Life and Times at Sighere T School 1969 – 70 – by Diana Plowman

Life and Times at Sighere T School 1969 – 70 – by Diana Plowman

After three years at Bowali Peter thought the Highlands might be a pleasant change. At least they would be cooler. So, he put in for a transfer and we were told we were going to Sighere in the Eastern Highlands.

School assembly Bena Bena

This school was well-established and, in the government compound, there were a small hospital, a doctor and two nurses. We now had a much larger house—a Dowsett kit home assembled by Merv and Les Gillies of Goroka. It had a big fuel stove which also heated the water, a generator which we had purchased from the previous teacher and a pretty, fenced garden with lots of lovely casuarina trees under which the children played.

Again, we had teachers from all over Papua New Guinea and our children played with a Papuan girl, whose dad was the deputy headmaster, and the doctor’s children.

We applied for correspondence lessons from Queensland and Lisa did very well. Each week her little exercise book would arrive in our mail at the Education Office in Goroka and each week we posted her filled book back to Brisbane.

The boys loved playing outside with their new pull-around trailer. Brendan was very dark and Phillip was very fair. The locals would squeeze Phillip’s legs and arms whenever they could get close to him. I later found out that they thought he would be good to eat!

The climate in the Highlands was fabulous; warm days and cool nights. We had a very big lemon tree which was wonderful; we purchased tomatoes, beans, peanuts and sweet potato from the locals. They would come along the road, climb over our stile and sit on the grass until I noticed them. They never knocked on the door. Some of the older women had the tops of their fingers missing. This was their way of saying they mourned the loss of a relative.

We found the locals still referred to the currency as marks. This was the German influence which had stayed with them. Ten marks made a shilling or ten cents. However, I soon discovered they preferred to have a couple of sheets of the Sydney Morning Herald in which to roll their tobacco.

We ate very well in the Highlands. My specialty was beef casserole. The beef in the Highlands was mainly local and not particularly well-butchered or tender. So, with onions, heaps of tomatoes and beautiful fresh beans I would make a casserole, which was simmered for hours in the slow fuel oven.

The road into Goroka, 17 miles away, became treacherous when wet as it was basically clay. If we had continuous rain we didn’t bother going into town. Instead, we made our provisions last as long as possible, augmenting with more locally grown produce. I bought flour by the drum, rice by the bag and stocked up on tins just in case.

Life in the Highlands was always eventful. There were visits from Brisbane medical specialists who came to do a three-month stint at the Goroka Hospital. The Bena Bena was a fascinating place. Visits from the World Bank delegation, overnight stays by the patrol officers who would head off into the mountains to do an update on the Births & Deaths register and visits from other teachers and friends.

Bena Bena schoolgirls

During our two years at Sighere we became friendly with Joan and Merv Gillies who ran the coffee plantation next door. Joan was an ex-matron and Merv and his brother had a sawmill in Goroka. Their children, Peter and Cindy, played with our children. Morning tea at Joan’s was always a highlight for a lonely mother. Joan’s coffee was homegrown and she drank it strong and black and, therefore, so did her visitors. Occasionally we had a splash of muscat in the coffee which, for me, made it more palatable.

The only other Europeans within coo-ee were the Four Square missionaries who lived across the causeway over the very fast-flowing Bena Bena River. One day Geoff, one of the missionaries, knocked on the door with his bible under his arm; he had come to convert us. Inside the front door was a very large model train set which Peter was setting up. Geoff put his bible down and started asking about the trains. Religion was never again mentioned. Geoff was a bit of a find really, because he knew how to decoke the generator we had purchased from the previous teacher, and he came as often as the generator needed attention. He had electrical knowledge, too, which was wonderful for wiring up the train set.

Bena Bena man selling vegetables

Geoff was a Kiwi and his wife was American. Their mission was supported by parishes in America and New Zealand. They would often receive large boxes of hand-crocheted and knitted garments for the villagers. Within a few weeks the beautifully crafted garments had all been undone and made into bilums. They were stunning in their simplicity and many coloured variations.

There were many missionaries in the Highlands and one Saturday morning we observed a truck pulling up outside our front fence. A number of locals hopped out, cut down a huge clump of kunai and proceeded to load the soil from around the clump onto the truck. Peter went to investigate and the chap in charge was a missionary closer down the valley to Goroka. We had never heard of them but invited him in for a cup of tea.

He too was American and needed the rich soil to grow his asparagus! He regaled us with stories of his mission and the high standards he kept. Telling how his house boys wore white lap laps, white shirts, red bow ties and cummerbunds to serve his dinner! There were all kinds of strange missions popping up all over the country. I’m not sure they did any good for the Papua New Guineans, but I know many of them had a lifestyle many Australians would have envied at that time.

Peter Moses, 1969

I took the older girls in the school for sewing each week. There was a lot of giggling and shy glances. They thought the three children were amusing and giggled at just about anything they did.

School uniforms were non-existent, so I took it upon myself to make each of the girls a yellow shift dress, and we purchased yellow T shirts for the boys and they purchased them at cost.

We also sold blankets at cost. A small cotton blanket at that time could be purchased from Steamships or a Chinese trade store for about $3.

It was difficult to make our house look presentable. The floor was Masonite which was pop riveted to the aluminium frame. The surface had worn off long ago and the only way to make the floor look good was to hand polish it with brown floor polish called Chieftain. It was time-consuming and, as the surface of the floor went up and over the frame and then down again, also very frustrating. Nevertheless, I did the floor frequently and felt much better.

Sighere T School is now a large high school.

We left Sighere when Peter decided to take a year’s leave and go to Brisbane and finish off his Arts degree. 


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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