By MALUM NALU
I first met legendary Highlands politician and businessman, Sir Sinake Giregire – who passed away recently - one fine morning in July 2000.
That beautiful Goroka morning, while I was working with the Coffee Industry Corporation in Goroka, I drove up to his coffee plantation at Asaroka outside Goroka, where I interviewed this iconic member of the first House of Assembly in 1964, a story which was published in The National.
Giregire just recently had been awarded a CBE in the 2000 Queen’s Birthday honors list for services to politics and the country.
Until his fall from political grace in 1977, Giregire’s at times larrikin feats became the stuff of legend, stretching from his humble hamlet in the verdant Asaro Valley of Eastern Highlands across the mountains, rivers and seas of this beautiful country.
He was a self-made coffee tycoon and gold miner who hired an expatriate manager (unheard of for a national in the 1960s) to run his affairs, a hard-drinking politician who didn’t budge an inch in the House of Assembly, a man who was once interrogated in Tokyo for having no visa, and a staunch supporter of Australia who fiercely resisted independence.
In the first House of Assembly, he mixed it with the likes of John Guise, Sepik crocodile hunter John Pasquarelli (three decades later to become infamous for leading Pauline Hanson’s One Nation campaign in Queensland), Goroka planter Ian Downs, Sepik war hero Simogun Peter, Finschhafen’s Zure Makili Zurenuoc, Maprik’s Pita Lus and many other colourful personalities who have since passed on.
My late father, a school teacher in the Asaro Valley in the early 1960s, often thrilled us with stories of Giregire, who lived just a stone’s throw away from him.
Later, growing up in Goroka in the 1970s, I heard and saw so much of the man that I have always harbored a fascination for him.
Australian newspaper and author, Keith Willey, who was assigned by Mirror Newspapers in 1964 to cover the changing face of New Guinea during election year in 1964, was also a fan of the Highlands icon and relates his feats in his books Assignment New Guinea and New Guinea.
Wiley tells of the fiery debates during the first House of Assembly on impending independence.
“Sinake Giregire predicted it would be three or four thousand years before the territory of New Guinea could rule itself,” Wiley writes in Assignment New Guinea.
When I met him in 2000, 36 years after the first House of Assembly, Giregire remained unapologetic, and when I visited him at his Asaro coffee gardens, he remained convinced that independence came too early.
Not, perhaps, the overstatement of “three or four thousand years”, but maybe by “five years”, meaning PNG should have waited until 1980 to attain independence.
That’s why, Giregire asserted, PNG has gone backward since independence.
“The foundations for the country and educational qualifications were not there,” he told me then.
“That’s why I didn’t want independence to come too quickly.
“When white men were here, things were okay.
“When white men were here, they used to work with the villagers.
“Now we don’t see this.
“Papua New Guineans (in towns) are not concerned about villagers.
“They’re drifting apart from the villagers.
“Business firms should have stayed on after independence but there were no clear investment policies.
“Company taxes were too high and they took off.
“Electricity bills were too high.
“Many moved to Indonesia because of attractive policies and cheap labour.”
The day we drove into Giregire country that day in 2000, he was his usual charismatic self, leading his tribesmen and women in discussions about coffee and agriculture, and the effects of ongoing tribal war further up the valley, which has tragically claimed so many lives.
He took me first on a multi-coloured tour of PNG history starting in the 1930s and then his coffee spread – which includes his original trees of 1955 that propelled him to greatness.
Moreover, he had a lot to tell!
Buai-stained teeth, bare feet and white hair matted by dust belied the ice-cool intellect of this pioneer PNG politician.
He made no secret that he would have been a very, very rich man if only his managers hadn’t ripped him off.
Giregire estimated that he was born about 1937 at Gimisive village, Asaro Valley, and did his early primary school at the Asaroka Lutheran School.
In 1946, after WW11, he left for further education at Heldsbach Lutheran School in Finschhafen, Morobe province
“I came back to Asaro in 1955,” Giregire tells me.
“The same year, I started planting coffee, starting off with 125 coffee trees.
