The Papua New Guinea government is undertaking a national census ahead of the election next year. Undertaking a census in PNG is a formidable task yet it used to be done annually across the nation by kiaps. PAUL OATES recounts his experiences as a kiap from the 1960s and 70s.
I can only relate the census patrols I observed and carried out in the areas I was posted to.
The officer-in-charge of a patrol post or the Assistant District Commissioner would decide the time for the yearly census patrol.
If there was a local government council, the kiap might consult the councillors to determine when might be a good time, given the various demands on a villager’s time.
Out of the galvanised iron patrol boxes would come the loose-leaf, green-paged census books for the villages to be visited.
These books were held together with brass bolts and wing nuts and a sheaf of new pages would be taken with the patrol in case there had been any new additions or the families had changed or expanded.
For a large, extended village of say over 1,000 people, there might be two or more books.
However, most villages then comprised of around a few hundred people, as the fertility of the area’s soils often might not support large population numbers and the names were therefore contained in a single volume, about an inch thick.
The next step in the patrol preparation process would be to ‘send out the talk’ (salim toksave igo) about the upcoming census patrol.
This process might be by runner although in later years it could be over the local short wave radio station that operated out of the district capital.
By the early 1970s, many people had a battery-operated short wave radio receiver in the villages.
There were a number of reasons why it was important to let the local people know that a census patrol was coming.
Firstly, the people had to plan ahead for these events by coming together in their official village at the time the patrol arrived.
This wasn’t as simple as it first seemed.
Many mountain villagers did not actually live in the formal village and would often be living in small garden huts, next to their food gardens.
To ensure that everyone possible attended the census, village people might have to prepare well in advance.
This preparation might require the collection of enough food and firewood to last a few days.
Secondly, unless there was a fixed patrol line, it was important that there were enough suitable young people available in the village to be paid to carry the patrol’s gear on to the next village, after the census had been conducted.
When the patrol arrived, all the villagers would be assembled in an open area.
Custom dictated that men would sit on one side and women on the other.
A folding patrol table would be set up with folding patrol chair and the village census book produced and placed on the patrol table, in front of the kiap and a policeman would stand alongside the kiap with the official interpreter if required.
About to commence a census: patrol table, flag and constable finishing his morning coffee.Census experiences before independence
Often the kiap would be sitting near the “haus kiap” (the kiap’s house) or government rest house in each village, where the Australian flag would be flying from a bamboo flag pole, indicating the government was in residence.
A call would then be sung (often “yodelled”), out by the village leaders in Tok Pisin: “Oli kamap nau. Oli sindaun, oli pasim maus” (roughly: come on everyone, come over here and sit down and be quiet).
When everyone had gathered together, the census book would be opened and the census commenced.
The names in the book were in alphabetical order starting with the husband’s name. The first name might begin with say “Bupe” and then came his father’s name “Zineroc” as areas in the Huon Peninsula were patrilineal.
“Bupe Zineroc istap a?” (“Is Bupe Zineroc here?”) would be asked and the village leaders would sing out ‘Bupe, Bupe Zineroc, yu lain nau.”
Bupe would then stand up and walk up in front of the gathering and in front of the patrol table.
Alongside him would then stand his wife and all their children by descending height and therefore, age.
If he had more than one wife, the next wife would then stand after the last child of the first wife and her children then line up and so on.
It was the traditional custom in many villages that if a brother died, the brother next in line would take over the family.
In a Melanesian society, where no welfare or social security system existed, this custom made good, practical sense.
Most missionaries however, denigrated this custom and made every effort to stamp it out but without offering any practical alternative.
Under the year of the census, a tick would then be marked in the book that Bupe was observed in his village and that all his family was also observed and appeared to be in good health.
Any health problems would then be referred either to a medical assistant with the patrol or the villager would be directed to attend the patrol post health centre.
If Bupe was a farmer, as was likely, the abbreviation “s/f” would be noted after his name indicating “subsistence farmer”.
His wife would have “h/d” after her name indicating “home duties”.
If there had been a new addition to the family, the new addition’s name would be added to the book with a surname of Bupe, indicating who his father was.
The given name however might only be the child’s official name and might not be his or her actual name.
Children often might have their name changed as they progressed through their various ages and levels within their society and traditional ceremonies.
Sometimes, a name change might not actually be registered in the census book and then people could get confused about whose name was being called out.
However, with everyone from the village being there, any confusion was usually sorted out very quickly.
Other abbreviations that might be made against a name were: “absent male” and an indication where the person might be.
Illegitimate children could use their mother’s name as their last name or take the name of the male whose house they might reside in.
Why was the village census so important?
The village census records formed a basis for the registration of births, deaths and marriages as well as taxes and the electoral role.
It was also equally important for recording entries against an individual concerning health, education and law and order and any ongoing information the next patrol may need to investigate.
This was also the only legal, personal record available to rural Papua New Guineans.
The census patrol was very important as each villager had to be sighted and the overall health of the village to be noted.
This data formed the basis of an informed review of the area and a statistical analysis based on a record of any population growth or decline.
The details were then reported and assembled at each level of administration, from the base camp/patrol post to the sub district and then on to the district and finally to the whole of the territory.
This then allowed the administration of the country to be effectively based on annually updated statistical information.
During a census patrol in a village in the Aseki patrol post area, a family lined up in front of me.
Going through the family names, I called out the name of a young boy, who had been marked in the book by a previous officer as having been born over three years ago.
The mother quickly pointed with her chin to the baby in her bilum (the string bag hanging from her head).
Thinking that the child may have died and another given the same name, I said “nogat, em olsem dispela”, (“no, like this”), and marked with my hand, half way up my thigh above the knee, indicating the general height of a three-year-old.
Again, after calling the child’s name the woman’s chin jerked in direction of the bilum on her back.
Mystified, I approached the woman who was standing next to her husband. The policeman standing next to me had already prompted a response from the sullen looking father with a terse “kaikai we?” (“where do you eat?”), indicating he should open his mouth and reply to a question asked of him.
Asking the woman to open her bilum I peered into it and was horrified to see a curled up, crinkled, emaciated form of what was apparently a three-year-old child.
I glared daggers at the father who cringed away and explained, via the village Tultul (interpreter) “mama inogat susu na emi no save kamap gut” (“his mother’s milk dried up and he didn’t grow up very well”).
I turned to the Luluai (village leader) and instructed him in no uncertain terms to take the mother and child immediately to the Aseki health centre for treatment.
When I arrived back at the station at the end of the patrol, I checked and the mother and child had already been flown to the district capital Lae and were now at the Angau base hospital.
The child, who was severely malnourished and dehydrated, was eventually saved and I heard later, survived to grow up.
Later that night around the camp fire, I confided to my police Constable in Tok Pisin.
“When I saw the child’s condition I was so angry, I damn near hit the father!”
He replied in the same language: “You’d have had to stand in line, sir.”