Why PNG needs a thousand dreams

Phil Fitzpatrick

Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude, 19 May 2011

‘A Thousand Coloured Dreams’ by Josephine Abaijah and Eric Wright, Revised Edition, Pearson Education Australia, Pacific Writers Series, South Melbourne, 2001, ISBN:0733925413

I’VE ALWAYS THOUGHT of myself as being reasonably enlightened.  Every so often something crops up to bring home the truth and remind me that this isn’t true.  It is part of the aging process I guess; the more you know the more you realise how much you don’t know.

In retrospect, it would have been useful, for instance, to have been a lot more mature and knowledgeable when I first went to Papua New Guinea.  The Australian administration, however, was looking for resilience and strong legs ahead of independent thought. 

It is now sometimes embarrassing to think about what I inflicted upon those poor buggers who came within my personal and administrative purvey.  Josephine Abaijah’s book is an uncomfortable reminder that our comforts and good memories came at the cost of some considerable discomfort and loss of dignity for many Papua New Guineans.

Josephine was good at wrinkling this sort of stuff out of the colonial woodwork.  Of course, being Josephine, she often overdid it and exaggerated in her quest to stir the pot; she often saw shadows when they were simply not there.

Despite this unfortunate predilection, she, nevertheless, pointed out many of the absurdities and inequities of colonial rule, especially the cult of the superior and the inferior. 

In those times when an Australian said “Good Day” to a Papua New Guinean it was very subtly nuanced and not like the same greeting delivered to a fellow countryman. 

Although the receiver might have accepted it as a bland gesture the implied message, “Listen, I’m prepared to treat you on reasonably equitable terms if you’re prepared to play the game strictly my way” is the undertone they both understood.

And, of course, that attitude hasn’t gone away; you see it in our relationship with PNG all the time, albeit toned down; now it is a more refined form of condescension.  In PNG Attitude it is sometimes apparent in the knowing advice given on how to run the country, well meant but still with those old superior colonial undertones.

When I pointed some of these things out in a book back in 2005 ago I copped some considerable criticism from the elder colonials.  Treating your fellow man as an equal was just not practical old man. My attempt was fairly subdued; Josephine, on the other hand, was relentless and her book is no different.

Try this description of betel nut: “When chewed with peppermint and lime, it makes the tongue loose and the body warm.  It also causes cancer of the mouth.  It makes the colonials very angry when the rich, red juicy bolus is spat upon their walls and floors. 

“The ubiquitous graffiti of Papua, it enhances nature, defiles the rich and comforts the poor.  As it costs nothing to produce and can be bought, sold or stolen, it is probably the only substantial Papuan industry that does not earn money for foreign business.”

Exposing people to uncomfortable truths doesn’t sell books.  This might explain why A Thousand Coloured Dreams hasn’t had more currency and exposure.

The book was first published in 1991 and then republished in 2001 as part of the Pacific Writers Series.  It is now very difficult to find and one has to search second hand bookshops online to secure a copy.  I did a quick search online and couldn’t even find a copy on Ebay. While it predates the inception of PNG Attitude it is well worth revisiting.  It also sits comfortably with earlier works like Michael Somare’s Sana and Albert Maori Kiki’s Ten Thousand Years in a Lifetime – books that young people in PNG should still be reading.

But let’s get to the nitty-gritty – was Josephine Abaijah in thrall to the late, left-wing activist Dr Eric Wright, her advisor and mentor?  The answer is patently in the affirmative and is reiterated constantly throughout the book. 

Why this was the case is also made clear, she was in love with him and needed him in her life.  As she constantly points out, she was always just a simple Papuan kekeni (girl) after all.

If you believe that last statement you might also be inclined to believe, as the Australian administration of the time had it, that Eric Wright was a left wing activist. 

Neither assertion is close to the truth.  There was nothing simple about Josephine and Eric was simply an intelligent and eccentric pragmatist.  But he did occasionally wear colourful Hawaiian shirts and sandals, which everyone, especially the Australian administrators, knew was a badge of the leftie.

That Josephine was a sweet innocent from the village is even harder to swallow.  In those days she was driven by her anti-colonial and pro-Papua sentiments and she had a singular agenda that nothing was going to stop come hell or high water.

There is a neat little cluster of her vitriol around page 238 where she gets stuck into a District Commissioner, his wife and a touring VIP for no other reason than the fact that they were in the same place as her. 

“Mr DC was the overlord of all material things emanating from the colonial authority” and his wife was “not a woman to be trifled with, as she could be a source of danger to anyone who circled in her orbit” and “could dispense social justice with Belsen-like efficiency”. 

The hapless VIP was one of those “thick and heavy” on the ground “particularly during southern winters” come to see “the last living museum and the first open zoo” of PNG.

“Mr and Mrs DC had given the best years of their lives to serving Australia’s interests in primitive Papua and New Guinea.  As rewards, they had lived fully, loved conservatively between tours and official duties, entertained important people and looked forward to a generous golden handshake when they left the country.”

