Lifestyle & Culture > 1956: A New Start in Papua New Guinea

1956: A New Start in Papua New Guinea

Published: March 14, 2009

Imagine being a new mother suddenly uprooted to a foreign and developing country like Papua New Guinea in the 1950’s.

“New Guinea is a living country, a breathing country. If you stepped out of line New Guinea would kill you,” Carleen said passionately.

Carleen was excited after finding out that she would be travelling with her husband to his new engineering job with the Steam Ships Trading Company. Her excitement would be understandable if they were travelling to New York, Melbourne or London but not Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, which at that stage was just a town.

Back then her first daughter Sue was a baby and they were living in Hobart. The change from living at the bottom of the Earth right to its steamy centre would not be the only thing she would have to get used to. There were bizarre native rituals, the extended family she was not expecting, and living life with three different plans because A and B would always fail.

Clive’s transfer to that steamy island is the source of so many of Carleen’s extraordinary stories. Over the 16 years she spent there she witnessed the last links of traditional life as they snapped and released thousands of years of culture.

‘The one thing I’ll never forget about arriving in Port Moresby was the initial blast of heat from the tarmac as you stepped off the plane. It just hit you. It did it every time you flew in and out of the country”. She says while rearranging a huge blue moo-moo.

That was back in 1956. Not many people knew about ‘the island up there’ and the different ways of living with the heat, isolation and tropical diseases. The Mothers and Babies clinic in Port Moresby was the first place Carleen visited on arrival.

“I was driven to the clinic to make sure I was doing everything right, as Susie was born in Tasmania, and to see if I was coping with the conditions in Port Moresby, and to give me some hints. The nurses weighed Susie up. She was having teething problems at the time and they kept emphasising that she needed lots of water and to keep the liquids up no matter what. The problem was that they had no fresh water up there. Then the nurse asked me if she had any beer yet! I thought it was a big no no. The nurse just said don’t worry all the kids up here drink beer because it was the only form of water there was.”

It is a foreign concept allowing young children to drink the same substance that had been banned from the natives. Back then only natives with an certain level of education were permitted alcohol. Yet they still found something else to get drunk on. It was well known amongst the natives that a little nut called ‘beetle nut’ with crushed lime gave them a buzz.

Carleen’s audible laughter returns with another memory of her first day in Port Moresby with what she thought was a tuberculosis epidemic amongst the natives. It was this seemingly innocuous nut that gave Carleen her first humorous experience.

“I was walking down the street to the Steam Ships Trading Company store and I remember seeing all of these poor native people who I thought had tuberculosis, because there were patches of blood on the footpath. I tried to make a path and avoid stepping in it. I was trying to feel compassionate, thinking how can all of these people be suffering?”

It was a natural conclusion to jump to considering there were pools of red liquid all over the street.

“When they sucked on these beetle nuts it gave them a spark,” she giggled.

“It wasn’t until I knew this that I realised that the red puddles were caused by them spitting out the red berries!”

There was another time when Carleen jumped to the wrong conclusion. On another visit to the Mothers and Babies clinic she saw a woman sitting in the gutter drinking Harpic (a toilet cleaning product).

“She had this stick and she was dipping it into the Harpic and drawing it across her mouth. I raced inside and grabbed one of the nurses and yelled ‘there’s a woman out there drinking Harpic! The nurse just said 'don’t worry she’s just eating lime dust and chewing beetle nuts.’" Carleen said again laughing.

Carleen’s concern for the native people grew as she got to know them. They were employed in the homes of the expatriats as domestic help. Australia, at that time, was a caretaker of Papua New Guinea and heldan active role in educating in the ways of the western world.

“Australia’s policy was a fledgling policy. Their initial aim would be to give them their Independence about now. What the Australian administration wanted to do was to gradually, gradually educate them down here and send them back. If I remember rightly there were 79 different denominations of religion. All of them had their schools and all of them had this system whereby they picked the brightest students by sensing their keen wanting to learn. There were thousands of New Guineans being educated in the 50s and 60s.”

This system was designed to gradually pass on western education through a population that had no idea of western lifestyles, and the changes occurring in their country. The first group to be educated came back and would be given a responsible job in the village. This person would pass on their knowledge to the other villagers, then another group would be sent away.