“Today, I have 28,000 coffee trees.”
He claims that coffee was first brought into the Highlands by Lutheran missionaries in 1932, and was of the German Blue variety.
Later, Giregire adds, the Australians came and renamed this same variety Blue Mountain.
The Department of Agriculture, he says, came much later onto the scene with the experimental station at Aiyura, from where coffee was distributed throughout the Highlands and PNG.
“We took coffee into the Asaro area,” Giregire says.
“There were a lot of us from Asaro who ventured into coffee growing.”
From here, coffee ventured further into Chimbu and Western Highlands provinces.
“Ex Australian soldiers were given the first priority for growing coffee while we the nationals were overlooked,” Giregire claims.
“I fought hard for the right to grow coffee in Asaro.
“I joined forces with farmers from Eastern Highlands, Western Highlands (both expatriates and nationals) and we created the Farmers’ Association in 1956.
“I was the first secretary.
“We were the ones who started the Farmset company.
“Now I am the current chairman of Eastern Highlands Farmers Incorporated.”
Giregire says that under the colonial administration, agriculture officers were very proactive, walking long distances by foot and actually living with the villagers.
“With didiman in the past, agriculture extension services were No. 1,” he says.
“Apart from coffee, the didiman also assisted with things like pineapple, avocado, chicken, pigs and cardamom.”
The 1950s saw the introduction of local government councils in the country, and the budding Giregire was one of the first members of the Asaro council, which was introduced in 1962.
He used this as the springboard to become one of the first members of the House of Assembly in 1964, representing Goroka.
“In 1964, I was the under secretary for ministerial services,” Giregire remembers.
“Later, in ’68. I was ministerial member for agriculture, stock and fisheries, because I was an experienced farmer in PNG.
“I took a delegation from Samarai (Milne Bay) and Cape Hoskins (West New Britain) to Malaysia in 1968.
“We visited oil palm experimental stations and brought back seeds.
“Later, I went to Australia and ordered rice machinery costing A$2 million in 1969, which we used to start factories in Bereina (Central) and Maprik (East Sepik).
“I also brought back with me from Australia Brahman bulls, which were distributed throughout PNG.
“I was the one who invited the Rothmans company to Goroka.
“I also went to the Asian Development Bank and supported the Indian sugar industry moving into PNG, which has eventuated in Ramu Sugar.
“In 1969, I became Minister for Posts & Telegraphs.
“We used to have very poor telecommunications in PNG before.
“I hopped around looking for A$20m from the World Bank in Washington.
“This was approved by the bank.”
He then travelled over the North Pole, from New York to Japan, where disaster struck when he was caught red-handed with no visa.
“I had no visa and was arrested for 10 hours in Tokyo,” Giregire laughs.
“I appeared before an international border crossers’ court.
“Another time, I led a delegation to the United Nations in New York to talk about poor education in PNG.
“They financed the Vudal Agricultural College, Popondetta Agricultural College and the Goroka Teachers’ College.
“Later, I went to Australia and talked to Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton.
“I asked him for a big hospital and he agreed to build the Goroka Base Hospital.”
Giregire’s baby is agriculture, and he argues that because of the downfall of this sector, the country has basically gone to the dogs.
He says appalling extension services have seen farmers without a “father” to lead them.
“Our government should employ only experienced people who have knowledge of the field,” he said.
“Political appointments are spoiling the economy of this country.”
Giregire says coffee has the potential to make a lot of money for the country, and all it needs is a bit more assistance to farmers, including finance and their own export company.
In 1977, Giregire contested the Daulo Open Seat and lost to Gai Duwabane, ending a colourful era in PNG politics.
Undaunted, he continued to look after the Farmers’ Association in Asaro, as well as support the cause of agriculture in PNG.
To talk with Giregire is to go through PNG’s history from the colonial days until now.
To the young, the uninitiated, he may look like just another of those old men in Goroka.
Nevertheless, as I found out, he is a walking encyclopaedia.
Age cannot wither, nor custom stale, his infinite variety,