The Wantoks from klostu Goroka.

A helicopter goes overhead and the air shudders between the walls inside. The kids downstairs cease their racket, but only for a moment as the aircraft rumbles its way through the sky. When it is gone from earshot the children resume their bickering and moaning from where they had left off, interminable and frustrating. Otherwise the only close noise is the prattle of my fingers on the keyboad and the short, pointless bark of some dog on the road. There is always the rush of automobile traffic downhill and the rustle of leaves and plastic bags in the breeze, but they form a mere backdrop of noise. An audible wallpaper, curtain, or woven grass mat.

Outside the gardener is making his rounds, as he does every few hours. This is mostly what he does: makes the rounds. Also he sleeps but this takes up only a few of his working hours on the most lugubrious of afternoons. His work from time to time also involves swinging at protruding blades of grass, twigs or weeds with his short, crude bush knife. I do not see him do this often but I hear it if I am home. When he hacks at the grass or weeds sticking from the earth the resulting noise is like a scattering of hailstones on concrete and tin roofs – except they are not chunks of ice but actual rocks that he sends through the air with the sharp blows he delivers to the errant vegetation. Later I pick these stones up and take them in my pocket when I walk down the road, as my status in relation to the antisocial dog named Sexi has not been fully resolved.

The gardener has a fantastic habit of wearing a once-colourful sarong instead of trousers or shorts on the hot afternoons. This garment, along with a floppy fishing hat and a stained old t shirt, comprises his work uniform. It is not unfair to say his appearance is cartoonish as a result – although the extent of his actual sense of humour or actual comical nature will probably never be known to me. The gardener is mostly deaf and I believe mostly speechless also. He nods, waves and usully smiles when I greet him, but that is all. Sometimes when I venture onto our balcony during the day I see him sitting by himself in the shade looking downhill at the busy road and the PMV stop, the purest image of stillness. At these times I try to fathom the thoughts that nestle in his brain, and sometimes I find myself almost crushed by loneliness for his sake.

The other Papua New Guineans (ie ‘nationals’ or as I would prefer to say ‘locals’) who work here are the guard squad who man the huge swinging steel-bar gate at the entrance to the compound. During the day there is usually only one or two on duty, I guess two or three at night. By day they avoid the sun’s ferocity by keeping watch from their guardhouse next to the steep driveway. This structure is simple, made of large undecorated concrete bricks, and it is furnished with a refridgerator, one or two chairs, and a bench that they doze on. There is an antechamber with a shower, and behind the guardhouse is a clothes line and a few other oddments the they deploy in an effort to make their work less difficult. I do not envy the tedium of their work but I am thankful. After all they are the men who remain awake at night so we may sleep unmolested.

I haven’t etched all their names into my memory but the eldest is named Pokaro, the youngest-looking is called Nasun, some of the others are called Fal, Tylan and Keko. All speak little or no English, and as my Tok Pisin is also limited we communicate only the briefest and most basic phrases: “Apinun Nasun, yu olrait?” or “Mi amamas tru long lukim yu”. I frequently make reference to the “bigpela sun” by way of chit chat. The talk typically tapers out before too long but old Pokaro never seems bothered, be repeatedly asks “nem blong yu?” and grasps my arm or hand without any of the shyness his younger colleagues. His expressions are great to behold – at once as kindly as a generous and benevolent grandfather but sometimes as savage as an old Highlands fighter. His speech is often open-mouthed, and always stained a virulent red from chewing buai. His teeth are in a dreadful state, but his craggy old smile is reassuring.

For old Pokaro’s sake alone I hope to grasp Tok Pisin more competently, but until I get some regularity in my speech – with someone equally adept at English to shunt my learning along – I doubt this will happen. The other day my conversation with Nasun and Pokaro was enough to glean that all the guards, the gardener and many others besides were all wantoks, from the same village ‘klostu Goroka’. I haven’t been able to find out how many of Pokaro’s wantoks work here – ‘planti planti’ was the best answer so far.

It’s easy to regard the security arrangements sceptically. The boys aren’t too vigilant when it comes to visitors during the day, having no interest in interrogating anyone walking through the gate. I asked myself what exactly they would repel intruders with if it came to it? Silly question. Three bows and a collection of arrows nestle in racks in the guardhouse, and Pokaro was more than pleased to demonstrate his technique with the bush knife. ‘Sapos raskol cam’ he said, ‘mi katim!’ This was accompanied by a few mock blows against forearms and legs. Like many other places PNG grants the bush knife a special place in the pantheon of useful items. They are readily available and a sharp one is great for hacking back vegetation, harvesting certain crops, opening boxes, splitting coconuts, removing human limbs – and probably opening bottles of SP too. I’m happy with my bottle-opener though, thanks.

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1 Response to “The Wantoks from klostu Goroka.”


  1. 1 Alba October 15, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    cranky! keep me posted on the dog situation. sounds crap. i hate crazy dogs. the street dogs in taiwan were awesome. strangers fed them and they’d just wander around places like 7/11 and stuff.
    take care friend. xoxo


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