by Michael Woods
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The first time I saw Kendau was when, on a dark evening of torrential rain, he was lashing a sheet of tarpaulin over a truckload of “cargo” to be driven to Banyik, a four hour’s journey away in good conditions.
His rope work was as deft and energetic as that of a seaman possessed and, his mouth stained red with betel nut, he spat streams of scarlet juice furiously.
“Em bigpella rain tonight, masta, em i come down nogat true yeh!” The rains had come and he was predicting the worst.
Kendau was a driver for Sepik Coffee, a once-thriving business concern but now fallen on lean times. He earned his keep not merely as an employee of the company but as one who, for the odd few kina, bag of betel nut and lime or a bunch of bananas, ferried an occasional passenger or local cargo on the company’s four-wheel drive to Wewak or back to Bainyik, where I’d been given a posting as an adviser to a new agricultural college that had just opened.
“Bigpella rain, nogat true yeh!” he again rasped with theatrical solemnity as though presaging a hellish journey. He kept twisting and weaving knots in the ropes as torrential rain came down in black sheets.
Perhaps it really would be a hellish journey. I had never been to the Sepik before, but I knew that the huge brown river snaking down from the Indonesian border could swell and flood in the wet season, taking whole villages in its murky slide to the Bismarck Sea.
I felt slightly foolish holding an umbrella as Kendau, his shirt and shorts black-wet and stuck to his body, padded around the truck in mud to his ankles. Here and there he lightened a rope or put away a loose end, his creased face sometimes glistening in the light of the hurricane lamp. He would give a deep grunt now and then, obviously taking his task seriously but having the authoritative bearing of one who has watched too many white bosses.
“No big problem, masta, Kendau pull you through.”
I was unable to decide, given the persistence of the downpour, along with Kendau’s mock-seriousness concerning it, whether there would in fact be a problem. My time so far in Papua New Guinea had been spent in the capital, Port Moresby, where threats of nature were mocked by solid gleaming buildings and ignored and forgotten by the distractions within them. Not so the human threat which would always remain more lethal, of course, especially with the capital’s murdering and looting gangs. But hundreds of miles to the north, where there was no such apparent security from natural calamity, the elements were more assertive and their hostility more blatant.
So I had thought, at least. And, in spite of some trepidation, I had no real misgivings. In any case, at this stage I felt that anything was preferable to the alcoholically induced hilarity which, as the shadows of night closed in, verged on hysteria among the capital’s social set.
Kendau wiped his hands on his wet shorts and beamed up at me.
He opened the passenger door for me, and I stepped from the grass verge where I had been standing into the mud which I had been trying to avoid. He laughed, steadying me up into the cabin.
The smell of the hot wet earth combined with the acrid smell of the betel nut and lime in Kendau's mouth, although neither those nor the roar of the rain prevented him from talking and laughing while driving at high speed in almost zero visibility.
The half-light soon vanished as night fell. The road to Bainyik was narrow, often just a mud track when the four-wheel drive lost traction and slid sideways as if on ice. Although we only skirted the great river, we crossed several gorges and swollen streams, the torrent sometimes rising up to the headlights. We passed through villages discernible only by the black shapes of the dwellings and the occasional soaring gloom of a tamburan, the towering spirit-houses of that region. The vehicle's headlamps sometimes picked out a line of villagers holding huge shiny banana leaves as protection against the rain. Sometimes one or two turned and stood like animals mesmerized by the headlights, their mournful faces and huge eyes expressionless in the beam. Their ancient ennui seemed ages removed from Kendau’s slick talk, their ponderous slowness immemorially measured compared to his energetic quickness.
“Are you a Sepik man?” I asked as his muscular arms grappled with the wheel to avoid a spin. “Yes masta,” he said, glancing at me in fake indignation. “Big pella Sepik man. Six meris (wives), nineteen, twenty picaninni (children).” He paused to gather his dignity and compose his expression appropriately. “And five pigs!” he roared laughing.
We pulled to a stop abruptly on the far side of a village. Kendau jumped out of the truck, and I heard him shout what seemed to be instructions to some people by the side of the road. A young woman – she could have been no more than fourteen – came around to the windscreen and peered in at me. Her look was not so much one of curiosity but of wonder that other human beings should look that way. The baby she held looked at me with eyes like rock pools and, to my embarrassment, immediately started bawling. Kendau jumped back in and we started up again, the woman still staring in astonish- ment, the baby still bawling.
