International incident: Jim Toner

(Published Una Voce, September 1999, Page 23)

Jim Toner: Chief Clerk, District Office, Mendi 1957-59; District Office, Rabaul 1960-64; Field Manager, New Guinea Research Unit (ANU), Port Moresby 1965-73


As a variation on memoirs from Taim Bilong Masta, here is an account of a recent interlude in the Western Highlands. Comment on differences between the various peoples of PNG is a matter for ethnologists. Suffice it for the layman to know that the Engans are not much noted for placidity.

Last May an academic researcher familiar with PNG since 1963 visited a village in the Kandep sub-district of the Enga Province. He wryly tells the tale:

To inspect a new water supply installation I climbed up a steep, log- and rock-jammed watercourse and kept slipping. I was aided by a local named David who carried a small bilum for me. This contained cash, credit cards and important field notes. On completing the arduous ascent I was somewhat amused to be told that there was an easy path down. I told David to lead the way and as he took off I bent to tie my bootlace. I never saw him again.

The local villagers were shamed by his behaviour and made every effort to get the bilum back. Three Councillors got involved and local people were yelling into the forest where David was hiding alternately cajoling him to give himself up and threatening to “cut his neck”, kill his pigs and burn his house. The party I was with told his wife that she was to come with us until the goods were returned (my protests about kidnapping and false imprisonment were disregarded as irrelevant). Fortunately the wife went to change her clothes with our consent and she too was never seen again.

The local Councillor insisted that the matter be reported to the police and we drove to Kandep with him to do so. While I was elsewhere the police went to the village and retrieved everything except the money. This was because the villagers, seeing that I was a bit upset at losing my notebook and credit cards, had yelled into the bush that David could keep the money (about K80) if only he returned everything else. He, silly man, believed them.

The following day an officer and four policemen, all armed, visited the village but were unable to find David or his wife. Sensibly they had “gone bush” probably towards Mendi until the heat was off. Like all White Men, I would soon disappear.

As we were leaving, the police said they could not press charges because I would not be around to give evidence but that they would “take care of the criminal”. They threatened to hang him for a day or so on the security wire of their barracks as an example to other raskols and to punish the village by not providing them with food aid, etc. They also said they would make the whole village return the money to me. Ever reasonable, I made it clear that my dispute was with one man only and the village should not have to carry any “shame”. I said it would be impossible to return the money to me because of my pending return to Australia but that, if it was retrieved, it should go into the Kandep drought fund or some other deserving cause.

The whole thing was a nuisance and waste of half a day. I was very embarrassed about it as I had obviously provided an unnecessary temptation and should not have taken so much cash into a village. However, everyone—particularly the police—seemed to enjoy themselves at my expense.

There is nothing like an “international incident” to excite a host community. If only they had been allowed to start a shoot-up! Amuse the Engans by giving them a chance to define an enemy and they will do anything for you: especially if there is a chance of some good old-fashioned violence.

 

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