Papua New Guinea with all its mystical adventure has always coloured the storytelling that was an intrinsic part of my life growing up. I think my first trip to PNG was not long after I was born, when my mother returned to Lae to introduce me to my grandparents, Alf & Marylou Uechtritz. At that time, they were living out at Zifising Cattle Ranch where my grandfather was the bossman (station manager). I still have the black and white photos of me as a baby, being held by my grandparents at Nadzab airport.
My earliest memories of Lae are of the open, wooden-floored house my grandparents lived in, with a tennis court off to the side that my grandfather had rolled out himself, the abundance of tropical flowers in the garden that he always created wherever he went, and the need to keep an eye out for puk-puks while swimming in the creek to cool down from the all pervasive humidity … and of course, Christmas time. My grandparents loved to celebrate Christmas, never more so than when they had their large brood of children and grandchildren around. As a child, it was always so much fun coming together with our ever-expanding Uechtritz family. My mum is one of eleven children and so the house was always full of pikinini cousins running around and running a-mock!
Sometimes I find the idea of Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and all the wintery trimmings being celebrated in the hot and steamy tropical islands of Papua New Guinea somewhat bizarre and out of place, but then I recall the old family photos that date back to when my grandfather was just a boy, of his grandmother Phebe Parkinson and brothers Ewald and Peter by the Christmas tree and I understand that the tradition
transcends far beyond the glittery decorations and slightly nonsensical red Santa suits and represents a
time when families gather together under one roof.
That has always been my favourite part of Christmas. I can barely remember a Christmas present I received as a child or a teen, but I hold clearly and dearly the memories created with my cousins as we played and swam all day long in the summer heat, feasting endlessly on meals lovingly prepared by my grandmother and the singing of often out-of-tune Christmas carols. Without fail, my Nana would set up her nativity sets to remind us that we must ‘remember the reason for the season’.
Even after my grandparents moved to Innisfail in Far North Queensland, New Guinea remained forever in their hearts and could be felt in every room throughout their home. The house was filled with masks and spears and carvings of all kinds collected over the many years of living in PNG, some of the beams had been transported down from PNG and the garden was abloom with bougainvillea, frangipani and hibiscus, as well as a myriad of other tropical fruits, flowers and plants brought over by my grandfather.
So despite growing up and living my entire life in Australia, PNG has always felt familiar to me because it was alive in my grandparent’s home and because of my early memories as a child visiting the Markham Valley, but mostly because of the stories we grandchildren grew up listening to about the tales of adventure, family history, the spectacular beauty and the captivating and extraordinary cultures of this far away land where one must always be ready to ‘expect the unexpected’.
My darling Nana passed away on Holy Thursday 2018, which has proven to be a pivotal moment in my life. It had always been my grandparent’s wish to be buried together back in PNG, in the family mat-mat at Kuradui in East New Britain, the place where they had met and fallen in love. When my mum, aunties and uncles started discussing the logistics surrounding the repatriation of my grandparents ashes back to PNG, I immediately knew that I wanted to be an integral part of the process. I experienced a very strong and clear calling to connect with the land and to the people of this place that I had grown up hearing stories about - yet hadn’t really had the opportunity to discover for myself. I quickly decided to put aside life as I knew it, put my hand up to be the ‘on the ground’ family representative to help coordinate the upcoming event, and took a leap of faith that soon had me living in East New Britain for 3 months leading up to the homecoming of my grandparents.
I arrived with mixed feelings of excitement and apprehension - I mean, I had just packed up my beloved beachside Sydney apartment and boarded a plane whose flight path took me over the incomparable Bismark archipelago and along the beautiful palm-tree lined coastline of East New Britain. On the other hand, I knew only a handful of people there, was under-equipped with a limited knowledge of Tok Pisin from one semester of study at ANU, and barely knew a word of the local Tolai language; I had no idea what to expect… apart from the unexpected of course!
Just like my Nana, however, I am gifted with an adventurous spirit and I threw myself into my responsibilities with gusto. I had a long list of people to connect with and an even longer list of tasks to oversee; these included checking in on the raising of pigs for our ceremonies and making sure we had enough shell money for the kastom ceremonies. In true PNG style, not everything went to plan, but in the end, it all came together thanks to a collective effort from the Kuradui community, the Tolom clan, other members of my family and a network of new friends made on the ground in ENB.
Let me just rewind a little now and explain how our family happen to have a family mat-mat on this island in the Bismarck archipelago and shed some light on why this ‘ples’ is so important to our family.
