“Cut the Sugar Cane Ribbon” – a new airstrip opening!

It’s Thursday December 15th 2011, and Jenni Bottrell (our MAF Operations Coordinator), has asked me to be the MAF representative at the opening of an airstrip the following Monday. I’m about 20th on the list of MAF VIP’s that would “open airstrips”. I’m very excited and grateful for another opportunity to connect with people ‘out there in the bush’. Megau (pronounced with an ‘ng’ sound), has been 14 years in the waiting and making. Ric Velvin (ATC Manager) quickly locates it for me on the map, and I find I’m looking at the area the where the Hagahai live. Now I’m really excited as memories flood back.

I remember a September PNG Independence weekend in the mid 1990’s and I’m in my office at the Goroka Secondary Teachers College, (now University of Goroka). A call comes in from Carol Jenkins a medical anthropologist working at the Institute of Medical Research (PNG) in Goroka.

“Godfrey I’d really appreciate it if you could look after the Hagahai singsing group while they are visiting the College. I’ve flown them out by chopper for the Goroka Cultural Show and it’s the first time their “tribe” have ever seen the outside world. They’ll be going through major culture shock.”

My heart skips a beat. Carol’s ‘discovery’ of this isolated group hit the international press and sent ripples of excitement through anthropological, linguistic and medical circles. The people were dying from a range of diseases. Carol, Baptist Health and international friends rallied with assistance. Helicopters are expensive.

The chaperone experience is an emotional rollercoaster. Naturally I’m curious as they are all about the same height as each other (about 1.5m), and all with similar bone structure and facial features. I’m moved and a bit sad watching their faces as they try and cope with the barrage of new stimuli like flat, hard, concrete walls, glass windows, and what must be a cacophony of sounds. They move as one compact unit along a 2nd level balcony while college secretaries watch, shedding quiet tears of sympathy, from across the quadrangle.

An interpreter helps them via a phone line, while I help get picture2_400.pngan extension line so they can actually see each other while talking into the “bone thing with a string that speaks”. I have memories of Mum and Dad introducing the gramophone and the transmitter radio to the people we lived amongst in the West Sepik in the late 50’s.

Soon after this encounter I’m sitting in a house in Mt Hagen listening to a National Baptist pastor (Makawa) telling me of his curiosity with a couple of people who’d come out of the “bush” to get medical help at the Tinsley Baptist Heath Centre at Baiyer River. He could tell they were not like any in the Highlands region and so began a quest to “locate” them. They didn’t speak Engan or Tok Pisin, PNG’s main ‘trade language’.

He eventually put the puzzle together and with the help of the Western Highlands Govt., got a helicopter to drop him in to this unexplored area. His story is fantastical as he tries to woo the people out of the jungle and make “contact” through gifts of axes and matches, just like early “waitman” missionaries had done with his people in the Baiyer only 40 years before. So a courageous and compassionate man from Baiyer ‘discovered’ the Hagahai people months before Carol Jenkins. His next visit in was on foot (about 2 weeks walk!!).

Now back to my MAF office: An email reply from the SIL linguists (Markus and Liisa Melliger – below), who’ve been in and out of the area for 18 years, updates me of other missions and their own work, with this language group. The two other strips in this language area are Mamusi and Mengamanau. They are situated on the north side of the Yuat River. The Megau people on the South of the river have had to traverse rough terrain and use a flimsy rope bridge across the dangerous Yuat to get their critically ill to a strip. Many have not made it.

picture3_150.pngThe alternative is climbing a couple of thousand feet to the Engan outstation called Yenkis. Over the mountain to the S-W is another new recently opened strip, called Pyarulama. Both ‘stations’ are under the Engan Baptist Church and Health services. Around a mountain to the north is Iropeno, the place of a previous adventure I had in 2010.

But the Megau strip has suffered delays due to infighting and local ‘politics’. It’s been carved out of a ridgeline using hand tools, and has an overall gradient of 8.5 degrees with three ‘steps’ along its length. It’s a one way strip, meaning one way in and same way out, so after committing to land, that’s it. A smattering of thatch-roofed houses and patches of cleared jungle show that human settlement has changed from non- agricultural, semi-nomadic, “hunter- gatherer”, which was the description I got from a Peace Corps couple who’d wandered with the people 18 years ago.

