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Old 11-12-2003, 11:18 AM
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Sogeri – the school that helped to shape a nation!

Patrick Matbob - Divine Word University

Sogeri is a name that holds a special place in the education history of Papua New Guinea.

The school began in 1944 when commander of ANGAU (Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit) Major General Basil Morris decided to set up a ‘central school for teaching natives various trades’ on Sogeri plateau outside Port Moresby.

Established at the former site of the 113 Australian Convalescent Depot, the school was blessed with mild climate and green environment that was a stark contrast to the hot and dusty Port Moresby only kilometers away.

The history of Sogeri has been recorded in a 342-page book titled Sogeri – the school that helped to shape a nation by former schoolteacher Lance Taylor.

Much of the history was collected by the school’s history club under the patronage of Mr Taylor in the1980s. The result has been an impressive edition which for the first time acknowledges the enormous contribution the school has made to the development Papua New Guinea.

The title of the book summarises the contents well and is a testament to the distinct role the school has played in training the people who led and shaped this nation.

The names of the many students who have passed through the school are today the ‘who’s who’ of PNG, the notables being Prime Ministers Sir Michael Somare and Sir Mekere Morauta, and Governor Generals Sir Tore Lokoloko and Sir Serei (Vincent) Eri, who head the list of distinguished names.

Sogeri was singled out by the colonial administration for the task of training teachers and grooming future leaders for PNG as the country came out of the ravages of war.

Before the war, education for the native Papua New Guineans was largely the domain of the early missionaries who taught their flocks and prepared the promising students for mission work.

However, the war had changed things and the Australian post war colonial government was keen on educating and developing ‘native’ human resource for the territories. Major General Morris stressed that the time had arrived “to attempt something bigger than has been possible with the limited resources of the individual missions.”

However, throughout its 50 years history from 1944 – 94, Sogeri enjoyed no special privilege as the nation’s ‘elite’ institution. In fact, its story has been one of struggle by the staff and students to achieve the high expectations demanded of it with inadequate facilities, staffing shortages, and continuous lack of funds, resources and materials.

The years of drawn out battles between the school’s headmasters and the education authorities at Konedobu have been well recorded in the book.

But the bitter battles and struggles remained unknown to the rest of the territory. Instead people were impressed with the products of Sogeri Central School who immediately made their mark on the nation as teachers.
It was on June 22, 1944, when the first students arrive at Sogeri led by 30-year-old Kamona Walo who was reputedly the first to be enrolled at the school. The majority of the students in the first few years came from London Missionary Society schools along the Papuan coast, from the Abel family’s Kwato Island mission, Roman Catholic school on Yule Island, Methodist schools in Trobriand and D’Entrecasteaux islands, Aglican school at Wedau and the Seventh-Day Adventist mission at Bamu River.

On arrival at the school, the students were met by Lieutenant Frank Boisen and his fellow army officers who were members of the Angau unit. After registration in Boisen’s office, students were issued two blankets, a mosquito net, two laplaps of “white unbleached, or khaki colour”, a wide black belt, a khaki shirt, a sweater for evening wear, a cup, plate, spoon, a cake of soap and a grass knife. In time, two sticks of black ‘twist’ tobacco and a pocket allowance of five shillings a month were added to the regular ration of soap.

The early students immediately began clearing the area and the attractive school grounds that they created from their labour, helped gave rise to a system of work parades that has been a feature of Sogeri ever since.

From the early years, names like Fred Boski Tom and Apelis Mazakmat from New Ireland, Oala Oala Rarua from Hanuabada, Sir Tore Lokoloko would set the pace for the distinguished leaders of PNG to pass through the school. Angau officers in their khaki’s were the first teachers at the school and applied a military discipline which would continue in the tradition of the school for a long time.

Agriculture was also stressed and staff and students utilised the large fertile land areas to grow variety of crops to supplement the students’ general diet of rice and tinned meat and fish. Again agriculture would remain a distinct tradition of the school.

Civilian teachers soon took over the school from the army. Amongst the headmasters of Sogeri, Norman Fell who ran the centre for eleven years, is significantly featured in the book in a chapter titled Norman Fell – and his school, 1952 – 63. The chapter is rich with details; much of it from Fell himself, about the school’s development and his lively exchanges with the Education department at Konedobu.

It provides a brief yet revealing insight into the education environment at Sogeri in a period that produced students who were to play a critical role in developing the country. It shows Fell as a headmaster who was passionate about the welfare of his school and persistently hounded the Education Directors at Konedobu, Bill Groves and later Geoff Roscoe, with demands for his school’s needs.

Groves and Roscoe, on the other hand, had the rest of the territory’s education to worry about and their failure top respond positively fueled colorful exchanges from both ends.

Fell learnt how to vary his tactics to obtain supplies and get things done for the school. For instance, the school’s sewerage system which still remains a problem today, was a major issue then. On one occasion Fell had the school’s pit latrines burnt down to force the issue over septic tanks for his school, and when the new septic system itself broke down, he phoned the Assistant Administrator Dr John Gunther and told him that 200 students were excreting into the Port Moresby water supply. “The fault”, writes Fell, “was repaired overnight.”

The school however, did not always sit back and wait for the administration for funding. It also made many successful efforts to raise money and a number of buildings and learning resources were funded in this way.

One of the early ‘big money spinner for the school’ was the ‘Sogeri grass’ which was discovered in the early 1960s. Taylor writes: “With no shortage of expatriates in Port Moresby seeking to beautify their barren garden plots, the school cornered a “good market for grass runners”, and came to view its pleasant green expanse as a near perfect solution to the problem of fundraising and bothersome cash flows.