“Yes it was wrong to think that we should push them into a western side but that is what they had craved for. And this the only way they were going to stand up in the world anyway. Australia could see that since Papua New Guinea was so close to our northern border that if we educated them, then they could face the world. We are talking about people here who still had stone implements and things like that. To expect them to come into an atomic world, I mean come on, you can’t just do that with any race of people”.

This sensible, gradual approach to educating Papua New Guineans in the western ways ended in 1964 when a UN delegate from Lebanon stepped in.

“A little bastard got up in the UN and said “though shalt not! Thou shall allow them to drink, thou shall educate the masses’” Carleen’s tone turns sarcastic.

“So what does Australia do? Australia bows down and says sorry. So they flew up these half baked teachers to another country. Before we left, we ended up with one generation of people who could forge a signature on a cheque and thought they were brain surgeons.”

These restrictions on alcohol and education did not suit everybody. Some people, those who it was intended to help, did not like the idea that white Australians could have free access to education and alcohol while natives had many restrictions and conditions.

“The only person that I knew of who had any idea was Michael Samari. He was educated in Australia. He was there saying ‘We have to have our independence. We don’t need the Australians telling us what to do’. Within a few weeks of him becoming Prime Minister he had the courage to say on radio that ‘Now that I have assumed the cloak of responsibility I understand all the restrictions we had placed up on them’. It takes a big man to say he was wrong,” Carleen says with admiration.

The level of respect and nurturing for the native employees went beyond normal employer obligations. The expatriats took great care of their workers because the lives of the ex-pats and the native families were so interwoven.

“They really were an extended family. They had their own accommodation on your property and we bought them rations. These were a jar of vegemite, rice, tinned corned beef, so much tinned fish, salt, tea, powdered milk and tobacco. You made sure they were healthy.”

The Australian Administration and Health Authority stipulated the ration amounts.

In 1956, average life expectancy was not great. By 1973 when Carleen left it was up to 63 years. This was due to better nutrition.

Carleen and her family also took them to the doctor when they were sick and to have their anti-venereal shots. She also made sure their children were educated and went to school each day.

Maybe this is where Carleen got the respected title of Little Mumma.

“I was their Little Mumma. By the time we shifted to Bairnes I became Little Mumma up there as well,” she said proudly.

Then there was a big change. Along with mass education, the alcohol restriction was removed and the United Nations ceased providing rations.

“My boys begged me to still give them rations, but I wasn’t allowed to. I had to hand them the money and they handed it back to me and then told me they wanted their rations. It was a ridiculous situation.”

Carleen believes that the present problems started when the Papua New Guineans were given access to alcohol and money they had not been educated to handle.

“Everything had been opened up to them. Their genetic make up can not handle the alcohol. They just go berserk only after two glasses. We knew what we were dealing with as long as we didn’t expect too much from them. This may have seemed very paternalistic to anyone outside. But they had to understand what was best for the Papua New Guineans at that stage of development.”

In 1957 Carleen gave birth to her second daughter, Debbie, a native New Guinean. Carleen was now prepared with all of the unusual and practical tips of motherhood in New Guinea. Debbie grew up with no prior knowledge of Australia and its different races; her native friends were simply mates.

“As kids you don’t look at creed or race when you were brought up with them,” Debbie said.

Debbie’s view on life in Australia was based on her childhood experiences. It gave her a good background and prepared her for a life in Australia.

“I can honestly say that I have no inhibitions about what I could be and should be because the basic life up there was very casual, very relaxed. No one had any expectations of anybody because nothing seemed permanent,” Debbie said.

Like her mother, Debbie had a great relationship with the natives. It is a sad fact that Papua New Guinea is not the same place today as it was when those great memories were made.

“Back then the New Guinea natives were very welcome. They were part of your daily lives. If you treated them well then they treated you well. Since I left I have had friends who have come back down and told me about twelve-foot boy fence wire around buildings. It wasn’t like that when I lived up there and I don’t think I would be able to accept that. The natives no longer tolerate the whites," Debbie explained.

Debbie also believed that it was the few who stirred up the many and caused the mess in New Guinea.

“Mum and Dad foresaw that there were going to be initial problems. The problem that they had up there were that people with a little bit of education were stirring up mammoth problems. These people were basically egging on the uneducated saying they were down-trodden and hard done by,” she said.

Naturally a number of amazing stories emerged from such an extraordinary upbringing.

