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Invading Papua New Guinea, Pinoy Style

During my first three years in Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea, I moved around the city by bus. My employer had only provided me transport service from my flat to my workplace and back. Outside of this route, say, going to the shopping center or doing my weekend supermarket run, I rode the PMV, the city bus service. Sometimes, I would be lucky to get a ride with friends who had cars. But on most occasions, I took the PMV.

For most of the Filipino expatriates, riding the PMV was a dangerous exercise. But it was something I had to do out of necessity. They would not risk the PMV due to the perceived danger: buses were vulnerable to "raskol" attack (by thugs, criminals, etc) as a number of cases had proven in the past. Or, perhaps sitting next to you could be a "raskol" himself just waiting for his DRS (default raskol syndrome) to surface and you could be his next victim as he pounced on you.

But for three years since I arrived in 1993, I had proven that bus commuting benefited me and provided me with unique experiences in encounters with ordinary Papua New Guineans.

For instance, one Friday afternoon on my usual ride to Koki, a wet market by the bay where fresh seafood was in abundance and very cheap, I was approached curiously by the rider seated next to me. He was trying to strike a chat first by asking "You're Chinese?" to which I replied: "Filipino." To which he reacted quite excitedly, "Oh, Filipino! They're good . unlike other Asians ."

Hearing this, my heart jumped, feeling proud that I happened to be a Filipino. As to why he had that impression about us was something I had yet to find out.

When I finally got my own car, the security guard, a local guy, at our compound would wash it occasionally. It sat next to 5 other cars owned by my Malaysian colleagues and parked under the shed. I would offer him two kina, the local currency, for his trouble. But, as always, he declined. So one day, I asked, "Why do you wash my car and yet you won't accept my payment?"

He said, "No need. You're very good to me . you Filipinos are very kind ."

First Filipinos, 1800s

How Papua New Guineans came to admire the Filipinos in their midst more than they have other expatriates (Australians, Caucasians, Indians, Malaysians, Chinese and Japanese), dates back to the 1880s. During this period, 14 Filipino lay missionaries—the first Philippine visitors—accompanied European priests to Papua New Guinea to teach catechism to the natives in an effort to evangelize the country.

The mission workers sailed from neighboring Queensland, Australia where they just completed a long mission for the Catholic Church and headed for Yule Island, 110kms northwest of Port Moresby. Yule Island, during those days, was an insignificant port in this part of the Pacific. Lying just close to mainland Papua New Guinea, Yule Island was just a tiny dot in the map. But it was the seat and nerve center of the Catholic mission in the country that first took roots in the1800s.

Missionaries Yule Island: European mission priests headed by
Fr. Alain de Boismenu (second from right, seated) and Yule Island children
and adults during Fr. Boismenu's Episcopal Jubilee in 1892.
- Photo credit: Postcardman

The Filipino catechists, recruited some years earlier, were educated and highly-trained by the Catholic mission in the Philippines. But long before the newcomers set foot on Yule Island in the 1880s, Anglican missionaries from Europe were already hard at work on the mainland's remote villages. Individually, the Filipinos fanned out into the villages of British New Guinea (a.k.a. Papua, the southern half of the mainland) where they introduced Christianity, specifically Catholicism, to the natives.

Aware of the difficulties awaiting them in every village, the Filipinos did their best to adapt to the ways of the natives while battling malaria and fending off hostile members of the community who did not like light-skinned intruders. Undaunted, the catechists taught their hosts domestic and religious duties and instructed the children in the faith. They taught elementary subjects and promoted general good conduct. At the same time, they introduced the elders to simple skills that made living a bit easier.

Having completed the day's catechism class, the Pinoy missionaries built roads, showed the natives a better way to cultivate vegetables and root crops and gradually inculcated hygiene and cleanliness within their surroundings and inside their bush. When conflicts among members of the community erupted resulting in violence, the missionaries used their influence and authority to achieve peace and bring about reconciliation. What the new native converts liked most about the Filipinos was that they were treated by these lay missionaries with respect and, more importantly, as equals.

