Stephen Codrington


Papua New Guinea Travel Diary 1983

The first part of today was spent in Goroka, inspecting JK McCarthy Museum (which documents the development of western contact in the Highlands and interaction with local cultures) and the Rothmans tobacco factory, west of Goroka.


I wasn’t thrilled about taking my students to a cigarette factory, but the Rothmans cigarette factory was one of the region’s largest processing factories and was situated within a large plantation growing the tobacco that fed the factory.  The factory’s operations were very labour intensive in spite of the machinery.  The machinery was used to manufacture cigarettes for packaging (mainly the “Cambridge” brand), but the operations to produce coarse cut tobacco were less mechanised.

A disturbingly large proportion of Papua New Guinea people (both men and women) smoke coarse cut tobacco, which is rolled in newspaper into cigarettes that are many centimetres in length.  The country’s newspapers actually do an additional print run at the end of each day using lower toxicity ink specifically for the purpose of rolling coarse cut tobacco for smoking.

In the early 1980s, a multinational company, WD & HO Wills, had the major share of the coarse cut tobacco market with “Spear” brand tobacco.  Last year (1982), another multinational, Rothmans, which cultivates tobacco on the Uritoka Plantation that we visited today, wished to break into the market, so Rothmans searched for the “right” image for their tobacco.  They decided to market their tobacco as “Hero” brand, modelled after a figure something like the comic-book character, the Phantom, who is a cult figure among Highlanders in Papua New Guinea.

At the time, an election campaign was underway in Papua New Guinea, and many candidates were giving away T-shirts with their photographs and slogans on them.  Rothmans decided to adopt this strategy, so they made and gave away thousands of “Hero” T-shirts with the Pidgin slogan “Em i save win” (or “He knows how to be a winner”) on them. The campaign went very strongly – until election day when thousands of Highlands people tried to vote for ‘Hero’, only to be told that he did not really exist.  Sales of Hero tobacco flopped completely after that time, and by the time of our visit the brand was being dropped.  Consequently, we were all offered a free “Hero” T-shirt as a souvenir.

We returned to Gorokas for lunch and a quick walk around town before heading to the airstrip for our afternoon flight to Port Moresby.  The drive to the airstrip was a short one as the runway passes right through the middle of the town, with the township of Goroka wrapping around its northern end in a deep U-shape.

It was originally intended to catch a 2:30pm flight to Port Moresby, and inspect Port Moresby after arrival (Hanuabada village, squatter settlements, Koki markets, Paga Point lookout, House of Assembly and the University), but a 3½ hour delay meant abandoning this part of the study.

As sometimes happens, however, the unexpected delay proved to be a blessing in disguise.  While we were sitting around waiting, I noticed there quite a few of our fellow delayed passengers were elderly men and women, not unlike many of the people interviewed in the movie “First Contact” that we had watched the previous night.  So with the help of an interpreter, I approached a small group of them and asked them the same question that had been put to the elderly men and women in “First Contact” – do you remember the first time you saw white people from outside the Highlands?

What a brilliant series of recollections this simple question unlocked.  It was like a living, beathing version of the same recollections we had seen in the movie.  One old man told us how he remembered, as a boy, hearing that the “lightning people” had come into the area.  At first, like everyone else, he thought they were ghosts or spirits.  This was because their skin was white, and local tradition was to cover the bodies of the dead in light grey mud.  Furthermore, the white men were searching for gold in the rivers; traditional practice was to place the bodies of the dead in the rivers, so in the 1930s, everyone assumed that the spirits of the dead had returned to search for their remains in the rivers and streams.

The hypothesis that the white men were spirits was reinforced by the fact that the white men were wearing trousers, so the Highlanders assumed they must never need to urinate or excrete.  However, one of the people I spoke to said that he was hiding one day when one of the white men squatted in the grass to defecate.  When he had finished, the boy ran over the location, picked up the deposit, and ran home to show it to his family.  Everyone gathered around to inspect the evidence, and eventually concluded that they must be human men after all.  Apparently, the boy’s aunt said something like “their skin might be a different colour, but their shit smells just like ours”.

Eventually our delayed plane arrived, so we boarded and finally took our flight (PX125) on an Air Niugini Fokker F-28, registration P2-ANU (the same plane as we had for our earlier flight from Port Moresby to Mount Hagen).

As a result of the late flight, our group was somewhat late and untidily dressed for a barbeque dinner hosted for us by Prime Minister Michael Somare at Parliament House, although the Prime Minister was most understanding and gracious in accepting our apologies.  Our overnight accommodation was provided by the Davara Hotel, on Ela Beach in central Port Moresby.

Our drive from Parliament House to Ela Beach provided us with an unexpected insight into Port Moresby’s law and order situation.  Just as we were settling down for the drive, one of the students called out “Hey, look out the window”.  As we peered out to the right hand side of the bus, we saw a man running, being chased by a mob of about 6-8 men waving broken bottles and other objects that I couldn’t identify above their heads.

They were all fast runners, but little by little, the mob were catching up with the individual as we was running and jumping over various objects.  As he took a short cut through a petrol station, the mob caught up with him, pulled him to the ground and started kicking and punching him.  The bus continued driving so we didn’t see any more of the event.  Just as everyone was sitting down again, another student yelled out “hey, look out to left”.  We did so, and it was the same thing again – an individual man being chased by a mob of raskals.