GROWING UP IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA by Fernah Peacey

 

Recently I digitalised my dad’s slide collection so that my sisters and I could share and enjoy our childhood memories. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane and I found treasures in this photo collection. They were mainly of our life in Papua New Guinea (PNG) during the 1960s and early 70’s. My parents Betty and Albert Scarlet worked with the local United Church, and my sisters and I were MKs (missionary kids) or third culture kids (children who don’t belong to the culture they live in nor their parent’s culture).

Fernah & Parents at Wellington Wharf N.Z. en route to PNG
Fernah & Parents, Albert & Betty Scarlet at Wellington Wharf N.Z. en route to PNG

I was born in New Zealand and went to PNG when I was under two years old and that is where I formed my earliest memories.

I have happy memories of a carefree type of existence. We lived in two different places in PNG. The first place we lived in was Saroa, 80km from Port Moresby accessible by a 4WD road in the dry season and by canoe in the wet season.

Fernah aged 2 at home in Saroa, PNG
Fernah aged 2 at home in Saroa, PNG

The second place we lived was on Fergusson Island in the Milne Bay province (southern eastern tip of PNG). It was similar to Saroa but island life was very different. It was very remote with a fortnightly plane service from a neighboring island to Port Moresby and a monthly boat that brought supplies from Samarai – it was just as well my parents had grown up out of war years and knew how to make do with basics as there was no supermarket for groceries. We always lived near the coast and thus it was hot and humid most of the time.

We children had a fantastic life. Our days consisted of early mornings and getting into our school lessons early (before it was too hot). School was correspondence school. We read our lessons and followed the directions with a bit of help from Mum. Mostly, we did our lessons at home at our desks although for a few months we had a little school with some other families doing correspondence school. We usually finished school by lunch time and had the afternoons free to play. Occasionally, we participated in “school of the air” – a school lesson held over the 2-way radio and other times we attended the local primary school for art and crafts.

Fernah with her sisters and friends in PNG
Fernah with her sisters and friends in PNG

Sometimes we did more than one lesson per day to get ahead so that we could take extra holidays. A couple of times my sister and I went on boat trips with Dad – away to exciting far flung places. Instead of a road trip we sat on a slow boat for a day. Dad always put out a fishing line behind the boat hoping for a fish and sometimes he was rewarded.

We didn’t have many toys and certainly no TV. We had our dolls and books – otherwise we played climbing trees, going to the wharf fishing or swimming in the river. Our friends were each other and a few local PNG kids. We learned to play marbles and hop scotch by marking out circles or squares in the dirt.

We learned a lot from our Papuan friends – mainly in the food department and usually without our mother’s knowledge. We learned to eat green mangoes (best with some salt), the large red biting ants (I decapitated them prior eating), various berries, and nuts found in the bush. One time my sister and I cooked grubs wrapped in leaves over an open fire. My favourite green vegetables were the bracken type ferns. We also enjoyed the juicy sweet mangoes so juicy that the mango juice ran down my chin.

We used to enjoy doing some craft work, learning how to weave pandanas and make balls out of coconut leaves.

My sisters and I didn’t learn the local languages but we seemed to understand what was going on. Most of our friends spoke simple English and we often used a kind of broken English with our Papuan friends. Not Pigin but a bit of a mixture of local language and English.

Fernah & Sisters in Ginigolo Village
Fernah & Sisters in Ginigolo Village

I grew up being scared of snakes and crocodiles. I never saw a crocodile but knew that they were there. I only once saw a live snake and once helped Mum kill a python having a go at the hens. Even after being back in New Zealand for a number of years I still had that fear of snakes.

I think my mother’s main worry for us was that we would get a serious illness. On the main part we stayed healthy. We took our antimalarial tablets each week and didn’t get malaria. I think the sickest we all were was with chicken pox that we caught when we were on leave in NZ and then came down with when we got back to PNG.

Fernah's Dad Radioing Home from a Patrol on The Owen Stanley Range
Fernah’s Dad, Albert Scarlet, Radioing Home from a Patrol on The Owen Stanley Range

We left PNG in 1971 after my father sadly died suddenly from a heart attack and I left a bit part of me behind in PNG as well. I returned for a visit in 1979 and then again in 2012. The visit in 2012 was most meaningful and along with my husband I visited the places I grew up and my dad’s grave. There, the local church held a small graveside memorial service for us. That was an amazing healing experience for me. I also renewed contact with one of my childhood friends and now we can communicate by email.

Memorial Service at Fernah's Dad's Grave - Salamo 2012
Memorial Service at Fernah’s Dad’s Grave – Salamo

I look back on my childhood with many fond memories and feel an affinity for the Melanesian people. In 2011 my husband and I went to Honiara in the Solomon Islands where we lived for 2 ½ years. I found myself fitting in fairly easily to a culture that was so similar to the culture I had grown up in. Yet, I also belong in New Zealand and again felt the tension of living in two cultures.

Can I recommend to those of you whose families took slide photography to digitalise them? We purchased a special slide and negative scanner (there are various brands on the market). The process is a little labour intensive but preserves memories. I ensured that after scanning the slides I sat down with my mother to identify the people and locations and approximate dates so that knowledge is not lost.