But it was obvious that someone had climbed onto the back of the truck and was sitting on the tarpaulin in the pouring rain. I asked Kendau whether it would not be better if they joined us in the cabin, for there was room enough for at least three. But he gave me a look of deep reproach and vigorously nodded his disapproval.
“Em i alright,” he said almost in disgust, cracking another betel nut between his teeth. “Masta he like?” he asked, offering one, my courteous refusal bringing on thunderclaps of laughter, my humanitarian interference as worthy of contempt as was my politeness an object of hilarity. Kendau was a bush patrician and, whether he realized it or not, had the capacity to easly humiliate me. His English was surprisingly good, although always woven with pidgin.
“Me like go to Australia," he told me in a rare moment of sincerity, even more striking because we were again hurtling through the bush, sliding around bends and crashing over huge potholes. “Masta Ron he take me,” he added with a noble intonation. “Yes, masta, Australia one great place. There masta em i gut pella an missis em i gut pella too.”
The rain eased as we passed through a village at the edge of which we stopped abruptly, evidently to let our passenger off. Kendau didn’t get out, but kept talking and chewing, until the shape of a man, a banana leaf over his head, appeared at the window and knocked. Kendau, without acknowledgment, sped off.
Soon the dark mass of impenetrable vegetation began to clear. The sky lightened and a sliver of moon, like a clipped fingernail, could be glimpsed behind scudding clouds. The smell of rot and wood smoke lightened also as we turned into a tree-lined drive at the end of which was a large house, on stilts, ablaze with lights.
“We go here first masta. Then we go place belong you.”
Our entry was greeted by a pack of barking dogs. As we pulled up, a man and woman, drinks in hand, appeared on the balcony looking down at us. Then a heavy but well-built man came through the front door and marched down the steps. With his shaven head and baggy shorts, he had the look of someone who had just been roused from his sleep.
Kendau put his betel nut and lime into his bilum, a small woven bag, and opened the door of the truck. “Yes masta Ron,” he greeted the man cheerfully, a look of fear around his bloodshot eyes. The man marched towards the truck as if with something on his mind. As he silenced the yapping dogs with a roar, I got a good look at his big head and heavy jowls. His small eyes had the set of a mean man, and a tiny nose looked lost in the middle of that basket head.
“Where the bloody hell have you been, you stupid black bastard!” he bellowed. “I’ve been waiting all day for that generator part – all day – and I’ve got no work done.”
The house seemed well served by a fully working generator, so I was puzzled.
“Sorry, masta Ron. Big Pella Rain, big pella rain!,” Kendau replied, stretching his arms as if to embrace heaven and earth. In counterfeit rage, the Australian moved towards of Kendau until his moon face was within inches of Kendau's wincing diminutive figure. “Look, you black sod. That rain was a light piss. You let me catch you doing local jobs again and you’ll be lickin pigshit off your fingers. Savvy? Now, get that cargo off the truck and”– he looked inside the cab and saw me”– get crackin!”
As I climbed out of the truck, Kendau, grateful for the respite, began to undo the ropes. Ron, his face now softened into a welcome, held out his hand. “Gd’day,” he said, squeezing firmly. “Ron Saw.”
“Michael Woods,” I said, trying to reciprocate the manly grip.
“Geez,” he said, “Saw and Woods. One name is as queer as the next round here. As long as we’re not queer with it!” he laughed. “I forgot you was comin' for a minute. That’s why I baled up Kendau like that – but come inside for a coldie. Your house won’t be ready for the night, they tell me, so you can stay with us.” He motioned towards the two people leaning over the balcony. “That’s my wife and my second-in-command.”
“Kendau!” he roared. “Take the master’s bags upstairs.” He turned to me with a wink. “You have to keep them on their toes.”
Without any invitation, by virtue solely of my colour, I was given a part to play in this performance. There was no invitation required or decision involved, no acceptance or rejection. White privilege was something it was assumed no one in his right mind would turn down. Yet, in my life I had been "master" of nothing. I was no more suited to rule over anyone else than was this bloated Australian.
I was nevertheless glad of the opportunity to get out of the mud and away from the smell of rotten vegetation and its dark shapes and shadows, a repugnance I was never to overcome.
I took off my shoes and entered a large bright room with polished French floors, a Chesterfield suite covered in pink floral material ranged around a large coffee table with an embedded chess board, with a chaise longue standing against the wall. Beside it was a shelved cabinet with a stereo and video system and a collection of curios of the most gruesome kind, from face masks of horror to grotesque naked figures transformed into lamps.
