I have had the privilidge of living in Paradise. I have had the gut-wrenching experience of watching it turn to hell.
I have lived on both sides of the razor wire, as one of the majority race in my own land. Moreover, I have lived as the white minority in somebody else’s.
This is not intended to be a history lesson; no national geographic photographs accompany it. It’s my personal recollections, backed up by fact.
Many of you will have seen ‘South Pacific” the movie.
Do you remember the scenery?
Hold that awesome tropical setting inside your mind. Visualize the beauty of the mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and rivers. Imagine long stretches of golden sand where footprints would not be found.
That, my friends is something that comes almost close to Papua New Guinea’s majesty. A tangible, breathable kaleidoscope of color, sound and an indefinable magic.
Those of you who have not seen the movie, or have never gazed longingly at travel brochures of tropical paradises, will need to take my word for it.
This place was a close to heaven on earth visually as I would ever get.
A brief outline of the people and countries that destroyed "Paradise"
Papua New Guinea is an island divided.
Papua is owned and governed by Indonesia. New Guinea in 1972 was governed by Australia; we had annexed it as a Territory. It had been an Australian Protectorate since 1920.
In 1943, the Japanese occupied the island. After the Japanese surrender, Australia was again given protectorate rights.
New Guinea obtained Self Government in 1973 and Independence on 9/16/75. .
This place is filled with ancient superstitions, and even more ancient tribal traditions and customs. There at 850 known dialects.
Many villages have yet to see a white face; their isolation within the mountainous terrain is assured for a long while to come.
Even the capital city of Port Moresby is not connected by road to any other city in New Guinea; engineers have yet to find a way of doing it.
The geography of the island is spectacular.
Two villages discovered only in the past two decades, were a bare four miles apart...and knew nothing of the others existence.
They worshiped different Gods--and spoke a different dialect. The only common thread was similar diet, and longevity.
Instead of a network of roads, you have in excess of 500 airstrips, most of them un-paved. These are capable of taking small planes only. The capital Port Moresby and the much smaller cities of Lae and Rabaul are the only places where large jets can be accommodated.
So--you have an island lost in time, whose peoples should have been left to discover their own path, in their own way.
That didn’t happen.
The resentment brewed slowly over time, in a cauldron mixed with fear to make a potent, deadly, toxin. It simmered and then began to boil. The steam and the pressure continued to build.
Touchdown Port Moresby...February 1972.
I lived in that incredibly beautiful place; I was able to see it before Independence was granted. When it was still regarded by many of its white inhabitants as a colonial outpost. This included their own version Of ‘Raffles’ hotel in Singapore.
The New Guinea version was called the 'Davara'. It was situated right on the beach with balconies all round, allowing clear views of the magnificent South Pacific Ocean in all its turquoise wonder.
The wealthy whites would gather there each afternoon for their ‘Sundowners’, usually 'Martinis' or 'Daiquiris,' and their vicious gossip sessions where anyone not present was verbally dismembered.
The 'Davara' had everything the whites could have wished for, a huge bar, a wonderful chef, many well-trained indigenous staff, and an unwritten law that the pool was for whites only.
Can you believe that in 1972, this was not only permitted … it was accepted? At least that is how it appeared then. No one questioned the blatant discrimination.
After all-- the blacks had access to some parts of the beach in their own country, didn’t they?
Well then...what could possibly be wrong?
That is the attitude that prevailed in 1972.
I arrived in Port Moresby, a seventeen-year-old street-smart city kid from Sydney, with no education past age eleven.
I walked into ‘Paradise’ with only my gut instincts and street knowledge to navigate by.
I had a job to go to that I had lied through my teeth to get, and no built in prejudices or expectations.
I was excited and happy to be there.
Well, I figured I would never gain access to number one on that list. I had one belief system… or so I liked to tell myself. I believed in... Me. Simple...yes, very!
One of the very first things I was told by my new boss was this, "The 3M rule applies here girl. In this place, you will only ever find three types of white man ...’ Missionaries-Mercenaries--or Misfits!’ Everyone falls into one of those categories if they can stay the course long enough. This place will get under your white skin, and once it does it’ll be a love hate relationship for as long as you remain.”
So--I had two options remaining, for the moment misfit fit like a glove. I actually felt kinda proud thinking of myself that way…oh the ego of a seventeen year old is frightening.
The German's and the Dutch had had a shot at running this place; many of the plantations were still owned and run by the third or fourth generations of the initial German or Dutch landowners.
Then Britain took it on, and there we find the expatriate colonial attitude, which was still very present.
Each household in the white population generally employed servants. I find the term ‘House Boy’ offensive.
Yet, this is what the locals were called, and they would ask for work labeling themselves that way as well.
Most of the ‘House Boys’ were given accommodation as part of the deal. ‘Boy houses’ had no power, and no running water. They cooked over open fires.
