Samarai Island: Once A District Nerve-Centre

The south side of Samarai Island. The sight of a lone man in his canoe – still the main mode of transport for many people in these islands.

It was a short trip to Samarai from Doini Island – less than 30 minutes. I had never seen the island from this side before.

The Kwato Mission boats, MV Osiri and MV Labini would berth here some Saturdays bringing shoppers from Kwato and the famous homemade Kwato bread and buns. These were a popular hit as the ladies always returned to Kwato with the large empty bread basins.

Simply known as Government wharf - where all the Government workboats used to berth.
Many happy memories of this wharf especially when the mission boats, MV Osiri and MV Labini would berth here for Kwato islanders to do their shopping at Samarai’s two main department stores – Steamships and Burns Philp and many other shops such as the hardware store.
 
The natural swimming pool at Samarai - you can jump into the pool from Government Wharf.
Samarai was the District headquarters for the Milne Bay District before the advent of provinces. It was a hub for many islanders and a government nerve-centre for Milne Bay District in the south eastern tip of Papua New Guinea.
 
The once iconic Anglican Church on the main drag to the town centre. Sadly, it is falling apart. Once gone, a part of our history and heritage will go with it.
To a little girl growing up on the neighbouring island of Kwato in the mid-60s, Samarai had everything from a post office to two hospitals, two prisons, two clubs (mind you the two of everything meant one for whites and one for natives) but one bank, one dedicated hardware store, one bakery that turns out beautiful Samarai bread (the ones that come close to this size of bread could be found at Brumby’s bakery in Vision City in Port Moresby), a fresh local vegetable market and so on.
 
Samarai was an exciting place to be. There were lots of colonial government officers mainly Australian and a number of mixed race families lived here too.
 
We used to visit the dentist on Samarai a couple of times a year – arrrrgh that was a visit no kid wants to make but such was life for 7-8 year olds in the early ’60s.
 
The Robinson Memorial, stands at what could have been a traffic intersection (mostly pedestrian traffic perhaps).
 
This memorial stands on one of the main drags leading to the many lovely colonial residences and the Samarai cricket ground. Many of these houses were built like the ones you can still see today in Cairns, Australia.
 
The message on this memorial is not politically correct now but it must have been in those days or how else would they have got the message etched on the thing in the first place. As a young girl I never paid attention to the message until much later.
 
I don’t know why this memorial still stands with its politically incorrect message. To my knowledge no-one had tried to remove it from this beautiful island. I dare to think now that perhaps its historical heritage value is considered more than by removing it.
 
In fact I think this is a classic example of a memorial that could be regarded as offensive, yet it tells a story of what times were like then. Particularly the colonial mentality that reigned supreme in those days.  How different would Milne Bay have been or for that matter PNG if this message were to have continued into the 21st Century. I dare not think about that. The value now would be in tourism mostly and something to see when at Samarai or in these islands.
 
What remains of the memorable Burns Philp department store. We used to buy Paul's icecream here. I even bought a book on Greek mythology in this store. Those were the days.
Samarai was self-sufficient. It had everything we needed in the islands and more. There was a bank – the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) which was situated in the heart of the town and a tea shop where meat pies and coca cola were the popular items on the menu. 
 
Samarai was the place to be on Saturdays for grocery shopping, native vegetables, smoked fish, cooked chestnuts in coconut, Logea aigaru (unique green leaves that are found in Milne Bay and absolutely delicious when cooked in coconut and as an accompaniment to smoked fish) and many other exciting bits and  pieces such as icecream, apples and meat pies not to mention Buntings biscuits (white) and navy bread biscuits. My faourite sweet biscuits in those days were called ‘MilkyWay’ and ‘Tea Cake’.
 
This island was a heavenly treasure trove for us ‘other’ neighbouring islanders who were fortunate to be on Samarai on Saturdays, ANZAC Day and Kaihea (cultural festival) events.
Memorial Hall at Samarai. We would congregate here after the ANZAC Day march around the island led by the PIR Band. Those were the days.
 On ANZAC Day (25th April) school children would gather to march around the island led by the Pacific Island Regiment Band. This was an exciting time for us. We’d come over from Kwato to join in the celebration. Everyone would congregate infront of the Memorial Hall for speeches etc. We’d also sing hymns and the one I especially remember is “O God Our Help In Ages Past”.

 

We came from Kwato Island to join in the commemoration. We would join the parade with the Pacific Islands Regiment (PIR) and march along the identified route which brought us back to the Memorial Hall. I didn’t quite understand why we had to do this but it felt good to be marching in our Brownie uniforms. I was fascinated with the bagpipes that the PIR carried and played as we marched to the tunes.
 
