Bamu patrol: Adrian Geyle

(Published in Una Voce, March 1998, page 13)

Adrian Geyle was CPO for two years at Lake Murray, Kiunga, Gaima and Daru, Western District; PO OIC Green River, Sepik District; PO H/Q, Madang District. (1951-1955). Field and liaison work on two 7-month field expeditions to the Upper Sepik. Oil search operations. Gravity meter work. Supervising labour (1956 – 1957). Field work with Australian Petroleum Company, Gulf District. Oil search operations (1958). Recruitment Officer in Dept of Public Service Commissioner, Konedobu; Regional Taxation Officer, Lae. Assisting New Guineans grapple with the introduction of personal and business taxation into their lives, with the approach of independence (1966-1970).

Cadet patrol officers were scarce in the early 1950s and our district commissioners didn’t believe in molly-coddling anybody. The year was 1953 and I was 23. I had just spent twenty months ‘up the river’, the mighty Fly, as a cadet, and was to spend a month or two in Daru, headquarters of the Western District, prior to going on leave. I had dismissed my cook as there was no further work for him washing, ironing and cooking for me whilst I shared bachelor accommodation, and staff, with two other single administration officers. The bright lights of Sydney and home were big in my mind, and I saw Daru as a staging post where I could let go of some of the pent-up frustration and tension that prolonged separation from civilization had brought. This ‘letting go’ got somewhat out of hand, particularly in the eyes of my district commissioner, a highly respected man who was so deaf he took me out on the lawn in front of the office to tell me he was sending me ‘back up the river’. I knew I was not altogether handling myself with the decorum expected of a government officer so this news was not a body blow – rather a relief.

At very short notice I was to be on the administration vessel MV Urunga, departing for Gaima, there to see out my first term – out of harm’s way. Gaima was a patrol post on the north bank of the Fly, where the only government officer other than a native clerk and a handful of native police was a white medical officer of strong religious convictions, holding the place together. Gaima was gradually being allowed to run down with the impending establishment of a new patrol post to the north at Balimo, deeper into Gogodala country. It was at this eleventh hour that Billy approached me. He was a thin, bald and almost toothless man of about 45, but looked more like 70. He was Ghandi-like and serious but with a winning grin. He wanted to cook for me and assured me he would like to work in the bush for a while provided he could bring his daughter with him. That’s not on, I told him, but he won me over when he said he had cooked for a district commissioner, in fact for several, and had learnt a lot from their missuses along the way. Billy was not a local Kiwai but had married one and she had died, leaving him to rear their only child. She was his only love now, and it was obvious how devoted a father he was as the three of us ironed out a few problems that her coming with him could cause. She was only 9 or 10, and one concern would be her accommodation and welfare whilst I went on patrol, as I’d expect my cook to accompany me on patrol or wherever. No problem there, he assured me, as there was a married couple at the Gaima post who were friends and who would look after her, as long as he could be home to spend Christmas with her. I told him this would be automatic as I was a Christian too, and we’d be home at Christmas time. Gaima was right on the river at a spot where it was seven or eight miles wide, and strongly tidal. Huge dead trees could be seen floating down in the morning and back in the afternoon, often with a white heron enjoying the ride both ways. Billy proved not only to be a great cook but a steady gatherer of edible surprises. I was never without eggs for example, and an occasional chicken would be served roasted with sweet potato and pumpkin, without my having any knowledge where the chicken came from. He was able to rustle up a whole range of dishes, even bread, so I tended not to interfere in the kitchen, leaving him to his own devices.

My only patrol from this post presented no great challenge as it was to be among people well-versed with Christian mission messages and with government directives over many years of contact. Also, plantations in the area and further afield had drawn on the local labour and so white man’s funny ways had been witnessed and wondered at for a long time before I came on the scene. There had been no ill will manifest in any of my dealings among those people I had met, so I looked forward to patrolling their area. We were to visit the delta area of the Bamu River as it was the most neglected of all. The last patrol had been a medical one to attempt to clean up venereal diseases which had spread right through an entire tribe as a consequence of a promise of affluence like the white man’s if everyone practised unbridled sex. The village populations were easily ‘conned’ after many of their young men came home from working with, and fighting alongside, soldiers from other countries. They brought back tales of great wealth pouring into the country from sources unknown, such as guns, and accoutrements undreamed of. A cargo cult of serious proportions had ravaged the Lower Bamu, and sexual excesses with all taboos lifted had left the victims physically and mentally damaged.

Canoes used in the Fly and Bamu deltas were generally small craft, fitted either with paddles or with masts and sails. I looked for a large sea-going Kiwai ‘motomoto’ to carry the complement of police (four), my cook, a medical orderly and myself. Dependence on such a vessel was a bit risky at this time (late November), when the reliable south-east trade winds (the ‘laurabadas’) give way to the erratic north-west monsoons, but I found one canoe whose owners were eager and knew that the job would be a challenge and not without fun. Negotiating fickle winds and tides and avoiding sand bars and mud-flats would test their skills. The patrol was well overdue and I was on the fastest learning curve of my life. Billy said a fond goodbye to his little girl at Gaima and the large double-outrigger slipped away and downstream to leave the Fly for a south-east entry into the lower reaches of the muddiest of rivers, the Bamu.

