Madang, Papua New Guinea.

Our Father

A priest and his adoptive children in Papua New Guinea

There is a wordless sweet communion between Thomas and Avia Kano, a brother-sister duo who have come to depend on each other in their parents’ absence. Thomas is the younger one, though he doesn’t look it. He’s already broad-shouldered, with wisps of a beard in the making and a ponytail. He speaks with small hand gestures, meeting your eyes with his, and veers away from words. Adolescence has made him awkward. Avia is small and well-formed, as if pressed from a mould. When school is over, they sprawl on the couch, heedless of the outside world, passing the snufflings of birdlings between them. They nestle on the grass on the foreshore, metres from the home of their patron, a priest, and speak without voices.

Thomas is in Year 10. He’s a typical Papua New Guinean teenager, which is to say he’s obsessed with rugby league, one of the popular leftovers from the time Australia, the prison colony, was itself a colonial power here. Also bequeathed the nation were religion — Christianity — and roads. It is early July 2010, and that means one thing — the final State of Origin rugby match is about to commence. In Australia, the State of Origin is cause for a good natured rivalry between the two competing rugby states, Queensland and New South Wales. But for those watching on small televisions in Papua New Guinea, only 150 kilometres from Australia’s northern tip, this best-of-three match-up is a serious business. You follow either the NSW Blues or the Queensland Maroons, but it’s not really a choice. Most follow the Maroons, as many Queenslanders were amongst the tens of thousands of Australians who sought their fortune — or an escape — in Papua New Guinea’s wilderness and villages. But Thomas has dared to choose the Blues, the long-time underdogs.

As we sit in the shade of a rain tree in Madang, a town on the northern coast of PNG’s main island, and look out to sea, Thomas parts from his beloved sister to tell me about his hopes for the big match. “I hope the Blues will win,” he says, shy as a colt. He shows me a prized possession, a Post Courier newspaper pullout of his team. With his big sister resting her head on his shoulder, he pores over the line-up on offer from the dominant Queensland Maroons, the team to beat. Thomas’s Blues have lost twice already, but they have a chance for dignity.

That night, NSW play with desperate grace, but go down to the dominant Maroons for the fifth year in a row. As each NSW try is scored, Thomas pumps his fist. Outside, on the usually quiet streets of coastal Madang, cheering and shouting erupt. I know that right now, in the settlement badlands of Lae and Port Moresby, there will be blood spilled between rival supporters. People die every year in brawls over the State of Origin matches. Nowhere is the tribal nature of sport felt more intensely than here, a nation of hundreds of tribes. But here, on the peaceful north coast of the country, there is nothing but excitement.

Thomas cocks his ear and listens to the catcalls coming from the houses nearby, but says nothing. He watches mutely as his heroes battle valiantly until there is no more time. Then he looks up, offering the slightest of shrugs. Maybe next year. He himself plays every Saturday in the baking heat, using his growing bulk to shoulder aside rivals. I ask him if he’s good, and he catches my eye and says nothing. But I glimpse the shadow of a smile.

Avia is slight, driven and protective of her younger brother. She’s nearly into her final year of school. After that, she wants to be an accountant. Working with numbers is a secure job, and that would let her support her family on the other side of the country in the capital, Port Moresby. Ornate characters, almost kanji-like, trail down her legs. Her village on the Aroma Coast southeast of Moresby tattoos only women. It is her heritage, and it is also a guide for anyone from the 700 plus other ethnic-language groups in this unlikely nation to place her. It was done when she was 12. How much did it hurt, this swathe of ink? “A lot”, she says.

I am staying in a house inside a seaside compound owned by Divine Word University, a well-regarded Catholic university. Avia and Thomas live next door, with a Catholic priest. This priest — let’s call him Father Robert Jones — is the reason that Avia and Thomas have had the chance to improve their chances in life. He is the reason the siblings are in Madang, and not in Port Moresby or in their ancestral village on the coast. The Aroma Coast is 180 km south-east of the capital of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby. But as for so many other PNG residents, the Kano family was forced to leave. Why? The population is booming. In 2000, the population was around 5.8 million. A decade later, it would top seven million. Children are everywhere in this young nation. A major killer — deaths from internecine tribal warfare — has been largely vanquished. But that means land, the source of life, is becoming scarce. Farming in Papua New Guinea dates back 7000 years, and the cool highlands, in particular, are densely populated. Land in Papua New Guinea is 97 per cent traditionally owned. There are few areas left without people. In the Kano’s coastal village, population growth meant disaster. Avia and Thomas’s father, Rava, was too far along the birth order to inherit land. The volcanic soil is fertile, and it takes little land to feed yourself with a food garden planted with the coastal staples of banana, papaya and kaukau (sweet potato). But if there is no longer enough land, you are out of luck. Your hold on society slips. Land is power. Fish alone would not support Rava and his new family. What to do? Where to go? Perhaps he could scrape a living in the village, living on leavings from their family with land. But that was surviving, not living. What if they uprooted and went to Port Moresby, where they had wantoks? In the creole language of Tok Pisin, this literally means ‘one talk’. The Kano’s wantoks are their extended relatives, people who have an obligation to support them until they were on their feet. Yes — that was the only possibility, to draw on the thin but powerful ribbon of connection, obligation, duty.

