A Marist’s love affair with PNG – Br Pat Howley

A Yumi Stori Blogspot by Patrick Matbob – Feb 2015

Text from yumistori.blogspot.com

Br. Pat died at the Andrew Villa, Ashgrove, on 23 November 2022


Arriving for the first time in PNG in 1966, Marist religious brother Patrick Howley felt he had come home. He immediately fell in love with country, and found that the environment suited his lifestyle.

“I found the place very convivial. It sort of suited my way of life”, Br Pat, as he is known by all who have come across him, said.

“I felt that I was good for Papua New Guinea, and at the same time, Papua New Guinea was good for me”.

He felt so much at home in PNG that soon after independence he became a citizen wanting to die and be buried in the country.

“I wanted to string it out as long as I could and I was sort of preparing to die with my booths on,” said the 88-year-old in a final interview before leaving the country in May this year.

However, circumstances would compel him to resume Australian citizenship in the 90s.

He had come in 1966 at the age of 40, an energetic and fiercely independent individual, unafraid to challenge the norms of the colonial education system, and even his own religious rules, while having a deep appreciation and understanding of the local people he was helping to educate. Never afraid to experiment, his methods were often unorthodox annoying or amusing his professional and religious superiors. Yet he seemed to thrive on challenges, and his accomplishments were unique, such as his method of democratizing the schools under his control by introducing the Ombudsman and government systems.

He was a striking figure back in the early years, his balding head hedged in by snow white mane that extended down the back of his neck. A neatly trimmed white beard and moustache adorned his aquiline features, completed by thick-framed spectacles. He looked more like a 1950s movie star than a religious educator.

When he joined fellow Marist missionary teachers in PNG, he had been teaching in Australia for 19 years and finding it very stressful.

“It was the time of the baby boom and the classes were very large and I was working very hard, the government was paying no money for the Catholic schools to run so we would operate on a shoe string, and life was pretty difficult,” recalls Br Pat.

Arriving in PNG, he found the country and the people much to his liking. The predominant subsistent farming lifestyle of the Papua New Guineans he came to live amongst suited him. It was the same lifestyle that he was raised in back in Australia after his family lost their sheep farm in the depression.

 “Arriving in PNG and meeting the new subsistent farmers here, I had a lot of feeling for them, a lot of understanding. I fitted in rather well. I was able to sympathise and understand their attitudes much more easily than some of the others who come up here. ”

He settled in at St Xavier’s high school on Kairiru and soon found that there was a basic difference in the culture between the kids that he taught in Australia and those in PNG.

“Kids were very unwilling to expose themselves to taking risks and making mistakes. It was a very powerful cultural thing”.

He tried various ways to break the culture.  A unique method he pioneered was to introduce the parliament and student disciplinary system run by students themselves at St Xavier’s to develop responsible leadership among the students. He did this because the approach to discipline in PNG schools was authoritarian and he saw that that did not help students when they left school and had to depend on themselves. He organized student group leaders to be in charge of things like sport, transport, social affairs, and even finance. The disciplinary system had an Ombudsman for the protection of students against each other and staff. Br Pat said the parliamentary system quickly pushed elected student leaders out of their comfort zones.

“They treated any criticism of proposed policies as personal and wanted to resign. They resorted to the famous Melanesian passive resistance, which operates by doing nothing and failing to cooperate. But resignations were refused and staff pulled the students together. Gradually they gained confidence and improved”, he said.

The education authorities did not like what he was doing and his school inspector Neal Murray told him so. Br Pat ignored him.

St Xavier’s became one of the first high schools in PNG to introduce Grade 10s (Form 4) at the time and Br Pat recalls potential employers and institutions flocking to the island to recruit students mainly because they could speak English.

Being an island school, transportation was a regular problem. Br Pat organized for funds to be raised in Australia and a 33-feet De Havilland barge was bought to ferry students and cargo to the island. Islanders chose to name the vessel Tau-KTau being the local name for Kairiru and ‘K’, they insisted, was for St Kristopher, the saint for travelers. Purchasing the vessel, the school needed a wharf. Br Pat rolled up his sleeves and with the help of his students and brothers, built a wharf out of coral and river stones that were collected.

Francis Mahap, currently a lecturer at DWU was one of the students who helped build the wharf. We would all strip down and jump into the sea to remove the corals, Mahap recalls.

For the first five years after coming to PNG, Br Pat did not return to Australia for holidays like other brothers. Instead he would go into the rural areas of East Sepik, travelling on the Sepik River, to villages and mission stations and spending his holidays there. He learnt a lot about the people’s way of life by living and eating with them.

Later he demonstrated this understanding of the local people and cultures in many ways. For instance, when St Xavier’s was having land disputes with locals, Br Pat dealt with the problem as a local would. He went into Wewak and bought a carton of beer then visited old Kapun, the chief of the nearby village and invited him over.

“I’ve got a carton of beer up there. Will you come up and help me to drink it?” he said. “We drank the beer until we were both absolutely stonkered. We told each other what wonderful fellows we were, and what wonderful people the Kairiruans were. We told all the old stories. Kapun went off happy. There was never any trouble over the boundaries for another three years.”

Br Pat says the land boundary dispute was happening because they were not providing the people with the relationships that they needed.

