First impressions of Koiari and Orokaiva villages along the Kokoda Trail give little hint of the complex relationships that exist within. The simple life of building, gardening, cooking, nurturing, teaching and healing is underpinned by the complexities of clan relationships and the influence of missionary pastors, traditional lululais’ and sorcerers.
Elders maintain their distance and examine trekkers with furrowed brows and quiet curiosity as they arrive, collapse, rest, hand out a few balloons, ask a few shallow questions, shake hands, and wave goodbye. Most elders speak Motu, some speak Tok Pisin, but their English is often poor or non-existent. This limits their communication to friendly smiles and a wave of the hand. But mostly they just look.
Village children are not inhibited. Their natural curiosity brings them into close contact with trekkers. Their English is good enough for basic conversations and there is much giggling and game playing.
Teenagers are half-way between. They are shy but will come together to greet trekkers and can be easily convinced to sing. Angelic voices in perfect harmony are much appreciated by trekkers who are usually too embarrassed to respond with anything more than a few bars of Waltzing Matilda!
The most moving demonstration of the depth of clan relationships is the mourning of the loss of a loved one. Family and friends trek in from nearby villages and gather at the home of the deceased family. The coffin is draped with a sheet, decorated with flowers and candles are placed on and around it. The mother sits silently beside it. The father sits with the men. Kinfolk from the clan gather together and roll out a mat. Then they sing. The melancholy mood of the clan is uplifted in perfect harmony as the sound of beautiful hymns permeates through the darkness of the village.
In the early hours of the morning the wailing begins. Voices seem to be pleading with God to let him or her stay. Women cry. Men raise their voices in ever increasing crescendos. Children weep openly and call out his or her name. It is unsettling for the visitor who now feels like an intruder among the grieving.
Then all of a sudden it’s silent. Deadly silent. Nobody moves. Bright stars one can almost touch are the only feature one can see in the silence of the darkness.
I am trekking with a group of young surfies from Cronulla, some young Muslims from Bankstown and a couple of young ‘angels’ from Port Moresby Grammar School. They ask if it would be OK to say a prayer before we move off. We pay our respects to the family and in turn a Christian blessing, an Arabic song and a Pidgin prayer gives comfort to the gathered clans. If there is such a thing as the magic of human harmony we have just experienced it. We are as one with each other and with the grieving clans in Efogi.
Our Koiari and Orokaiva guides come from villages along the track. They have filtered among the gathering to share their grief. They pick up our packs and silently move off behind us.
It is a poignant reminder of the comforting strength of family/clan life. We now feel much closer to our guides and try to work out how best we can help them after we return to our homes in the land of plenty.
The villagers have been largely unaffected by the emerging interest in Kokoda and the increase in trekker numbers from a handful in the 1990s to around 6,000 in 2008. They know there is a lot of money around somewhere. They know the trekkers pay a fee of $100 each to trek Kokoda. They wonder where it all goes to because virtually nothing gets through to them. They would like to know who is coming to their village and when they will be arriving. They would like to be able to ‘value add’ but they don’t know how – and nobody has turned up to teach them. They would like help in improving their schools and their aid posts in a sustainable way. But they have been left to their own resources and the first signs of discontent are becoming apparent.
As we become more familiar with them they become more approachable. During our campfire chats they share their feelings through our guides. They want the children in the village to go to school. They want some medicine. They would like a radio.
Their demands are simple and achievable. We have started a ‘Yumi Helpim Pikinnini’ program. Our trekkers are provided with a list of school supplies, sporting gear, books that can be carried or flown into villages. Each trek group is allocated a pre-designated village and when they arrive, all the gear is laid out and presented to the children. This is the only way we can guarantee delivery in PNG!
Our trekkers love it because it makes them feel good. The village children love it because they have a regular flow of school ‘presents’. The elder like it because they see the beginning of shared benefits beginning to flow through.
PNG can be a difficult place to help. They face insurmountable social challenges in the land of a thousand tribes. They can be frustrating to deal with because they don’t see the value or urgency of things as we do (lucky them!). Corruption (as we understand it) seems to be part of their DNA!
But earn their respect and you will not meet a more loyal, gentle, helpful and pleasant group of people on this planet. They are the best trekking companions you will ever have in the jungle. They are the most hospitable of hosts in their villages. And they love and respect Australian trekkers today just as much as their fathers and grandfathers did yesterday.
It’s easy to keep going back – but we have to work harder and smarter in ensuring they receive shared benefits from the emerging trekking industry.