These sorts of comments are probably a clue to why she ultimately failed in her political aspirations and why her movement, Papua Besena (Papua family), foundered; she was just too prickly for ordinary folk to cope with; moderation was not a word in her vocabulary. 

The deportation of Eric Wright by the Australian administration on the very cusp of independence, purportedly for organising a guerrilla force to fight for Papuan autonomy, didn’t help either.

That shouldn’t detract from her achievements, however; the world and PNG needs people like her.  She was, at the time, the perfect counterfoil to the deeply conservative politics of the emerging PNG. 

And, of course, the aims of Papua Besena are not dead by any means.  There are many Papuan people who still think Papua would be better off separated from New Guinea. Its wealth from hydrocarbon discoveries might even make that viable. 

The book is largely peopled by characters that are claimed to be fictitious.  I suspect this is one of those necessities that writers dealing with recent events in PNG are wont to adopt. 

I think you can safely assume that, apart from the names, they probably represent real people.  It is hard to believe, for instance, that the father of her first child, conceived overnight in a refuge village after their Land Cruiser became bogged on the flooded Rigo Road, would not be able to recognise himself.

Josephine recorded many ‘firsts’ in her lifetime.  She is dismissive of many of them, however, because she sees them as such simple things; being the first Papuan girl to graduate from high school, for instance, was no big deal to her.

One of those ‘firsts’, inherently obvious but not explicitly described in the book, was her emergence as one of the earliest of that new breed of Papua New Guineans existing successfully in the wider world beyond the village.  In this respect she joins historical figures like Michael Somare. 

These sorts of people are too numerous to count nowadays and they are the hope for PNG’s future, but in the 1960s they were few and far between.  In this sense, and particularly because she is a woman, she was a true pioneer.

Josephine maintained that she never took any bribes and remained true to her ideals – although she did become Dame Josephine Abaijah; I’m not sure if that counts but it must mean something, perhaps a mellowing of sorts.

Josephine’s parents had 13 children before her mother’s fallopian tubes were tied, involuntarily as Josephine would have it.  They then adopted four more children. 

She estimated that her parents would eventually have between 50 and 100 grandchildren; the beginnings of a veritable Abaijah tribe.  If they all carry even a hint of Josephine’s acerbic take on life they will, very soon, be a force to be reckoned with indeed.

Josephine was born in 1940 and at 82 years old is still going strong.

Poems from Edward Grant-Gila Pulagis book Pieces of Time

The book is dedicated to his brother, Albert T. Pulagis, and that act speaks volumes of the love of brothers.

A quote in the dedication offers us a meaningful message – “There comes a time when you will realise that the people who care about you the most are the ones that you spend less time with” – Grant-Gila.

In this collection, Edwards Christianity shines out like a ray of hope. And although he makes no mention of it in our communication, the poem An angel that went to Heaven, encapsulates the love he realised for his brother and the support he received from the young soul, now departed.

“He was never famous / Never glamorous / Left a void in my family / A life filled with dreams / An angel now in heaven”.

Edwards poems talk to us, they tell us a story, about his adventures, about his thoughts, his faith, and the love he finds.

I think, despite myself, that I like Edwards poems. They are not my preferred style of writing, but if writing was all about style, then I think that poetry would have gone out of fashion a long time ago.

I think I like Edwards poems because they have soul. They remind me of things that I may have otherwise forgotten. Simple things. Impotant things. Basic things. And that is not only comforting, it is hopeful.

Much like his conclusion in the book titles inspiring poem, A Moment in Time; “a moment in time / the best thing ever / was meeting you.

Poor critic that I am, I am glad to have met Edwards poems.

Here are two of them.

For your greatness lies in humility

Father pick me up from this broken road,
I want to follow in your footsteps
beside the great stream of waters
For your greatness lies in humility

Father in my integrity, I walked in unrighteousness
In great steps my path saw blindness
With extinguishable strength you carry me
for your greatness lies in humility

In fleeting moments, I encountered darkness
In terrible mistakes, I saw difficulties
My soul bearing the scars of time
There my pride led me to great humility

In a world of unknown path
Lord I pursue after your truth
Bounded in your love and tranquility
For your greatness lies in humility
Four men

Four men in separable to each other,
depaite difference are four,
Remained united in heart forevermore

Four men with a special love for each other,
men under the test of time still remain strong,
men of all seasons with character as solid as rock

four men supported each other through life,
ordinary men raised under difficult circumstances
put through life's extreme conditions

Four regions gave birth to Papua New Guinea
Not the perfect family but a good country
four brothers raised by British Father

Four sisters raised by an Australian mother
A mother's touch of love like a stroke of feather
Not the perfect mother but a loving one

Brothers are they, the Papuan
Family in diversity are they, the Momasean
Unity through many are they, the Highlander
Land of abundance are they, the New Guinea Islander

Born in 1975 are these four men,
Four generations onwards
Many sons & daughter they have raised

Through the highs & lows they thrived to survive
40 years on the four men continue to stand firm
This is an example to unite us all!

