Esther and Paul: Paul and Esther’s Community News no. 2

Tok Save

Tok save? That’s announcement… or information,” said Miriam brusquely as I attempted to interest her with the different shades of meanings associated with the Tok Pisin word pair.

Tok (tohk): word, talk, speech, message, to speak
Save (SAH-vay): knowledge, understanding, wisdom, insight

Miriam’s illumination is too terse for my liking. My trusty Pisin-English phrase book is not much help either; it defines the word pair as ‘explain’.

The Diocesan Radio Room

Perhaps the subtleties of the term emerged (in my mind at least) when I volunteered to be the mission’s shortwave radio operator over Christmas and New Year. While the communications staff was on leave, I was in charge of the radio room twice a day for four weeks. In that time, the nuances of Tok Save emerged…

This message goes to Michael Moses* of Phillips Corner. It is from Alphonse Kata  in Boset. The message reads: tell Michael to deposit 200 Kina with Micro-finance Ltd, Kiunga in favour of Micro-finance Ltd in Obo with a note that it is to be credited into Alphonse’s credit account. Tell Michael it is to buy fuel for Alphonse to return to Kiunga. Over.

I transmitted many similar messages. I was perturbed: why so many would seemingly travel on just a one-way ticket, often without carrying enough resources for the return trip? But I came to find out:  they do so not because they are free spirits that go off on a wing and a prayer, but because they have not the choice; with their income vis-à-vis the cost of living, very rare will be the times when they have extra cash in their pockets.

Station Boset. Tell Father Patrick that we have received 300 Kina from Maria James, daughter of James Berry; we have credited 300 Kina to his parish accounts. Tell Father Leo to pay James Berry 300 Kina for the fare home to Kiunga. Do you copy? Over.

I was headed for the radio room when I was approached by a very anxious looking young girl; she needed to get money to her father fast so that he could come home. She willingly thrust 300 Kina into my hands – she thought I was a priest at the mission – with this earnest request: that I ask my ‘fellow’ priest in Boset to hand the same amount to her father who’s stranded there with no means of getting back. Boset is about 200km south of Kiunga as the crow flies. But to be as fortunate as the crows, you must: Firstly, be able to afford the exorbitant airfares charged. Secondly, be able to accept the irregularity of flight schedules – flights may be cancelled and/or delayed for weeks. Lastly, have prayed earnestly for the runway not to be overgrown with grass, so the plane can land.

Kiunga Diocese’s regular radio operator Ephrem on the job
The cheaper and more regular option is on a dinghy; nine hours, or usually longer, on the Fly River; hostage to the vagaries of weather and tidal conditions; as well as the condition of the dinghy and its outboard motor.

The dearth of suitable infrastructures of any sort – no accessible roads, no mail service, no banking service, out of cell phone range – seemingly manifest themselves in the desperate messages that are going through the airwaves of the Western province. This shortwave link to the diocesan administration is sometimes the only communication channel between someone in the city and a family or village. But, what are the chances that James Berry will get the money? Can I help bring Maria’s father home?

Message copied Brave Foxtrot – Kiunga, James Berry is here in the radio room. Father Patrick will give him the 300 Kina after this transmission. Over and out.

I turned and saw a beaming Maria walking out of the radio room. “Oh ye of little faith…” I thought to myself. I commented on the diocesan ‘messaging service’ to a local religious recently: Short, concise and brusque radio messages transmitted and received by anonymous benefactors, then sent through a village grapevine to hopefully reach their intended recipients. “But, somehow they do get the message. You just have to have faith that the messages that matter get where they are suppose to go,” she answered.

What started as a means of communication between the diocesan headquarters and the remote parishes in 1959 has evolved into a network of 26 shortwave stations that spans the length and breadth of Western Province; other than the 12 shortwave radios belonging to diocesan parishes, remote schools and aid-posts also check in with diocesan HQ (station Kiunga, call sign: Bravo-Foxtrot) twice a day, to relay or receive traffic – messages – or just to keep in touch.
And piggy backed on these regular traffic checks are the messages that keep individuals in touch with their families, their villages and each other. Or, in Maria’s case, the money transfer of last resort.

This message is from Peter Takaku. It is for his brother, Albert Takaku. The message reads: Ask Albert to take my 40hp engine and come down to Kiunga to fetch his brother, his wife and the body of their recently deceased daughter back to the village. They want to go home now.

They travelled all the way from their village to the city; hoping the hospital visit would make their little girl well again… I’m so sorry… the only words I could muster really sounded so empty. I managed to transmit the message, and I did not see Peter or his wife in the radio room again. I choose to think they brought their daughter home safely. Have faith, I tell myself.

This message is from Jude Kona. It is to the people in his village. The message reads: When is the village feast? I need to know so I can make my way back in time for it. Do you copy? Over.

A shy and quiet boy studying in the city requested for this message to be sent. It evoked memories of Chinese New Year… home… family… gaiety and food… But, would anyone in his village bother to respond to his query? My urbanised senses had its doubts and I actually felt sorry for his naiveté.

This message is from the village of Aivo. It is for Jude Kona. The message reads: Tell Jude the feast is going to be held at the end of the month. Tell him he can start making his way back this week or next week. Do you copy Bravo Foxtrot?

I got the answer two days later. How am I going to get the message to Jude now? Why didn’t I at least get a number from him? The next day I saw him sitting under a tree, by the locked door of the radio room. His face lit up as I passed him the message. Have faith…

Bravo-Foxtrot. This message is from two employees of the cell phone company stranded here. The message reads: Call Timothy on this number 7326XXXX. Tell him Terrence and James are stuck in Biangabip and need to return to Kiunga. When can he make arrangements for their return? Over.

There is currently a cell phone tower project that would connect the remote parts of Western Province into the phone network. As cell phone towers go up in the remote corners of the province, shortwave radio station antennas come down. Clipped radio messages sent through the communal airwave would soon be replaced by private channels of communication; intimate conversations and personal text messages direct from sender to recipient.

I can’t help but feel a personal loss. I took my time as the mission’s shortwave radio operator – I still do on the weekends – as my Tok Save time.

* All names mentioned in the Tok Saves have been altered.

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