Our drop off by pilot Philipp Sutter (right) includes the Western picture4_250.pngHighlands Baptist Union Chairman (Peter Yanda) and a young family who’s been at a Bible college for a couple of years. The 25-min flight from Hagen takes us to within half a kilometre of the strip, but Philipp pulls out and banks away on ‘final’ as a small cloud sitting just off the end of the strip is partially obscuring full vision of the threshold.

The terrain is steep and quite close on three sides of the strip, so we power up and out to a wider circuit at a safer altitude. We talk to the SIL pilot who’s already on the ground, and radio Madang Traffic Control Tower… “holding due weather, will report on the hour or after landing”. We continue to circle overhead waiting for the cloud to move. Then on a closer look there’s a ‘hole’. Philipp maneuvers to line up, but everything is happening too fast, so he decides to go around for another approach. Landing for the first time at Megau the normal visual clues are yet to be learned. He’s so calm and confident and I’m enjoying the adrenalin rush. I love flying with Philipp. The ‘hole’ is still open 30 seconds later as altitude and speed are good for the approach. We land…it’s rough. My arms flail around from dashboard to the cockpit roof, trying to keep “Steady Cam” on my small digital. This one is definitely “Flailing Cam”, a unique handheld recording technique!

After greetings and introductions with the SIL team on the ground, we absorb the particular sounds and sights of the Pinai-Hagahai dancers as they chant and circle the plane with strange vertical jerking jumps in full traditional gear, complete with reflective dark glasses.

We walk down to the flat “meeting place”, a bare dirt square with a small decorated thatch-covered stage with a battery powered mini PA. I join the SIL photographer and videographer roaming for people shots, as the rest of the official party wait in the shade of the ‘stage’ while the carved up and semi cooked (mumu’d) pigs are laid out on a long bed of banana leaves in the middle of the clearing.

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The speeches from local councillors, the SIL contingent and the Baptist Union Rep and myself, last only 3 hours, but trace the interesting recent history, honour the translation work and entry of the Gospel, and encourage locals to care for the strip so it can care for them, (e.g. medevacs and getting other services in and out). My speech for MAF describes MAF’s purpose, and reinforces the vital partnerships and relationships that keep such services going.

I’m also down on the program to “cut the ribbon”, so with a kitchen sized trade store knife in hand, I make my way through the crowd to the tiny covered bridge over the airstrip metre-wide ditch. After a few more words about the symbolic act of opening and dedicating the strip, I hack through what seems to be a large cut-open cotton T shirt, to find two long juicy ‘sticks’ of sugar cane across the entrance.

I find out later that this lime green variety is the ceremonial and celebratory variety which are specially treated throughout its growing life. As the canes mature they are wrapped in bundles with their own leaves. They even construct small “ladders” to complete the wrapping process as they grow up to five metres tall. This wrapping ensures moderated temperatures and humidity, and offers protection from storm damage and insect invasion. This variety is only used for “special visitors” and ceremonies. I hack through the juicy canes, (their version of the ribbon) with great vigor, much to the delight of those to whom this symbolic act means more than to us outsiders.

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The most powerful moment for me comes as I watch Markus and Liisa hand out the “megavoice” units with the Gospels and Acts recorded in the Pinai-Hagahai language. The hunger for this Life-giving Word is incredible, and the generous relationships that the Melligers have made are etched in eternity as a testimony of Love.

Philipp arrives back from a long flying program in the region. picture12_400.pngAs we taxi up the very steep final 50 metres to the ‘step’ threshold to gain maximum take-off length, we realize the GA8 isn’t going to pull the full load of passengers up, so Philipp stops the engine, gets out to organize a couple of guys to support the tail and unloads all the passengers. Then with me out as well he turns the nose and “guns it” up the slope on the diagonal, swings the plane round on the lip and parks for us to re-board. After a rough downhill run we’re soon airborne with the full load for Mt Hagen. Philipp makes a note for MAF’s “Route & Aerodrome Guide”.

And now it’s up to the pilots, who go in and out, to tell their own stories; of a new strip; another group of people to serve; another phase in sharing this group’s history in the making, while we earthlings wait for the next opportunity to briefly join their domain, sharing the joy of witnessing new beginnings in these remote communities

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