PNG, lest we forget

A poem by Jason Paisoi

Our freedom was given on a golden plate, 
The colloquial, land of the unexpected, we mustn't contemplate, 
It's the richness of our land that we are now free to celebrate, 
Our natural resources are a wise discretion, independence was forged on that date.

Clothed with evincive patriotism, Our dreams were respected, 
As our patriarchs, in their strive, were excellent dreamers, mandated. 
The "Land of the Unexpected", merely boasts excuses for our political aspirations, 
For we shouldn't boast of the colloquial when evaluating malpractices.

Papua New Guinea, we've learned to say it without a conjunction, 
So lest we forget the selfless determination and hard work to unite Papua and New Guinea, 
From the highlands to the lowlands and the islands,
We shout and celebrate as Papua New Guinea. 

Let's celebrate and embrace our dreams of a better nation. 
Let's reflect and trace their dreams of a better Papua New Guinea, 
Let's not deflect the true spirit of Independence, a father's plea, 
Lest we forget, nothing is given on a golden plate. 

The blackout curse that magic cannot fix

Keith jackson & Friends: PNA Attitude 13 October 2022

I call it a curse for many reasons but I won’t discuss them all. It’s a curse because it really doesn’t matter which government is in place or which CEO is appointed, no one – and I mean no one – has really addressed the blackout curse



PORT MORESBY – What is it? Is it some kind of magic or witchcraft? Is it a spell or incantation?

This is Papua New Guinea – a place where black power still rules the lives of citizens in the urban centres and rural areas.

Is it a disease like the Black Death in Europe of the Middle Ages? Or is it some epidemic like Covid-19?

It could be a black hole, like the celestial body above, where even light cannot escape.

This blackout curse behaves like a black hole.

Whatever it is, it seems PNG cannot get rid of it.

The blackout curse is immune to whoever takes the top post whether it be the boss of PNG Power or the prime minister himself.

It has outlived all times and threatens to continue unless something drastic is done.

But what can be done?

It has continued to prevail under different circumstances and doesn’t care who is dealing with it.

If you think your CV will save you, think again as many a CEO might want to blot out that period from their memory (and that of the computer).

It would be great if there was a magic spell to rid PNG of the curse, given that PNG is a country that still practices witchcraft and sorcery.

People in PNG always summon a shaman when things are not going right like looking for a job, healing a sickness, protection from evil spirits, good luck in finding a bride and much, much more.

I wonder why no one has thought about summoning a magician to end all the blackouts…. Oops, my bad. I forgot, PNG Power doesn’t operate on magic.

The curse has nothing to do with magic. It just behaves like it does. It’s been quite elusive dating back to ELCOM days. The names changed but the curse remains.

The same curse laughing at everything thrown at it. Its occurrence happens on a daily basis to the point that it’s accepted.

It’s not a point to argue with, just accept it because the blackout curse has outlived many and will continue to do so.

I haven’t lived in any other city in PNG as long as I have in Port Moresby.

While the capital city tries to find its way through modernisation, some issues keep showing their ugly head. Some can be controlled by the authorities while others just evolve because of the changing circumstances.

While increasing in population, unemployment, law and order seem to be ever present issues the PNG Power blackout curse remains.

I call it a curse for many reasons but I won’t discuss them all. It’s a curse because it really doesn’t matter which government is in place or which CEO is appointed, no one – and I mean no one – has really addressed the blackout curse.

I’m not an energy specialist, but I believe that all the factors that contribute to the blackout curse are factors that can be controlled by PNG Power.

If I’m mistaken then please somebody explain. If the dam is not big enough, make it bigger. If the landowners are complaining, pay them. If the diesel generators are faulty, fix them or buy new ones. What is the real issue here?

I’m not asking this question as someone who can provide solutions, but someone who is part of a growing population that needs an explanation.

Why are we accepting this substandard service year after year, year in and year out?
It is simple. When there is a blackout…PNG Power loses money.

But the costs still remain the same. We don’t see workers being laid off due to a blackout. They still get paid.

So while PNG Power loses money during blackouts, the expenses keep piling up.

There must be a simple explanation to the blackout curse or it must be so complicated.

Despite having all the technical, expertise available from our development partners, the issue has not been addressed.

Development needs energy. Every time there is a black out the government of PNG loses money and this cost has to be settled by the population.

Money that could have been used to develop a road or maintain a hospital is used to fund the loss. So not only is PNG Power and the state making a loss, the nation’s development efforts are impeded.

Someone in the hierarchy needs to tell the state what it will cost to eradicate blackouts and formulate how to go about addressing it.

Sometimes generators may not be working and departments send their staff home early. For them it’s good; for the state it’s bad. It means loss in productivity. But the people still get paid nonetheless.

Maybe privatisation of PNG Power is the logical step…what do you think?

Whatever it is PNG, we have to stop accepting that blackouts are a normal part of life.


 You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

John Kuri

Ian, I really appreciated your technical in-depth look into this issue. I hope such thinking is present with the Executive Management of PNG Power and also most importantly , political will to support it..

Posted by: John Kuri | 13 October 2022 at 03:58 PM


The issues at PNG Power are both simple and complex.

The simple answers lie in standard stuff – technical, financial and human competency.

