Tisa: A Teacher’s Experience in PNG 1962–75 (Part Two) by Roy Kirkby

Tisa: A Teacher’s Experience in PNG 1962–75 (Part Two) by Roy Kirkby

Jimi River

The Jimi River Station Office at Tabibuga looking down the valley with the Hagen-Sepik Divide

The previous issue featured my training in Rabaul, and then teaching at Kompiam School from 1962 to 1963. One of my most privileged memories was of my departure from Kompiam on being posted to Jimi River. The Otter aircraft was there to take me and my gear to Tabibuga. Everyone was there to say goodbye and Sgt Wengi, who always quietly stood in the background, came forward. He shook my hand and thanked me for my time there and wished me well for the Jimi, in Pidgin, of course. I had never seen him make such a gesture.

Jimi River 1963–64
In a way, Jimi River Primary T School was the next school down the road except there were no roads and few people. It was about twenty minutes flying time in the old Otter down the Sau River to the Yuat, and then up the Jimi River Valley with the Hagen-Sepik divide on one side. Like Kompiam, the airstrip was central to government activity. Dug out of the mountainside 100 metres or so above the airstrip was first the school, and then another 100 metres or so up to the station.

Jimi girls visiting the school – Jimi School cultural day

I had been sent there to sort out some staffing problems, get the school back on an even keel, and renew the support of the local community. As with Kompiam, I was left in charge of the station most of the time when the kiap was on patrol. This made it quite easy to get the support of Corporal Poti, the indigenous policeman in real charge, to summon up the resources I needed to improve the facilities in the school, and even have a new classroom built. Of course, it helped when you had the children of these influential people in the school and Corporal Poti had four.

Jimi Primary T School with happy students

It took some time to establish a good working routine with both students and the two teachers, after a difficult period of instability. In the classrooms, teaching was improved with the introduction of the new Minenda Series for teaching English, and girls came more to the fore as prejudice against them was squashed. I managed to get a few more girls into the school with the help of Corporal Poti, who suddenly seemed to realise that his two adolescent daughters in my class were quite bright and, with an education, could have a broader range of options for the future.

Kolda teaching New Maths at Keltiga

Being on my own as the only expatriate for weeks on end began to take its toll on my personal life. It was a problem early in my time with visits from the local young women to see what the new teacher was doing in the school. Like other local people they would look in through the open classroom window frames, all bare from the waist up. That was not all. I also got stones thrown at my metal donga at night and calls of ‘masta mi stop’. Buckets of water and sticks thrown out didn’t seem to stop this. Of course, I was working seven days a week and not drinking any alcohol, and trying to stick to the advice I’d been given during training. Eventually, I complained to the local luluai that I wanted this to stop, telling him I was married. He said that my wife’s absence was all the more reason for the women to stay. I needed to be consoled for being away from my wife! However, they did stop.

It was a whole school project to prepare the seedbeds

My little donga was the only permanent building on the station at this time, so any expatriate visitors stayed with me. These included the three missionaries in the valley area representing the Lutheran, Catholic and Anglican missions. Each had their own territory and, on their visits, they were keen to know what the others were doing since there was little or no contact among them. I did have one group of visitors I wish I had not had—two so-called scientists from a German museum. They secretly went out and shot birds of paradise then flew out with them, leaving me to meet the rage of the local people. (You can read more about this in ‘Tabibuga—My Experience: HERE)

Ensuring they were correctly dug and build fences to protect the site from pigs

Again, I tried to encourage local culture in the children with craft, dance and storytelling as regulars in the curriculum. An end of term cultural extravaganza, as at Kompiam, went off well except when a re-enactment of a compensation event by two local clan groups was about to get out of hand. I, and possibly others, were saved by my local servant who recognised from the language that they were going to have a real fight.
Meanwhile, progress continued to be made in all areas of school life, with the involvement of the local clans and the station police and families. Unfortunately, though, that unwanted Kompiam reputation as being a hard man if anyone upset me had somehow got through on the grapevine to the Jimi so here I was never sure if reason or reputation was the winner in some circumstances.

