April 11, 2014 — Leave a comment


Trukai! Good food – is the direct translation from the Pidgin English of Papua New Guinea. It was the slogan, or tag if you prefer, thought up by my father in 1973 for the rice he was charged with importing from the Riverina area of Australia, for the company he worked for – Rice Industries.

To this day when I see a canoe with a sail flapping I am taken back to the lakatois, small tree trunks hollowed out and balanced with an even smaller trunk or branch acting as an outrigger, and powered by empty rice sacks catching whatever wind was available, all proclaiming ‘Trukai’.

As a college student spending my summer holiday backpacking around Europe, my Trukai teeshirts were much sought after and became great bargaining chips. It amused me to think of scrubby bearded Canadians walking the streets of Toronto, or a laconic German sauntering down the Kurfüstendamm in a Berlin still isolated, bearing a Pacific island tee exhorting all and sundry to eat rice!

My boyfriend of the time, now my husband, who I met when back in PNG working for a trading company, was a VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas upon which the Peace Corps was based) building a road that would eventually cross the Owen Stanley Range and link Lae, on the Huon Gulf on the north of the island, to Port Moresby on the south. As the road inched its way through dense jungle and over steep and ragged ranges he would notice as each until then isolated village was reached, the first truck to arrive would not be carrying protein, such as fish from the coast, but beer. But the drivers would invariably be wearing Trukai tee shirts.

And so when I had an email yesterday from a friend, Trisha Carter, co-author with Rachel Yates of Finding Home Abroad, telling me she was currently sitting in the Trukai offices in Lae, Papua New Guinea, in between cultural training sessions with expats and locals, I was transported back to one of the most beautiful countries in which I have ever lived.

A country of intense contrasts. Eye scorchingly hot plains where the sun shimmered in a haze of dust as trucks juddered along the corrugated road, cutting in a straight line along the Markham Valley up to the Kassam Pass, and into the misty mystery of jungle-clad mountains where the sky was rarely seen. Where colours on the coast were vivid; from the clear cerulean to almost emerald seas, and the pillar-box red and sunshine yellow cannas marched along the roadside in unruly abandon, drawing the eye from mostly jerry-built homes and shops. The mountain jungle, greens of every imaginable hue, would occasionally offer a flash of brilliance, maybe a tulip tree or if very lucky a Bird of Paradise. And the people. Happy to provide ballast as we crossed, in our open and door-free Suzuki, a gully rushing icy water down to the lazy Bumbu River and out to the Solomon Sea: cigarettes and handshakes, accompanied by smiles and Pidgin, as we parted ways on the other side.

Passing a couple walking who knows where, he three steps ahead proudly carrying a bow and wearing a penis sheaf, a feather jaunty in his hair, and little else; she bowed by a heavy bilum, the string bag biting into her forehead and laden with firewood, or a child, or a pig, or sometimes even a weary husband.

Parties, formal and informal, were often a mingling of races and religions. Cricket on a cow-strewn patch of ground a merging of black and white, all wearing white. And the market, the barometer of civil uncertainty in any third world country, a hubbub of colours and sounds, and of course Trukai.

There was unrest, often inflamed by alcohol, as people railed against the perceived slow progress. Progress though I think, sometimes has to be slow if it is to be long lasting. Independence from Australia in 1975 was new, and like all emerging countries Papua New Guinea was taking some shaky steps in their determination to stand alone. But there was a feeling of hope, of pride, a certainty they would make it as an independent nation.

I left in early 1978, my parents in 1986. Hope and pride were still in the air. Which is why Trisha Carter’s email so saddened me yesterday with the words, “it is a very challenging location for expat families I think – only one of the expat guys has his family with him.” But there was still hope, as she continued, “the locals in the training are brilliant – and it’s been great to have the expats and locals discuss together how culture influences, and impacts, work.”

Nationalisation in any developing country is, I believe, a good thing but it can only come about successfully with measured and patient steps.  And it is only with cultural awareness on both sides, and true understanding, particularly from those lucky enough to be a guest in a foreign land, that an honest exchange of ideas, and a workable map for the future can be achieved.

As I think of Trukai, I am inordinately proud of my father and his legacy in Papua New Guinea. He understood!

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