The complexity lies in the human aspect of its current management as a state owned entity and the consequent inability to enact change due to the political stress that this tie creates.

If you don’t produce accurate or timely financial statements, how can you possibly manage PNG Power as a large business?

Evidence of this is seen in the recurring annual financial losses the company makes and the inability to produce a profit despite having a captive retail market and some of the highest prices for electricity in the world – the burden of which is placed on PNG taxpayers and businesses.

If you don’t invest in intelligent maintenance, you’re going to suffer ongoing operational difficulties and fail to meet any revenue targets you set (there are far too many problems with blackouts, brownouts and poor system redundancy in general).

And if you need money to pay for studies of and investment in the supply and distribution system, then without a profitable business, you’re reliant on support from PNG government finances that don’t have capacity or motivation to support you.

(The evidence of this is that the major portion of investment support in electrical infrastructure comes from Japanese and Australian aid support or tax deductible projects built and financed by foreign private investors.)

In talking about the human competency aspect of PNG Power, we have to make allowance for the fact that it is effectively a monopoly with huge social impact potential as well as a state-owned enterprise.

Therein lies the main problem. Jobs and longevity at PNG Power are driven by politics and this means that no matter how capable or clever the board or the staff, change cannot happen unless driven by effective political change management – something that we see is exceptionally difficult in the incessant wheeling and dealing of PNG politics.

What to do and what can be effected? Well, the PNG solution is not the Australian solution. The topography of the land, the distribution of demand, the availability of investment capital and operational risk are all quite different.

A system needs to be set up that is properly and holistically customised to PNG, not extended from the existing, dysfunctional, centralised, PNG Power platform!

(1) Decentralise and support off-grid electrification at a commercial scale. Legislate swiftly (not in 10 or 20 years as PNG politics is prone to do) and let the market take action in off-grid power supply and supply power as the market needs.

(2) Minimise the amount of regulatory/compliance process steps that commercial electricity suppliers need to jump through. This first step would be a major economic facilitator and reach those who currently need and have nothing outwith the main grid.

(3) Especially consider the use of major mining operations as a base for regional power supply, both in oil & gas and metals.

There’s a great opportunity emerging with the new wave of major resource projects in PNG (Papua LNG, P’nyang, Wafi-Golpu and potentially Frieda River) and I hope it’s not too late.

(4) As far as PNG Power is concerned, the financial yoke that ties the company into GoPNG needs to be broken so it can create a commercial business. Currently the company’s credit-worthiness is ‘junk’ (non-investment grade), not because of its earning potential, but because any company financial guarantee by the government (which has the prime junk credit rating) is worthless to commercial lenders and comes with political risk.

This means PNG Power is dependent on the largesse of aid agencies, 3rd party NGO’s and 3rd party government grants (like Australia and Japan) in order to make large scale investment decisions.

Apart from the dependency culture this creates in PNG Power, these sources of finance take a long time to procure and are generally conditional, limiting their applicability to develop PNG Power.

As I see it there’s really no choice, if PNG Power wants to improve its current operations, other than to bring in a private partner with interest to generate a new revenue source. Ideally the new partner has existing experience in generation and distribution and certainly with access to new capital.

Go to full or partial privatisation, with choice of the external partner by GoPNG. Assisted by competent advisory agencies with and through a transparent and public appointment process.

Change management is difficult but essential. The adage ‘keep on doing the same old and you’ll keep on getting the same old’ rings true here as everywhere else.

Posted by: Ian | 13 October 2022 at 12:02 PM

Highlighting the poetry of Lydia Gah

In August 2020 Lydia Gah published her account of surviving domestic violence, she also shared some of her poems with Ples Singsing Blog

Behind the veil Melanesian Culture

Shrouded behind the Mysticism of Melanesian culture,
Lies an untouchable Monster.
Racking lives of blossoming Roses,
Once the pride of families, clans and tribes.

Towering menacingly high above dark clouds,
Onlookers simply and indifferently look on,
As if paralysed knowing not what to do,
For they say, “it is the Melanesia culture”.

All the while the blossoming Roses, 
Their iridescent lights slowly but surely fade.
Changes thus far into a dry, unwatered patch of lawn,
Where once stood beautiful beds of roses.
Exuding beauty in different colours and fragrance,
Their absence felt by those who loved them.

“If only, if only”, the living lamented at their passing
Still behind the veil of Melanesian culture,
The monster exists and perpetuate - domestic violence.


From the war-torn wreckage, of broken homes,
broken villages, and broken lives,
Came oh so slowly a figure,
Bandaged head hobbling, one arm in a sling.

Those who saw that ghost emerge,
Will never forget one thing,
The smile on the ravaged face.

A child, as children do, had to ask,
“Why do you smile when you are so injured and so hurt?”
“Because I survived” came the reply,
Still, the smile was there.

The Cage

Some bars are of gold,
But mine were only rusty wires.
Into some rooms the sun would shine,
But into others there were only shadows and darkness.

Some are cared for tended and loved,
While others are left to die of hunger,
Even when fed three times a day.

