84yo Mactuawe goes back in time

84-year-old Mactuawe Gware-Stafford, from Butibam village in Morobe Province, is commonly known as ‘abung Mactu’, or granny Mactu.

Her black curls are now snowy white, and while she has given up on her pastime of riding bicycles, her wit is still as sharp as when she was a school girl at the Dregerhafen Education Centre in Finschhafen.

Her older brother, former paramount chief and PNG’s first national newspaper journalist, the Late Muttu Gware, was peers with the late Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, while Abung Mactu joined them a year later at Dregerhafen, which is now known as the Dregerhafen Technical Secondary School.

With her resume in hand, Abung Mactu went back in time to when she started Grade Seven in 1953 at Dregerhafen.

“I was in the girls’ school and Somare and them were in the boys’ school. Boys were not allowed to come over,” Abung said. “We were separated.  

“Somare and his peers from Wewak did not have a place to stay while transiting between Wewak and Lae. We had a big house at Maus Rot Butibam. They would stay with us then fly back to Wewak during holidays, or return and when school is about to start, we would all get on ‘MV Morobe’ and go back to school.”

Since she is the youngest of the lot, she became the unofficial tailor; her job is to mend torn school uniforms.  

“Back in the day, the boys wore laplap. He (Late Somare) would bring his torn laplap and I would sew it. He would bring his torn shirt and I would mend it.”

The group went their separate ways after 1956; the late grand chief moved on to Sogeri High School while Abung Mactu – against her father’s wish – hopped on the plane to Popondetta to train as a teacher.

“He wanted me to become a Sister, to work in the hospital like him,” she said of Ahi’s first medical officer and her father, the late Dr Michael Gware Mantap. 

“I heard that people will be getting on planes so I kept crying until my teacher said, ok go. So, I got on the plane too. 

“Back then, we did not have cars to take us to the post office or wherever in Popondetta.

“Because my teacher trusted me, she would let me ride back and forth on one of our two bicycles. I would go get her milk in the house and ride back to give her for morning tea or ride to the post office to post letters.

“I kept at it and the intermediate boys in Popondetta hatched a plan and one day, they grabbed the bicycle and made me fall on the road,” Abung laughingly recalled. “I fell so hard! They said every time we would see you go back and forth to annoy us. Who do you think you are? They flung me and the bicycle to the side and the teacher’s milk spilled out. I cried, picked it up and went and reported them to my teacher.

“My teacher went and told the headmaster; they rang the bell and made everyone line up. They then told me to point out the boys who did that to me. I identified them and that Sunday, as punishment, they were made to clean the main road from the school all the way to the post office. 

“While they were doing that, I got on the bike and rode and laughed at them. I taunted them but what were they going to do? They were already scared.”

Abung Mactu’s teaching career started in 1958 when she taught at the Butibam and Government Compound School.

In 1975, she was a member of the first Independence Committee in Lae.

“Somare put me as a member of the Independence committee and we also started the Ahi Council here in Lae,” she shared. 

Abung Mactu was the only woman in the Ahi Council, which included prominent leaders like Morobe’s first elected premier and Finschhafen man, the late Utula Samana, former Morobe administrator from Yalu, Benson Nablu, and one of PNG’s first patrol officers and member of the famous Bully Beef Club, the late Nanong Ahi, from Yanga, and the first Morobean magistrate, the late Steven Awagasi.

Back then, it was rare to see local women hold positions of influence. Furthermore, the legal and political differences between Papua and New Guinea were quite distinct. The Territory of Papua, in 1902, was placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia. It retained a distinct legal status and identity compared to New Guinea, which was seen as a League of Nations mandate territory.

Papuans did not mingle with the rest of New Guinea, and some shops and buildings only served Australians and Papuans.

Abung Mactu recalled inviting herself to a milk bar in Lae.

“One time I said, we are already independent, let’s go. So, we went in – around the Top Town area. I went and told the girl behind the counter, pour me a glass of milk, please. She replied, ‘Sister, Missus will get cross’. Fill up that cup, I said. So, she poured the milk, I relaxed and drank the milk. The white woman came and saw me, held her head and said ‘Oh, nonononono’. I told her, step any closer and I will break your head. After I finished my milk, I put down the cup and said ‘Oh thank you, girl!’ and I took off.

“We formed a team after Independence and would go into shops. If they resisted us, us New Guineans would retaliate and beat them up,” she said matter-of-factly while her children screamed with laughter. That ‘team’ consisted of her cousin brothers and her. 

She was also the first Ahi woman to marry a Papuan; her husband from Samarai, the late Stafford Petari, in 1959. It was unacceptable back then, and she had to leave Butibam and reside at Papuan Compound until her family forgave her and asked her to return home in 1988.

In 1998, the late Grand Chief supported her appointment as the Women and Youth Minister for the Ahi Council. She was also the women’s representative in the Morobe Land Transport Control Board and the Butibam women’s rep in the Ahi land mobilisation project.

Positive changes, including the fair treatment of Papua New Guineans, came about because of the efforts of the late founding father, the late Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, and those who believed in the dream of independence. 

“Somare was like a brother to me,” Abung Mactu said. “We lived together under one roof, ate together and when he passed away, other people went (to his burial). I stayed back. And I missed him.”

Abung Mactu’s five other siblings have all passed away. She is the only living child of the late Dr Gware. The ‘Gware Memorial Wing’ at the ANGAU Memorial Provincial Hospital was named after him in recognition of his contributions during World War II. 

Loop Author