Tag Archives: Expatriates

Papua New Guinean sojourn

In 1980 my wife and I went to Papua New Guinea on a three year contract to work for the National Library Service in Port Moresby. My job was to train Papua New Guinean staff so that they could take over positions held at the time by expatriates.

On my first day at work the Deputy National Librarian asked Ben Gar, a Papua New Guinean staff member from West New Britain, to show me where I could buy a take-away for lunch. Ben drove me to a little caravan that sold food and drinks. We each bought a hot dog and a bottle of Coke. Ben asked the seller for a bottle opener, but she said that someone had stolen it, so Ben gripped the top of my Coke bottle between his molars and prized the top off.

There was no television service in the country at the time, but there were two cinemas in town, one of which was a drive-in. The drive-in was the only public place where one could sit outside in the tropical evening in a folding chair, safe from the ‘rascals’ (young thugs) who ruled the streets after dark. Often people would take along a picnic dinner to eat there, or occasionally bring along a birthday cake with candles.

The first time we went to the cinema we saw “Saturday Night Fever”. During a scene where a young man fell to his death from a bridge, the Papua New Guinean policeman who was sitting next to me had an uncontrollable fit of laughter whilst grabbing me by the shoulder and shaking me.

I distinctly remember a double feature that we saw which was typical of the type of fare that the cinema dished up. The first film was an Israeli production called “Parachute dog”. The dog and his military master jumped out of an aeroplane behind the enemy lines in separate parachutes. The dog wobbled in the parachute. It was patently obvious that it was made from some solid substance, probably wood. In a later scene its master was ambushed and shot dead, only to reappear later in the film as though that incident had never happened. It was hilarious. The second film was “American disco”, about an Italian teenager whose entire dream was focused on going to America to become a DJ in an American disco. How could a viewer avoid being swept along in the excitement of someone chasing such an exotic dream?

Having fully explored the cultural offerings of the cinemas and having become bored of the menus at the only two restaurants in town, we started socialising in the evenings, playing bridge and backgammon and the like. At work the males of our motley crew of expatriates tried to outdo each other with colourful shirts on Fridays, the day on which the Papua New Guinean staff usually wore their traditional lap laps. My piece de resistance was a splotchy red batik shirt that I had bought in Cairns, but the competition petered out once an American colleague, Fraiser, came in to work sporting a shirt that he had bought in Hawaii whilst on holiday. The design comprised a combination of yachts and red lobsters. The rest of us lost heart for the Friday dress-ups after that.

The National Library staff played a series of cricket matches against the staff and students of the Library Diploma Course at the Administrative College. Our games started at 4.30 pm on Fridays and were invariably of quite brief duration, as it was very rare for a player on either side to get to double figures. We would hurry through the overs as the storm clouds gathered every afternoon in the rainy season, exploding in a deafening thunderstorm at around 6 pm.

Our best player was Rosa Memafu, a tall lady from the Gulf province, whose fast bowling was feared by all the players of the College team.



Rosa Memafu (second from right) lets fly with a fast ball

Few of us wore shoes to work and none of us wore ties, as it was just too hot and humid to wear such items. The pair of black shoes that I took along from Australia soon turned green with rot in my cupboard, while large cockroaches chewed holes in the leather. I went about my business in a pair of cheap rubber thongs. However, I had a pair of leather thongs in my office to wear on special occasions, such as to meetings with the Director of Education or with the Minister for Education.

During my time in Papua New Guinea I wore a tie on one occasion only, and that was for the Queen’s visit. I also wore my leather thongs. The National Librarian, Sir John Yocklunn, was responsible for arranging the visit by the Queen and Prince Philip and he had arranged good seats for us for the event.


Tim and a colleague with bilums (string bags), dressed up for the Queen’s visit

It was a spectacular affair. We watched from the sports pavilion, sitting within a stone’s throw from the Queen and Prince, while many different indigenous groups were dressed up in their traditional finery in honour of the royal visit.


The Queen and Prince Philip wave to the Highlanders

The condition of the dogs in Port Moresby was a constant source of distress to me. The vast majority of dogs were underfed or were fed a poor diet consisting mostly of leftover rice or stale pieces of bread. A lot of the dogs had lost most of their hair and were covered in sores.

When I eventually returned to Australia I had to stop overnight in Sydney. A few of the passengers from my Air Niugini flight shared a small bus which transported us from the airport to the city hotels. An Australian missionary who had been in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years introduced himself to me. When our bus stopped at a red traffic light we noticed a big Alsatian dog sitting on the rear seat in the car next to us. We stared at its glossy fur in wonder. The missionary took the words out of my mouth. “Just look at that,” he said, pointing at the dog. “That dog looks good enough to eat!”

The next day when I arrived at Melbourne’s airport I looked around forlornly for a bright, colourful lap lap or bilum bag, but I found myself afloat in a sea of drab clothing.