And so, the Kano family moved up the coast to the largest city in Melanesia. At an estimated half million souls, Port Moresby is growing fast, feeding on villagers seeking a different life. Everyone has the same hope, the same dream — to grow wealthy in this new thing, this city. Port Moresby sprawls around Fairfax Harbour, pooling inland beneath bare hills still owned by the original Motu-Koitabu peoples of this region. This city — like the nation of Papua New Guinea — is a colonial-era fiction, built around a large coastal village thriving before the English annexed the south-east of the island, Papua as a bulwark against the Germans, who had taken the north-east, New Guinea, and the Dutch who had claimed the west as Dutch New Guinea. Later, the British would absorb the German part after World War I before handing responsibility for ruling the enlarged colony to Australia, while the Dutch would grudgingly concede the western section — their last piece of their archipelago colony — to the new nation of Indonesia in a paratrooper war in the early 1960s. Papua New Guinea as an independent nation is very new. It was only in 1975 that it gained independence. What was it? A new nation-state, yes, but one imposed from outside, stitched together out of the hundreds of tribes and language groups in one of humanity’s longest settled areas. For millennia, tribal groups defended their own turf or went marauding into rival villages. That system has broken down, and now, cities — those amalgamations of strangers — have risen.

Thousands like the Kanos migrate out of the coastal villages or from the mountainous highlands which are still the densest population centre in the country. They seek a new life, jobs instead of subsistence farming, and a connection to the outside world. In Port Moresby, people jostle and mix — wiry, frizzy haired highlanders from a multitude of tribes, famous for their tempers and entrepreneurial drive, and the quieter coastal peoples, who often fear their inland neighbours. The city is a cauldron. But it is also growing fast. Port Moresby offered the Kano family a possible new way to survive. Rava, the father, had heard there were jobs. The mining boom had arrived. China was hungry for minerals. There was work for drivers, for carpenters, for dogsbodies.

When they arrived, the Kanos stayed with their wantoks in wooden houses filled with warm bodies. That was the plan. But then what? Imagine it. You try to get work, but formal jobs are scarcer than you realised. What are your options? You can work odd jobs, piecework, doing what you can. Or you can imitate the street highlanders who sell vegetables from the mountains, betel nut from the coast, and cigarettes from the outside world. But you must constantly be alert for police raids. The police pounce on informal vendors — but the whole city relies on such things. It is a difficult life. The coastal cities are a foreign land. Rent is expensive — and surging ever higher as the mining boom drives up prices. So you must live in the illegal settlements ringing the city proper. Education has a price, too. And that is to say nothing of crime and violence. That is one of your main worries — the lure of crime. The raskol gangs of Port Moresby are infamous — brutal, powerful, and with rumoured links to unscrupulous politicians. Their armed robberies are the stuff of legend. Crime is a growth industry. In the settlements, the raskols are law. So let us say that you are an internal migrant, struggling to feed your family, hoping that your sacrifice and your drudgery will let your children have a life denied you. How do you educate your children? How do you stop them migrating into crime, the only visible means of wealth transfer, for class mobility?

The Kano family had one great break — the luck to live next door to Father Jones, a comparatively wealthy Australian expat. Father Rob, as he likes to be called, lived in Port Moresby for ten years. A friendship grew between Rava, his wife and Father Rob. It is common to have big families here, and Rava and his wife had four children. But the hard-working father was barely making a living from his work as a driver. So when Father Rob told his friends next door that he had been reassigned to Madang, the mother screwed up her courage. “Father,” she asked. “Can you take my youngest two with you? We have no money to educate them. But you do.” And so it came to pass that Avia and Thomas flew across the hundreds of kilometres of roadless jungle and mountains and plains separating the capital from coastal Madang alongside Father Rob. There, they would have a house. They would go to school. They would begin to dream.