Running the station was useful because you were forced out of your education cocoon and into recognising the worth of education in the wider community.
It was not always a picnic.

It made me question the value of Western education and our directions. An example was the Hagen axe incident. These ceremonial axes were made in the middle Jimi Valley and were becoming a prized tourist purchase. To maintain supply of good quality axes, the government had arranged with the clans of the makers to purchase all the axes and take the following action. Axes were brought to the station every month or so. The kiap was to inspect these, reject by breaking up any of inferior quality and purchase the good ones. These were then flown to Mount Hagen and sold at cost to local tourism operators. With the kiap away, I had to be the kiap and do the purchase and reluctantly break up on the spot poor quality axes.

I felt sorry for the makers of the ones I broke up who had walked for one, sometimes two, days to the station. But that was what the people wanted. It was also pointed out to me that it was what was expected to maintain my reputation.

But, yet again, after a visit from the district inspector to say we were doing a good job in reconciling the Education Department in the community, I was required to up sticks and move to another politically-sensitive school situation, and take up the reins at Keltiga in the Wahgi Valley.

Keltiga Primary T School 1964

Kolda’s class at Keltiga Pilot School

Keltiga was just a few kilometers from Mount Hagen on the road to the Southern Highlands. It had thirty years of expatriate contact and the school bordered on the property of my neighbour, Danny Leahy, the first expatriate explorer and expatriate resident in the valley.
Local clans were very influential in demanding support, and this had resulted in getting new permanent school buildings, and asking for a new expatriate teacher in charge. One of my first actions was to befriend the most influential clan leader, Pena, who had several children in the school. Between us, we managed to get additional funding and support from other local clans by establishing some competition between them, each believing that they got the same or a better deal than the other clans. An example of this was taking on a new class of children with a strict ratio of boys to girls from each clan.

Seeds were planted to a strict depth and spacing

The real breakthrough for Keltiga came when we became a pilot school for a New Mathematics project. This was an international project to change the format and content focus of teaching mathematics, sold to the Education Department as a quicker means of developing mathematical literacy in primary school and beyond. Working enthusiastically with me was Kolda, the first local graduate teacher. Kolda took on the new class of forty-eight children, with an expectation that we would lose half.

Kolda demanded perfect behaviour from the children always and they listened and learnt and did whatever was asked, in a relaxed not fearful way. We soon had a situation where visitors from around the country and from overseas would come and marvel at what these children were doing, all forty-eight of them since we didn’t lose any!

Agricultural officers came along to learn how to develop seed nurseries

While the project brought some kudos to the school, it wasn’t really helping the local community in a way that they could easily see. We needed something of economic benefit, which Highlanders were quick to recognise and embrace. That project was the establishment of the first Highlands tea nursery.
While a tea nursery had been established at Garaina near Bulolo, nothing had been done elsewhere and I could get very little information from the Department of Agriculture. So, I got the information myself from overseas, established what needed to be done and then got seed from Garaina. It became a whole school project and ended up with Keltiga students educating agricultural officers on how to establish nurseries!

On our wedding day

The tea project continued and the school and its community became a source of young tea bushes for local and international companies developing tea plantations in the Highlands.
However, I was not there to see it to fruition because I was moved again, and this time to Mount Hagen Primary T School as deputy headmaster. There were two reasons for this and the first was because I had got married. I was extremely lucky to win a South Australian teacher posted to Mount Hagen— and Nonie Hay became Nonie Kirkby.

What is more, we were married by God himself—District Commissioner Tom Ellis! Those who served under him felt he deserved the nickname.

The happy couple

Our honeymoon was to fly in to Tabibuga in the Jimi and walk out, taking two days over the Hagen Sepik Divide to Banz. We did it, but on reflection it was a bit of a hair brain idea. It was pleasant walking through the bush to suddenly come upon about 100 metres of a beautiful road with neatly arranged colourful bushes on either side, then again take up a track through the bush—the result of one clan building its section of the proposed Banz to Jimi Road. Less pleasantly memorable was overnight in a hut at 8,000 feet in freezing weather, sharing one sleeping bag.


End of Part 2

Part 1 can be found HERE and HERE
Part 3 can be found HERE


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