By MALUM NALU
Where were you in 1975?
That is the question many people will be asking each other as Papua New Guinea celebrates 36 years of independence tomorrow.
Many others – the majority – will simply say “I wasn’t even born then”.
I was in Goroka in 1975 and can fondly say that it was one of the best years of my life.
Girl guides float in Goroka, September 16, 1975
The first thing that struck me about Goroka was the beautiful flowers, shrubs and roaring streams.
I was then seven years old, bound to turn eight later that momentous year, but the memories are still there – albeit fading – 35 years on.
The family of my mum, dad, elder sister, elder brother, my younger sister and me disembarked from an Air Niugini F27 Fokker Friendship one cold January morning in 1975.
I took my first breath – fresh, cool and clean mountain air – of what would be our home for the next three years until the end of 1977.
Back in 1975, mum, dad and my elder siblings were no newcomers to Goroka and the then Eastern Highlands District.
Mum and dad came here as newly weds to Iufi Iufa primary school, Asaro Valley, in the early 1960s.
My father Mathias was a school inspector and an ex-Dregerhafen and Sogeri schoolmate of one Michael Somare while my Moasing mother was a missionary-trained nurse.
It was here that my elder sister Alison and my elder brother David were born.
I have so many pleasant memories of growing up in Goroka.
In those pre-independence and immediate post-independence days, colonialism was still in the air, hence, there being so many expatriates.
Goroka was a neat, well-planned colonial town, which – like Lae and Kainantu – was built around the airport.
And the airport then was a hive of activity, especially given Goroka being the base of Dennis Buchanan’s Talair and ex-Vietnam veteran Mal Smith’s Pacific Helicopters.
Throwing frisbees and flying kites in the park, riding bikes, chasing muna (those seasonal beetles eaten by the locals), buying sweets, comic and books at West Goroka and dreaming on those endless summer afternoons in December were among our great passions.
Comic book trading – Donald Duck, Phantom, Walt Disney, Ritchie Rich, Casper The Friendly Ghost, Wendy The Good Little Witch, Bugs Bunny…and I could go on and on with the characters – was a way of life among us kids in those days.
I have no qualms that I learned more English and the nuances of grammar from those comic books than from school.
Professional boxing was all the rage in those days of inimitable fighters like Martin Beni, the late John Aba, his brother Tony, Mark Apai and the lot.
Through the late Norm Salter – the great fight promoter – Goroka was able to host its share of professional and amateur bouts as well as wrestling matches featuring men, women and even midgets from overseas.
Goroka’s YC Hall was the equivalent of Madison Square Gardens in the US - the true centre of boxing in the country.
The YC was also the centre stage for basketball in those days with national championships being held there in 1975, 1976 and 1977.
The showground, now the National Sports Institute, saw bone crushing rugby league matches as well as aerial rules football contests.
Of course, nothing in Goroka would be complete without the annual show, a colorful extravaganza of singsings, agricultural produce and those wonderful show bags we loved so much.
The West Goroka Theatre, now the NSI gymnasium, was where we would sit on old coffee bags and watch those good old Bruce Lee and James Bond movies, as well as thrillers like Airport ’75, Jaws, Towering Inferno and King Kong – the place being literally packed to the rafters.
Radio then was king – there being no such thing as EMTV or video – and it was a joy to listen to the Sunday night dramas, Grade 10 quizzes and the live coverage of rugby league and other sports on the National Broadcasting Commission’s Medium Wave transmission.
Yes, indeed, life was a wonderful dream for us who grew up in Goroka at the time.
Of course, in 1975, independence was in the air.
Young men who championed the cause, like Michael Somare, were treated with disdain by the lapuns and old colonials, who argued that independence would be a catastrophe.
Little PNG flags and independence t-shirts and caps were very fashionable.
At school the teacher, a beautiful Hula, Central province woman called Mrs Manoka, would ask us, one by one, to give our individual oratories about this thing called ‘Independence’.
That year, in April, there was excitement all around the brand new PNG currency was introduced.
Shiny 10 and 20 toes coins were all the rage among us kids.
The venerable Australian dollars and cents, which had become part of our lives, continued to be legal tender until after independence.
Also that eventful year, by quirk of fate, a big frost in Brazil – the world’s biggest coffee producer – saw prices skyrocket.
It was a cause to celebrate with fortunes being made overnight, especially in the Highlands.
At the West Goroka shopping centre just down the road from where we lived, it was a common sight to see villagers in as tanget (leaf coverings, which were worn widely in those days instead of clothes) with huge wads of cash going on an orgy of spending, buying big cow legs, beer and stereos for the inevitable parties that followed.
My uncle, the coffee tycoon Jack Amos, made millions overnight and celebrated by travelling to the Phillipines to watch that famous ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ world heavyweight championship bout between Muhammed Ali and ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
These all added to the big party that was 1975.
September 15, 1975, was the last day for PNG to come under colonial rule
We sat up until 12am on September 16, when Governor-General Sir John Guise did the Proclamation of Independence, broadcast live over the ever-reliable NBC:
“Papua New Guinea is now independent.
“The Constitution of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, under which all powers rest with the people, is now in effect.
“We have at this point in time broken with out colonial past and we now stand as an independent nation in our own right.
“Let us unite, with almighty God’s guidance and help, in working together for a future as a strong and free country.”
And then the fireworks exploded into the Goroka night sky to herald the start of a new day, a new era and a new Nation-State.
It was a time for celebration, but also a poignant occasion, as the Australian flag came down for the last time.
In addition, many a tear was shed by the lapun man/meri (old men/women) as that great icon of colonialism was lowered.
Today, 36 years later, Goroka is still a beautiful place.
In fact, I spent four years there from 1998 to 2002, finding myself back on my childhood stomping grounds.
It was like arriving at a place I’d never left!
Memories of another day, those oh-so-happy childhood days, came rushing back.
And nostalgia filled my heart every time I saw something that reminded me of those blissful days.
Goroka still hasn’t lost its basic shape of 1975, 1976 and 1977 and still has that colonial feel about it.
Goroka, to me, is home.
After all, my siblings and I were born, raised and educated here.
In later years, my late wife and I spent four wonderful years in Goroka, and it was there that my two elder sons were born.
I dream of a golden future for this pleasantly agreeable town with its perennial spring climate, majestic sentinel-like mountains and bouquet of perfumed flowers.
Happy 36th Birthday Goroka and Papua New Guinea and God Bless You real good!