Though Avia and Thomas are far from their elder siblings and parents in Port Moresby, life has been made easier in many ways through an unexpected incursion of modernity: mobile phones. In a classic example of leapfrog technology, mobiles have come at last to Papua New Guinea in a big way, overtaking doddering and inadequate fixed-line infrastructure and uniting the country for the first time under a system cheap enough for most to use. At a time when population pressures are pushing people out of their villages and into the unknown, mobile phones offer at least a small token — that simple magic for hearing your loved one’s voice at a distance.

Of an evening, Avia will call her parents and check on how their day has gone. She takes charge, but Thomas hovers nearby with a giant smile on his face. Text messages shuttle back and forth throughout the day, for they are cheap. “It makes life easier, being able to talk to my parents,” Avia tells me. She pauses. “And it was easier to say goodbye, knowing I had a mobile phone.” The parting was hard three years ago, but the Kano family were lucky. Mobiles had just become affordable, after years as an elite status symbol. Her father, Rava, agrees. “We talk every day. Having a mobile phone is a very big difference. It’s not like before. We can talk to our children now,” he tells me. When I reach Rava, he’s staying at his ancestral village. The line is fuzzy — but I can hear him, can contact him at a place without electricity. People recharge their phones for a kina (about 50 cents) on rented car batteries. Small businesses spring up, selling lump sums of phone credit and transferring it by text message. There is a mobile tower owned by Digicel, the fast-moving Irish company responsible for democratising the mobile phone, on the hills near their village. Digicel rents land from the landowners. In return for a stipend, they guard the tower from raskols or scavengers of metal. Stung into action, the half government-owned Be Mobile has ramped up its once-pitiful efforts with tower rollouts mirroring the Digicel push. Now there is a fragile tracery of technology across almost the entire nation. In most regions, a diesel engine chugs away night and day, powering tiny packets of text flying across the nation, channelling through the air the voice of a far off loved one.

I have met Avia and Thomas by coincidence. Our compound is protected from the street by security guards and barbed wire, and the feeling of siege this creates has made us bond. Their ward, Father Rob is a former marine engineer turned priest, a practical man with calluses and a firm handshake. He seems firm, almost authoritarian. But this celibate Father has also become a de-facto father — gruffly tender with his wards, his cobbled-together family. “There is a woman somewhere in Australia who is incredibly lucky never to have married me,” he says, the hint of a smile peeping out of the deep lines around his mouth. Of a night, he sips a South Pacific lager, looking out at his adopted country, with his adopted family, his adopted worries.

Avia and Thomas give him little cause for concern. They’re sweet kids, twice exiled but resilient, taking advantage of this possible life. But there is also a fourth member of this unorthodox family, Sonia, a 16 year old sprite. Father Rob found her crying in the grass outside the compound. She had escaped a man at the nearby Smugglers Inn, a once-nice hotel now a place for johns and prostitutes. It was night, and the man had tried to rape her. She ran into the dark waves and swam far out to sea, where he could not go. When he gave up, she skirted back in to shore, near the compound. That was where Father Rob found her, saturated and scared. She slept that night in the outside room, separate to the rest of the house. In the morning, she offered Father Rob ten kina of her earnings — about five dollars — in thanks. He refused. Now, she stays here as a refuge — sometimes every night, sleeping, eating dinner, scandalising Avia and Thomas. Other times, she disappears for a week, returning dirty and unslept. What happened to her? Where is her family? “Her parents split up in Madang,” says Father Rob. “Her mother is down south with another man. Her father may or may not be in town.” So she stays here. Sometimes. “She’s like a bird,” says Father Rob. “You can only contain her so long before you have to let her flee.”

Avia and Thomas have taken this wild one under their quiet protection. The three of them swim in the sea across the road, swooping down to touch the neon coral below, chasing fish down the steep drop into the darker blue. Last summer, they went to visit her village and met her extended relatives. Father Rob hopes their influence will slowly draw her in from roaming the streets, from the greedy grasp of men drunk on spark, fermented fruit homebrew, from the wire-haired highlanders cruising for pretty brown-skinned coastal girls. But it is a slow game. Sonia has run free in Madang since her early teens, surviving off her wits and what her body can earn her. Her glances are disturbingly adult — coquettish and challenging. She is already expert in what men desire. Her street friends, wary and wise, watch her back, but it is still a dangerous game. Rape is an occupational hazard.