Then, God’s Will took its turn that day,
And my guiding angle looked on with a smile,
As the hinges screeched with rust,
And left the gate undone,
And the bird was FREED!!

The beauty of a butterfly

Such a beautiful thing
Its blue blinding floss in the sunlight
We can but look on in wonder
That we are so blessed with such a treasure

The arrogant and spoilt, caring for little,
Emotions at the ready, with little regard for what is beautiful,
And should be cherished. 

Sling short up and fired without a thought,
The body crushed, and the blue floss fades,
The child looked on and suddenly is overwhelmed,
With the waste, the stupidity, and destruction,
Of something which now can never be regained.

If only experience and knowledge,
Were as easy to gather as things of beauty are to destroy.


Ms Gah is selling her book independently and is also raising funds through the sale of traditional PNG crafts, coconut oil and CDs of songs in her Nakani mother tongue and Tok Pisin to recoup her self-publishing costs
Useless was my name
Given to me by another
So, what!
Why should I care?
What do they know?

I am better than them
That, loll in riches and luxury
My experience is my fortune
And nobody can take that from me

I am what and who I am now
Because of what has gone before
Not useless, but proud
And will remain proud and strong
Until my day on earth is done

Learning Tok Pisin: it’s harder than it looks

Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude 02 October 2022

At first as I began to learn Pidgin, I thought, ‘This is easy. It’s a form of baby talk and there’s nothing to it’. I could not have been more mistaken


Unravel  | Edited

CALIFORNIA – I arrived in Papua New Guinea in September 1980, a young geologist on the adventure of his life.

Esso Eastern, a subsidiary of Exxon Minerals, had hired me to open their copper and gold exploration office and I was living my dream, setting off on a major career step toward the life of physical and intellectual adventure I wanted.

I was just turning 24 when I arrived in PNG and I was inordinately proud of myself for having been given this responsibility at such a young age.

It was only later that I found out my pride may have been a little unfounded. Esso Eastern had been trying to recruit someone for months and had nearly a dozen resignations in the process.

At the meeting with me, the head of human resources said something like, “This young fool actually wants to go to PNG. Somebody hire him and put him on a plane before he changes his mind.”

I love languages. All my life, I have enjoyed studying and learning new languages.

Everywhere I worked, I managed to learn at least some of the local language.

I knew from my reading that PNG had four official languages, including English, English Pidgin (officially designated Neo-Melanesian Pidgin), Hiri Motu, a simplified trading language and sign language.

In fact, as I learned, Pidgin (Tok Pisin) is the most widely spoken lingua franca of PNG and without a working knowledge of it one will not get very far.

Proper, formal Pidgin is a highly structured language. It evolved and was eventually formalised and codified in order to solve the problem arising from there being so many distinct languages in PNG –839 in all, about 12% of the world’s languages.

As a result of the isolation in which most tribes had spent their histories, mutually intelligible conversation was largely impossible.

Over time, as is often seen in regions that have seen an influx of arrivals from outside, various forms of language evolved of which Pidgin was one.

But it has continued to evolve and is today recognised as a formalised into a codified language in its own right.

At first as I began to learn Pidgin, I thought, this is easy. It is a form of baby talk and there is nothing to it.

I could not have been more mistaken. Tok Pisin has a precise, albeit occasionally cumbersome, vocabulary and, to my surprise, a precise grammar and syntax. If one does not use the correct vocabulary, grammar and syntax, one is simply not understood.

Most of the words are based on English words, but there is a good sprinkling of German, Malay, Portuguese and local plestok (vernacular) words as well.

For example, the verb ‘to get rid of’ is rausim, derived from the German raus (out). To get rid of something is to rausim em.

Tok Pisin is spelled phonetically, exactly as it is pronounced, but this can be a little confusing for Americans because, given Papua New Guinea’s colonial heritage, words are pronounced as they would be pronounced by an Australian.

For example, the word ‘here’ is hia, ‘mister’ is masta, ‘morning’ is moning, and ‘beer’ is bia.

In addition, the consonant ‘f’ usually is realised as a “p” sound: ‘afternoon’ is apinun, and ‘finish’ is pinis.

Tok Pisin has a limited vocabulary so, as in German, complex words are typically formed by compounding simpler words.

Usually, these are quite logical. For example, a bank is haus mani (‘house money’); an office is haus papia (‘house paper’) and a geologist is man bilong lukim ston (‘man who looks at stones’. ‘I am hungry’ becomes bel bilong mi karai aut.

Regrettably, by the time I left PNG, a helicopter had become helikopta, but when I first arrived it was still a mixmasta bilong Jesus (‘Mixmaster belonging to Jesus’). There is poetry in these constructions.

Another wonderful and expressive phrase in Tok Pisin is maus wara, literally ‘mouth water’. Because the word wara (‘water’) in a different context is used to mean diarrhoea, maus wara means verbal diarrhoea or meaningless talk.

This can be expanded into the phrase maus wara man to mean ‘someone who is all talk’. A frequently used insult in Tok Pisin is the phrase, Yu maus wara man tasol (you’re just all talk).

