Nancy Sullivan | Nineteen Years and Counting
On 1st April the overnight PMV to Hagen from Madang was filled with buai bags, enough to buy a car. We arrive 7 AM in Kagamuga, giving us enough time for a full breakfast at the Resort Lodge, before the small plane to Karawari. Apparently an order of toast in the highlands is a full order, filled with toast. No mucking around. Here’s fiften pieces of toast and a slab of butter for you.
Joe our relative the policeman has been woken up and is barely fifteen minutes before he arrives in spit-polished boots, uniform and a new looking anorak, with a rucksack, to join me at the TNT airfield space. Nevertheless, and as if channeling some Marks Brothers’ routine , our crusty colonial pilot chides Joe on being punctual.
“Yu save long taim blong kiap na pasin blong ol waitman ah?’
“Actually,’ I say, “Joe is a policeman,” trying to halt the flow of Tok Masta. Joe smiles and shakes the man’s hand.
Weve come first for a police matter. Negotiations between two villages with equally compelling and unrealistic stories. But sides are so committed to their versions that everyone defends with vehemence. For one side a local Priest actually told the villagers they were all invited to Christmas Mass this year, everyone but for those ghastly troublemakers. For the other side, this is sacrilege of untruths. Who would disinvite the bad boys? One of them moseyed over Christmas Day, after a series of threats and mildly violent thrusts and parries between enemies, only to get chopped with an axe. This made him aggrieved, and he would ask K1000 for every stitch he got in his shoulder –45— and in consideration of the pain endured. Poor lad, I say. Would that be before or after his enemies itemized the scars from his bushknife? Or maybe we should measure the pain against every woman ere in the haus win who’s had a baby in the bush? On a level of 1-10 what pain would your cut be? (women laughing in background—score one for the tougher sex). Still, he looks like murder incorporated as he approached Joe and I.Shirtless, bulked out, bad tattoos, six pocket trousers, dragging a bushknife with a scowl—a regular Iron Man from Central Casting. Yet he agrees to take the matter to District Court.
Second on our agenda is a meeting up in the mountains behind the Karawari Lodge between all the Penale landowners potentially effected by the Mining Exploration License Application taken out by Pristine 18, yet one more RH-backed company with an irony-free name. But to get there we need to motor around to the Yimas lakes and pick up members of our mob, including the Karawari Cave Arts Project’s own Ron Moody-as-Fagin, Albert, who lives with his wife Esther, and (I discover) –even more appropriately— a ‘borrowed’ solar panel from our team. Guess You Gotta Pick A Pocket or Two.
We meet up with the team from The National Museum in Imboin. Chief Conservator Francis Bafmatuk, Chief Archaeologist Herman Mandui, and staff anthropologist Tiko Wandu. Tiko has worked with our team before and he was to have forewarned his colleagues that traveling to caves might involved several days of arduous trekking. Alas, they are surprised four days won’t be enough to see more than one or two caves, and they will miss the long trek to Namata for the big meeting. Instead they go to see caves in Imboin and Awim, to report back to the Museum. They hope to make the case for the Karawari Caves as National Cultural Property.
Because the Arafundi River was high but not high enough, we could motor only slightly farther thn the branching toward Kandamkunda and Meakambut territory before having to start our climb to Namata. Joe the policeman wearing leather boots (not for long), Bonny Mapat (Dodger to Albert’s Fagin), Steven Yakayaban (who walked these caves with Rhys Jones and Paul Gorecki some thirty years ago), my sons Chris and Jeffrey, the Sepik Spirit boat manager, Lukas (who was also our photographer, thankfully), Albert Kasi, Simon Yambor of the Karwari Council, Solomon Yakari from Imboin, Martin Mariap of Imboin, and plenty of others headed into the bush by midday. The highlights of this walk will always be the five river crossings.
Now, when I say river crossings, I do not mean jumping across slippery stones. Nor do I mean wading through strong currents. Or bumbling across pebbles in the deep. I mean thrusting your torso through torrential waters with a, finding ground, turning back to help the others get across. Those others would be (for one), me. Cargo-free I am more liability than not and Im not too proud to say it took two men on occasion to keep me from fluttered like a prayer flag downstream. Once I nearly took Jon, a 50 kilo Meakambut man, hostage on a wild ride down the Arafundi that might have been a scene from The Deer Hunter— but that his feet found purchase in time and we made the other side.