In later years, the Filipinos returned to home base in Yule Island and married native women and had children, which explains why many Yule Islanders have distinct Filipino features: light-complexion, straight hair, brown eyes and thin lips, among others—a stark contrast from the rest of the Papuans. Port Moresby old-timers usually referred to these descendants as "Los Filipinos". The Filipino missionaries, according to tales handed down through generations, died of old age and are buried in the village's burial grounds on the island.

From four generations of these inter-racial offspring, a number were said to have carried Filipino Hispanic surnames like Natera, Taligatus, Artango, Babas, Castro, Malabag, Ramos, Espinosa, Buen Suceso, Fabila and De la Cruz. A number of the descendants who arrived later were educated in Australia. They became prominent citizens and held distinct positions in the government and in business and industry.

The author, flanked by Filipino descendants Bernadette Sereba Ani (left)
with first cousin Anita Fabila-Alarco and Steven Ramos.
Photo courtesy of Bimbo Navarte—Gawad Kalinga-PNG

Australian Colony

Papua New Guinea became a colony of Australia at the turn of the 20 th century but the first known Aussies who settled in the Papuan side of the country arrived only in the 1920s looking for gold. They were called "masta" (master) by the natives. The main reason was that white men lorded it over the place like landlords and treated the natives who worked for them like the proverbial workhorses.

In 1973, the Australian colonial government determined that the growing economy needed foreign skills and expertise to help sustain the needs of the local industries and to run the various units in the national government. To prepare the country for eventual independence from Australia, the administration launched a massive recruitment exercise targeting Filipino workers. The "Pinoys" were chosen over other Asian nationals for their English proficiency and inherent patience and ability to adapt to the local culture.

Fabila and Natera ancestors
FABILA FAMILY. Marcelo Fabila (standing behind chair), his wife
Anna Natera (seated, with a baby) and their eight children. Anita's
father, Ildephonso, boy standing on Anna's left side. Anna was
the daughter of Simplicio Natera, who arrived in Yule Island in the
early 1800s. Photo courtesy of Anita Fabila-Alarco family.

A hundred thirty-six Filipinos made up the first batch of technicians, teachers, professors, architects, surveyors, fishery experts and agriculturists, They set foot in Papua New Guinea on May 10, 1974. These recruits were either posted in various government units along with their white counterparts or they taught elementary and vocational courses across the country. One of these recruits was Orlando (Orly ) Alvarez, then 29, hired as a mechanic although he had a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

"We were recruited by the Australian colonial government. The offer was good at the time compared to what we were making in the Philippines. The kina (local currency) was a bit higher than the U.S. dollar, so conversion into peso was good. When we came to Papua New Guinea, we were put on a chartered Qantas flight," recalled Alvarez, now 61.

For his first job, he was assigned to the Plant and Transport Department, handling the transport needs of government agencies. He said his main job was to keep the vehicles "running at all times."

"I trained a lot of local guys on automotive works. In later years, they became managers in various units of the present-day Works Department," Alvarez proudly reminisced. Alvarez is now the Transport director at the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC).

Towards the closing years of the British colonial government, the center of economic activities remained in Lae, an industrial hub in the northern coast of the country, and in Port Moresby, the southern capital where the international airport is located alongside a port frequented by international ships. Technicians, such as mechanics, welders, carpenters, drivers, machinists, agriculturists along with doctors and other professionals were mainly based either in Lae or in Port Moresby.

After the islands gained independence from Australia on September 15, 1975, the exodus of Filipinos to Papua New Guinea continued through direct hiring by the Papua New Guinea government.

Education a priority goal

In 1979, the government focused their recruitment goal on education. They hired high school and elementary school teachers and vocational instructors, along with technicians and office secretaries. The teachers were distributed to schools in the provinces.

When Patrick Levo, a young journalist I met in 1993 learned that I came from the Philippines, he immediately reminisced about his Filipino teacher—Mrs Saturnina Cortez. She was his teacher in second year high school (1980) at Iarowari on the Sogere Plateau outside of Port Moresby.