Our family legacy here in East New Britain is quite a remarkable story, one that starts on the tiny island of Savaii in Samoa when my great-great-great grandfather Jonas Coe, an American, was shipwrecked on the island in 1838. Jonas was only a teenager at that time, but he soon fell in love with Samoa and its women, taking six wives from whom 18 children were born. His first wife, Leutu (also known as Joanna) Taletale, was a cousin to Samoa’s royal Malietoa Laupepa. She bore 8 children to Jonas, including sisters Emma and Phebe. Emma was considerably older than Phebe and had already sailed across the seas, married and begun building a commercial trading empire by the time she returned to Samoa to ask Phebe (only 16) and Phebe’s much older husband Richard Parkinson, a botanist and the son of a Danish duke, to join her in a voyage that would take them to a new world; to a mysterious land known as ‘New Guinea’.
In 1882, they boarded a whaling ship and headed off into unchartered territory. I often think of what the voyage must have been like for my tumbuna, (great-great grandmother, Phebe), a brown-skinned half caste, a woman, sailing across the ocean to an unknown land with a baby in arms and with likely very little idea of what would greet them at their destination. I wonder what was going through her mind and how she felt. She must have sailed with some trepidation, but she must also have carried with her a courageous and adventurous spirit and a great deal of excitement for the future ahead.
From the stories I’ve been told and the literature I’ve read, including letters written by Phebe to American author Margaret Mead, Phebe took it all in her stride. She and her sister were very close, but quite opposite in character it seems. While Emma was the astute business woman and entrepreneur, focused on building one of the most successful copra empires across the Pacific at that time, Phebe spent more time amongst the people. It is said that she became highly respected by the local people of East New Britain and was known for paying in tabu for children and women taken as slaves, taking in many adopted native children, whilst also learning a number of the local native languages which allowed her to develop strong relationships within the community.
It was little wonder she made such an impact on my grandfather Alfred. When he spoke of his ‘Gran’, it was always with the utmost admiration and love, for she helped to raise him after his mother (Phebe’s daughter Dolly) left Alf and his brothers in the middle of the night following an argument with their father, Peter Uechtritz. The true details of why she left are not clear, although sadly it is thought that she was unable to bear the grief of losing her middle child to blackwater fever in Australia whilst he was at boarding school. Depending on who you talk to, other theories emerge but it was without doubt a tragedy as Dolly, a highly educated and gifted woman, was never to return and from all accounts, died penniless and abandoned.
In time, Grandpa was also sent to boarding school in Australia at a young age, as was common amongst the many young expatriate children growing up in remote PNG. His father remained in PNG, working the family plantation at Sum-Sum on the south coast of East New Britain. As was the case for many PNG children, boarding school was tough and not the right fit for a kid who was used to walking around barefoot, running wild and free in the bush, hunting, fishing and learning from the land. After his initial introduction to boarding school, Grandpa ran away from the Bowral boarding house and boarded a train to Sydney, going in search of his older brother Ewald who was by then boarding at Riverview College. Needless to say, I don’t think my Grandpa enjoyed boarding school that much.
Fast forward to 1952 and this is where love at first sight struck my grandfather whilst attending church in Rabaul. He always used to say he was sure he never heard a word the priest said that day. Alf Uechtritz married his sweetheart, Marylou Harris, my grandmother, at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic church in Rabaul on a glorious April day and immediately following the wedding they boarded a schooner and headed straight back to Sum-Sum plantation. In a TV interview in 2004, my grandfather reflected on the day by saying, “..we didn’t need a honeymoon, Sum-Sum had it all, a beautiful beach, fresh fish from the sea and tropical fruit from the gardens, it was truly a paradise”.
And it was from this paradise that they began to create their family, with the first 6 of their 11 children born at Namanula hospital in Rabaul. When my Nana was expecting the arrival of a new baby, she would wait for a ship to pass and take her into Rabaul. There she would wait until the baby was delivered before returning home to Sum-Sum to present the newborn to my Grandpa. I always imagine this ‘Lion King’ version of my Nana arriving by ship, being lowered into the smaller boat which was oared into the jetty, holding out the latest baby for my Grandpa and the plantation workers to see. Many of the grandchildren in my generation always thought it was unusual that Nana made that journey on her own while Grandpa stayed back to work the plantation. She however thought it was strange that we expected him to go… “that’s just the way it was done!!” Bless her stoic and unwavering spirit! She was small, but she was mighty!
When I ask my mum to recount her memories of being a young girl at Sum-Sum she says she remembers feelings more than moments. One thing she fondly remembers though is being spun around and around by the family hausboi and ‘adopted older brother’ Timmy. She also told me that when she was a little girl, she really believed that she would “..grow up to be a man, and not just a man but a black man”. Well, she was the only girl amongst the first 5 children and surrounded by male plantation workers, I guess that was her world!
To be continued in Part 2 ...