These ‘houses’ were generally one room, un-furnished, with one window and two doors, the rear one being used to exit when the call of nature required.
The locals were paid a king’s ransom of approx 80 cents US a day. They worked six days a week from 7:00 am till 4:00 pm. Depending on the requirement of the ‘Master’! Yes ... that is exactly what the staff were required to call the male head of the household; the female was simply ‘Mrs.’
Whenever I attempted to have any staff call me by my name, it made them very uncomfortable. They were afraid it would get them into serious trouble. Sadly, it would have done, in far too many homes.
There are a couple of things you need to understand; there was no other work. Most of the locals were completely uneducated, unskilled, and for the most part spoke a version of 'pidjin inglis'.
Port Moresby is the size of a small country town, these simple village folk came here hoping to make something of themselves. Most ‘house boys’ were well over thirty years old. Although they had no real way of knowing how old they were, as no records were kept.
Most of them were trying to save enough to pay the ‘Bride Price’ for the woman they wanted, always referred to as ‘Mary’ or in pidjin as ‘Meri.’
‘Bride price’ was the measure of a young man’s respect for the bride’s family. The more pigs, chickens, cassowary, and cash he had, the higher the chance that he would gain her hand.
There was no television in Papua New Guinea at that time. This is important to understand. There were no preconceptions ... they had only our behavior past and present to gauge us by.
They had no way of understanding the concepts that we all take so much for granted. Their tribal language was as spoken centuries before; they learned 'pidjin inglis' only to communicate with the white man.
They had no idea of what credit was, or what banks were. ‘McDonald’s’ meant nothing to them. They had never seen a train, or a building higher than three stories.
The only movies they had experience of were the ones they gazed at in awe through the fences of the outdoor movie areas in most of the clubs.
The membership fees were so exorbitantly high that only the wealthiest of the local people could afford entry. If they had hard cash, they were obviously educated and employed, usually as public servants. This was the reasoning used by the white club owners.
The locals paid the same amount in membership--however, they could not be seated in the same areas as the whites.
Oh, we taught them so much…how to drink booze to excess…and smoke cigarettes-- tailor made, not rolled in newspaper.
We gladly provided them with the tools of their ultimate demise.
Their other pleasure was chewing ‘Betel-nut’, it had a numbing affect, apparently similar to the high that most of the white population got from smoking dope.
Weren’t we just the greatest benefactors?
We showed them how to destroy their ancient culture…and then refused to accept any responsibility for the tragic consequences of our actions.
When pay night came around and they received the pittance that they earned, it was mostly spent on booze and cigarettes.
Whilst their families had to survive on rice, or taro root.
Our clever response to that ever-growing problem ... was…it is their choice!
It doesn't make me feel all warm and fuzzy folks.
I remember the day that the electric sliding doors were put into the ‘Burns Philp’ store. The queue of local people stretched for three miles, just so they could take a turn walking in and walking out, all with great hilarity and not a small measure of fear. 'Itambu' Devil devil's must have been at work here, the white mans magic was potent stuff.
The police were called, and they too took their turn at tricking that damn door.
Burns Philp had no option but to disable it, and wait for the novelty to wear off.
Their innocence was in so very childlike.
Their village customs of ‘payback’ were not.
The village systems are far too complex for me to attempt to describe them in detail.
I can however give you a very basic outline. If a village had a tribal difference with a neighbor, then anything… no matter how small, could set the violence of ‘payback’ in motion.
I lost count of the number of times I had attempted to return the short distance from town to my home only to be stopped by Police roadblocks, as a ‘payback’ riot was underway up ahead.
These fights were never a one-on-one; most times, they involved hundreds of warriors from differing villages.
They were always brutal and frequently deadly.
Machetes, spears, knives, clubs, and occasionally rifles were weapons of choice.
After a winner was agreed upon, the winning tribal group would celebrate long into the night. Mourning their dead, and drinking to their victory.
Lives were lost in one particularly brutal eruption between ‘Tolias’ and ‘Goilalas’ two notorious highland enemies.
They fought, and some died... over one stolen chicken!
Unbelievable? I wish it were.
'Jonas' the ‘House Boy’ employed by my boss was from the ‘Goilala’ tribe. He was injured, thankfully not seriously. He was more concerned with the fact that the chicken had yet to be replaced.
Villagers that shared a common tradition were known as ‘One-Talks' or ‘wan toks’ in pidgin. These one-talks would congregate on opposing sides in their hundreds and taunt the others until tempers exploded.
The police would stand back and watch. Only interceding if one of their own 'one-talks' were involved. Then, it was hands on, guns drawn--and often used.
The training they had from the white officers, did not, would not, and could not interfere with their tribal loyalties.
At that time, the whites were the masters.
I knew even then, that it could not, must not...remain that way.