"She was such a bubbly, lovable grand Filipino woman ." Levo said of his teacher in an email sent to me a few days from Lihir Island north-east of Papua New Guinea where his employer, the Lihir Gold Ltd, one of the world's biggest gold producers, operates.

"She was the best teacher we boys could have . she was like a mother to us. We were just young kids in a boys-only-high school and life was tough so having her consoled us when were feeling unwell, sick or hurt. It was almost like having your own mother watching over you for a whole year at school ."

"To this day, I still consider her a very special woman, not only for teaching us in the academic sense but for her motherly advise. She even taught us how to sew the holes on our shirts, how best to wash our clothes using a bar of soap . how to use the toothpaste . and more on personal health and hygiene," says Levo, who works as Lihir Gold's Community Information Officer.

Levo said that Mrs Cortez and her husband Pedro, a vocational instructor, can be proud of their contributions to the education of the people of this country.

"I wasn't the only one who benefited from their teaching . there are thousands of Papua New Guineans out there who learnt their ABC and one plus one from this couple."

"I would like to say "Thank You, Pedro and Saturnina Cortez" on behalf of the 8B Class of Iarowari in 1980," Levo said. Sources from the Filipino community said the couple retired two years ago and had since returned to the Philippines.

"Show me one professional Aussie and I will match him with a Filipino ."

Alvarez recalled that there was a time when the first Filipino recruits that included him were paid salaries lower than those of their Australian counterparts. Realizing the inequality, the Filipinos supported the petition on their behalf by the Philippine Ambassador to Papua New Guinea to bring the anomaly to the government's attention. In his petition, the ambassador asked for equal treatment of Filipino workers on the issue of salary parity. Dramatizing his appeal-demand, Ambassador Saballones challenged the government with the statement: "Show me one professional Aussie and I will match him with a Filipino ."

Filipino workers won their day in court.

Alvarez noted that the Filipinos unselfishly imparted to the locals all they knew about their trade to facilitate skill transfer, the main goal why expatriate professionals were recruited.

"That's why those who trained under me who later became successful in their careers would call me up to say thank you," he said.

Alvarez, however, noted one attitude among the locals that often got the better of them.

"After they learned what had to be learned, they thought they could now take over the job like they were the master . forgetting that we technicians honed [our skills] over the years which no one could learn in a few sessions at the workshop."

"I agree," says Nene Sta. Cruz, a master trainer at the Integrated Development Services, Ltd. Her outfit provides services, i.e., training, professional consultancy, applied research and organizational competence to government institutions and private companies. She recalled that a number of small business partnerships between Filipinos and Papua New Guineans did not prosper because of the latter's perception on how business should be handled.

Sta. Cruz, arrived in 1984 as a lecturer at a government agency equivalent to the Development Academy of the Philippines (DAP), the Papua New Guinea Institute of Public Administration. Later, she was hired as a trainer in a program for future government training officers, into which she injected Filipino work ethics. Back in the Philippines, she was with the Philippine Business for Social Progress (BPSP) as project supervisor and pioneered the self-employment program of the Department of Social Welfare (DSW).

"When I was with the Papua New Guinea IPA, I expanded the concept of training by identifying who among those in public service needed training skills," Sta. Cruz said, noting that this developed into a course for extension officers who went to the villages to work with the grassroots.

Nene Sta. Cruz (left) and Celia Nunez - Photo by author

The training they received helped them in their profession in later years, she said. "A number of my officer-students are now in government agencies holding top positions . some even became members of Parliament, a governor and a government cabinet member."

Two deputy provincial administrators (executive positions assisting the provincial governor) at the Central province trained in public administration under Sta. Cruz. As part of their training, the district administrators were brought to Metro Manila to learn the "baranggay" system of "bottom-up planning".

Additionally, to improve the efficiency of executive secretaries working for top-level government officials, Sta. Cruz designed a special program for them after which they were sent to Manila for hands-on assignment in top corporate entities in the business enclave of Makati.