Tirere is a village located on a tongue of low-lying, open land that separates the two rivers where they enter the Gulf of Papua. It was our first stop and the people made us so welcome we promised to return there on our way home to celebrate with them the advent of Christmas, the arrival of the patrol, and life in general! It looked like a good omen for the weeks ahead. The villages were along both banks of the smaller Bamu River and we criss-crossed our way to all of them, working with the tide and the wind co-operating or in conflict. At one point we were so slow following down a tidal pass we speared enough fish for a fat meal that night. The motomoto canoe had, between the outriggers and below the main sail, a large wooden deck about three or four metres square; spacious, it was easy to move about or sleep, or cook over an open fire kept on a hearth of red clay in a walled-off corner to one side. Catches were eaten without having to go ashore and we enjoyed with the canoe crew plenty of the scaled and crustacean bounty from the muddy water that buoyed us from village to village.

Ashore we found appalling neglect of houses, animal faeces and mud turned up by crabs, and open sores and ulcerated limbs that were so common that venereal disease seemed to be a myth from the past. The entire area had been grossly over-recruited with the result that young men were few and women were left to do men’s work as best they could. Houses were without proper flooring – stepping over the bearers was from one piece of an old rotted canoe to another. The pit latrines recommended by the administration might have been tried once, but they weren’t any longer. The land, being low-lying and muddy, was subject to flooding during high tides and whenever the tidal bore swept upstream, inundating the ground in the villages and inland behind the forested banks – there was no respite from the damage that rising waters repeatedly inflicted on these unfortunate people. Yet there was much spontaneous mirth among the children, irrepressible even in such dreadfully depressing surroundings. They coped, privy as they were to all the deprivations, and the cult-induced, aberrant sexual activities of adults around them. Child abuse was practised by some tribal elders as they consolidated their claims to small girls as ‘wives’ promised in exchange deals made even before they were born.

The call of all names recorded in the census books gave one a kind of overview of the degeneration of village life. The almost total absence of virile young men caused such poverty of spirit among the women that only their stoicism saved their tribal remnants from total collapse. It seemed clear to them, as distinct from the old men and the children, what destitution had befallen them. As providers for both old and young they must have wondered if relief would ever come from the burdens that over-recruitment of their young men had left them. They told me how they hunted in the bush with their dogs, where their men used to hunt with bows and arrows. My contingent of police – only four on this patrol because no show of force or arms was deemed necessary – were disgusted with the living conditions which they said their own people would never tolerate. An empty house (maybe one vacated for the night we spent there) was offered them as a billet; it was so filthy they chose to sleep outside under the stars.

Most villages we visited were so destitute I didn’t have the heart to show the anger I felt. The suffering needed immediate alleviation and nothing I could do then would help. Our medical orderly administered some potent drugs – for recognisable diseases – that could be effective only if followed up with further doses, as well as hospitalisation. Ongoing treatment was discussed and promoted, and many cases did come later to the Gaima hospital, some for immediate transfer to Daru hospital where a range of surgical operations could be performed. They showed me lepers, kept in isolation well away from the village. Food was prodded into their hands (what was left of them) on the end of a long stick, such were the stigma and fear associated with this loathsome disease.

A man approached me for help for his ill wife. She was dying – a victim of sorcery, he said – and he wanted me to go to her there and then. But she was in another village, one which we were to visit the very next day; so I assured him that we would see her then and that our medicine man would do his best to help her. She had been ill for over six months, unable to hold down any solid foods. Naively I gave him a jar of Vegemite with instructions on how to give her a nourishing drink. He fronted me next day in his village, at the census table. With two little children, one each side of him, he answered to his name and theirs. His wife had died. I was to preoccupied with the need to write things down that it was only when he placed the jar of Vegemite on the table land walked away with his children that I recognised him from the day before. He had covered himself and his children with white ash. His wife had died only hours before we arrived in his village that morning.

Tirere wasn’t intended to be anything special on our way home but I had warmed to the people’s invitation to celebrate Christmas with them. And what had seemed a good idea earlier seemed even better now, after the Bamu. We ‘checked in’ to clean rest houses, leaving our faithful motomoto sitting on the sand as the tide receded, not knowing or particularly caring how long it would be before we’d sail again. We were close to home. The Bamu experience had left us all somewhat dejected and now this place was so bright, and clean, and refreshing we could only feel uplifted. Over three hundred people lived in this bountiful village on sand, with its swaying coconut palms, beached canoes and sturdy houses.

