bomana and transport the long buried remains back “home”, every Australian should resist it vigorously.

Not only is this a most fitting final resting place for those who fought so desperately and bravely for their homeland which had abused them outrageously, but it is a silent ambassador that enables ordinary Papua New Guineans to maintain friendship and respect for Australia regardless of insults dumped on them from time to time by petulant Australian foreign ministers.

We drove out of the cemetery. Around the corner, we passed the nation’s maximum security prison. Bomana, indeed.

Then we made another visit -- a gentle foreigner who was making his way on a 14 acre block outside Port Moresby, a softly spoken Muslim missionary from Sumatra in Indonesia. About 700 Papua New Guineans have converted, he told me. It turned out we had a common acquaintance in the Muslim community in Australia. We discussed Islam for a little while, and he offered me an introductory book. I thanked him for the compliment but declined. Been there, looked at that.

Just another Sunday afternoon in today’s Port Moresby.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Life in Maximum Security

By Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

After two weeks’ practice, I’m pleased to report that I can now get from inside my back door to sitting in the car outside my front gate with the seat belt on ready to drive to work in a shade over six minutes.

The reason why I think this is news is that I live in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, where there is more crime in a few minutes than most cities of similar size (some hundreds of thousands of people) experience in a year.

This necessitates living under bizarre security circumstances. The city is like a jail pulled inside out. The good guys (or at least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves) are inside the razor wire while the criminals roam the streets.

In my case, the house my employer has provided is an old place in a select part of town (just up the road are the residences of the heads of two major diplomatic missions) -- within a gated community no less atop a high ridge. Guards stand at the entrance and patrol the two to three metre high, razor wire topped, boundary fence. Guards with dogs roam the well lit streets at night. Inside that fence, each house has its own high fence, elaborate locks, alarms, maybe a guard or two, and dogs. My house came complete with a six foot corrugated iron fence all round, razor wire on top, grilles on all windows and doors, deadlocks on every door, external and internal, and an alarm system which no-one knows how to use. It also carries the signs of at least one break-in before the deadlocks were installed.

At night, I am pretty thoroughly locked in and I have been told by those who care that I should be. I was pretty spooked by the whole thing initially but now I am desensitizing myself to it and getting it under control.

It is such a nuisance, though, when you want to do a simple thing like go to work.

It has taken me two solid weeks’ of dedicated training to get down to within reach of the six minute mark for getting out of the house and on the road. My initial, untrained time was in excess of 10 minutes. Refining my technique and putting in the hard yards at training, I have pulled that down day by day until now I seem to have plateaued just above six minutes.

I would like to state unequivocally that I am no quitter -- I am up for the challenge. I have the six minute barrier in my sights, and I *will* break through. I know about sporting barriers; I am of the generation that saw man crash through the four minute mile barrier. Forget the Irishman and the Brit, they were mere bit players. Go John Landy, you’re a legend. It’s all a matter of the right mindset and dedicated training. I can do it.

This is how I have succeeded so far. I have separated the two back door deadlock keys (one for the door, the other for the grille) and a gate padlock key from the three front door deadlock keys (two for the door and one for the grill) and a duplicate gate key. They are now on separate rings in separate pockets, as are the four internal door deadlock keys plus the fire escape deadlock grille key. On the two plus one ring, I have added a colour tab to the key for the door. This makes for much faster key drawing and selection. In addition, I have oiled all three locks involved in a profligate manner to get rid of sticking on key entry and exit.

Picture me poised just inside the back door, computer bag over one shoulder, plastic box lunch in one hand. Shorts hitched, sandals firmly fastened. (You can see the Olympic connection immediately; the originals wore sandals, althogh not shorts.)

I check my watch. Go!

My hand dives into my pocket for the door keys. Insert red key into door lock, twist, drag door open. Untagged key into the grille, twist -- damn! wrong way, other way -- open. Step on to the verandah, put lunch box on rail to focus on shutting and locking doors. Door then grille.

