Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lebasi at large on the Laloki

This article was first published in The National Weekender on Friday, February 22, 2013


Down by the banks of the Laloki River, at 17-Mile outside Port Moresby, is where you’ll find legendary journalist and writer Biga Lebasi, the last of the great scribes of Papua New Guinea.
This is the romantic allure of the Laloki which, over the years, has brought adventurers like writer and journalist Beatrice Grimshaw, and Hollywood star Errol Flynn to this place, under the shadows of the majestic Hombrom Bluff.
Lebasi on the banks of the Laloki River.-Pictures by MALUM NALU

It was Flynn, in fact, who forever romanticised the Laloki River in his bestselling autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, with his account of how he seduced a beautiful young Papua girl.
“Sometimes, as I frolicked with Tuperselai by the riverbanks or lay with her in the soft sand at the shore, I thought I heard or sensed a subtle gura-gura mystique of the region,” he writes.
Lebasi swimming in the Laloki River
“Little people, they said, like the leprechauns of Ireland who watched out for you.
“Maybe it was only the eyes of the Melanesian natives spying on us.
“Tuperselai and I drifted.
“So, in our language of gestures, our smiles, closeness, Tuperselai and I made love and it was a beautiful thing.
“I was less alone and soft-aired Laloki River is one of my most-precious poetic memories.”
Lebasi and I were on the banks of the Laloki last Saturday discussing everything under the sun from Flynn and Grimshaw, the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, politics, literature (Huckleberry Finn, of course, given the river setting), independence, and the media, to his pet project of translating hymns into the Suau language of Milne Bay.
Lebasi tells his story to me
Lebasi is a pioneering staffer of The National in 1993, started his journalism career in 1964 at South Pacific Post, was a founder of Air Niugini’s in-flight magazine Paradise, was my editor at the now-defunct Niugini Nius in 1988 when I was a 20-year-old cadet, and was famous for his Lebasi At Large newspaper column.
He and his former wife, Australia Sue Elizabeth Lebasi, bought this place from an Australian in 1975.
Their only child, a son named Lato, was born in 1976 and lived for only a day, something that haunts Lebasi to this day.
Lebasi's backyard with the majestic Hombrom Bluff towering in the background
“My former wife, Sue Elizabeth Lebasi, and I bought this place back in 1975,” he tells me.
“It was on a Sunday when we went up to the lookout at Varirata and were staring down at the valley.
“Sue looked at me and I said, ‘I wished I lived right down there, you see where I’m pointing’.
“She said, ‘ok’.
“Monday, she picks up the phone and says,’there’s a place’.
“To cut a long story short, we bought the place from an Australian ex-army guy.
“After 38 years, I’m selling it.
“I’m old, I’m 70, so I need a quite place where I can go ‘clunk’ one day.”
“There’s so much change.
“When Sue and I moved here, there was hardly anybody.
“Now, it’s packed full of people, most of them squatters.
“Things have changed, and I don’t think changed for the better.
“Things may have changed for the better for people crowded around here, but for me, I have to go on, find some greener pastures somewhere, maybe go back home.
“I’m sorry to leave, but I have to go on looking for a better place.
“I’m old, I’m 70, so I need a quite place where I can go ‘clunk’ one day.”
Old and young...Lebasi and me swimming in the Laloki
Lebasi was born on April 9, 1942, near Alotau to a mother from Aioma and a father from Suau in Milne Bay at the height of Word War 11.
Because of the heavy fighting going on, they were moved to Kwato Island, where young Biga did his primary schooling, and because of the strong missionary influence there, he became an avid reader and writer – values that have stayed with him all his life.
“At the age of 15, I went to Sogeri Secondary School,” he recalls.
“After six years, I applied to be, would you believe it, a doctor!
“I applied and never got back a reply.
“To this day, I’m still waiting for a reply.
“I decided one day to walk up Lawes Road and ask for a job.”
To cut a long story short, from those humble beginnings, came forth one of the most-colourful and prolific journalists and writers this country has ever seen.
“It was the road towards independence,” he reminisces.
“I wasn’t in the newspaper business, if I had been outside, I would have joined the Pangu Pati.
“If I hadn’t been in the newspaper, I would have been involved in a nasty situation.
“I’m glad that we were handed independence on a platter without any bloodshed.
“The white population in Papua, and New Guinea, were afraid that a Mau Mau situation, similar to what happened in Africa, would happen here.
“They moved back to Australia thinking that there would be bloodshed here.
“It didn’t happen!
“The white press wanted bloodshed, hey, Page 1 stuff, but they didn’t write about the friendliness of the people, calm.
“We should be proud of that.”
In 1975, Lebasi joined the advertising and public relations department of Air Niugini, PNG’s new national airline, and got to see the world.
He had stints with the prime minister’s department, Word Publishing, Niugini Nius, and The National in a very-colourful career.
In 1997, true to style, Lebasi was at large, returning home to Milne Bay where he lived like a hermit on the bare minimum until 2011, when he returned to Port Moresby to sell off his property along the Laloki River.
Now in the twilight of his years, he is saddened by all the corruption in the country, as well as declining education standards.
Lebasi in a reflective mood
“It really upsets me, sickens me, to see political leaders and church leaders who don’t give a damn about corruption, how to educate a new generation to become good citizens,” Lebasi says.
“Our education system is going down, the national high school and university standards are dropping.
“And if you don’t mind me saying, standards of media, both newspaper and radio, are going down.
“It saddens me.”
That, and of course his son, Lato,  who is buried at 9-Mile Cemetery.
“After all these years, I still miss my son,” Lebasi admits.
“Every now and then, when I drive past 9-Mile, I wave to him.”
And the Laloki River rolls on…till Judgement Day.
Laloki River at 17-Mile

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