Ian Imaita, Benjamin Noibio, Kirstie Close-Barry, Naomie Tamai and Nadine Mika on Independence Hill. (Photo supplied: Kirstie Close-Barry)
In her second piece for the Aus-PNG Network, Kirstie Close-Barry shares her latest experience teaching history in Papua New Guinea and explains how the past is still very much present for many in PNG. Her recent trip included visits to the Kokoda Track and Bomana War Cemetery, sites of great historical significance for both Papua New Guinea and Australia.

This semester I am teaching Papua New Guinea history through the Pacific Adventist University at Koiari Park, on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Most of the teaching is being done online, but for a week of intensive classes and field trips. I am writing this as I make my way home to Melbourne after spending the week with my students. It’s been an absolutely amazing whirlwind of a week.

At our every turn, the past intersected with the present. The discussions I had been having with my PNG history class via Skype had already got us thinking about this, but it became clearer still when we got out of the classroom together during our intensive teaching sessions over the Easter break.

Together we travelled through land that had at different times been called Sahul, British New Guinea, the Territory of Papua, and then Papua New Guinea. Our first field trip was to Ower’s Corner, at the start of the Kokoda Track/Trail. Even the trip there was steeped in history. The volcanic peaks and enormous boulders scattered across the grassy, Eucalypt-studded mountains hinted at a long ago eruption that brought the place into being.

This landscape was layered with other histories too – histories of agriculture, of cultural festivals and rituals, of Christianity and missions. Of conflict, and war.

Bisiatabu – the site of a mission, rubber plantation and training base for the Papuan Infantry Battalion (photo supplied: Kirstie Close-Barry).

One of our stops along the way was Bisiatabu, which perhaps best demonstrates this overlapping history. It is the site of a Seventh Day Adventist mission, where missionaries established a school and rubber plantation in 1908. It has been home not only to the Koiari people but also to European and Pacific Islander missionaries.

In 1942, it became one of the staging camps for the Kokoda Campaign, and especially important as a training base for the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB). The PIB fought alongside the Allies during World War Two not only on the nearby Kokoda Track but also in other areas in PNG, including Bougainville.

We took the opportunity to walk with the students from my class and the Australian and New Zealand history class down the start of the Track to the Goldie River. Their attitudes to the challenge this presented physically, mentally and historically were incredible. I was behind them (both physically and metaphorically), encouraging but also just listening. They were thinking through the significance of the Track for PNG and Australian history, and then where they feature within these pasts.

For the students from Bougainville, this was particularly significant. The remnants of World War Two are scattered across Bougainville and have been used again in the Bougainville Crisis. The past was and is everywhere in PNG, a very real and tangible thing, not distant or lost.

On the Kokoda Track (photo supplied: Kirstie Close-Barry).

Despite a few aches and pains – for some of us more than others – we all made it up the Track. We had little time for rest, having to haul the bus out of the mud. Fortunately, we had a lot of assistance from carriers who had just helped some Australian trekkers up the Track. As the students said, the ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’ are still here to help!

The next day we were on the bus again and heading out of the Pacific Adventist University to the Bomana War Cemetery, where carriers are notably absent. The resident historian at PAU, Jeff Crocombe, prompted us to think of the symbolism incorporated in the cemetery’s design, and the students were commenting on this for the rest of the day, even as we went on to the National Museum.

At the Museum, guided by Greg Bablis we noted that many of the ethnographic materials came from the colonial administrator of British New Guinea intermittently between 1888 and 1898 who we had been talking about in previous lectures: Sir William Macgregor.  This colonial exhibition was our starting point, which was followed by a tour of the tanks and other war debris in the front of the museum compound.

The final port of call was Independence Hill, where the PNG flag was flying high. As we looked down at the Parliamentary buildings, we were thinking of the future, and what it would hold. I have no doubt I was standing shoulder to shoulder with PNG’s next generation of leaders. Whether they go into politics, teaching, or something else, they will be well informed of where they have come from, the nation’s history, and this will – I have no doubt – inspire ideas for where they can go in the future. Already, it seems, they are contemplating career paths that they had not previously thought would be possible.

In our last class together, we brainstormed ideas for how to promote PNG histories so that they are both engaging and accessible. We have decided to create a blog, which will act as a repository for the students’ writings on PNG and Pacific histories, covering issues of politics, culture and nationalism. The blog will be a place where the students will share their ideas and can start to develop journal articles and books. We finished the week feeling excited about future prospects for the writing of PNG history.

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About the Author

Kirstie Close-Barry - Historian - Lowy Institute

Kirstie Close-Barry

Historian

Dr Kirstie Close-Barry completed a Master of Arts at the University of Melbourne in 2009, and graduated with a PhD in history at Deakin University in 2014. She has taught tertiary-level Australian and Pacific histories since 2008, and will be teaching at the Pacific Adventist University and Deakin University this year. Her research continues on Australian, Fijian and Papua New Guinean colonial histories.