I was 7 years old when the colonial District Commissioner, Jack Emmanuel, was killed by our people in Kabaira on the 19th of August 1971.
My own father had died of cancer of the oesophagus a few days earlier. So I was a very young orphan at that time and struggling to stay in school after my loss. I was in Grade 1.
The early 1970s was a precarious time to be growing up as a Tolai child during those turbulent times of political conflict on the Gazelle Peninsula.
Riot squads and German shepherd dogs had been brought in and stationed up at Tomaringa. For a moment of history, Tolai people felt isolated and targeted by the colonial administration. Our people were seen as the trouble makers fighting for self determination and independence. But our leaders were even then, defiant and did not want self determination to be called “independence”. They demanded that it be known and broadcasted on “Radio Rabaul” as “Tibuna Varkurai” – self rule.
As little children, we stayed away from the public roads. Our elders were fighting a village based civil war between the “mataungans” and the “multi”. It was a grand fist fight. The only civil war on earth that was fought with bare handed fist fights as the Mataungans went door to door, dragging out Tolais, including their own relatives who were part of or sympathetic towards the expatriate led political movement called the “Multi-Racial Council” and beating them up. My own brother (cousin in Western terms) To Varvaiyu who because he was a policeman also got dragged out and beaten up. He lost some teeth. “Stay away from the Multi..!”
“It was the comforting voice of our Chief Minister Michael Somare that brought peace to the hearts of the mothers of the combatant Tolai people at that moment in history.”
I was 9 years old in 1972 when Sir Michael Somare became our Chief Minister and then when I was 10 years old in 1973, I was with my mother and we heard him talk on the radio. For the first time since the events of 1971, I saw my mother’s mood change from a woman afraid for the safety of her children during the political turmoils to one reassured about the future of Papua New Guinea.
Somehow, as Tolais, we had been led to believe throughout the historical movement for Independence that the Sepiks and the Highlanders were our enemies and that soon the whole Territory would be amassed against us because of our bellicose and rebellious attitudes towards colonial rule.
Yet, here was our new Chief Minister, talking to us and addressing us as his own people, assuring us that we would be part of the new Papua New Guinea. And for the first time, even I as a child of 10, truly felt secure and hopeful. And sitting there with my mother, we really felt that we belonged with the rest of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and that we would become independent under this charismatic voice that was speaking to us on the radio. My mother commented on the quality of his voice, the authenticity of his message and the ease at which his words just rolled off his tongue.
She was biased. My mother was a devout Catholic and she knew, just by the Chief Minister’s name that he was a Catholic man. So she immediately said to me, how fitting that he is named after Saint Michael. “Saint Michael is the patron saint of people who live on Islands. And Papua New Guinea is made up of many islands.”
I have to admit that I have cried when I started writing this. Because even if our country is not a perfect country, the reasons that our people fought for independence were simply that we wanted to be perceived and respected as human beings in our own right, by the colonial administration and the largely racist expatriate population of the time. That fight for our human dignity had become for many of our people an existential threat to their very lives, and the lives of their families and children.
But as John Momis, former President of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville once said of our Grand Chief: “Instead of shrinking from the challenges of his time like the fear of independence and the injustices of colonialism, he literally gave himself to pursue his vision of an inspiring future for Papua New Guinea. It was a mark of a true leader when he took the bold step of making things happen and taking ownership of major decisions unpopular as they might have been.”
On that day, on the 16th of September 1975, I was a 12 year old Grade 5 student as I proudly marched with my fellow pupils, the 3 kilometers from my Primary School to our High School where we assembled to be a part of the events that were unfolding in our new Capital, Port Moresby. There on that day, our first Governor General, Sir John Guise, famously pronounced on September 16 1975, our Independence Day, that :
“[…] we are lowering the flag of our colonisers […] not tearing it down.”
We had achieved our independence not through the use of violence, due to the calm, peaceful and gentle leadership of our Sana, our Grand Chief, Sir Michael Somare.
Today as a country, if we are not careful, our Sana’s consensus and peace building leadership could be lost to this country for many years to come.
Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare was, as Jonathan Ritchie, Senior Lecturer in History of Deakin University wrote in an obituary to Sir Michael:
“Somare was the colossus of PNG’s political landscape: chief minister from 1972 to 1975 while the country was still an Australian-administered territory, its first prime minister (1975-1980), as well as its third (1982-85) and 12th (2002-2011, although some consider that his term concluded in 2012).”
Sir Michael Sana Somare was a leader like no other country ever had in the history of nations.
I remember in 1980, when Sir Michael Somare lost the Prime Ministership to Sir Julius Chan, my late sister Elizabeth cried for her favorite Prime Minister. But in the spirit of the new country that he had brought to independence, when Sir Michael became opposition leader, he served even that position with pride and dignity. And there again, he demonstrated to the people of Papua New Guinea that the Prime Minister’s position was not a personal property of the father of our nation.
As we stand here together, surrounding the immediate and dear family of our beloved and fallen leader, our Sana, our Grand Chief, the tears we cry, come from a profound source of knowledge. For so many of us still know, that this man has led us together, as we walked from a bad place to becoming citizens of this great nation.
Condolences and our heartfelt Thank you to Lady Veronica, Bertha, Sana, Arthur, Michael, Dulciana and Sir Michael’s grandchildren for sharing with all of us as Papua New Guineans, the life of this great man, our beloved leader.
For those of us who were graced by the kindness of his eyes and his voice, to have been in his great and comforting presence, we know what we have lost. Yet we remain spellbound, inspired and forever connected to that source of human empowerment, to the legacy of the greatest man that has ever led what was mostly an illiterate people towards the light and dream of independence and nationhood.
God Bless Papua New Guinea and Grant our Grand Chief, our Sana, Peace and Eternal Rest.
Vale Sir Michael Somare..! Thank you for giving us our country.