Through the 1960s the “grass gang”, as John Stolz (teacher) called the group of students involved in the project, carved out many tons of turf to sell down town, the profits paying for newspapers, magazine subscriptions, consignments of school ties – even violin recitals by the Australian musician, Ronald Woodcock.”

In 1957, the school relinquished its demanding commitment to produce the Territory’s teachers and concentrated on general education.

“For over a decade the young, thoroughly trained teachers from the centre had capably launched the Territory’s post-war government school system, producing a generation of schoolchildren with elegant copperplate handwriting and heads crammed with the facts so assiduously copied from Sogeri-made wall charts.”

The last teacher-training course Sogeri would offer was run by John Newnham and included a “top notch bunch of trainees”, who were Enos Baloiloi, Lohia Boganu, Vela Kila, Bobi Livinai, Paulias Matane, Matthew Nalu, Aisea Taviai, Alkan Tololo, Ronald ToVue, Waterhouse Wai Wai and Michael Tom. The last named was to burst forth into the rapidly changing political arena of the late 1960s as Michael Somare. Newnham recalls that the class was “an absolute delight to teach.”

In 1957 the school was chosen to spearhead the native cadet units in the Territory to develop qualities of leadership and self-reliance within a framework of military activities. Under the leadership of Warrant Officer Jim Pashen of the Regular Army, the unit was developed and became highly successful impressing General Wade, General Officer Commanding the Northern Command who spoke optimistically of selected Territory cadets proceeding to further training with the regular army at Portsea in Victoria, Australia.

W. H. Williams another visitor to see the Sogeri unit in action, wrote in South Pacific Post: “The smartness and keenness of the cadets make most European efforts by comparison look apathetic. The ... native cadets on parade, and in technical and weapons training, have to be seen to be believed.”

In an early 1960s bivouac in the area that is now part of Varirata National Park, things did not go quite so smoothly. Taylor writes: “On this occasion, an enthusiastic young cadet, Ramu (Ted) Diro by name, accidentally shot Lance Corporal Gerega Pepena in the bottom at point-blank range. Fortunately for Pepena (and Diro), the offending projectile was a blank. The painful experience did not deter either cadet, for Diro went on to become the first Commander of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force after Independence, whilst Pepena was appointed Minister for Defence in one of the governments.”

The cadet unit was later disbanded when the school ended its high school days but was re-mobilised in 1972. One of the students to gain career-shaping experience in the cadet unit was Jerry Singirok, who went on to join that select group of Sogeri students who rose to the top rank of Commander of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.

Another event that debut in 1972 brought the school to the attention of the whole community much more than any other over two decades. This was the festival of traditional dancing, later to become known as the ‘Sogeri Singsing’, which was held at the delightful little Konedobu Cultural Centre. Most students who had passed through Sogeri would have pleasant memories of the event that was another major money earner for the school.

Many highlights of the school has been recorded in the book including the school’s participation in the country’s independence by being chosen to supply “cultural aides” for the many important overseas guests who would be coming for the country’s Independence celebrations. It was a time when the students rubbed shoulders with princes, presidents and prime ministers and the students were fitting ambassadors. It is recorded that Sogeri’s head usher did her job so well that she even asked the Prime Minister of Australia for his entry ticket!

The year1978 was probably the best year of achievements ever in the history of the school. Under the administration of Principal Norman Vaughton, Sogeri produced the country’s Lester B. Pearson Scholar for 1978, and the Lions’ Youth of the Year. It was also an outstanding year for sports with the school teams entering six grand finals in the city competition and winning four.

Thirteen students that year recorded outstanding sports achievements and represented the country both nationally and internationally. The year also saw the school’s production of the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Beginning as a Wednesday afternoon project of the Drama Club, it grew into a very big polished production involving a cast of seventy student and staff actors, musicians and stage technicians under the direction of young English teacher Patricia Bridger.

After months of rehearsals, the production was played to enthusiastic audiences before being taken to Lae as the centrepiece of the National Arts Festival. A cultural highlight of the year was the formation of the Kalibobo Bamboo Band, which later recorded a cassette with the National Broadcasting Commission. This resulted in a popular release that sold over 10,000 copies and won for the mainly Madang members of the band a golden cassette award. ‘Wanpela Liklik Meri’ became one of the most popular tunes in the country for the next year or so.

In 1994 Sogeri celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its founding as the first post-primary government school towards the end of the Second World War. On June 22, in the presence of the whole school, the principal John Colwell welcomed a frail-looking 76 year old man from Hula village.

On the same day fifty years earlier, Kamona Walo and a small group of other students, the first to be enrolled at ANGAU’s Papuan Central Training School, were greeted by Colwell’s predecessor, Lieutenant Frank Boisen.

Accompanying Walo on the army truck from the Kila Kila barracks this time, in re-enactment of the original arrival, were a group of current students. The event marked the closing of a chapter in the school’s history and the opening of a new era.

With the advent of the education reforms and development of new secondary schools, Sogeri and other national high schools have relinquished their status as ‘national’ schools. It has now joined the growing number of secondary schools with a new role of implementing the education reforms and charting a new course in PNG’s education history.

Sogeri – the school that helped to shape a nation. A history, 1944 – 1994 by Lance Taylor. Available at Brian Bell in Port Moresby at K59 and rest of PNG at K65.

Cover of the book on Sogeri National High School history by Lance Taylor.
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