Billy set up my bed in the rest house for visiting government, mission or other persons, and announced he was going home to Gaima immediately! He was visibly annoyed and accused me of double-talk. I had promised him we’d be home for Christmas, he reminded me, and he had promised his daughter too. Here we were at the end of the patrol, not even a day’s sail from Gaima, and we weren’t going to be home for Christmas! No more talk, it was Christmas Eve already and he was going. Within minutes he had wrapped his few belongings in a cloth and was gone over the sand to a little single outrigger canoe with sail – his transport for the tidal trip back home. I had let him down because I had broken a promise and hadn’t appreciated how much Christmas meant to him. He had silently ensured that everything I ate was properly cooked and served before he left, without fuss. He had daily washed my clothes no matter what had been the difficulties, and prepared my stretcher bed. How could I manage without him? I had taken him for granted indeed.

Food in Tirere was in abundance. Some pigs had been slaughtered and cooked for the ceremonies that night, Christmas Eve. I was pleased to be asked for the use of two pressure lamps for the dance among the palms and then to be offered pride of place among the elders sitting with their legs crossed and smoking their pipes. It was a special occasion, not just Christmas Eve they said, because we had chosen to stop over in their village rather than any other. They would have appreciated it wasn’t a difficult choice to make, knowing where we had spent the last few weeks. We were all generously included in the feast: taro, sweet potato, mangoes, bananas, pork, fish and eggs, to name some of the treats given to us – a diet so nutritious and superior to that of the Bamus only a day away. Cook or no cook, the police and the people of the village saw to it that I too ate well that night. Casually I was asked if all the villagers could do an ‘old’ dance, and without asking why they asked for my permission, I said ‘Of course’. It was to be a revelation for me. About six rows of men and youths, about six or eight deep, came dancing into the lamplight, to the heavy beat of drums and the light rattle of slotted bamboo lengths. Between these rows were spaces about one or two metres wide. Without any change to the formation or beat, women and nubile girls began to infiltrate the rows, from the sides and from the rear. People in the semi-darkness around began to laugh and shout and slap their thighs. Whatever it was, it was wildly hilarious, and in the dim light older women seemed to be causing all the fun. They were siding up to their men, dancing alongside but with huge, curved, dried gourds shaped like penises coming out from between their thighs, through their grass skirts. Obviously, very obviously, the women were lampooning their sex partners by exaggerating sex actions and techniques – anybody’s actions eventually it seemed – as the dancing broke down and the dancers broke up! Taking advantage of the disarray, girls streaked past young men from the dance hitting them full on with handfuls of talcum powder. Marked and almost masked, aroused and propositioned, the young men had a choice: quietly slip behind into the dark or stay and face some good-natured torment from those not invited yet. Not many stayed.

Where my four policemen and one medical orderly fitted in I’ll never know. Christmas Day dawned without anything on our agenda but rest. After that celebration of life the night before, sleep and then food seemed to be the proper order of the day. A policeman came to my rest house about midday to offer his services as a cook, and I gladly accepted. He knew how to make tea and that was enough – I was so appreciative of his kind considerations over the loss of my cook. He washed some of my clothes, then some plates in the ‘kitchen’ and then went off to rejoin his police brothers in their separate ‘barracks’. I ate some fruit and chicken and went back to read and sleep.

Later that day I awoke from a long siesta to the rattle of pots and plates coming from the little kitchen annexe, expecting to be served a cup of tea. No answer when I asked, perfunctorily, what was for ‘kai’. Still no answer when I repeated the question, so I looked in the kitchen. There was Billy with his toothy grin, somewhat subdued with his shiny head slightly bowed. “When I got near Gaima and saw my daughter,” he explained, she told me she was alright and I never went ashore. I was happy to see her laughing and waving and then I felt big shame. I felt sorry for you without a cook so I came back with the tide. Taubada, what do you want for tea?” I thought he had something in his cloth wrap to surprise me with, but what I got was a cup of tea. He hadn’t gone ashore, he told me again next day when he served me two boiled eggs for breakfast. He was given some eggs ‘along the way back’. He was happy because his little girl was happy and he knew now that I’d been looked after and had had good food. “Mi longlong lik-lik, Masta, em tasol” (I was a bit stupid, Master, that’s all), he said with a wide grin, and with me feeling that way too, we left it at that.

(The performance of that dance caused a great deal of pleasure in Tirere and a great deal of consternation in mission circles as far away as Melbourne. I learned of the latter when I returned to the Territory from my first leave. Mission hierarchy visited the Western District (Province) to investigate; that dance had been banned for many, many years. Inadvertently I had condoned the resurrection of a pagan celebration offensive to evangelising Christian missionaries of sincere motivation. I wonder now about the whereabouts of Billy’s daughter. My only regret is that Billy missed a lot of fun that Christmas Eve, but then his departure, return and reunion generated a lot of pleasure too.)


Leave a Reply