The woman who brought the world to her people


THE rampant wind and rain held off that morning, as if themselves paying their respects, when we laid Agnes Keke Hafmans to rest next to her late husband in a plot she had marked out and reserved for herself.
The night before, a big gathering of mourners from 10 villagers as far as West New Britain had gathered, singing traditional dirges and church hymns, sharing food, and staying up with the bodytill morning. Fifteen pigs were slaughtered for the wake to mark the rites.
It was not easy. The journey taking her body from Port Moresby to Lae, then fromLae to the Siassi Group of Islands over a rough seato her final resting place on Mandok Island was expensive and long. But it was not as long as the journey Agnes Hafmans had taken in her life.
It had been 69 years of a lifetime of breaking barriers, crossing cultural and social boundaries, making inroads into new frontiers, and a legacy of four children rooted strongly in their local culture, 15 grandchildren and a community handprint that Agnes had come to be known for in her village and throughout Siassi.
Agnes’ story began when she became the first girl from her small atoll village to receive an education. She was born on January15, 1948, to Raphael and Philomena Baal, of Mandok, Siassi Islands, Morobe. After starting her education in 1955 in Rabaul, Agnes finished fromKabaleo Teachers College with a Certificate in Primary Teaching. In preparation for Papua New Guinea’s independence, she was selected three years later by the Education Department under the Australian Administration for tertiary teaching, received her training in Australia and, in 1975, was lecturing at Holy Trinity Teachers College in Mt Hagen, one of only two PNG women teaching there.
As PNG gained its independence in 1975, Agnes Keke Baal married Joseph Hafmans, a Dutch who had travelled to Papua and New Guinea in 1965 as a missionary, learning English on the frigate en route and who became a naturalised citizen the same year Agnes married him. In 1981 and after three children, the family moved to Japan where Joseph Hafmans was posted as a diplomat to Tokyo, one of PNG’s first missions overseas.
The coulple returned to PNG in 1984, and while her husband was working, Agnes set out to assist her community back on Siassi. Mandok Island, being an atoll, is devoid of land and lacks entirely in land-held resources. Nonetheless, Agnes returned to her beloved Mandok, set up base and started a beche-de-mer and trochus shell exporting business and a trade store that operated from 1988 to 1992.
“I think after her exposure to the world, she wanted her fellow islanders, most of whom are related to her, to also enjoy some of the good things like money and a good life, leading her to look into projects that would benefit them,” says daughter-in-law Natasha Pasi.
The ventures turned out to be great successes and made Mandok Island one of the more prosperous villages in Siassi for a number of years, resulting also in her selection to represent PNG at a small-scale fisheries convention in Kiribati at one point during this time.
In mid-1992, the family again moved to Brussels, Belgium, where Hafmans was posted as PNG’s Trade Commissioner to Europe.
The posting ended in 1995 and Hafmans, retiring, moved his family straight from Europe to Mandok Island. The couple reopened the trade store and became involved in community affairs. Hafmans passed away in 1997. He had been in the middle of campaigning for the Tewae-Siassi seat in the 1997 PNG general election where he had garnered a great deal of popularity and support throughout the islands.The little atoll of Mandok was packed to capacity during his funeral when islanders thronged to pay their respects. He was laid to rest in the small island cemetery next to the church.
Agnes stayed on in the village, continuing the trade store and then opened a fishing business which supplied fresh fish to retailers in Lae. She coordinated the women of the island, up-skilled them in cooking and sewing, coordinated sporting activities, built a women’s resource centre by sourcing funding from Europe, assisted in the top-up (grade 6 to 8) of the island community school, and became involved in church projects. She also took it upon herself to speak on behalf of women and issues close to her heart at village meetings, something not common at all among the male-dominated Mandok community.
Camillus Marimbu, a cousin of hers, said of her during the eulogy: “Agnes was the true proponent of integral human development – physical, spiritual, social and economic – and did whatever she could to see it happen.”
About 2005, Agnes moved back to Port Moresby where she continued her church involvement – teaching religious education in schools and leading her St Joseph’s Catholic parish community outreach programmes for five years. At home, it was she who pushed her children to church and made sure her 15 grandchildren were strengthened in their own faith.
“It was always Mum who taught our children to learn all their prayers, the process in our Catholic way of doing things,” says daughter-in-law LuccieHafmans. “It was never me or Kris. Now that she is gone, I have to step up and continue what she has started.”
Although separated from her island, Agnes never alienated herself from her extended family.
She continued to financially support them and rose to meet her customary obligations by guiding her children to host obligatory traditional feasts to initiate her grandchildren into the community, as she and her late husband had done for their own children many years back. \
2002 and 2005 were just two of the years Agnes’ children (all of whom are fluent speakers of the island lingua franca) hosted these feasts.
In 2013, Agnes was again behind son Kris when he put on a mailang, a big traditional feast accompanied by singing and dancing that lasted three weeks. In terms of the social prestige it received as per the customs of the islands, the feast put the Baal/Hafmans name up there with the best.
“Of course, Mother was proud,” remembers Kris. “She was in every way a Siassi Islander – steeped in traditions and customary ways.
“Mother was a full-on cultural ambassador. Although she married a man from a totally different culture – a white man – and went to places not many have been to, she never stopped being a Siassi islander. She became that because our father was always very supportive of her.”
August 11 will make it the secondmonth anniversary of Agnes’ death. Altogether, it had taken over K50,000 to see to her interment, including the ship hire that took her body home. Her children – Anita, Gerard, Kris and Kori – see it as necessary and took the burden in their stride.
“Would she have been proud of our effort? Yes, knowing her. She would have been very proud,” says Kris with a smile and tears brimming in his eyes, remembering.
Back on Mandok, the Southeast trade winds are carrying on their onslaught this time of the year. And below the tall swaying coconut palms, next to her husband, now rests Agnes Keke Hafmans – the woman who went to see the world and brought some of it to her people of Mandok Island.

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