A CHILDREN’S book showing a Papua New Guinea boy using a banana leaf to shelter from rain led to an adventure involving witch doctors, cannibalism and women breastfeeding pigs.
Margaret Schellenberger was seven years old when she saw that book, but she had no doubt she would become a nurse in the mountainous jungles of our northern neighbour.
It is almost 50 years since the 72 year old qualified as a nurse and booked her plane ticket but she is putting her experience into writing so one day her children can relive her most treasured memories.
“I was handed the picture book at school and I decided that day I just had to see a banana leaf that a little boy could get under,” she said.
“It just didn’t occur to me it wouldn’t happen.
“My mother was horrified when I told her my plans. But the day I stepped off that plane in New Guinea and felt the humid jungle air around me, I knew I was home.
“I went to (Port) Moresby and did about four weeks doing training and then I was sent to Chimbu to Kundiawa which was really primitive.
“I got off the plane and there was this great sea of naked bodies and it was what I expected, as if I’d already dreamt it all.
“I opened up lots of areas so I was often the first white woman they saw.
“There was still some cannibalism when I went to Chimbu. They were still using bows and arrows, and they wore feathers and not much else.
“We had a hospital with a special ward for women to breastfeed pigs. Pigs were worth more than children and were only killed in ceremonies.
“There were other cultural differences. They would thank you by rubbing hands up and down your legs. There was one man who was very proud to have 75 brothers and sisters.
“Living in native villages never fazed me. It was just life.”
Margaret spent six years from 1960 to 1966 working in the region – travelling on foot to remote villages to help the sick.
She has been reliving many of those years by reading through up to 100 letters she sent to her mother and the ones exchanged with her husband. Margaret said she had laughed as she read how often she asked for shoes, which wore out every six weeks, and asked for new sewing needles, because they rusted.
“When I first moved into the nurses’ quarters, the walls were literally made of paper and our hot water system was just a metal drum with a fire underneath it, but I loved every moment of it,” she said.
“When people came (to the hospital), we would give them three boards to sit on; planks of wood to form their beds.
“Friends would sleep under them if they needed to.
“They used to bring their own wood pillows and all their heads would hang out towards the corridor so you would sweep through all their feathers as you walked by, especially beautiful bird of paradise feathers.”
Husband Frank started doing regular trips to Papua New Guinea in 1946, looking after a salvage operation from the war, but lived their permanently from 1950 to 1966.
“I loved being able to get out into the jungle and explore by myself with a group of native boys,” he said.
“I was adventuring, going to places most people had never been before.
“It was great as a young bloke being able to buy weapons over the counter but it was a very dangerous place.
“Once in Port Moresby, I saw a drunk guy shoot up all the bottles on the shelf behind the bar.”
The night Frank and Margaret met, he returned to her bedroom window in Namatanai after a few drinks and a dare from his mates at 2am.
“I had the first portable record player and stereo so I started playing a record underneath the bedroom where she was sleeping,” he said.
Frank said his actions were not exactly endearing and it was not until he went to collect someone from an air strip that they met properly again.
“That was a real coincidence and a couple of weeks later, I asked her if she wanted to go to a dance and it grew from there,” he said.
“I must have asked her about 30 times before she finally agreed to marry me.”
Frank said they both came across witchdoctors the natives would take their children to when they were not well.
“A medicine man would put on his duk-duk – a long timber thing on his head, and a funny grass skirt, and he would prescribe that if a child swallowed a piece of wood, it would cure tummy pains,” he said.
“The witchdoctor used to make up this yellowish powder, which they used to give (a pregnant) woman to take. The funny part was that he’d tell them to climb up a tree and jump off a branch three times, but it would work without doing that last part.
“They didn’t have the knowledge of medicinal cures from leaves and native plants like Australian Aboriginals or African natives.”
Frank said that in 1957, the United Nations stepped in and ordered a certain level of education and health be achieved in a specific time.
“But you can’t take someone out of primitive life with no background and turn them in one generation into educated people to our standards,” he said.
“When I was with the department of land, mines and surveys, we had a native we trained to be a surveyor.
“He went home to his island for three months and he forgot everything he had learned in five years.
“He immediately went back to the primitive way of life.”
With three children aged 42 to 37 and three grandchildren, the pair has been heavily involved in the community, including the Kawana Anglican church, guides and scouts.
Frank was heavily involved in real estate in the Kawana area, served on the REIQ, started up the Mooloolaba Coastguard and unsuccessfully stood for council twice.
Margaret had a number of roles including running a shop at Kawana Shoppingworld.
Although they have already published a 10-year account of the history of Kawana’s Anglican Church for its 30th anniversary, this book is just for their kids.
“At this age, you all start writing your life history and to me the New Guinea years are the most interesting part of my history,” she said.
“We want the kids to understand who we are and why we are the way we are.”
“I loved being out in the jungle.”
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