Keeping keys in hand, dive into other pocket for car key. Grab lunch box. Three quick strides to car, unlock at drivers’ door, stick car key in ignition and start car (air conditioner on full -- at 7.30am it’s already hot), round to back, put computer bag and lunch in boot (not wise to have computer bag showing on seat, I have been warned a dozen times by high and low alike) then on to gate. Unlock padlock, swing open right gate, then left, kick into place rock to hold left gate open.

Back into car, reverse out and pull into kerb. Out again leaving engine running with air conditioner on full blast, kick aside rock and swing closed left gate, swing closed right gate stepping outside, reach through hand hole to padlock chain inside (as maintenance man sternly adjures “so the rascals can’t get directly at the lock with a lever”). Three steps and back into the car, pull seat belt over should and plug into socket.

Check watch. Six minutes 12 seconds.

I’m not suggesting that I am Olympic class just yet, but I definitely have that six minute barrier in sight. I do have a concern about apparel, though.

So far I have been wearing conventional shorts, with one pocket each side. However, I have found to my surprise that one pair of shorts I grabbed off the last of the summer sale racks before I left Melbourne has a useful feature -- multiple front pockets. (Two other pairs have hip pockets with flaps in place but sewn down!) The conventional pockets each side have shallower pockets in front of them. I feel that if I made full use of this feature, I might be able to smash down through the six minutes in one fell swoop.

But would this be ethical? I have in mind the recent banning of certain swimming costumes, and I cannot forget how naff the lovely Kathy Freeman looked striding to victory in the 2000 Olympics wearing a hoodie.

And ethical at the time or not, legality is what matters in the end. It’s no good claiming a time which might be disallowed by ruling bodies later and scrubbed from the record..

Maybe I’ll compromise. I’ll try a run in the special shorts and see how I go. If I break through the six minutes, I'll record my time but not claim it publicly until I see which way the ruling bodies sway on the issue. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to conventional shorts and work on refining my approach.

I really am confident I can do it. Really.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Life and Death in Papua New Guinea

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Large and beautiful butterflies and moths are such a feature of Papua New Guinea that there is a collection on show in the lobby of that architectural jewel, Parliament House, here in the capital, Port Moresby.

So it was no surprise when on returning home from work the other evening, a moth nearly as big as my hand alighted on my bag.

Examination showed its wings were a bit tatty, particularly one. It crept on to my extended finger, then flew off -- in circles, obviously a result of the wing damage. This was a moth nearing the end of its cycle.

As I watched, a willy wagtail burst into sight over the edge of the roof.


With a flick of its wings, the bird disappeared back to the roof.

The action was so swift and so totally terminal that I was momentarily shocked. I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at a vacant space which a moment before had been filled by the moth.

This tiny “nature red in tooth and claw” incident and news I had heard earlier in the day of the death of a former colleague and friend, combined to make me reflect on the nature of life and death in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

We really are terribly fortunate in Australia.

Just before I left Australia for Papua New Guinea, the passage of half a century and a chance meeting resulted in a 50th anniversary reunion of my Matriculation (Year 12) class. In fact, because initially none of us could clearly remember who had made that class at Eltham High School on the arty north-eastern edge of Melbourne in 1959, those attending were actually the 1958 Leaving (Year 11) class.

Despite starting with only a handful of maintained contacts, we amazed ourselves by contacting every single member of that class within a couple of weeks, and had the good fortune to have nearly all attend. Google and spec phone calls can do wonders.

The evening reunion was fun and instructive. There we were, aged in the 67-68 years bracket and nearly all of us still working one way or another. Whatever happened to retirement at 65? Clearly we don’t know how to stop. Most seemed to be in full scale employment still, and those who had “retired” had reinvented themselves with new careers, perhaps refocussing what they had been doing, perhaps branching out in a new direction, perhaps picking up or expanding some voluntary or community activities.

But the really outstanding fact was that we were all still alive. Every single one of us had made it through the 50 years, generally in pretty reasonable shape. One, a dentist, releases the tension of meddling with people’s mouths all week by cycling vast distances are the weekend. Just recreational cycling, you understand, nothing serious. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

(An aside: quite a few of the fittest now were those who did *not* have much interest in sport at school. Looking around among my friends generally, those hobbling on arthritic knees and worse are mostly the ones who played sports hard in their teens and twenties.)

