We’ve come for the money: Adrian Geyle

(Published in Una Voce, December 1998, page 16)

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). These events occurred around 1954.

Under the provisions of the Territory’s Native Labour Ordinance (NLO) 1950-1952 compensation could be claimed by an employee for injuries incurred at work, and by a deceased employee’s relatives for loss of someone at work. A table of payments for compensation was laid down in the Regulations made under the Ordinance. A Green River man was killed at work in Port Moresby and one hundred pounds compensation was paid to his family at Green River patrol post. The payment, mandatory under the Regulations of the NLO, was made before my time at this patrol post.

One day a desperately ill man was carried into our hospital by stretcher, unable to walk and with an extremely low body temperature. By radio I contacted the doctor at Wewak, describing the symptoms which included much dark blood in the faeces. “Advanced hookworm,” said the doctor, “send him in on the plane today and wrap him up in blankets. I’ll ask the pilot to fly low.”

Two days after the patient was taken in to Wewak a message to say he had died was received. He had died in transit and had indeed been suffering with advanced hookworm. I sent a policeman down to the deceased’s village to ask the Luluai and the deceased’s widow to come in to the station, so that I could convey to her the sad news of her husband’s death. They came, and she listened to how he had died on the plane on the way in to Wewak. She was neither surprised not upset, knowing that her husband had been extremely ill when he was carried in to the station hospital.

A week later about thirty villagers came to my office “for the money”. The village Luluai was spokesman for the group which included the widow, whom I recognised among those who waited outside the office. The Luluai had to be convinced that the patient had actually died in transit, that the pilot told the doctor and the doctor related the facts to me by radio. “We want the money,” he said, “we want a hundred pounds.” He repeated this several times and it appeared that he thought that anyone who died away from home, in government hands, was “paid for”. I asked the people outside to come into the office; it filled to overflowing, albeit everyone was standing. All were then able to hear as I explained as clearly as possible, through an interpreter, the provisions of the Native Labour Ordinance and Regulations; how compensation for injury and death was enforced by the government and the maximum amount payable was one hundred pounds for loss of life. The station interpreter forcefully drove the point home that payments were workers’ compensation only. There was much noisy discussion going on when I asked them all to go outside and discuss the matter.

The prolonged, excited discussion resulted in several of the men and the Luluai coming back to ask me again for “the money”. It had passed my mind during our talk that whereas, to my knowledge, only one of their number had been flown to Wewak for hospitalisation, probably all of the deceased’s relatives had at some time been treated at our own patrol post hospital. I asked them if that was the case. It certainly was, and I set about recording against their names the treatments they, individually, had received. Bandages, injections, eye and ear drops and even Band Aids were costed and tallied up. Everybody was included.

With the most conservative estimate of the costs to the government, incurred via the Department of Public Health, the total outlay came to over seven hundred pounds. I laboured this point, that the government had been treating all of the people for years, at all patrol post hospitals across the land, without asking for payment for any of the medicines, bandages, crutches, injections and food supplied; even for admission to Wewak hospital (some had been there for skin grafts after receiving sulphur drug treatment for tropical ulcers). I asked the interpreter if it was appreciated that the government’s services cost money and that if the people were asked to pay for these then much money would have to be found. Money was perceived here as being a simple mode of payment, full stop, no strings attached! Letters and cheques had magical powers too, among those who had been away; and money in paper form also, here in the village, held people in some sort of spell. The interpreter couldn’t say what the people felt about the cost to government of anything!

I was on the verge of defeat as nobody seemed to be convinced by anything I said. With some impatience I went to the money safe and counted out from what was there one hundred pounds. “Here’s a hundred pounds,” I said holding the handful of notes out towards the most articulate of the men before me, “and now I want the seven hundred you owe the government for all those treatments you’ve all had sometime.” The interpreter said something that got everyone moving out of the office again, and down to the ground below. There was more excited discussion before the Luluai and three of the elders came back up the stairs. They sat this time, at my request, waiting awkwardly for someone to talk. “We’ve got shame Masta. The government is like our mother and father to us and we feel big shame.”

It was with relief and some self-satisfaction that I saw them shuffle down the track towards their village. But to be honest I felt that I had been too smart by half, that I’d pulled a dirty trick. Was justice done? If so it hadn’t been seen to be done. The intricacies of this situation emanated from an interesting dilemma that inevitably develops when sophistication in law and its application confronts a simple, traditional society’s search for sense and fair play, and for consistency. Equating the value of a life to a certain amount of paper money seemed to remain the impediment hanging in the air here, and increasingly in my mind I realised we in the Administration, through our teachers and schools, had a lot of hard work to do. Trying to explain it in the context of where a person was when he died and what he was doing at the time was never going to succeed.

In retrospect a shaky quid pro quo argument was the approach needed there at Green River at that time. At least the Green River locals were being stimulated into wondering where government services came from, and the costs of same.

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