Sonia has restlessness in her bones. So, just as Father Rob and the Kano siblings are at work on her, Sonia, too, has taken up the challenge of reform. Avia and Thomas are sweet, studious, often indoors, trying to live up to the promises made to parents, to Father Rob. But Sonia gives them cigarettes behind the shipping container, or gives them buai, betel nut, to chew. That’s the story told me by a tiny chatterbox, Nina, one of the kids from a poor family from the Sepik River region who Father Rob has let settle in the compound. Nina is tiny — perhaps six — but she sees all things. She tells me solemnly that Sonia is a bad influence on Avia and Thomas. “I talk a lot,” Nina says. “But that’s because I see so many interesting things.”

Father Rob worries quietly about Sonia, this waif, this street meri [girl]. He says proudly that she always shares with her friends, those less fortunate than her. When Father Rob pours her a cup of tea for breakfast, she eyes it with care. Then, unscrewing a Fanta bottle, she tips the tea into it without losing a drop. Soon, she will slip out the door to share this warm drink with her friends on the street. But she hasn’t come home the last few nights. Where does her money come from? There is only one possible source — she is still going to the men riding around town in public motor vehicles. “She used to go and meet the PMVs every night,” says Father Rob, weary, saddened about this girl he calls Her Ladyship. “Since she started living here, she has cut down to one or two clients. What more can you do?” The daring of the girl! To sell herself to highlanders, to rough men — and yet her spirit, her pluck intact, this waif wandering, surviving on scraps of kindness and tea in soft drink bottles.

The first I know of Sonia’s return is a tentative knock on my door. It’s Avia, shifting her weight from foot to foot anxiously. “Can I borrow your thermometer? Sonia is sick.” And so she is — feverish, tossing in her day bed. When Father Rob found her, she was hunched over a fire next to an abandoned shipping container in the compound, trying to get warm on a stink-hot night. Lightning from a dry storm lit up the sea behind her. Malaria? A STD? But the next day, she’s up and about, bounding around the compound.

Sonia has never once talked to me. Instead, she fixes me with a direct stare, before catching Avia’s eye and tittering. How did she learn this method of unnerving men? It must be from her night life, where she learned how to challenge a man and keep herself safe. She is barely 16, unformed, in tight bound braids, a silver earring, girlish glitter in her hair, and yet she knows. She lives for nights, when she can play cards and chew buai with her street friends on the foreshore, where Coronation Drive curves around and farewells the sea. She and her friends write their names in the dust. An iPod earphone sits in her right ear, its twin snugly embedded in her friend’s ear. Near her, older prostitutes ply their night trade. The deflated sacs of used condoms litter the ground, hanging in limp folds from shrubs, the only evidence of a long night’s work. PMVs cruise by constantly. Men gaze silently out the windows. Each PMV van has a name. One is Fuzzy Wazzy, a reference to the term used by Australian troops in WWII to refer to their fuzzy wuzzy angels who carried the wounded back down the Kokoda Track to safety in Port Moresby. Another is called Blue Heeler, after the legendary Australian dog breed.

I know I shouldn’t think it, but I cannot avoid wondering whether it is proper for a Catholic priest to host three teenagers. The shadow of priestly paedophilia falls over this family scene. But on this, Father Rob is open. One night, over a SP beer, he tells me how it is. “Those sexual abuse priests have done a lot of damage,” he says, grimacing. “They’re a tiny minority, but we are all blamed for it. It’s like the Boy Scouts.”

He takes a meditative sip of his beer. Avia sits to one side, doing her homework, listening. “Those bloody paedophile priests,” he spits, anger bubbling away. And I think quietly — yes, they have done much evil. They have made me wonder, instantly, whether it is OK for a priest to feed and clothe and school two children, to offer a room to a third.

A squall sweeps in as we talk. Storm-light lends a peculiar cast to things. Trees are backlit, people at once brought out and softened. A perfect hemisphere of high cloud settles on the distant mountain range separating Madang from Lae. Then — like lifting gauze — the cloud withdraws and an island appears in the dim distance, a paper silhouette. In the sea, a bath of white light shimmers in each wave, tiny luminescent algae flaring as each wave smashes into the black coral rock. I can hear Avia and Thomas murmuring over homework, hear the door quietly close as Sonia slips away for her night’s work. Her would-be father catches the slight sound, and the wrinkles on his face deepen. He drains the stubby and sighs.