Settling the debt: Graham Egan

It was my first flight ever. In Sydney, just before midnight on 5 December 1966, a TAA Electra lumbered into the air, turned north and flew all night, with a brief stop at Brisbane, to arrive over Port Moresby, just after the sun had risen.

This young, naïve cadet education officer, of 19 immature years, had just left home to begin the big adventure. No emails, no smartphones, prohibitively expensive and unreliable phone lines and no prospect of returning to my mother’s sorely missed arms for at least another year.

I had been warned, but the sledgehammer of the heat hitting me, as I walked out of the cool interior of the plane, is still a strong memory. The crowded, noisy arrival hall, really a big tin shed, with dozens of overhead fans, trying fruitlessly to dispel a little of the cloying heat, had me mute with exhausted confusion.

The district education officer, who met me and the few other cadets on the flight, gave us a quick tour of Port Moresby and then we were dispatched to our respective first appointments. Mine was to Sogeri-Iarowari High School, 40 kilometers from Port Moresby, in the foothills of the Owen Stanley Mountains. The two schools were then one, linked by a small bus that shuttled back and forth between the two campuses, delivering teachers to one place or the other.

School had just finished for the year. My arrival was on the day of the graduation ceremony, attended by the outgoing Administrator, Sir Donald Cleland. Soon there were just a few teachers from the UK, a dozen students who were staying on as Christmas holiday workers and myself, ensconced in my small single officers’ “donga” at Iarowari.

The house had running water from a rain water tank. The water had to be moved from the big tank, holding about 1000 gallons, to a small “header” tank on top of the house. Moving the water to the top tank required about 20 minutes of hard pumping with a hand pump, back and forth, back and forth. My arms were soon developing pump muscles. There was no heating of the water and I soon learnt to shower during the day, when the water was at its warmest. The cooking was done on a stove that burnt wood. Wood! I was a city boy, I had no idea how to light a fire; my mother had a lovely gas stove. I tried to light the stove by throwing kerosene on large logs that I had stuffed into the firebox. All the kerosene did was burn fiercely for a few seconds, after flaring with a mighty “whump” and singeing my eyebrows. I did eventually learn how to do it, when one of the other remaining teachers told me about kindling and paper. I was soon rather proud of my ability to get the stove going, boil some water and make a nice cup of tea.

Although there was electricity, the refrigerator did without it, running on kerosene. I had never heard of a fridge that ran on kerosene, but I was soon expert in filling the reservoir and ensuring it kept working. I also learnt, much to my amazement and initial skepticism, that to improve the working of a sluggish kerosene fridge, you turned it upside down to redistribute or revitalise or do something magic to the compression fluid. Oh, yeah? But, it worked, fancy that. Imagine 19-year-olds doing that now. They’d be running to their smartphones and googling kerosene fridges. There was no washing machine either. Outside there was a copper, which required heating by burning wood underneath it.

Lighting fires presented no problem now, but it was still a labour intensive, tedious task to get the washing done. Mum had always kept me in clean clothes, where was she when I needed her? Of course, my having to perform all these tasks only lasted a few weeks, for I soon joined the majority of expatriates in PNG, by hiring my own full time servant. He was able to cook and clean, wash and iron. There were some big compensations in the colonial life.

The debt? When and how did that arise?

One of my few jobs, over that Christmas break, was to sit in the office at Iarowari for a couple of hours each morning, in case the education office should ring or anyone wanted to buy Sogeri grass. This was the grass that grew on the cool, wet Sogeri plateau. It was in demand from gardeners in the blasted wasteland of the Port Moresby suburbs. The city was then expanding as Gordonia, Gordon’s Estate, Waigani and Gerehu were built and settled. The school made some money by selling bags of the grass to people wanting to have lawns. It was $2 a bag. It was my job to collect the money and point people in the direction of the turf plots and leave them to it. They even had to bring their own bags. Money for jam. One day, just after I had collected $4 for two bags, the school truck called for the daily trip to Port Moresby. I wanted to go, so I hastily pocketed the money, closed the office and hopped on the truck. It was not my intention to steal or even borrow the money, but I was in a hurry, so shoving it in my pocket and making a mental note to fix everything up the following day, seemed like a good idea, at the time.

But $4 was $4, about 5% of my fortnightly pay and I never seemed to have the money to pay it back. In mid-January I was transferred to Kerema, before the school year began, so Iarowari never got its $4.

Until 2008, that is. Three friends and I had gone back to PNG for a nostalgic look at the place. We visited our old haunts in Goroka, Wewak, Maprik and Madang and spent a few days in Port Moresby, at the beginning and end of the trip. I drove, with a friend, up to Sogeri to have a look at the place, where I had spent my first days in PNG, all those years before. It was late in the day, but the old office at Iarowari, which was still there, was occupied by one of the staff. It was the Principal and I thought: This is my chance! I can finally settle the debt and clear my troubled conscience. I unburdened myself to his mystified face and handed over K5 to him. He graciously gave me a receipt and stood there, scratching his head, as I jumped in the car and headed back to Moresby.

My friend just looked at me and when the silence became too deep to bear, I asked her what her problem was. She said: “K5? You gave him K5 after 42 years!” I was somewhat miffed. After all, that was an interest rate of 25%. Really, some people.


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