I first met Karina Parina when I started my new job with Papua New Guinea’s National Library Service in Port Moresby in 1980. She was a shy, softly spoken 21-year old girl from the village of Tubusereia, about an hour’s drive eastwards along the coast from Port Moresby.

My job at the National Library was to arrange training programs for the Papua New Guinean library staff, to enable them to fill the positions that were occupied at the time by sixteen expatriate librarians. As my job involved working with staff across the organisation on an ongoing basis, my first challenge was to learn everyone’s names. I clearly remember my first introduction to Karina because her lovely rhyming name was impossible to forget.

Like most of the other Papua New Guinean staff members she went about the library barefoot. A few of the others wore rubber thongs. In the tropical heat, we Westerners also abandoned our shoes and socks before long and converted to wearing rubber thongs. For appointments with important people such as the Minister for Education or senior public servants I kept a pair of more respectable leather thongs in my office.

It was far too hot and humid to wear a tie. The only ties we ever saw were worn by overseas businessmen and consultants disembarking from the planes at the airport. Such ties were quickly taken off as the sweat stains expanded on their shirts. with their jackets hanging despondently over their arms.

The names of my Papua New Guinean colleagues are forever engraved in my brain – Paul Dubai, Wiko Bona, Watorea Ivara, Ben Gar, Uru Hoahu, Otto Kakaw, Anita Bagiau, Cathy Bomboman, Geoffrey Bundu, Liz Kwarara and all the others. I loved their unusual names, and admired their colourful shirts and blouses, lap laps and hand-woven string bags called bilums that were used as de facto handbags by the women as well as the men.

During my time in Port Moresby I became so attached to my own bilum, given to me as a present by one of the staff, that I once carried it with me into a medical specialist’s waiting room in Harley Street in London during a visit to my in-laws. The only other person waiting in the room was wearing a dark pin-stripe suit and was reading The Times. He looked up as I entered, glanced briefly at my bilum, and showed his disapproval in that typical, barely perceptible British manner, by the minutest arching of an eyebrow before he returned to his newspaper.

Karina invited three of us Westerners to visit her home village one Saturday. There was only one small ‘shop’ in the village. It looked like someone’s village house with a little counter built on to the front. The shop stocked a few sparse items like canned food, matches and soft drinks. Many of the houses in the village, including Karina’s family home, were built on stilts over the sea. For these houses there was no sewage system in place.

Karina and a few of the other villagers took us out to sea on an engine-powered outrigger canoe, so that we could have a look at the village from a different perspective. The wind blew through our hair and took the edge off the tropical heat. We felt privileged that we had been given this opportunity to see a traditional Papua New Guinean stilt village and Karina clearly enjoyed showing us around her people’s place.

It quickly became apparent that she was a highly intelligent person who had the potential, with a bit of additional training and experience, to take over from one of the expatriates at the National Library. With funding obtained from the Australian Development and Assistance Bureau, I arranged to send her to Adelaide for three months on a training attachment to a modern Australian public library.

But first, we had to get Karina used to wearing shoes. We bought her a pair of shoes and got her to practise walking in them along one of the aisles in the National Library’s staff area. The grapevine must have been active because the other Papua New Guinean library staff quickly congregated to observe this free performance. They were consumed by mirth when Karina wobbled uncertainly down the aisle in the shoes.

I eagerly awaited her return from Adelaide, anticipating Karina sharing with me her impressions of that city’s impressive buildings, clean footpaths, roads that are free from potholes, impressive array of modern shops, safe and reliable public transport, excellent medical services, and uninterrupted water and power supply.

On her return to Port Moresby I picked her up at the airport.

“So, how did you like Adelaide, Karina?” I asked.

She frowned and, in her soft voice, declared, “It’s a terrible place, Tim.”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean? Were some of the people there nasty to you?”

“No, it’s not that,” she said. “But you should see how they treat the old people there. All the buses are full of old people with grey hair who have to travel to the shops and do their own shopping! Where are their children? Where are their nieces and nephews? Why are they not doing the shopping for their old people?” Karina was outraged.

It was then that I suddenly realised how, despite our wonderful buildings, shops brimming with consumer goods and material welfare, we Westerners have lost something of enormous value – the daily care of, and concern for, our older people and the close, comforting and strong supportive bonds with one’s direct and extended family. I was ashamed of my own Western arrogance, having unthinkingly assumed that everything we had in Australia was more desirable and impressive than that of the Papua New Guineans.

The fact that other cultures, including those in developing countries, are superior to our own in some critically important ways, was a lesson that I had to learn from a 21-year old village girl from a stilt village in Papua New Guinea.



Karina Parina, now Mrs Karina Bundu, went on to become the National Librarian of Papua New Guinea.

Stilt village 12

Karina Parina (carrying a fuel can) at her home village in 1981.