Like a big spin cycle washig the bloodstains left by leeches from our clothes. Call me Jungle Girl, and forget for a minute the old woman who slipped and fell so often she could have used a helmet, but it was a 5 ½ hour walk over mossy logs, knotty roots, vines, and stinging and prickling things everywhere (I believe that’s what Stephen Jay Gould would call them, prickling things). Two litres of water went into my body and none of it came out as pee. But when I took off my canvas boots that night, four toes had turned new colours. And Lucas’ feet had come up bright orange after wearing his Doc Martens. Plenty of plasters got distributed to toes and heels and ankles all around. Then I planted my boots to dry on poles like two severed heads of war.
Such a pleasure to see Anton Lutz in Namata, who had walked down from Kaiam. Ever kind and cheerful, he’d finished an even longer trek and was well settled by the time we clawed ourselves up the last hill to shake his hand. We were suddenly in the highlands—where the Penale call themselves Andai and their neighbours the Maramuni were standing around with shotguns and headbands for a compensation matter. Only hours before we’d been puttering up the Arafundi, where the pitpit grass is dotted with men in canoes facing the embankments with raised spears, absolutely stone still, waiting for a rubbermouth to swim by, like so many Roman statues along a Villa Borghese garden path.
Here we are in Enga. Anton says the Namata and everyone up to the Enga border are on the Engan (as well as the East Sepik) electoral rolls. Lots of good t shirts for Fly Emirates and Levis 501, but the unifying theme, as always, was Bob Marley. Just as we could see his face folding over the legs of Arafundi fishermen below, here his face smiled out from at least three t shirts. Up on top of the mountain crest, where people standing on a knoll are backgrounded in flattened perspective by rainforest across the valley, the Bob Marley sportwear really doubles the confusion. Some of his images are so lifelike in size that Ive counted men twice and found myself smiling back at Bob as we pass on the river
But whereas the Sepik is all about shirtlessness and pants beneath the arse grass, up here we have exposed gluteus maximus below and sweatshirts or flannels shirts above. That’s the highlands. High waisted arse grass bustles. Ladies in beaded choker necklaces, knit caps all around. A few ferns placed centre forward on men’s hair. One excellent baseball worn Midwestern farmer style, resting gently on the crown of a young man’s head. Mika from Moinene wore a faded tshirt saying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as Anton points out.
My son Jeffrey handed Anton a letter from Yimas, which turned out to be a marriage proposal. A young woman on the river had seen Anton three years ago and set her mind on marrying him. Ever since her father had been pleading to negotiate terms, sending these proposals to open discussion
every few months. Anton dropped the paper and sighed. He’d never even met the girl. But I took a look at the letter. Apparently her name is REHAB. Pronounced Ray-ab of course, but written like the second chapter of a Jacqueline Suzanne novel, forecasting twenty years in the future after this lovely couple has settled down in Marin County and the girl’s grown bored and bitter with
kaftans, car pools and enameled nails, as happy hours grow to Zoloft and graduate to crystal meth…and I suddenly remembered where I was!
But still, the only thing I could think of was Anton on a stage somewhere, doing an Amy Winehouse turn, slumped to the mic, singing
They tried to make me marry Rehab but I said ‘no, no, no’ Yes I’ve been black but when I come back you’ll know know know I ain’t got the time even if her daddy thinks I’m fine They tried to make me marry Rehab but I won’t go go go
Meakambut friends have walked over from their eastern caves. Little Wapi is here, the lad I once carried down the mountain sick, now tall and hale with other Namata kids. White clouds were sitting in the valleys around us and I counted 12 houses in the ridgetop settlement. One man carries a water bottle filled with orange cordial; how little it takes to signal status: a packet of Tang tells everyone you’ve been to town. Somehow, amidst all this highlands scenery our Steven from Yimas still looks like a displaced aging surfer dude with coppery tan and ratty board shorts, sucking on daka like a doobie.