A plaque (photo on the right) honouring the fallen in Gallipoli reminds us that war is not a cool thing then and now.  I could not recall ever having seeing this plaque but that’s probably because we only went anywhere near the Memorial Hall only when invited or when there was a good reason to be anywhere near it such as the ANZAC Day commemorative events.
 
Remains of the main wharf where many a tourist cruise liner would berth such as the Bulolo or Malaita. I was really sad just standing there and looking at this. Oh, if I had a couple of million Kina to spare....
I dug into my memory bank and recalled that hundreds of copra bags full of copra waiting to be shipped would be piled high on one side of the main wharf. We’d look for the dried coconuts that fell out on the side – they made such a lovely snack!
 
Looking across to Kwato and Logea - silhouettes against the early evening sky.
Walking down to Government Wharf and our boat to take us back to Alotau, I felt a pang of homesickness. Well, even a grown-up feels that from time to time. We are all captives of the tranquility of these islands. Especially the peace it brings especially when the day is done and one is in a reflective mood which I admit was my state of mind as we strolled towards the boat.
 
We assembled at Government Wharf and boarded our boat. There was no-one I knew I could wave aioni (good bye) to. Kind of sad. We pulled away from the wharf and as we set the course for Alotau we passed the main wharf and what used to be the Steamships wharf and all I could see was critical infrastructure falling apart and no-one seems to be doing anything about it.
 
Views of the seafront where the Samarai CBD was once the hub of financial, economic, and social activities. 
 
The main wharf and old Steamies wharf - alongside eachother. What a tragedy? or can we still save this heritage site?
 This seafront was a hive of acivity in the ’60s and ’70s which made Samarai Island the place to be. Even during the early ’80s and ’90s. It was a meeting place for all sorts of people I reckon – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Samarai was such an iconic place then.
 
Would we be able to rekindle that illustrious past maybe in another way and make it once again the hub every province needs. Each province needs more than one hub to get services to remote areas of the province.
 
Looking back at the once awesome nerve centre of Milne Bay, I struggled to hold back the tears.
 “Back to Samarai the island of my dreams….” courtesy of the Island Sounds resonates with all those who came to love this idyllic little island, once full of life.
 
In the distance, only a few posts remain of the walkway that led to the 'restroom' over the water.
So the visit to Samarai was a painful reminder that we seem to let our history and heritage fade before our very eyes. We seem to take what was really good and practical in the past so much for granted and which we can use and turn to our advantage in our current development plans and activities. We seem to go for new things rather than building on the ones we already have. Samarai is a very real case in point.
 
It is still worth a visit if you are in Alotau and need to stretch your legs or do some island-hopping over a weekend. Samarai is worthy of a stop.
 
I believe there is time for a major resucitation and facelift. Let’s get government services back to the smaller islands in the southeast of Milne Bay by making Samarai a critical stopover place. It is bound to grow from its hibernating roots if given even a dog’s chance, to revive itself with the help of those who loved the island and still do.  Perhaps the ‘Samarai Island diaspora’ is an excellent start. What sayeth ye?
 

“Oh Kwato Is A Green Place…”

Looking up from the Kwato wharf - on the left is the big badila (nut) tree and the raintrees. But what was most disturbing was the fast rising sea level on this foreshore.

As our dinghy pulled up along side the wharf at Kwato, I was struck with the beauty of this island where my siblings and lots of relatives grew up and lived. I went to school here. The big badila tree reminded me of waking up early in the mornings to collect the nuts that the flying foxes have dropped on the ground the evening before.

We used to sing “Oh Kwato is a green place, a home for the flowers…”

The walk across the cricket ground and up towards the main road brought back lots of memories. But hey, the big gisoa (mango) trees were gone. The place did not look right. I searched for a small landmark which my Grandfather left and what a great relief that brought tears to my eyes. It was still there.

The iconic Kwato Church. One of the two stone churches in PNG. Both are over 100 years old. How majestic the dubu looked.
 
This is the first time I am able to take a shot like this. My Nikon D90 did not fail me – more like the panoramic lens. This is a Papuan dubu design. We walked around it and then looked beyond – now one could take in a 360 degree view from this vantage point. The dubu is situated on a small plateau on Kwato. Isiiii kapole hinage…the day was sunny and bright and was the right time to visit Kwato. Met up with some relatives and wish I had time for more meetings but we were on a schedule so next time.
 
We walked up to Tupi and met up with Uncle S who incidently saw us earlier on during our climb up towards dubu. He was with a couple of the guys repairing parts of Aituha ( short distance from the back of the Church). His house has a priceless view of the Papuan mainland and surrounding islands.
 