Now, clearly we have had some luck -- accidental death has not touched us despite the horrendous road toll of the 1960s-70s (about 10 times the current rate) and the fact that many of us continue to live and work in rural areas. Worse, those areas are mostly on Melbourne’s north-eastern fringe, site of many of Australia’s worst bushfires, including the Black Saturday fires in February 2009.

Contrast our survival rate with a group of people -- many of them a decade or more younger than me and my classmates -- in Papua New Guinea.

Returning to PNG after 33 years, I have been overwhelmed by the welcome I have received from former colleagues and particularly from the bunch of spirited young journalists I worked with as training officer for the NBC’s (National Broadcasting Corporation) News and Current Affairs Division in the mid-1970s just before I left.

It was a great time running up to independence, then independence itself in 1975, and the period afterwards. It was certainly a high point in my life, and clearly, it was a high point for them too. We were breaking new ground and building the foundations for a lively, robust media sector in Papua New Guinea, and we all knew it.

Many of those young journalists and broadcasters are still in the media -- now at or near the top of it. Others can be found in leading positions in politics, government, business, and community and non-government organizations.

It is such a pleasure to run into them and congratulate them on their success.

But with that happiness is tinged with sadness.

In contrast to my classmates, there are now yawning gaps in the ranks of colleagues and friends in Papua New Guinea. Every few minutes of happy reminiscence leads to news of yet another passing.

My impression is that perhaps a quarter of those I knew and worked with in the 1960s-70s are now dead. It might be even higher.

One or two have died in car accidents. Another was murdered in a home robbery in his village in Bougainville after surviving under threat for years through the insurrection there. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, malaria, dengue fever, and any one of the thousands tropical diseases have accounted for the others.

I can’t help thinking that at least some of the deaths could have been avoided if the health services here were better. They have fallen away tragically in the past 30 years. I pass the Port Moresby General Hospital each morning on the way to work -- a once proud institution which is now a shabby shadow of its former self.

One of my new colleagues pointed out what is across the road -- a private hospital. Do the minority at the top of the socio-economic heap queue at the decrepit Port Moresby General or do they go private? he asked.

A few years ago, one of my former classmates came close to being the only one of us missing the reunion because of death. He could have died here in Papua New Guinea during a visit, but was fortunate to have what most Papua New Guineans don’t have -- travel insurance, and the means to buy first rate help and be whisked away to Australia.

How many more of my colleagues would have been around now to join me for a beer if they could have afforded the same level of care as that ... or had simply been able to access public health care as it was the day I flew out in 1977?

I grieve for my friends.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Happy as a pig in mud

By Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

“Happy as a pig in mud” is a much misused expression, but nothing could describe me more accurately in my current situation. There are millions of pigs in Papua New Guinea, whole economies of them, and they are all happily wallowing in the cooling, disguising mud of their homeland.

As happy as they might be, none is happier than me.

Returning to live and work in Papua New Guinea after 33 years away punctuated by only a couple of brief visits, I find a country which in many respects is what it was the day I left it with deep, deep regret in 1977.

In many other respects, it is what I dreamed it would become and what I found hinted at during my brief visits. In some other ways, if it is a dream, it has the quality of nightmare.

Looking beyond the fact that it is a country so outrageously beautiful, where every prospect doesn’t just please, it challenges the frantic eye and overloaded mind for description, it continues to be a country where people -- most people anyway -- are warm and friendly, whose first impulse is to welcome the stranger and issue the challenge: can you contribute?

I say that, then I must immediately qualify it. Too often, the people of places like Papua New Guinea -- smaller countries populated by people of colour -- are labelled on one dimension by westerners as “peaceful”, “smiling”, “welcoming” as though they are all one of a kind, millions of commercial cookies stamped out of the same shallow dough. Or they are labelled as violent, devious, and possibly murderous. Add that other label so popular today: terrorists. Poisonous dough, poisonous cookies.

Either way, the simple label is a kind of racism. It doesn’t see past the obvious and often least important aspect of the person.

