By Ian Ogston
This article is a reproduction of an article originally published in our first Armi Wantoks journal (Vol 1 2007)
Death’s grim shroud hung over us like the dull grey fog of a winter’s morning. The finality of it all, the sadness and the loss affected each of us in our small world of the Army Education Centre.
Our friend, George Tolata was dead.
Or was he?
Nothing is ever as simple as it seems when language travels across the chasms between cultures. We, as the new Army teachers at the Goldie River camp near Port Moresby, were discovering this daily in our work with the recruits of the Pacific Islands Regiment. We had been sent to PNG to work with and teach the soldiers whose cultural background and experiences were about as different from ours as could be imagined.
We found it was language in all of its subtle cultural meanings that was to lead to a multitude of misunderstandings, some of them serious but most, just amusing. The lingua franca of many people in Papua New Guinea was Pidgin English. The special difficulty that this language created for us came from its origins. It drew its structures and vocabulary from English, German (from the efforts of the German colonisers of the old Territory of New Guinea before World War 1) and a variety of local languages. It was colourful and, at least to our ears, highly amusing in many of its expressions. Words were borrowed and used for different purposes in this unusual language. It was this partial relationship with English that gave plenty of opportunity for misunderstandings and unexpected results.
A case in point involved the inimitable George Tolata. George occupied a position of considerable status as the cleaner in the Education Centre at Goldie. George was the quintessential Highlander – chunky of build, broad dark face and tight curly hair. He hailed from the town of Wabag in the westernmost part of the PNG Highlands. His most striking feature though was his widest of wide smiles with the whitest of white teeth.
George carried out his cleaning tasks at the two-storied Education Centre with casual efficiency. Four classrooms, half-a-dozen small offices and a library created quite enough work for him each day. George, however, was more than a cleaner. George made the best coffee and tea for our morning breaks and as a bonus, dispensed these with humour and elan. No cup was made without some wry and perceptive observation (in a very comprehensible Pidgin) about us and our small world.
George was therefore, a much-loved and integral part of the education staff of the Centre yet George was surprisingly assertive in his own way. This always lead to behaviours and routines being changed to suit his perception of the way things should be done. Quite literally, he was an institution in our working lives.
Then, one day, quite unexpectedly, George failed to show up for work. In his place was another man from the labour line called Mani. We were alarmed by this development but no amount of inquiry could elicit the reason for this sudden departure. Mani’s limited command of Pidgin was such that he was unable to throw any light on the subject of George’s whereabouts.
After a couple of days, George appeared again at Goldie only this time he was in the grass-cutting gang. In the world of the civilian labour in the camp, this was the very bottom of the pile. It was seriously hard work. Using a sharpened strip of steel with a handle of cloth wrapped around one end, a team of about a dozen men would cut their way through a patch of long grass, usually on the perimeter of the camp. It was rough, back-breaking work hacking through the long, brown kunai grass all day long in the tropical heat.
We asked George why he had left the Education Centre. Mysteriously, he either could not or would not give us much of an explanation. As well, he looked decidedly uncomfortable just talking to us. We thought that perhaps we had done something to upset him but none of us could think of any occasion where anything untoward had happened. We suspected that he may have run foul of whoever was in charge of allocation of the workers to the various jobs in the camp and his punishment was grass cutting in the sun.
We were the poorer for his departure in every way. Mani eventually worked out that putting tea from the teapot into the cup with the coffee in it was not the way to go but he was no George Tolata. Eventually, life settled just a little more sadly into new routines.
Then, some weeks later, Mani brought us the distressing news that George had come to grief on the dusty streets of Boroko, a suburb of Port Moresby. Outside a Chinese store in the main shopping area of this street, George had been struck by a fast-moving utility and as Mani said, “Im i dai” (He has died). George had been taken to the hospital and that was all the information that there was.
We were immensely saddened by this news and no amount of phone calls could shed more light on what had happened or even where George was. We were at a loss to know what to do about it. Nothing seemed appropriate. In this vacuum of information, we eventually accepted that our old friend had gone. I suppose we privately gave him a fond farewell in our thoughts, recognised the special contribution he had made and then got on with the business of our daily rounds of lessons for the newly-recruited soldiers in the camp.
About two weeks later, a dramatic development in the George Tolata story occurred. It was coming into the hottest months of the year when the heat, the humidity and the afternoon storms were making life seriously uncomfortable. We were having morning break, sitting around in our tea room when who should appear at the door but George!
Astonishment and incredulity are hardly adequate words to describe how we felt at the appearance of someone whom we had packaged in our minds as being dead. Nonetheless, a very alive and hearty George was standing with his broad, familiar smile at the door. He came in, quite oblivious to the turmoil of shaken reality that filled the room.
Eventually, the story of what happened came out. It appeared that, yes, there had been an accident in Boroko. And yes, George had been struck by a vehicle and then taken to the Port Moresby Hospital. However, his injuries had been relatively minor and he was released from hospital a few days later.
So why had we been told that he was dead?
The reason for the confusion lay with our less-than-perfect understanding of the subtleties of Pidgin. Apparently, when someone is said to “dai” (die), it means that he has gone into a deep sleep or, in this case, knocked unconscious which is, of course, rather less severe than being actually dead! We had completely misunderstood the meaning of the information we had being given. In Pidgin, if a person actually does die, the expression is to “dai pinis” (die finish). This is rather more forceful and emphatic as well as being a more accurate description of the event!
And so, we were delighted that George was still around with his huge, expansive smile, short curly hair now adorned with a bright red hibiscus flower. George, however, was not staying. He had saved enough money for himself and his wantoks (clan) and he was heading back to Wabag.
So, it was a happy ending for all. Nonetheless, there was a clear learning experience here for us. There was to be no such thing as certainty of meaning in language, especially across cultures as different as ours and those of the people of Papua New Guinea.