He had a great collection of hibiscus and other beautiful flowers. Uncle S let us take as many shots as we wanted of the flowers and here’s one of them of the magnificient pink and white hibiscus at the front of the house.
 
Magnificient pink and white hibiscus - '"...a home for the flowers..." alright. Amatoi lailai Uncle S for receiving us so graciously and letting us take photos of your beautiful flowers.

We bid Uncle S goodbye and headed down the old Sipi Road towards the B & C building and the wharf. It was a wonderful two (2) hour tour of Kwato Island. Thank you much Jenny (Driftwood Resort) for letting me be the tour guide for this trip to Kwato.

Doini Island beckoned as we quickly had some cold drinks and headed towards the wharf.

I reflect on this week and what has happened or has not happened depending on one’s perspective. I think PNG went through a process that showed how mature Papua New Guineans have become in looking at political developments and how these events impact on our daily lives. Whilst the seriousness of the impasse and the legal judgements and constitutional dos and donts were debated in Facebook and other media and our freedom hung precariously in the balance, I was amazed at how well we handled ourselves as a nation. Not even Australia can say anything nasty about Papua New Guineans anymore. The smear campaigns their papers run and their politician’s perceptions of PNG as a failed state are blown right out of the water. Politically we are more mature than anyone I know. 

PNG leaders must sort themselves out and resolve their differences because we the silent majoity are taking our democracy very seriously and are putting them on notice with every hour that goes by.

I can’t help thinking that Peter O’Neill now is like the Grand Chief Sir Michael in the early 70s. History is replaying itself again it seems, as the young takes over the reins to take this country to another level. Its proud and risilient citizenry watches silently in hope and positive expectation as another era in our democracy is born before our very eyes.

PNG is a beautiful and amazing country. Let’s keep it that way.

The Albatros In Port Moresby

Absolutely awesome and beautiful...

No, it’s not a bird. It’s a cruise liner called the Albatros.  Looking so awesome in the sunshine. What a beautiful big boat. I wish I could go inside and take a peak.

Anyway, I was personally so happy to see a cruise liner in Port Moresby so soon after some negative reports about a month ago regarding the MS Rhapsody. The reports said it was turned away from calling into Port Moresby because of law and order problems or something to that effect. It was supposed to have called in on 24th February. I’ll never know the truth about that news item. This is not good for visitors to Papua New Guinea or for those of us trying to promote tourism in PNG.

The day the Albatros came to port, there were a few people along one part of Ela Beach displaying arts and crafts for sale and am sure there were similar ones elsewhere in the city. I don’t know whether some of the visitors came on land to experience the sights and sounds of Port Moresby.  It may not be representative of the whole country but it sure has ‘representatives’ from all over Papua New Guinea and it’s 1000 of more different tribes residing here. Such is the cultural diversity of this country.

Wonder how many swimming pools and restaurants are on this cruise liner.

I went up towards Paga Hill to take these shots. On closer inspection, I sighted some PMVs (passenger motor vehicles) at the wharf and even flower pots to beautify the walkway. It seems rather sad though that the passengers are not able to walk up to souvenir shops, tucker shops and some places selling kulau and local fruits. What a pity since cruise ships don’t pay tax, or do they? The place could have been set up to capture some tourist dollars trickling through the visit of the Albatros, albeit a brief one.

PMVs and potted plants but where were the passengers?

The Albatros was built in 1973 (so about 38 years!) in Helsinki, Finland for the Royal Viking Line. It has sailed under a few names, so if you don’t recognise Albatros you may recognise her other names, among others perhaps: Royal Viking Sea, Royal Odyssey, Norwegian Star, Crown and Crown Mare Nostrum. It is operated by Phoenix Reisen based in Germany. I read somewhere that Phoenix Reisen doesn’t own cruise liners, it engages them on long term charters. Well, the Albatros has come a long way to PNG. Danke…

You can see more pictures of the Albatros here.

Looking down towards the jetty and across the cricket pitch. The cricket pitch is barely visible. It is one of the oldest cricket pitches in PNG and one of the first in the country - must be over 100 years old!

The sight of the Albatros reminded me of the Bulolo and Malaita in the 1960s – two cruise liners that regularly berthed at Samarai Island – then District Headquarters of the Milne Bay District (now Milne Bay Province). I remember from Grades 2-4, I was one of the children on Kwato Island who would act as ‘tour guides’ for the tourists and in turn would earn lots of money (shillings and pence in those days) and tips from tourists of all ages – from carrying handbags to selling seashells (cowries, spider shells, etc). We also took down addresses and met a lot of penfriends in Australia that way. I met my first penfriend whose name I can’t readily recall now but she lived on Bowen Street (I think), Victoria, Australia. I got her address from her grandmother who was a tourist on one of the cruise liners that called in at Samarai Island. This was in the early ’60s. That was a long, long time ago.