How can you describe 5 million (or is it 7 million?) people in a word? Particularly when you can divide those all those people by language and culture into 800+ groups (or is it 900+ according to the latest research?) with those cultures representing the gamut of human cultural variation? And when you can divide them again between mountain and coast, land dweller and sea dweller, by gender, patrilineal and matrilineal social structure, and so on and so forth.

And education level and life experience and achievement in the western sense.

When I left Papua New Guinea all those years ago, most Papua New Guineans were at or near the beginning of their western style career. Mass higher education was in its infancy. The University of Papua New Guinea in the national capital, Port Moresby, and the University of Technology in the second biggest city, Lae, had been in place for 10 years or less, the culmination of an education boom that had begun about 15 years before.

Until the two universities began delivering graduates in numbers, from around 1971 or only four years before independence, there were few Papua New Guineans with tertiary education outside teaching, public administration or technology diplomas.

There were also relatively few Papua New Guineans with experience of the world beyond their country’s borders.

Running up to independence, people were hungry for knowledge. A discussion with a westerner would too often turn into a lecture as they milked his or her mind, hungry for content and context. There were lots of good ideas and good thinkers around, some great ones -- think of Jarrod Diamond’s quest in “Guns, Germs and Steel” built on a question posed by Yali of Madang, a man sidelined by the Australian administration as a cultist -- but often lack of content, context and simple life experience could cause a promising debate to fizzle or ideas to run into a dead end with sad results.

Not so today! Thirty-five years on from independence, Papua New Guinea and its people have their own experience, their own knowledge of the world, their own education and a growing army of gray-headed sages who have been there and done that -- often ploughing a virgin furrow in a lifetime of western-style work building a new nation.

Today, Papua New Guinea is a country bubbling with lively thinking and action backed by local and global knowledge and experience which in many cases reaches far beyond that of former mentors. It is full of women and men who confidently look the world in the eye and offer to take it on. It has people asking hard questions, who don’t squib debate. They still seek the outsider’s thoughts, but now it is not to fill essential gaps in their knowledge, rather it is to feed into a vast cauldron of ideas, opinions, knowledge and information they have surging around in their minds.

Then they are turning those ideas into action.

That intellectual energy is part of how I dreamed this country would be when I came back. I have dived into this intellectual cauldron and I’m loving it. I’m feeling so stimulated my head could explode.

The nightmare part is the talk of corruption and the apparent grounds for it. The newspapers, radio and television carry a litany of complaints. They ask: where did the money go?

Even in the national capital, the roads are dreadful; throughout the country, public health and education services have declined dramatically compared with before independence, public servants complain that they haven’t been paid, villagers complain that they aren’t receiving royalties or compensation payments while foreign mining, timber and fish companies plunder their traditional resources and report huge profits.

There is the spreading rash of oil palm plantations -- I was told four years ago that they were barely profitable except for the giant food corporations which demand the oil for the food they process in other countries. Encouraged and supported by government, the plantations are gobbling up more and more land daily, it seems. Promises to the local landowners I have hard about sound about as substantial as pie in the sky.

And then there are guns everywhere, crime like you wouldn’t believe in the national capital, HIV-AIDS, a mighty population explosion that is already stretching the limits of the land and sea, and, of course, climate change with its threat, already being realized at places like the Cartarets Islands in Bougainville and the Duke of York Islands off Rabaul, of inundating low-lying islands and vast areas of the coastal plains.

Talk of the environment leads me back to the dream.

Lacking what they saw as effective government action, the Cartarets Island community is taking action itself, with its own organization, funds and energy, and support from the Catholic Church and from a slew of NGOs and some governments in the most distant parts of the globe. They are slowly, gently and with every consideration for culture and tradition, transplanting themselves and beginning a new life (for to most Papua New Guineans, the land is life itself).

Similarly, in West New Britain, a group of villagers has banned fishing on some reefs they traditionally own to allow the fish to restock. Rising population and improved fishing tackle were resulting in fish stocks being decimated. Now these people have decided they will go without themselves to ensure their children have fish in the future.

These are just two cases. I know of many more.

These are the kinds of people I am among and to whom I want to offer whatever contribution I can make.

Wouldn’t you?

Now please excuse me, it’s time to roll over -- this little piggy thinks the next wallow looks too inviting to be true, and must investigate.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.