The room led out onto a balcony where I saw a huge wooden crate, its cover pulled to one side, tufts of straw sticking out over the top, suggesting it had just been filled.
“This is my wife Darlene and my friend Gerhardt – or Ger, for short. He’s a bloody Kraut. So don’t mention the war.” They all laughed weakly.
We shook hands, and Darlene, quite drunk, fetched me a beer from the kitchen. Ron and Gerhard joked about Kendau, then Ron turned to me to apologize for the dispute.
“He’s a good bloke, old Kendau, the best we have. They’re a pack of lazy bastards around here, but he’s not. He works like buggery – he’s our best mechanic and he knows how to deal with people as well, but he likes his few pennies. I don’t really blame him ‘cos he’s got such a gang to support. But he’s a corrupt little bastard just the same. He’s become a one-man bus- and-transport service for all the bloody villages from here to Wewak. I don’t mind so much, but he overdoes it. If Jonesy – Bill Jones, he’s the general manager – if he finds out about it there’ll be bloody hell to pay and my neck’ll be in the bloody noose. So I have to scream at him now and then. Like I know bloody well he did two trips today – that’s why you had to stand around at the airfield for God knows how long and I had to wait a full bloody day for the generator parts – not the generator for the house but the one for the garage where we service all the coffee vehicles. No bloody way am I going to take the house off the generator – we need our cold beer here.” On cue, he took a deep draught from the bottle in his hand.
Gerhard, a tall man in his forties with boyish looks, stood up and excused himself, saying he had a long day tomorrow. “I look after the garage,” he said in a heavy German accent, “and if I’m not there early nobody does a thing.” We shook hands and he left.
Ron and I continued to drink beer while he, in his bluff way, attempted to explain what he called “the local set-up,” a tale which seemed to have as its only theme the laziness of the natives, “or ‘nationals,’ as they like to call themselves now they’ve got their independence. What a joke! Independence for them means dependence on everyone else.”
He began to brood, either from the drink or the heat, but with a palpable sense of oppression which belied his earlier bonhomie. “It’s every man for himself around here, that’s what I say. There used to be two hundred expatriates living here before independence. They were bloody good times. We had an airstrip, a power station – even the phones worked. The coffee crop in Africa and South America failed, but ours held and the prices went through the roof. The natives were so happy, they put away their bows and arrows. We played cricket every Sunday morning and tennis every evening – we even built a swimming pool. We had some of the wildest parties you could imagine, every bedroom full – and not with husbands and wives either.” He smiled wearily, then took another mouthful of beer.
Meanwhile, the rain eased and the moon shone weakly through the clouds. We looked out over bushes of hibiscus.
“But then the coffee in Africa and America got foot again, bloody prices here fell right down and Australia decided to give the bastards independence. Expats left in droves because they thought they’d be ripped off. Only a few of us stayed on because, well, because we’d nowhere else to go. And now we’re back to square one. Make’s you think, doesn’t it? The only bloody expats we get now are useless do-gooders who can’t tell their arse from a hole in the ground.” Realizing his indiscretion, he smiled. “Present company excepted, of course. Darlene, is his bed ready yet?”
Darlene reappeared, her eyes red and swollen, a short woman with short black hair. Despite her grayish appearance it was apparent she was once quite handsome. Trying to avoid the light, she said, “I’ll show you where you are.”
I followed her down a long corridor with more curios lining both walls until we reached a small room with a double bed. My toiletries were set out neatly.
“Don’t mind him,” she said, picking up a towel, unfolded it, then folded it again. Finally she flattened it with the palm of her hand, picked up another and did the same to that. “He’s had a few drinks. But he works hard, and sometimes things don’t go the way he wants them to. He’s having a bit of trouble now, and that’s on his mind. Anyway,” she turned towards me, her eyes averted, “I hope you like it here. We’ll see each other often. Sleep well.”
The demands of making a good impression on a visitor seemed to have sobered her a bit. As she left the room she wished me a goodnight with a brave smile.
I found it difficult to sleep, not just because of the heat and the infernal cacophony of a million insects in full cry but because of the strange round- dance of these sad, depleted people with their concealments and self- delusions. Their fragile gloomy morale seemed full of missed opportunities and hollow optimism. I sensed that between them and Kendau there was some sort of pact, something beyond the ken of an outsider like myself, though perhaps with time I might understand what it was. On the other hand, maybe they were all just half-cracked with drink and isolation.
I awoke at sunrise. No one else was up, not did I expect them to be. Won- dering how I would get to the College station, I spotted Kendau sitting on his haunches underneath the house.
