reflection

Schoolmates who helped build this nation

Weekender

By TABITHA NERO
THEY squealed with childlike delight as they shook hands, smiled, hugged and kissed each other on the cheek.
To me it seemed rather odd as not so many people in Papua New Guinea kiss each other on the cheek.
“It has been what four, five decades since we met, and we are bubus’ (grandparents) now,” a smiling Vaili Kekedo said as she nodded towards Dawn Tan and her other friends.
There weren’t any tears of joy that day but small shrieks of delight at that reunion for Kekedo, Tan and 13 others who had left their parents almost 50 years ago and braved the unknown in Queensland, Australia, to be educated at different schools and colleges there.
It was a small but poignant gathering. It was also a sad meeting in a way because most of those who were supposed to be there had passed on like the late Sir Buri Kidu, Rose Kekedo, Sevese Morea and over 30 others who had a hand in the baby steps of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The years they went to school (between 1953 – 1974) was way before independence and was in a way preparing them to build Papua Neww Guinea.
The venue chosen for the reunion, St John’s Cathedral, was rather fitting because, like themselves, it was also a piece of history nestled among the newer towering buildings of downtown Port Moresby.
“There was always 10 of us who were chosen and out of the 10, two or three  would be girls,”Maisie Snider recalled when reflecting on her experiences at Blackheath College in Charters Towers.
“We had to sit for an exam and then they selected us to do interviews and then they would announce who would be going.
“I was with the second lot who went. I cried my heart out the first time I found out that I was going to be left alone in that school.”
One would understand her as it was rare in those days for Papua New Guineans to leave the comforts of family and home to travel to a faraway land, let alone a teenage Papuan girl.
A teenage boy who was also quite confused at that time is now in his early 70s. From a small island in Milne Bay, Israel Edoni recalled finding himself being lonely and scared in a strange new setting thousands of miles  away from home.
“The strangest thing was when I found that I couldn’t even speak (to anyone in) my language. I felt so upset, they can’t even talk to me in my language,” Edoni said.
“It took years for me to understand that I was in a foreign land and in that foreign land, I was told in my language it was the dimdims land (white-man’s land) but thank goodness we were in a church school with the priest telling us and encouraging us and soon our fears were gone.”
He went to Slade School from 1957 to 1960 and returned to Port Moresby after that to enroll at University of Papua New Guinea.
As soon as he completed university Edooni, without any job experience, he was appointed head of the Postal and Telecommunications Corporation (PTC).
“There was a lot of political change in the seventies, people were talking about independence and development of our roles as responsible people to run our nation, the government of Australia was also trying to fast-track us to take on responsibilities.
“Straight out of university I was expected to run a department and you can imagine how hard that was for me, because it was formerly managed by white people and I had just graduated.
“But we managed and now we are proud of some of the achievements of PNG.”
Of those who attended, attention was focused on one famous elderly woman, who seemed slightly frail but spoke with authority. She was Dame Josephine Abaijah.
Dame Josephine went to St Gabriel’s College and famously became the first female member of parliament (House of Assembly then), representing the people of Central.
“They really taught me something there (Australia). There was no doubt that they prepared us well, otherwise I wouldn’t have done the things that I did,” Dame Josephine said.
Remembering those days like it was yesterday, she told of how she served three terms in Parliament starting in 1977 and 1982.
A decade later she returned to parliament in 1997.
“When I came into parliament I was only one woman. I would say a big thanks to the people of Central province because they broke the ice by putting the first woman into parliament, now everybody is talking about woman this and woman that, but it was really the Central people who believed in a woman.
“The men didn’t like me because I spoke the truth and I believed the Australians had no right to tell us what to do and to tell us where to go. Ahh momokani?” she asked to several nods of agreement from members of the group.
“Parliament wasn’t really for women. But you have to pursue whatever you believe in.
“One thing I learnt is that if you have a principle stand by it . . . we need leaders who can stand firm on their principles.
“But you must know that you don’t need to go to Parliament to help our people. Give all that you have, if you have money, give, don’t come to church and tell lies. Give back to our people. “In school I wasn’t a bright student, so whatever happened in my life, I’m surprised it happened.”
The vicar general of the Anglican Diocese of Port Moresby ,Father Philip Jiregari, re-iterated Dame Josephine’s call for, not only leaders, but ordinary people to show acts of kindness towards one another.
“Continue to do good at your level, not too much but at your level and God will continue to strengthen you in your faith,” Fr Philip said.

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