Another logical word in Pidgin is the word for friend – wantok. The origin is ‘one talk’ or one who speaks the same language, therefore a friend or fellow kin.

My favourite word, and to my knowledge the longest single word in Tok Pisin, is the word for ‘piano’.

My word processor’s spell check comes close to exploding when I try to write this as a single word in Tok Pisin: ‘bigpelabokisigatwaitpelatusnabilakpelatusnaysaposyupaitimikraiautnoguttru.’

The literal breakdown in English is: a piano is a ‘big box with white teeth and black teeth which, if you strike it, cries out loudly’.

I don’t think anyone could dispute that this is an accurate description of a piano.

I have read recently that there is some controversy now over whether this word was really used to describe a piano or was just a joke. I can attest that I heard it used with my own ears more than once.

Pronouns are very simple: mi, yu, and em are respectively I, you, and he/she/it/them.

Yupela (‘you fellow’) is the plural form of ‘you’ (or, ‘you all’).

There are two words for ‘we’, and this removes an ambiguity that can occur in English. The word yumi (‘you me’) means we, including the person being addressed. The word mipela means we, excluding the person who is being addressed.

So, for example, if I were to say to you, yumi drinkim bia, that means, ‘We, including you, are drinking beer.’ However, the phrase mipela drinkim bia means, ‘We are drinking beer but we don’t have any for you.’

The past and future are indicated simply using the words pinis (‘finish’) for past and bai for future.

Mi wokim pinis means ‘I have completed the job’ or ‘I worked’. Bai mi wokim means ‘I will work’. To go pinis is ‘to leave’.

There is an interesting construction that combines the past and perfect constructions to convey a certain meaning. The phrase bai mi go pinis literally means ‘I will have gone’, but is used to mean ‘I will leave’ with an implication of permanency.

When expats leave PNG for the last time, they are said to have gon pinis or ‘gone finish’.

Despite the somewhat cumbersome vocabulary, it is possible to convey subtleties of meaning in Tok Pisin.

The word for ‘break’ or ‘broken’ is bagarap, derived from the common Australian expression ‘bugger up’. My favourite example of this was the safety information card aboard a Talair flight.

The Tok Pisin word for ‘aircraft’ is balus, which can also mean bird. The origin of this word is unclear, but I remember being told that it was derived from one of the tribal languages of southern New Ireland.

Anyway, a propeller plane is a balus, while a jet is a simok balus. The first time I boarded a Talair flight from Lae to Rabaul, I was handed a card captioned, Sapos balus i bagarap: ‘Suppose the airplane buggers up (crashes)’.

The word masta, obviously a relic of colonial days, referred to a ‘white man’. It was not necessarily a token of respect or indication of subservience, and in fact could be delivered in a sneering tone indicating disparagement.

I never became comfortable being addressed as masta. It just felt wrong.

The word misis meant ‘white woman’. The word man refers to an indigenous Melanesian man and the word meri refers to an indigenous Melanesian woman.

These words can also be applied to indicate the gender of other creatures as well. For example, a bull is a bulmakau man and a cow is a bulmakau meri.

I was back in PNG for the first time in 35 years last September and the words masta and misis seemed to have fallen out of favour, but I wasn’t there very long and I may be mistaken

The word pikinini does not evoke a connotation of slavery, as it does in the United States, but refers to ‘a child’ of any race. This led to the truly wonderful reference to Prince Charles in the Port Moresby press as nambawan pikanini bilong Misis Kwin: ‘number one child of the Queen’.

There is a wonderful and versatile phrase in Tok Pisin: em nau. The closest literal translation would be ‘well now’, but em nau packs considerably more meaning and occasionally, a fatalistic philosophy of life.

If a man complains that his head hurts because he drank too much beer last night, his friend may say in sympathy, ‘em nau’. Another man’s wife left him for a rich trader, ‘em nau’ – that sort of behaviour is regrettable but to be expected.

The Chinese trade store raised its prices for tinned mackerel and kerosene just when there was a food and fuel shortage developing. ‘Em nau.’

The helicopter was supposed to pick us up yesterday, but the weather closed in and we may be waiting on this hillside for several days. ‘Em nau.’

Those two short words can convey a great deal of meaning in a wide variety of situations: empathy; compassion; or fatalistic acceptance of circumstances which we cannot control.

There is an aspect of Tok Pisin that can cause a great deal of confusion for beginners learning the language.

This is related to how questions phrased in the negative should be answered.

Say you are a native speaker of English and you’re standing in front of me and you not wearing a hat.

If I were to ask you, “Aren’t you wearing a hat?”, you would likely reply to me, “No”. By replying this way, your meaning would be, “No, I am not wearing a hat.”

In Tok Pisin, however, in the same situation, you would reply, “Yes”, to mean, “Yes, you are correct, I am not wearing a hat.”

Arguably, the Tok Pisin reply is more logical, as it avoids the implied double negative of the English response.

However, linguistic constructions are not always driven by logic, they become driven by custom and usage and this is simply the way it is.

With practice and fluency in a language, correct usage becomes habitual.