When Debbie was fifteen her family went to visit a friend in a place called Goomini. Their friend was a warden at the mission prison that housed native women to protect them from self harm. To see white people with red hair as Carleen’s and Debbie’s blond hair was a real novelty for the inmates.

“These women were making noises and reaching out to touch our hair. I’m not talking about the hair on my head but my pubic hair! It was part of their acceptance ritual but it ended up being one of the most stressful times of my life! Yet you had to remain cool, calm and collected,” Debbie said.

You can tell Debbie loves talking about her life in New Guinea. Nearly everything she says is followed with a soulful laugh. Debbie’s eyes light up as she remembers more of Goomini.

“There was one woman there. I could smell her before I could see her. She had this neck wear on which I thought were rotting fingers, but I didn’t want to believe that it was. Then I asked what it was and found out that she had cut off her dead husband’s fingers and made them into a neck lace. She let them rot around her neck as mourning ritual”.

Debbie held a high regard for the native people. This would not be difficult considering she had played with them since she was a toddler and they were part of an extended family.

“I firmly believed them to be very conscientious people who did not expect handouts. To see what they were living on, which was about ten dollars a week, is an absolute pittance. I can honestly say they were very, very hard working and loyal people.”

Debbie often tested this loyalty, especially when she discovered her authority over the domestic help at the age of seven. It’s quite easy to see that she knows how to get her own way.

“In those days the servants were very subservient. They did what they were told when they were told. It was a matter of how high missus? Even I had the authority,” she said gleefully.

“One day I was left alone at home with Saman the house boy because Mum was in Sydney. I was seven at the time and I asked him to iron this particular garment and he wouldn’t. So me being the type of person that I am I went up and bit him on the back of the leg, his instant reaction was to turn around and burn me on the stomach with the iron. It caused a bit of a furore, but everyone new what I was like and it blew over.”

This was the only time Carleen or Debbie ever mentioned any natives acting out against the whites. Carleen felt safe to leave the girls in the hands of their male carer Gyumai.

Debbie described him as being both a mum and dad. No one thought twice about any harm toward the girls because Gyumai loved them as his own.

This was the level of trust between everyone in the 50s and 60s.

According to Carleen and Debbie, the best part of living in Papua New Guinea was seeing their traditional way of life.

Carleen, Sue and Debbie were invited to large dance ceremonies called Sing Sings that were held for weddings and all sorts of celebrations. Carleen tells of tribal men who used the Sing Sings to show off their pigs which was a sign of their wealth.

“The more pigs the more wealth they had. Even some of their adornments had pigs’ teeth. The women had these long, long necklaces with bits of bamboo and each piece of bamboo was a pig. We are talking hundreds of pigs and at a Sing Sing we could see up to a thousand pigs being slaughtered. They killed more pigs then they could eat because they would bring many people in from tribes all over. Of course the downside to all of this was that the pigs tended not to be cooked properly and they would go gangrenous inside their stomach. This gave them pig belly and they would die. I think it still happens,” Carleen said.

A big Sing Sing would last for days. They lost a sense of time because they were buzzing on beetle nut and hammering on their Coongu drums. They would also stamp their feet endlessly and go into a trance.

“This unfortunately was a prelude to war. You would watch out to see the women had left. If there were no women around then you know they were on the war path with their tribal killings, which still go on.” Carleen shakes her head in amazement.

These tribal wars occurred because one tribe would run out of women. They had learnt that intermarriage created birth defects in babies so they would raid other tribes to get women.

"That’s what most tribal wars were about, trying to get your blood into another tribe.” said Carleen.

This talk about warring brings Carleen onto another topic - cannibalism. What would Papua New Guinea be with out cannibalism?

“People thought they put them in a pot and boil them as they do in the cartoons. Never did they do this. If they were warring with another tribe and they killed a tribe member it was always through accident, because looking at some of the wounds they were back wounds”.

Another myth to be blown was the idea that cannibals ate other people for food. In fact the natives believed that eating certain body parts allowed them to receive certain powers which that body part contained.

“For example, if he was a great spear thrower they would eat that portion of his body that would enhance themselves. That is what cannibalism was. The problems came when he’d been an incredible strategist and they would eat his brain. That is when you get laughing death. They called it laughing death because they finish up with a permanent grin up on their faces,” Carleen said while also grinning.

It is unfortunate that people today will not have the same experiences as Carleen and Debbie, for even the ones who loved New Guinea the most will not go back. Instead they would rather keep the memories they have.

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