Marema a Tena Vinauma—A tribute to Roma Threfall: Neville Threefall

At the time of Roma’s death, we were not members of the ROAPNG, and no notice was submitted to the Vale section of Una Voce. A belated tribute is given here, for one whose influence still remains in Papua New Guinea, through the many children whom she taught.  Neville Threlfall.

Roma was born in Wagin, Western Australia, in 1932, the daughter of farmers Sydney and Violet Thompson. In the struggles of the depression she learned early to make herself useful and to cope with shortages, qualities that stood her in good stead later in PNG; and as the eldest of four children, she helped with the rearing of her younger siblings, becoming skilled at managing children.

Educated at Wagin and at Albany, she completed her high school course by the age of 16 and immediately became a monitor at Wagin School: nominally assistant to a class teacher, but actually teaching a class of her own. After one year as a monitor, she trained at Claremont Teachers College; after graduation as a teacher, she taught at primary schools at Broomehill and Wagin. (Her first inspection report at Broomehill contained a note by the Inspector: “The children like her!”)

In 1955, Roma married Rev. Neville Threlfall and shared his ministry in the Methodist Church at Mount Barker and then Moora; during this time, their children Timothy and Bethany were born. The couple were accepted for service with Methodist Overseas Missions, and they were posted to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1961, after a preparation course in Sydney. This included not only academic subjects such as Theology, Anthropology and Linguistics, but for Roma, the practical subjects Tropical Health and Hygiene, Bread making and Haircutting.

Their first posting in the Territory was to Malalia in West New Britain: a remote area with little development, compared with today. Neville’s extensive circuit, from Talasea to Open Bay, meant that he was often away from home; Roma learned to deal with the outstations radio schedule and with callers who voiced their requirements in a variety of languages, none of them in English. As her children reached school age, she became their teacher, using correspondence lessons. When necessary, she treated Neville and the children for malaria, hookworm and chickenpox.

In 1964, the family moved to Raluana in East New Britain. Tim and Beth were able to attend the Kokopo ‘Primary A’ School, freeing Roma to help supervise the dozen church schools in the Raluana Circuit and give advice to the indigenous teachers. She did some relief teaching at ‘Primary A’ schools at Kokopo and at Court Street, Rabaul, but also acted as a housemother to the girls boarding at the Raluana Methodist Primary School, and it was here that she acquired her reputation as a gardener.

The students were growing much of their own food, and Roma noticed that they made no use of mulch to improve their crops; grass cuttings and garden rubbish were all burned. She taught them to bury green stuff when planting new crops, and to put mulch around the growing plants. Visitors to the school took notice of this, and of the extensive flower garden she established, and said admiringly, in the Tolai language, “Marama a Tena Vinauma!” (“The Minister’s Wife is an Expert Gardener!”)

The next move was to Kavieng, and here Roma taught full-time in government schools, first in the ‘Primary T’ School; then in the ‘Primary A’ School, which contained Australian, Chinese and New Guinean children. Her influence on the children, and their affection for her, was noticeable. By now, Tim and Beth were completing primary schooling and going off to boarding schools in Australia.

In 1971, Neville and Roma moved to Matupit Island in Rabaul Harbour, just in time for a series of shocks: after a fight between islanders and police, their car was held up by armed police and then searched for weapons every time that they drove in or out of the island. Two massive earthquakes shook the area, destroying the island’s causeway and causing one end to sink; and residents were evacuated until the causeway was rebuilt.

The murder of District Commissioner Jack Emanuel revived the political tensions and the police barricade of the island was renewed. A big outbreak of dengue fever affected many people. Roma did not teach that year, but helped sort out records of the Regional Office of the United Church (the new name for the Methodist Church in PNG, as it had joined with other churches). She also helped Neville with historical research and typing, as he was preparing a history of the Methodist Church in the region for its coming centenary in 1975. She still found time for gardening, surrounding their house with flowers and establishing a banana grove.

In 1982, the Threlfalls moved into Rabaul, as Neville had become Secretary of the New Guinea Islands Region of the United Church. Roma taught full-time, first in ‘Primary A’ Schools at Kamerere St and Court St, and after their merger as Rabaul Primary School. Her final years of teaching were in the Sacred Heart International Primary School, where her classes included Papua New Guinean, Australian, German, Chinese, Ambonese, Japanese, Philipino and mixed-race children; a challenging but interesting experience.

Gardening activity continued during her nine years in Rabaul. Cuttings of exotic flowers thrived, and such a collection of pot plants was built up that strangers passing by sometimes came in off the street and asked for a closer look at them.

On their return to Australia, the Threlfalls spent time in Canberra gathering information for Neville’s next writing assignment: a comprehensive history of Rabaul. Roma again acted as research secretary and typiste; the book, Mangroves, Coconuts and Frangipani: The Story of Rabaul, was not finally published until 2012, but serves as a memorial to Roma.

From Canberra Neville and Roma went back to work in Uniting Church rural parishes in Western Australia. Roma’s musical gifts were much in demand for church services, and she spent much time as a volunteer in Senior Citizens activities and in community craft shops. Again, she built up the gardens wherever they lived, including an extensive collection of chrysanthemums at Northam, their final posting.

In 1993 Roma was diagnosed with cancer, too extensive to be treated, and she died on 2 January 1994, aged 61 years and mourned by Neville, her husband for almost 39 years, children Tim and Beth, grandson Andrew and other relatives, and many friends in Australia and Papua New Guinea. The name Roma lives on in those women of PNG who were named after her.


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