“Mornin’ masta,” he said mournfully, followed by a cascade of red spit.
“Kendau, could you take me to the College?”
“No worries, masta,”and within seconds my suitcases were back on the truck.
I left a brief note of thanks for Ron and Darlene and we set off . Kendau wore an exaggerated frown. “Masta Ron he angry with Kendau. But he no understan’! Suppose Kendau he stop working for villages. Then big pella trouble,” he added amusing solemnity.
I couldn’t imagine what kind of big trouble there could be or for whom. I saw the episode he was referring to as just a squabble between a child and an adult and thought no more about it, looking forward instead to getting back to work.
The station wasn't very far off, a collection of neat wooden bungalows on a grassy knoll overlooking an expanse of fields planted with sweet potato, corn, cassava, aibika and alfalfa. Laborers were already working their way up and down the drills. The sun glinted brilliantly on a glass building where clearing met forest, and I glimpsed a tall white man in conversation with a bearded black man dressed in white shirt and slacks. The white man, whom I knew would be the station manager, was sawing the air with his long arms as the black man, hands on hips, listened intently.
I was invited inside by the secretary, a woman who introduced herself as Anna, a Sepik woman of extraordinary charm with glossy skin and an accurate, perfect smile. I found it hard to believe she could be from such a remote and primitive area as this. In almost perfect English she explained that her father was a tribal elder, that she had four children (one of whom, a boy, peeped out from behind her desk) and that she had been married twice but was now single. “Something nothing,” she said ruefully, meaning that it was of no importance.
Our conversation was interrupted by the entrance of Paul Thorpe, the station manager. I immediately noted his round, alert brown eyes. “I’ll take you to your room,” he said. “It’s not much. If there’s anything you want I’ll get it from Works and Supply. The only trouble is, they’re so slow that whatever you want will arrive as you’re leaving.”
When I had put away my things in a more than adequate room, Thorpe and I went to his house for lunch. We spoke mainly about the job – the necessity to put the farm’s produce on a commercial footing; the rice experiment; the development of an irrigation system. I asked whether it would be possible to work with Sepik Coffee. He laughed.
“Well, I suppose we help each other in small ways. They brought you here, for instance. Darlene often comes round for vegetables, or Gerhardt repairs our vehicle. It’s a neighborly relationship. But I try to avoid them if I can.”
I didn't understand why two agencies, one government and one private, but both engaged in agriculture, shouldn’t work closely together.
“Because,” he said “this is basically a research and education station, even though I try to keep it on a commercial footing. I distribute produce in areas of malnutrition, but Sepik Coffee is a strictly profit-making-concern.”
I said knew this already but still didn't understand. Thorpe looked pained.
“Of course, it’s more complicated. Sepik Coffee was set up to regulate the production and making of coffee. It seemed like a good idea because coffee was in chaos. An Englishman – an ex-priest by the name of Trevor Coates – set it up, generously giving shares to local politicians. They loved it, especially when there was a coffee blight in South America and Africa and prices here went through the roof. So they expanded: They set up a station run by Ron Saw, built an airstrip, bought two planes, which 'disappeared' soon after purchase. There was so much money, most of the men in the province were drunk with beer for the two or three years the binge lasted – the women did the harvesting and drying. The locals were crippled with cash, while the expatriates lived it up and sent the big money back to England and Australia. It was some bonanza.
“But it came to an end a couple of years ago. Most saw it coming and cleared off. But Coates and his henchmen – Jones and Saw – stayed on, thinking things could turn again. Besides, who wants to go back to England or Australia where you would be nothing, when you’re a big fish here?
“The trouble is, the local shareholders, two of them now government min- isters, knowing the company was being bled and that they were getting glass beads and trinkets for their trouble, set up an enquiry, basically to clear out the whites and take over themselves. They were so belligerently anti-white they brought in a black American accountant to do the job. The report is due for release within a few weeks, but apparently the accountant told Coates and his men: Clear out now, before they hang you.
“They can still hardly believe it, so they're lying low as much as possible, or trying to put a good face on anything that looks fishy, like misusing company vehicles. That hits people like Kendau pretty hard, not to mention the locals who think their beer money dried up because the white bastards want to keep it all to themselves. Anyway, Coates and his boys are ready to move at the drop of a hat, or the first shot.”
I remembered the packing cases on Saw’s balcony.