I had the freedom of the beaches at sunrise and sunset for barbecues and beach parties.
I was able to walk alone along the pathways-- gazing up at the miracle of starlight unvarnished by city lights, all those things were white prerogatives.
I didn’t recognize the brooding discontent, not at first.
It was more the sensation of waiting, for a storm you can’t yet see, but you know it's coming! The air around you is charged with electric particles, hovering, growing, and preparing to explode into life.
The one thing that did make its way into my self-obsessed 17-year-old brain, were the changes in the village children. When I had first arrived, they would laugh and run alongside the car, hoping for a treat.
When I left one year later, I couldn’t help but notice the laughter was gone.
They now stood in ever-larger groups, saying nothing, doing nothing they could be punished for. They stood just staring unblinking as we drove by.
The day I flew out and returned to Sydney I cried. It had been a marvelous year for me. A year of learning, safety, comfort, and freedom. I left a part of my heart behind.
I had no way of knowing then that I would return five years later.
To a New Guinea, I barely recognized.
Five years later…
December 26 1977.
Christmas Day had been tinged with sadness, as my husband of four years and I were leaving the next morning to fly out to Papua New Guinea.
He had accepted a promotion to become the manager at a newly acquired branch of the largest Insurance Company in the South Pacific region. He was very young for such a position…he was also extremely competitive and very very good at his job. He was the company’s new ‘Golden Boy’ with a huge future in front of him.
I was so excited about returning to that beautiful island. I had talked non-stop about the place for the weeks leading up to our departure. My husband was locked in to a three-year contract.
I couldn’t wait to show him the 'Paradise' I had left five short years before.
Funny, isn’t it what memory holds on to? The beauty of the place and the wonder of being able to share it with him, colored those doubts that had been making themselves felt in my consciousness just before I left 'Paradise.’
Making all of the troubling thoughts I'd had glow with a rosy shimmer.
The plane touched down in the early afternoon. It was the wet season, and storm clouds and lightning greeted us on arrival, together with the wall of heat that hit us as we walked across the tarmac.
The fences topped with razor sharp barbed wire looked so out of place, at least to me. I had not been naïve enough not to expect changes, but razor wire?
I had read the papers and knew that law and order had broken down significantly since Independence.
It wasn’t so much just the razor wire, to be honest; it was a sensation of wariness. An edge I was familiar with from my street days, yet had not expected to feel here in ‘Paradise.’
I looked around for the cause--and found it. A group of young men were inside the arrivals terminal, a large group of about thirty or so. We had been warned to expect to run into some of these gangs.
I hadn’t been prepared to encounter them quite so soon.
The local newspapers referred to them as ‘Rascals’, such an innocent name, almost an affectionate term. The name was misleading in the extreme. These were no innocents.
These were some of those children I mentioned earlier, the youngsters who stood and watched in silence.
They were now all grown up… with rage to spare.
These young people hated, and the hatred ran deep.
Not just the whites, no, they hated anyone they perceived to be better off than they were. The employed New Guinea citizens now referred to as ‘Nationals’, were their targets as well, as indeed was anyone daring to get in their way.
Over the next two and a half years, our lives would change significantly. The freedom that I had so cherished five years before was gone. It was unsafe to go outside after dark, unless travelling in convoy.
Nights out were organized so that all would meet up before dark and we would leave en-masse with up to six carloads of us at once.
We clung together we 'Expat's' ; we were all employees of the company and for the most part we were young couples with no children.
We would only venture out on weekends in a large group.
If we decided to have a party ... all the guests that didn’t live in our apartment block would stay over for the night, sleeping anywhere we could make room.
The company always attempted to house us in close proximity... their staff lasted longer that way.
The clubs I had thought expensive back in 1972 were now even more so. The only way they could legally restrict membership was to ensure that only those well educated and employed could possibly afford to join.
I was pleased to see that at least the seating was no longer segregated, yet the invisible barriers were well and truly in place.
I'll recount a strange little incident that highlighted so much for me, and helped my growing sense of helplessness increase.
It was 1977, my husband’s secretary, a delightful young National woman named Ruth, had taken me aside one afternoon when I’d dropped by his office. She was very excited, and needed my help. The previous night, Ruth and her family had been to the drive-in to see ‘Superman the Movie’ with Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.
Ruth, asked me in confidence where she could contact “Superman.” I assumed she meant the actor. I suggested she might try writing to Christopher Reeve c/- the studio that had made the movie, which she could find out by checking the poster outside the theatre.
She was confused, and kept insisting that his name was “Clark Kent”. She needed him to come, as her village was in danger of being overrun by their tribal enemy. ’Superman’ could use his magic to ensure her village won.
I almost laughed until I realized that she was deadly serious. Ruth had been well educated at a mission school; in fact, she had had more schooling than I had. Yet in her innocence of all things worldly, she believed “Superman” was real.