Robert from Auwim has grown an Amish beard around his mug which, under a tartan golf cap, adds a leprechaun flair. Definitely me own gene pool, aye. Standin on de pot a gold. Even more endearing when he sheds his green t shirt to wear like earmuffs sprouting from the cap. Erin go bragh.
Up the notched log ladders we collapsed on the verandah of a house they’d set aside for us. Anton told us that the afternoon waiting for us on that porch some young men were joking around and then said Shhh—-quiet now, Nancy will be here—no more laughing! —-Now I want this caution to precede me everywhere. There will be no smiles when Nancy arrives!
One of the bigmen in Namata is married to a ‘telikom’ girl from Hagen—someone courted during the time Telikom negotiated to place a tower on the Kaiam hillside. She was lovely and self-possessed, much more cosmopolitan than the local girls. Not a giaman missus by any means—no plucked brows or jerry curls. Just a posture and a smile. And when she walked by our crowded verandah, all heads turned like spectators watching a ball fly across the field, in one great collective and silent wolf whistle. I could only think for the gazillionth time how hard it is t be a young woman in Hagen. She may have felt cheated when she realized her prince lived in remote unserviced Namata, but she could walk freely across the singsing ground in these parts.
We sit around dumbstruck and sore for a while, catching up with old friends and meeting all kinds of people who’ve walked in from Imboin, Imanmeri, Yamandem, Moinene, Andambit, Kupin, Awarim, Namaia, Kaiam, and Meakambut. Everyone here because they heard about the meeting at Imboin two weeks ago when a chopper arrived with white men and an MRA rep to declare their interest in this great swathe of their customary land. They called themselves Pristine #18 and explained to the few in attendence that they’d applied for a license to explore for gold on everything from the top of Mt MacGregor down to the Yimas Lakes. The license area was marked on their map as ELA 2008. Imagine someone walking into your neighbourhood with a map of gerrymandered boundaries that curt across lawns and schoolyards and shopping centres and village greens, saying this is where they wish to dig now.
All those in attendance were familiar with gold on their ground, theyd been panning it for a few years already. They weren’t surprised by the interest, although a chopper had never arrived to express it so convincingly before. Some were charmed by talk of ‘Landowner Benefits Packages’ and ‘Incorporated Landowner Groups’—as you would be if you’d never had enough school or small business exposure to know this was just jargon for resettlement, squalor, hunger, minimum wage work, polluted rivers and decimated hunting grounds. These few were still mulling over these phrases when we arrived in Yimas, and then Imboin, where we started to pass around a paper petition against the ELA 2008 for landowners to sign. A handful of Yimas men, living in overcrowded swamp villages, were still reluctant to sign, but we quickly picked up hundreds of signatures from other villagers running up the Arafundi to the meeting ground in Namata on 6 April.
The next day our big meeting began. Everyone stood around in circles for some time, bigmen and their entourages–thrumming on tension that didn’t really exist, before sitting down to business. The Appalachian meeting of the Karawari Forgotten had been called. And every big man from the under-serviced and under-represented Upper Arafundi and Karawari River communities was there. Sitting in orderly lines around a central clearing between three houses, where interested observers filled the verandahs. The white people were there under one verandah’s shade: Anton Lutz, the Lutheran Mission worker constructing an airfield in Kaiam, son of the beloved Dr Steven Lutz, RIP, who long provided the area’s only medical services from their health post in Kaiam; Anton grew up in these hills and knows everyone in the upper Penale Andai area well. Me, Nancy Sullivan, leader of the Karawari Cave Arts Project and a well known presence in the area for twentysomething years. And also Lucas, German Manager of the Sepik Spirit riverboat, along for the ride and wielding the all-important videocamera. Our opera box was nothing to the gallery of dignitaries across the clearing. There were the real Members of the Commission: Matthew Kongop representing Namata and Imboin. Jack Yulaso there for the Meakambut. Eddie Nambu for the Imanmeri. Albert Simi for the Yamandem and Wombromus villages. Mika Wapi was there from Moinene, respresenting the Ewa. Matteos Paul and Luke Raymond were there for the powerful Andimbit faction. James Martin for Kupin. Ipare Wapale from Awarim, Simeon Tika from Kaiam. And Bonny Mapat from Yimas, Solomon Yakaman from Imboin. And Simon Yambori representing the Karawari Rural LLG Council.