Well, for the future, I hope we see more of these ships and more passengers visiting our capital city’s attractions such as the National Museum, the Modern History Museum and a whole host of historical landmarks and sites of cultural significance.

I wish the Albatros a safe and pleasant onward journey to other destinations.

Foundation Day In London – A Year Ago Today

Brought back happy memories…

On 24th October, 2009 I celebrated Foundation Day in London with my friends and members of the Queensbury Methodist Church (QMC) as part of their World Mission Week events.

Unless you are from Kwato Island, Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea, you are likely not to have heard of or know what Foundation Day is about.  This is a special event that celebrates the life of the Founding Father of the Kwato Church and the Kwato Mission in the Milne Bay Province – the Rev. Charles William Abel.

Simply put, Foundation Day is the celebration of the birthday of Rev. Charles William Abel within the Kwato Church community. It is a time to gather and reflect on how far the Church has developed from a core of dedicated and committed adherents of the Kwato Church’s congregationalist ways of worship to a fully-fledged Church established by law in PNG.

The Kwato Church grew from humble beginnings through the outreach work of Rev. Charles Abel who came to Milne Bay as a missionary from the LMS (London Missionary Society). The celebrations almost always has a re-enactment of the arrival of Misiebo, as he was referred to by the local people then – a mispronounciation of ‘Mr Abel’.

Choirs are also a major feature of this celebration as the Abels were credited with the introduction of choir singing and the tonic sol-fa music system to Papua New Guinea through the Kwato Mission. This is one of the most striking legacies of Abel’s work in Papua – the other being domestic science, nursing and midwifery, boat-building and the trades and of course the teaching, learning and speaking of the English language.

The Foundation Day is usually a time when we feel proud of this part of our heritage as we sing the Kwato anthem:  ‘Father The Light’. The opening lines go something like this: “Father, the light has come to us we have known. Thy wondrous power that can transform us and make. Anew our lives blot out past evil sown. And give us the victory for our Lord Jesu’ sake. O hear us as now we bring our country to Thee. For bound other people Thou dost wait to set free…”. I remember learning this song in Grade 5 with the late Aunty S. Mark who was our choir teacher then. We had to learn the song through the tonic sol-fa method before we can even dare to sing the words. Kapole…those were the days at Koeabule (KB) Mission Primary School near Alotau town, in the Milne Bay Province.

The name of the Church is the Kwato Church – its name taken from the idyllic little island called Kwato surrounded by four equally beautiful islands of Logea, Samarai, Bonaruahilihili and Ebuma – Logea being the largest and Ebuma being the smalles of the cluster of five islands. Samarai, east of Kwato was the district headquarters of the Milne Bay District then up to 1966/67 thereabouts. Kwato Island is boomerang-shaped and has a plateau on which the Church stands. The Church building on Kwato Island is one of the two stone churches in Papua New Guinea – the other one is in Rabaul, East New Britain Province. The Kwato Church was built by some of the best local stone masons in the area, and with local labour and completed in or about 1937.

This time last year, I was delighted and honoured that the QMC Council accepted my suggestion for this celebration and diarised it in the Church programme for the latter part of the year.

Prior to the gathering that evening, a few friends and I arranged the Morcombe Taylor Hall and I took some of my PNG artifacts, baskets and books to put on display. This was partly, a good opportunity to share something about PNG to my QMC family here in London, and partly to create an appropriate atmosphere for the celebration.

Display table - PNG baskets, artefacts etc

Of course the cooking began the evening before with the preparation of the mumu. This is because it takes hours in either an electric or gas oven. Thanks to sis CK and other wantoks who helped with shopping and peeling of veggies. Without their help and support we would not have had any PNG food to add to the celebrations. We had two big mumu dishes  which were a hit.  To accompany out delish mumu kaikai we also had barbequed pork and chicken curry. I had a special cake made for the ocassion by a local cake maker which had an imprint of one of my photos on the cake – that gave it that special touch. Of course there was also icecream for dessert.

Barbequed pork... courtesy of The Four Seasons, Chinatown, London

On the night I was blessed to have over 50 QMC members join me. The gathering of the QMC family was further graced by the Minister of the Church, and Superintendent of the Methodist Church Circuit for Barnet and Queensbury.

I gave a PowerPoint presentation on the Kwato Church – it’s history, work and legacy which received excellent feedback from the audience. I praised God for His many blessings that enabled me to bring the Kwato Church back to England in this way – through the celebration of Foundation Day.

Mumu...yummy, yummy, yummy

It was a great gathering and a good time was had by all – from what I gathered at the Chruch service on Sunday  (25 October, 2009).