Sta. Cruz noted that these office secretaries employed by government ministers, directors and top management were among those usually ignored when it concerned proficiency training. "Now, government executives are benefiting from the newly-acquired skills of their executive secretaries," she said.

Gawad Kalinga, a growing force

Filipino expatriates and local volunteers at work on a concrete flower box
at the Gerehu-GK Village just outside of Port Moresby.
- Photo by Bimbo Navarte - GK-PNG

The Filipinos' inherent flexibility as workers is one factor that continues to make them attractive to Papua New Guinean employers.

John Orea, a road contractor and businessman, and former governor of Central Province, relied heavily on Filipino experts for business and technical advice.

"I learned a lot from my Filipino consultants, especially in the engineering aspect of my projects," he said, adding that he highly valued the expertise and friendships of the Filipinos. "I talked to them as much as I could to learn new things from them."

In fact, when he became the Central Province governor in the late 1990s, the first thing he did was to pirate one Filipino civil engineer from the Works Department to become his consultant for his rural development program. The consultant was Raul Sta. Cruz, the late husband of Nene Sta. Cruz.

At present, Orea is deeply involved with Gawad Kalinga, supporting its projects all the way until the first GK Village was developed with 10 houses at the Gerehu Stage 6, a depressed district north of Port Moresby. One of his commitments was to make his tractors and hauling trucks available for the use of the GK project, which is now starting to build the next batch of 10 units.

Orea claims that he is "done with politics." He says, "I'm no longer a politician. I am a CFC (Couples For Christ) and GK man and I am amazed by the dedication of my Filipino friends to make the GK village come true for my people."

John Orea beating a kundu drum as he performs a native dance
to the delight of the audience at the Gawad Kalinga
Convention, Manila, June 2006.
—Photo courtesy of Jose Ma. Montelibano, GK Headquarters.

Last June, John with his wife Monica, represented Papua New Guinea at the Gawad Kalinga Convention at the Ultra in Pasig City where he told the audience, which included overseas Filipinos, how Gawad Kalinga was making inroads into the consciousness of Papua New Guineans.

Couples For Christ, an organization composed of Filipino and local couples, is deeply involved in various Gawad Kalinga projects at the Gerehu-GK Village. Also, the CFC sponsors about 80 schoolchildren—pre-school and primary—at the Gerehu Elementary School.

Pinoys thriving in Papua New Guinea

In 2006, the Filipinos in Papua New Guinea number 7,500, according to estimates by the Philippine Embassy, with about 3,500 based in Port Moresby. The rest are distributed across the country, working in trade stores, banks, corporate offices, factories, logging camps and government units.

Cheska Marqueses, 4, and Andre Peter Carlos, 6
performing "Sayaw sa Bangko" during the celebration
of the 108th Philippine Independence in Port Moresby, PNG.
- Photo courtesy of Ofie Carlos, Port Moresby, PNG

Long-time expatriates take pride in saying that with their employment here, they were able to send their children to local international schools and Australian universities.

Those who paved the way

Visiting the Holy Rosary Parish Church at Six Mile, Port Moresby, I saw a small monument on which a marble plate was embedded on its face with inscription that reads:

"In remembrance of the first group of Filipino lay missionaries in PAPUA NEW GUINEA who arrived on Yule Island during the 1880s and others whose names are known only to God: Emmanuel Natera, Diego Rendall, Bernadino Taligatus, Basilio Artango, Telesforo Babas, Francis Castro, Juan Malabag, Gregorio Ramos, Cirilo Espinosa, Gregorio Toricheba, Nicolas Albaniel, Anastacio Buen Suseso, Marcello Fabila, Juan de la Cruz".

Monument in honor of the first 14 Filipinos who came to PNG
as Catholic missionaries in the 1800s.—Photo by author.

Indeed, it is a fitting tribute to these brave and hardworking Filipino missionaries who left a lasting legacy that has become a part of this country's history and who, 94 years later, set off a wave of "cultural, intellectual and technical invasion" by modern-day Overseas Filipino Workers.

© Alfredo P. Hernandez

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