Jack the Meakambut Pastor opened with a prayer. We then listened to each and every community speak their minds about commercial mining, their fervent desire to stay on the land, not be dominated by opportunistic investors, and control their own resources themselves. After decades of government neglect, they were conscious of how little they could do so themselves, but in agreement that this means more young people must be educated to take the reins. The fact that they cannot offer informed or free and fair consent to any outsider right now makes them all the more determined to wait and develop on their own terms, rather than gamble the pot of gold they sit on for short term gains to be shared with disinterested foreigners. It was really impressive to watch this roll call of collective identity formation—everyone together against the exploitative foes of national government and commercial resource extraction. They were keen to pan their own gold, but not to destroy their own land. They needed market, education, health, all the things the government has long denied them—all the planks of their current underdevelopment. And most of all they would not be moved from their land or denied their subsistence base. Land is life.
My speech was about the caves, about what they do and should mean to them, what they might mean to the world, and why their conservation is a viable option to commercial mining and logging. With me was a poster sized classroom map which I’d marked with points representing every country or region from which people had signed the online petition—showing them the enormity and spread of the overseas support their cause and the conservation of the caves had already received. Nothing like visual aids. This got passed around with the print-out of the online petition itself, which no one could fully read, but all could admire. No one could have imagined that in the two weeks since that Pristine #18 chopper had landed in Imboin, we could pull together this kind of groundswell not just within the Angoram District (because these numbers sitting in Namata were unique and impressive), but also in Parliament with national members championing our cause, and then the world—people from Trinidad and Tobago, Africa, Malaysia, Slovenia, Poland, Latvia and Chile—all of whom had read the story of their plight against Pristine #18 and saw the need to save the caves.
Speeches went on for four hours. Anton began his with two wonderful parables, the first about Joseph spurning physical and psychological temptation and being rewarded for righteous perseverance in the end. This is the real idiom of public speaking in the highlands, today’s tok piksa from hours and hours of Bible study, so that Joseph, this familiar character of legend can walk into our own problem and point to a clear way forward. And Anton has a calm and authoritative manner. An easygoing non-homoletic way that makes it easy to see why he is so deeply admired by the Penale. But nothing in the entire meeting surpassed one final exchange between Anton and Mathias, an Andimbit gent with a need to raise the stakes. You could see right away that this guy had always been a thorn in Anton’s side, and his asking the eternal rhetorical questions of public meetings in PNG was really a personal volley back to the young man who ran the medical post in Kaiam. Now that you are telling us not to mine our gold, what can you offer instead? How can you improve our lives now? Mathias asked.
Anton let the rain fall. Took a breath and asked, in measured tones began Socratic reply: ‘Mathias, do you pay school fees?’ (no) ‘Do you pay for medical services?’ (no) ‘Do you pan for gold?’ (yes) ‘Did you get money from the Telikom tower?’ (yes) ‘Do you save your money for your family?’ (no) ‘Do you come help me when I’m out in a tractor for weeks on end making your airfield?’ (no). The entire meeting fell quiet. Mathias, to his credit, stood and allowed himself to deflate under Anton puncturing. ‘Nau yu laikim wanem samting long mi?’ Anton asked. What more do you want? Trusting Anton to lower not raise the tension, Mathias stood with bowed head, but not in defeat, rather in agreement. He did not bark back, did not push, and for that Anton backed away uickly. He reminded everyone that the government had denied them these services, not the church or the companies or any single private citizen. Their entitlement is misplaced if they think anyone can give them development, in fact. The process starts with themselves. They must know what they value and what they want to conserve and what they want to become.
Eventually,after much talking and very little animus, Jack led a closing prayer and Matthew from Namata closed the meeting with group claps.
We spent the afternoon collecting the rest of 541 names for our landowner petition. And growing hungry because the community had been ill prepared to host so many visitors, and we’d left 10 kilos of sago on the river to lighten our load. A gentle reminder that there would never be enough money, enough Landowner Benefits Packages to sustain future generations of Penale displaced from the forest and their rivers to allow Malaysians and Australians to ‘help’ them mine for gold.