This quirk of Tok Pisin, however, can be quite confusing to newcomers to PNG and can, and often does, lead to absurd conversations.

My first evening in PNG, after a somewhat nerve-wracking arrival involving snakes in my hotel room, crocodiles on the beach where I wanted to go for a swim, an all-day power outage due to an inter-tribal war that prevented delivery of fuel, were the clearest reminders that I had arrived back in PNG.

I went downstairs to the bar for what I felt would be a well-deserved drink.

Due to this quirk of Tok Pisin, I had a conversation with the bartender that could have come straight out of an old Abbott and Costello movie.

Not thinking that, without electrical power all day, it was unlikely that there was any ice, I asked for a Scotch with ice. The barman smiled, nodded his head, and came back a minute later with a glass of warm Scotch.

I said, “Don’t you have any ice?”

He smiled and said, “Yes.”

“Okay, then, please may I have some ice for my whisky?”

He smiled broadly, said “No got ice” and walked away.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I drank my warm Scotch, and asked for another one. With ice. The conversation was repeated, more or less verbatim.

“Don’t you have any ice?”


“Then please bring me some ice.”

“No got ice.”

An Australian gentleman sitting at the bar listening to the conversation with a bemused smile, explained my confusion to me.

Once I realised that mastering Tok Pisin would require study, I hired a tutor and spent several hours each day studying.

My favourite lessons were children’s fairy tales translated into Tok Pisin.

The best of these was Tripela Liklik Pik – The Three Little Pigs. I can still recite most of this story in Tok Pisin.

There being no wolves in PNG, the wolf becomes a ‘big fellow, bad fellow, wild fellow dog’.

There are also wonderful recordings of an Australian kiap (patrol officer), Superintendent Mike Thomas reciting Tripela Liklik Pik and Liklik Redpela Hat (Little Red Riding Hood).

These were a fun way to study Tok Pisin grammar and vocabulary.

My Tok Pisin lessons went well and in a short time I was relatively fluent and ready to go into the bush and practice my new linguistic skills.

Although I have never been a particularly religious person, nor spent very much time reading the Bible, I found that reading Tok Pisin translations were good ways to practise my Tok Pisin.

One version I read contained a verse that still sticks in my mind, though I never found that particular translation again.

This was the rendering of “Oh Father, why have you forsaken me?” into Tok Pisin as O, Bigpela Papa bilong mi. Bilong wannem yu bagarrapim life bilong mi?

To me, that always sounded like, “Hey Big Daddy, why did you mess up my life?”

Now at last, the return of the legendary Telek

Keith Jackson & Friends: PNG Attitude 18 October 2022

In Kambek, Telek applies his hauntingly beautiful voice to traverse many musical styles and capture the spirit of the Tolai people. The album blends contemporary with Melanesian rhythms: the music enriched with island harmonies and textured environmental sounds


MATTHEW FORD | Wantok Music

MELBOURNE – George Mamua Telek, or Telek as he is known to his legion of fans throughout the world, has long been at the forefront of Papua New Guinea’s modern music.

His latest album, Kambek (I Lilikun Mulai), ‘Comeback’ in Tok Pisin and Kuanua, is well chosen, and references not only a new production (the first recorded in Rabaul since 1994) but Telek’s recent recovery from a long fought battle with mouth cancer.

Whilst in the Gold Coast to perform at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Telek was diagnosed with the very aggressive cancer which required immediate surgery followed by radiation therapy and a long recovery period.

By any criterion of fame, Telek’s career extending for more than 40 years, has been vibrant and ascendant.

It includes an MBE for services to the development of music culture and industry in PNG, international releases of his albums, an Australian ARIA award for the best world music album, and high praise from the bibles of the music and entertainment industry, Rolling Stone and Billboard.

“Telek’s voice alone mesmerises and seduces,” wrote Billboard, the US rock music colossus. “This provocative singer with the ’magic’ for writing songs has produced one of the most remarkable pairings of world music made this year”.

While the UK Sunday Times extolled “Telek’s voice on its own is a thing of rare beauty”.

Through his original work with the Tolai village-based Moab Stringband, the legendary 1980’s rock band Painim Wok, his many collaborations with eminent Australian musicians Kev Carmody, David Bridie and the late Archie Roach, as well as his solo output, Telek has long been one of the most important performers in the Pacific region.

Kambek (I Lilikun Mulai) is the first album Telek has recorded in his home base of Rabaul since Tavurvur volcano destroyed the town (including the recording studios) in 1994.

For this comeback album Telek teamed up with his former bandmates from Painim Wok – legendary guitarist John Warbat, drummer Henry Maniot and bass player John ‘Pooger’ Yass.

The album was mixed by Simon Polinksi, who recorded and mixed Telek’s award-winning self-titled album in 1997 and also worked with Yothu Yindi and Paul Kelly.

In Kambek, Telek again applies his hauntingly beautiful voice to traverse many musical styles and capture the spirit of the Tolai people.

The album, which was released four days ago, blends contemporary with Melanesian rhythms: the music enriched with island harmonies and textured environmental sounds.