“Kapun needed the opportunity to argue about the land and talk about the land, because it is a verbal society, not a literate society. Whenever a land problem arose again, there would be another carton of beer. It was a question of establishing relationships. If your relationships are good, everything runs sweetly. If the relationships are bad, nothing runs. That is vital to any understanding of Melanesia”.

In 1977, Br Pat returned from holidays in Australia and got a surprise appointment. He was asked to become principal of the new Passam National High School which was being established. Passam had problems with incomplete infrastructure and the appointed principal had resigned. Education inspector Neal Murray told Br Pat: “As Inspector I know that you have the toughness and resilience to make a go of it”

Br Pat took control of the situation. He gathered his staff members and together they decided on what sort of students they wanted to produce at this pioneering institution. Aware that they were not getting the cream of PNG graduates which were snapped up by other national high schools, the expectations were moderate.

“Our preference was a friendly student who related well with others and the staff,” he recalls. Another unusual and controversial thing they did was to do away with all school rules. He said they wanted to avoid the ‘them (staff) and us (students)’ situation. They finished up with four school rules.

  1. Student must attend school
  2. Student must take their share of work parade
  3. The school motto: Nuo Yekende, m’ne Yekende meaning I must respect myself and I must respect others.
  4. Students must use their common sense

The education authorities did not like what they had done, and advised them to make a list of expellable offenses. Br Pat responded that expellable offences were criminal offences any way, and if the education authorities failed to enforce any of his decisions, he would take it to the courts. They did not like this either.

At Passam, Br Pat introduced the Ombudsman to deal with student and staff issues but not the Parliament system. Again he worked on improving relationships with the surrounding communities by holding a special meal twice a year for the leaders of the villages. But not everyone was satisfied and Br Pat says he was told later by a villager that they had ‘made poison sorcery against him five times’. The villagers were disappointed that he did not die.

An interesting sorcery case he had to attend involved a student from one of the Highlands provinces. Br Pat was told that a sorcerer had ‘poisoned’ one of the students. The students said they knew about this because the victim looked sick and had not reacted when they stuck a needle in the back of his neck. Br Pat reacted quickly by approaching a local villager who had a reputation as a sorcerer and he agreed to help.

“He went inside his house came out with a rather dirty looking glass; put some water in it; scraped some bark from a tree nearby; and called his five-year-old son to come and piddle into the glass”. Some of the mixture was poured into the student’s mouth and after about 20 minutes, the student began to vomit and his eyes and face changed and he was not sick any more.

“When we asked him, what had happened he explained that four men had been walking along the road and with a gesture had immobilised him. They took him into the bush and told him that he was to return on Sunday afternoon and that he would be dead on Monday morning”.

Br Pat says that the friendly sorcerer had broken the chain of sorcery that leads to death.

After Passam he joined Divine Word Institute and in 1987 introduced the cultural day which is now an annual event.

Br Pat made his greatest contributions on Bougainville during the crisis when he went there in 1994 to run a course on conflict resolution. On Bougainville he ran a number of courses for the people and met John Tompot from Siwai who attended one of his trainers course. Br Pat found that John had been doing conflict resolution using the traditional methods he had learnt from his ancestors.

“When he described how he had satisfied the parties in a murder case, I knew that we had found the ancient restorative justice process. What I had suspected, restorative justice proved to be the true ancient process of conflict resolution in Melanesia”.  He scrapped the personal development section of the course he had been using and adopted the restorative justice process that he learnt from John.

Working on Bougainville, he needed the permission and assistance of the PNG army and found Walter Enuma and former PNGDF commander Jerry Singirok cooperative and helpful in the work he was doing.

“During the years, I saw quite a lot of Walter and found him a good soldier and possessed of sound common sense”.

With Singirok and Enuma’s support and help from local chiefs and people, the peace program was being implemented with success as far as Buin on the south. However, Br Pat says when the military replaced Enuma with another officer, the peace efforts broke down again eventually resulting in the Kangu beach massacre. He captures his Bougainville experiences in his book Breaking Spears and Mending Hearts published in 2002.

The Foundation also contributed to work of restoring peace in parts of PNG such as in Gulf and Central provinces. It was while working in Central Province that he met Sinaka Goava, a member of the Foundation, who asked him to help write a book about his father – Goava Oa. The book Crossroads to Justice: The life of James Goava Oa and Sinaka Goa was published by DWU Press in 2007. It is a powerful story outlining the injustices suffered by two Papua New Guineans at hands of the colonial masters who regarded native people as savages, deficient in intelligence and trouble makers.

Br Pat spent his last 10 years in PNG at DWU teaching restorative justice and conflict resolution in the Flexible Learning Centre.  In 2016, he would have clocked up 50 years in PNG. He had stayed as long as he could in the country he loved defying his ailing health and superior’s directions to retire to a retirement home in Australia. Finally, this year he struck a deal with his superior and moved to the Marist old people’s home at Ashgrove in Brisbane.

He smiled while recounting his superior’s words. “I will make you a deal. If you have to come south and you die in Australia, I’ll have you cremated and send the bones back and we will bury the rest of you in PNG”.

“I said that’s a deal”, says Br Pat with a twinkle in his eyes. “Actually it doesn’t mean a great deal because when I die, I die, and God is not fussy whether I am buried here or there or anywhere else”.

Text from yumistori.blogspot.com


Star Messenger 12...


District of the Pacific Update - Friday 25th ...