“Anyway, that doesn’t really affect us here at the station. To a certain extent, we're irrelevant to the locals: not part of their politics and not part of any real bargaining that goes on. There will always be some resentment, especially when there's been a few drinks taken. Nothing serious. The Sepik Coffee people are in a hotter seat.... It's funny how nothing bothers them except being caught out, and the penalty for that is just having to leave. They think they can handle anything, especially a few blacks with a bit of warpaint on.”
Thorpe’s sensibly skeptical view of things impressed me, although I wasn’t convinced about his claim of immunity for the agricultural station. But he had spent a long time in the country and should know what he was talking about. His wife was a local, from another province, but he sometimes ridiculed the locals as being lazy or stupid and had barbed opinions about their politics.
I worked both in the office and in the field, probably ineffectually but not for want of enthusiasm except when the oppressive heat bore down like a scorched blanket. Sometimes I took trips into the surrounding areas or down to the Sepik villages to look at their famous primitive artwork, or even to Wewak to have a swim in the surf and a meal in one of the two or three decent restaurants there. I found the villagers friendly, though in the more remote areas they seemed in awe of this ungainly white man. The children giggled furiously when they saw my bare legs and bush hat.
Over the next few months, things changed. Where previously I had always been offered coconut milk on my rambles, that now came to a stop. I never bothered to enquire why because I had little interest. My exchanges with an increasingly harrowed-looking Thorpe were brief and, except for work, not very informative.
Soon, though, it became evident even to me that my time at the Sepik station was to be short-lived. Petty stuff at first: farm laborers stopped showing up for work and anything I left outside, even my cat, disappeared. A mango tree in my garden was stripped bare, and at night I could hear whispering and padding feet outside my door. A couple of taverns, shacks really, where I had an occasional beer with the locals packed up, except for one where, when I entered, backs turned and I was ignored. Even people on the roads turned away. When I went to ask Anna what was going on, I found that she had gone back to her family, taking her children with her.
Rumours were rife: Secessionist threats were on the rise and there was armed insurrection at the copper and gold mines where the multinationals were seen as colluding with the government. Land was being seized under compulsory purchase orders with laughable compensation being offered to the locals, and traditional ways of life were being destroyed. Rampaging gangs attacked the mining installations, and foreign workers were beaten and killed. Soon all production was suspended, the corporations pulled out and the gold and copper export market collapsed.
While all this was going on I passed by Ron Saw’s place one afternoon to ask if he had a spare part I needed. But he and his wife along with Coates, Jones and their other cronies had gone, taking whatever they could with them.
I found Kendau on a step at the back of the house, crying. He was mostly upset about not being able to visit Australia as he had been promised. He had been away when they cleared out, otherwise he would have been relieved of his vehicle and only means of supporting his family. He urged me to leave as well, offering to take me to the airport at Wewak that evening.
I called on Thorpe and found him morose and demoralized. His wife had left him.
“I thought we’d be okay,” he said, having been drinking all day. “I thought we’d be okay. Now there’s nothing, no money, no schools, nothing. Even the Chinese have closed their stores and scarpered. The horrible greed of it all. Now the jungle will take over again like it always has. All our efforts reduced to nothing. And then the jungle will grow over us as well. There will be no trace. Just the rats.”
That evening Kendau and I drove past the village of Yangoru where the Japanese had surrendered to Allied forces. Neither of us spoke. A huge blood-red sun descended toward the horizon, its rays shafting through the palm fronds.
Then there were two sounds like whipcracks, and the windscreen shattered. I fell to the floor as Kendau screamed, having been shot in the hand. I had blood on my forehead from a shard of glass. He put his foot down on the accelerator and the truck kicked up clouds of dust behind us. He spat his buai out the window in disgust.
“They try kill me. They try kill me. They don’t like Sepik Coffee bastards.” Blood streamed down his arm. Sweat poured from his face and soaked his shirt. He drove at a furious speed until we arrived at Wewak hospital. I gave him all the money I had and watched him shuffle inside, wiping his bloody arm on his mouth.
From the plane I looked down over
the massive, meandering serpent of a river sliding inexorably northwards
as it had always done, staining muddy brown the turquoise sea, oblivious
to the affairs of men.
(Michael Woods was educated in University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin as well as in Monash University, Victoria, Australia, where he lectured. He is currently head of the philosophy department at the European School in Luxembourg, where he lives. He has published on academic subjects in Dialectica, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research and the British Journal of Phenomenology, among others. He also has two collections of poetry (Where Deathless Horses Weep (Minerva Press 1996) and The Needle in the I, as well as short stories in the Pittsburgh Quarterly, Enfuse Magazine and elsewhere.)