It shook me. It was yet another wake up call.
The government actively encouraged all expatriates to employ ‘House Boys’.
Unemployment was running at that time at a frightening 80%. More and more young people were coming from remote villages into the city all the time, they came expecting wondrous things, they had no place to live, no government benefits, no jobs, and no hope of getting one.
An enormous number of expatriates had left New Guinea leading up to Independence Day. Many more had left in the years since. New blood was constantly being infused, and as we were bound to contracts the company could be reasonably sure we would stay.
Squatter settlements had sprung up everywhere, together with the enormous poverty, dysentery, and discontent that accompanied them. It hung like an ever-darkening cloud on all the visible horizons.
A white woman could not go shopping unaccompanied.
If possible the wives would band together and shop once a week. As there is no cattle or dairy industry, fresh milk and red meat had to be flown in frozen.
Unfortunately the storage facility frequently blacked out for days at a time, as did our homes. Frozen food was a health hazard.
We soon learned that chicken and fish could be had fresh at the open markets, if we could only be brave enough to go there.
I had acquired a beautiful Rottweiler; his owners had given up and returned to Australia.
He had been trained in a way I despised. It was common practice to put the pups in a sack individually, and have the 'House boy' kick and punch the bag. Then have him open it. The puppies soon learned to hate anything black. My dog was no exception to that, his owner had been a Police officer so that ‘King’ had been further trained to attack and stop on command.
I hoped like hell that I would never have to test that training.
‘King’ accompanied my friends and I whenever we ventured out in daylight to shop without our husbands. He was a formidable burglar alarm in the car.
New Years Eve 1978/79 we attended the Company celebrations. Three car loads of us left together to return home at around 2:00 am. As we reached the top of the hill on the only road out of town, we could see something burning off to the left. We couldn’t quite make it out from where we were; our lead vehicle was a land rover with huge bars across the front, he slowed his pace a little. The women were in the second and third vehicles. As we rounded a curve, we saw a roadblock up ahead; 44-gallon drums were strung out across the road.
It was not the police.
The fires were coming from two burning cars off to our left; to the right was a shear drop hundreds of feet into the ocean, my husband screamed, “Get down on the floor… now!”
We knew better than to question, and huddled together in the back between the seats with our heads down, and hands clenched together.
The lead car put pedal to the floor and rammed the roadblock. We followed with engines screaming and tires belching smoke. Gunshots followed us. We hugged the lead vehicle. He turned into his driveway, and two of the cars were hurriedly parked and locked into the garage, whilst the third vehicle sped around back. We entered the house without turning lights on, and sat in disbelief, adrenalin pumping, still trying to figure out what the hell had just happened.
There was no point in calling the police. We knew they would not come.
The guys had talked this scenario through several times, without saying anything that may alarm us women unnecessarily.
I no longer had cause to wonder why the reinforced Land rover always took the lead.
The experience pulled our tight little group even closer.
We would fall asleep at night to the repeated sounds of gunfire and screams.
We began to become desensitized to it. It was then that we knew we would only just make it through the time remaining on the contract; we reached a decision to leave if in six-months we still felt the same way. My husband aquired a gun. We slept with 'King' at the base of the bed. I had a wicked Japanese sword on the floor next to me.
It didn’t matter to either one of us any more about the money we would have to forfeit.
Home invasions were common, rape even more so, and murder was on the menu every day.
The weapons of choice that the gangs used were still machetes’ and knives, with one very big difference; they now carried M16 assault rifles. Supplied by whom? I don’t know for certain.
Drug trafficking was growing daily.
All in all, ‘Paradise’ was heading for hell. Living there became it. We sat, we watched, and we waited for the country to implode.
I cried again, when we left New Guinea.
I cried with sadness at what it had become.
I cried with anger over what had caused it.
I cried with relief, to be leaving.
In answer to the question I am now asking myself, am I prejudiced?
Against the color of a man’s skin…No, I am not.
Against murderous violence…Yes I am.
Do I believe we had a right to drag that beautiful place screaming into a century it was unprepared for?... Emphatically No! I do not believe we had any right to do so.
Did we have the right to plunder its mineral richness for our own profit? No, we did not.
Will New Guinea recover? Not in the foreseeable future.
Thirty years later. August 2010
Unemployment is now 90%.
Average wage equates to $1.25 US per day.
Law and Order has completely broken down, the government of Papua New Guinea, has requested urgent assistance from the Australian Government.
Two-Hundred-and seventy-five police officers have been seconded to New Guinea to train the local constabulary. $800 Million has been granted in assistance.
Should we do more…? Yes, I believe we should.
Is it too late…?
Everything in me wants to scream No! But sadly, I must say Yes… I believe it is far too late.
'Paradise', has already gone to hell.