Wet season storms and sweltering humidity set the scene on Saibai Island last month for the first stage of a new oral history initiative run under the auspices of the John Oxley Fellowship.
Saibai, located just over three kilometres from Papua New Guinea’s southern coastline, is one of the Torres Strait’s northernmost islands. Low lying and prone to severe flooding during the wet season, the island is home to around 350 people whose social, economic and cultural heritage spans both sides of the Australian-PNG border.
Former journalist and recipient of the John Oxley Fellowship 2011, Heidi Gibson, travelled to the island on Monday, December 12, in search of older people who remember the days before and after the current border was established.
“PNG gained independence from Australia in 1975 but the creation of an official border through the narrow channel that separates Saibai Islanders from their Papuan neighbours didn’t cut the family, ceremonial or trading ties built over the millennia by previous generations,” Heidi said.
“To respect these historical ties, the Australia and PNG governments designed a special ‘Treaty’ to manage the region with a flexible and relatively informal approach to traditional travel between the two countries.
“My hope now is to talk with some of the older people who remember the days before and after the border was established; and to record their observations on how this official division may have influenced everyday life over time.”
Heidi’s project “Life on the border” aims to gather recent social histories across several Torres Strait islands for safe-keeping in the oral history collection of the John Oxley Library.
“I hope these recordings will be housed alongside earlier work done in the region by Margaret Lawrie. It would be a privilege to follow in Margaret’s footsteps and to add to the preservation of this unique region’s history,” she said.
Image above: The view to Papua New Guineas southern coastline from Saibai’s main landing area for PNG visitors. Photo by Heidi Gibson – used with permission