It was dusk when we docked at Port Moresby. Sarah was not feeling well, and went immediately to the hotel with Francine. Our contact, Akikonu, or Akik, for short, was a gregarious, attentive Urapmin, (who are part of the Min People), with a keen eye for detail. He spoke English fluently as well as limited French and Bahasa. I asked him how he came to speak Bahasa, he replied that he is from the Sandaun Province, located along the North Western border of the country, and his people have had trade dealings with Indonesians for centuries.
He took me to a small restaurant near the wharf that specialized in Kokoda, raw fish served in lime and coconut juice. We spoke of the coming independence of the country, he said he was concerned that his brother would take a road building job instead of staying with him in the tourism industry on the coast.
The next morning Sarah and Francine were ready to go before I was. The three of us went to Jacksons Airport by jeep with Akik driving, then flew to the Simberi mine, located in the New Ireland Province. From there, Akik drove us to the mine.
There was a lot of commotion as we arrived, and we were directed away from the main parking area, where a large crowd of men who were yelling had gathered, to the road, where we left the jeep, which was completely vulnerable to the elements, parked on the shoulder, and walked back to the mine. The din the men were making could be heard in the distance.
“Do you know what they’re protesting?” I asked Akik.
“The are protesting the working conditions of the mine and the pay they receive,” he said.
“How much do they make?”
“Oh,” said Akik, “five [Australian] dollars per day.”
As we approached the mine on foot, we were again stopped by a guard who insisted for us to bypass the crowd by circumnavigating the periphery of the lot to get to the office. The guard walked with us, holding his automatic rifle in both hands, as if ready to use it, should one of the protesters approach us. The sight of the gun made Sarah and Francine uneasy.
“Is an automatic weapon necessary?” she asked the guard.
“Oh, yes,” he said, without elaboration.
“To protect you from whom?”
The guard said nothing more so Akik spoke in his place.
“It is part of their job,” he said, “to protect the mine from outsiders.”
“So that gun is intended for people like us,” my wife said tetchily.
“Many times people try to poach the mines, arms have been common in these places for many years.”
The guard looked as though he was smiling as we walked to the office. He did not squint his eyes, even in the glaring sun.
When we reached the office, Akik opened the door to let Sarah and Francine pass through, and then myself. He tried to enter behind me, but the guard grabbed Akik by his shirt and yanked him backward.
“Not you,” he said.
“This man is with us,” I said.
“No,” said the guard. “No workers are allowed inside the office.”
Aghast at the notion that mine workers were not permitted inside the office, I stuck to the immediate issue.
“This man is our guide, I’ve hired him to take us where we want to go, where I go, he goes.”
“He wait outside for you,” said the guard.
Sarah became furious at these words, and launchd herself back outside.
“This man comes with us, because we have paid him to accompany us!”
The guard did not respond, but kept his grip on the back of Akik’s shirt.
Lucas, the man in the office, had been my contact since before we had left England. He was on the phone in the tiny office and I recognized his voice at once. He looked precisely as I had imagined him, around six foot four, well toned from lifting weights, with blond, straight hair parted to one side, though his eyes were brown, not blue. He waved us in, but I made a vague gesture of there being a problem, so he put his hand to the receiver and shouted something in heavily accented Tok Pisin to the guard.
From outside I heard Sarah say something else to the guard.
“He’s just as welcome as we are inside,” she said.
Lucus waved us in, wrapping up his phone call as the door closed behind Akik.
“That practice of bigotry is common,” Akik said to us after we’d left Simberi mine. “The man cannot help what he say, he just want to keep his job. If he is tough for the wrong reason, he’ll get yelled at, but he keep his job. If he is loose, and any trouble happen, he lose his job.”
Lucas held the same contempt for people as the guard did, behind a gracious, ‘civilized’ exterior. That day surveying the Simberi mine was the beginning of our activism for the Min peoples of Papa New Guinea. From 1975 through 1994, we made eleven trips to Papa New Guinea on behalf of the Min peoples, fighting with them for higher pay and better living conditions.
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