The album revolves around Telek’s unique vocal sound and style and is complete with lush Melanesian harmonies and instrumentation that provide a joyous underlay.

Included in the 11 original tracks are:

A great example of how Telek believes in the power of song in the album opener, Noken Paitim Meri (No Violence Against Women). This is a potent ballad in which Telek states directly to Papua New Guinean men that domestic violence is abhorrent and acceptable under no circumstances. The vocal is yearning and heartfelt, the chorus epic.

On Gadin Kaikai (Garden Food), Telek joins up with the Moab Stringband to extol the virtues of a village garden diet.

Giraun Em I Laif (Land is Life) is a contemporary island reggae tune underscoring the message about the importance of customary land.

Ramkuk is a traditional Gunantuna song performed in stringband style about the power a magical spirit bird has over people.

Lus Lo Solwara (Lost at Sea) is dedicated to the families and friends of the East New Britain officials who went missing in the Wide Bay Pomio area and have never been found.


Telek and Painim Wok rocking it in the early years at Queen’s Park, Rabaul

All songs written by George Telek:

  1. Noken Paitim Meri
  2. Best Talaigu
  3. Among Nata
  4. Ramkuk
  5. Giraun Em I Laif
  6. Avutung
  7. Gunan Na Niuvia
  8. Sik Kensa
  9. Gadin Kaikai
  10. Lus Lo Solwara
  11. Alili

Lead singer: George Telek MBE. Guitars: John Warbat MBE, Lloyde Coplen, Phil Wales. Drums: Henry Maniot, John Hakalitz. Bass: John ‘Pooger’ Yass, Paul Cartwright. Keyboards: McLaren Vengiau, David Bridie. Pikinini bilong Mac i singsing long Gunan na Niuvia (Mac’s children sing on Gunan na Niuvia)

Featuring the Moab Stringband from Raluana on Gadin Kaikai – Kaul Wartir, Wargi Apelis, Waina Henry Pindiat, Amos Boas

Recorded at Black Label Studio, Takubar, Kokopo. Melbourne recordings engineered by Andrew Robinson at ToRurua Studios, Thornbury. Engineered by Noel Vengiau and Nathan Coplen.

Additional Telek vocals recorded at Krazy Sound Studio, Kokopo

Album produced by McLaren Vengiau and David Bridie with George Telek.

Mixed and mastered by Simon Polinski at Laundry Goat Studios

Oro to this Place of War and Peace

Words by Gregory Bablis and Art by David Kepa

This poem was originally published on 28 June 2022. It is republished here again with an artwork from a seasoned local artist from the Kokoda LLG.

Oro da

Oro da

Oro da Biage

Oro da Kaiva

Welcome to this place

Welcome to this place

Welcome to the place of the Biage

Welcome to the place of the Kaiva

Oro means welcome

Da means place

Oro, Oro, Oro

Coming from a smiling face

Greetings for strangers and kin

And for you and me

This is no awful din

But jovial camaraderie

From Eora, Alola, Isurava, Kokoda

To Hoi, Sengi, Oivi and Gorari

Kovelo to Kamando

Sisireta to Popondetta

Oro, Oro, Oro

The place of flying monarchs

And wingless angels

The bird-sized butterfly

And ghosts who walked

Our very own Los Angeles

Home of michelangelo’s and Raphael

Messengers and labourers

Fuzzy Wuzzies on bush tracks

Carer’s and soldiers

Papuans and New Guineans

All shades of black

Bloody be Buna

Gona got gone

Shattered seashores Sanananda saw

Enough had everyone at Endaiadere

Welcome to this place

Of grass-skirts and tapa

A place of people

From Binandere to Kaiva

Of warriors and chiefs

Sorcerers and martyrs

Men and women

From Hunjara and Kaina

A place of love

A place of peace

A place of war

A place of life

A place of death

Ended lives

Beginning of life,

After life.

I wrote the above poem sitting in my house in the middle of Gorari Village thinking about this beautiful land that is steeped in the history of the Second World War (WWII) in the Pacific as well as its own traditional histories. The title of the poem is Oro to this Place of War and Peace. This is a place that knew war and continues to know it through its materiality and lingering effects even during this time of peace. One can read and analyse the dichotomy of war and peace and of life and death in the lives, culture and landscape of this place. Some of the contradictions are clear from the stanzas of the poem, for instance the play on the role of Papuans and New Guineans who worked as medical orderlies and carriers (carer’s) versus those who fought as soldiers. The majestic mountains of the ranges now named after one called Owen Stanley conceal some of these callous contradictions. The resplendent rugged terrain does not easily reveal the stories of those ragged bloody hero’s, foreign and locals alike, who traipsed across this landscape eighty years ago.


By Eleina Kepa, Grade 7, Gorari Primary School, Kokoda LLG, Sohe District, Oro Province

Education oh education!

Education build the nation

Education is the future destiny

Choose education to sow in

Education reaps the harvest

Success and happy life

Oh Government of the day!

Invest in human resources

Empower our nation

Take pride in education

Education is an investment.