‘The Chief’: Sir Michael Somare

Sir MIchael Somare in December 1973, wearing the magnificent Yamdar costume as Sana of his people.

Sir Michael Somare, first Chief Minister of Papua New Guinea, December 1973.

Many expatriate Australians living in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s would have taken at least one photo of Michael (now Sir Michael) Somare whilst he went about his duties as the country’s first Chief Minister. The gallery of photos in this post was taken in his home village of Karau, in the Murik Lakes district of the East Sepik province. The occasion was Somare’s initiation as Sana, or peacekeeper, of his own people but also his initiation as Onkau, or head person, of the family of Lady Veronica Somare, his much respected wife.

What I would like to do in this post is concentrate less on Sir Michael and more on the kind and hospitable people of Karau village. Almost 40 years have passed and there would be people portrayed in the photos who have since gone to join their ancestors. Those of us who remain behind have grown old as each of us must. Even the children would now be in late middle age. My hope is that it is those children who will now enjoy looking at the old photos of what was an important day in the life of their families and their village.

I went to Karau as part of a media contingent. The journey took all day, starting with a flight to the regional capital of Wewak, followed by a very long trip on a coastal boat until we reached the entrance to the Murik Lakes, where we tranferred across to a motorised canoe for the final leg of our journey. By the time we reached Karau, it was already quite late at night and we all bunked down in the guest house that the villagers had prepared for us. I recall that the women supplied us with a delicious chicken and coconut hotpot. The village was built on a sandbank, and we were awoken the following morning by the sound of children playing on the beach. The day of the Sana had begun.


Karau village at dawn and children are already playing on the beach.

Post-breakfast and the rest of the village is on the move. There had been quite a fierce rain storm overnight and there were lots of puddles waiting to be evaporated. The houses, however, had come through unscathed. The ceremony would go ahead.

Early morning after an overnight storm and the men are inspecting for damage. There is nothing but a bit of washed-up debris.

Early morning after an overnight storm and the men are inspecting for damage. There is nothing but a bit of washed-up debris.


Bringing in the food offerings copy

Lots of happy smiles…

...and rice for the supper table.

…and rice for the supper table.

Now the men only are summoned to the sacred men's house for the start of the Sana initiation ceremony.

Now the men are summoned to the sacred men’s house for the start of the Sana initiation ceremony.

While the women are locked up in a house on the other side of the village. The sacred part of the ceremony is for men's eyes only.

The women and children wander off to a darkened house on the other side of the village. The sacred part of the ceremony is for men’s eyes only and the women are left to giggle and gossip and chat in the gloom of someone’s home to their hearts’ content. Their confinement lasted for quite a long time but no one seemed to mind.

Lady Veronica Somare with her youngest daughter. She had special dispensation to enter the men's house but elected to stay with the rest of the women..

Lady Veronica Somare with her baby daughter, Dulciana. She had special dispensation to enter the men’s house but stayed with the rest of the women.

When the Sana ceremony is over, the elders escort their Sana through the village. The tall European at the back is Post Courier journo Noel Pascoe, who was invited to join in the proceedings.

When the Sana ceremony is over and the new Sana is escorted through the village.

Singsing dancers performing for the whole village at the end of the ceremony.

Singsing dancers performing for the whole village at the end of the ceremony.


Somare, after several days of fasting, is desperate for a cigarette and a village elder obliges.

Somare, after several days of fasting, is desperate for a cigarette and a village elder obliges.

And finally there is this  photo, the one that featured in a number of newspapers and the one that the newspaper editors clearly preferred. And that’s the end of the story. A day in the life of Karau village, 40 years ago this year. I hope there are some happy memories there for some of you.

(The copyright for all of the photos in this post is held by the photographer, Veronica Peek, and after that, by her descendants. Must not be reproduced without permission of the copyright holder.)

Finally, after days of fasting, a nicotine hit. Even a Sana is human and Somare, who still smoked all those many years ago, blew smoke rings and savoured the moment.

After days of fasting, a nicotine hit. Even a Sana is human and Sir Michael Somare, who still smoked all those years ago like so many of us did and now regret it, blew smoke rings and savoured the moment. He is dressed in the regalia of onkau to show that he is also the head of Lady Veronica Somare’s family.

17 thoughts on “‘The Chief’: Sir Michael Somare

  1. This is a nice recollection of Michael Somare’s initiation ritual. The photographs are wonderful! Many faces are familiar to me.

  2. Wow, as a PNGean i am truly grateful for a glimpse into this historic ceremony. Thank you for sharing your memories and your pictures.

    • Gigi I am very, very pleased that you like them and I hope that others do too. It’s sad to think that so many photos of a historic nature might been hidden away in boxes and great to think that the internet gives us a change to put them out on public display for the benefit of anyone who might be interested.

      • Thank you so much for your honorable hard work to have captured these historic moments. If you have not done it all of these precious moments will have been lost in time. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your nice words Eka. One of the best and most useful things about the Internet, I think, is the opportunity it gives to share photos that might be of historical or nostalgic interest to others. I’m not the most prolific of posters, I’m afraid, but I’ll keep blogging for a fair while yet.

  3. Hi Veronica – so many memories. My pix are hidden away in a box!! So thanks. I particularly like the Chief having a fag. Where are you now? And Vanessa.

    • Hi Pat good to hear from you. I’m still living in the same house and have a simple and good life. Vanessa is married with one son and took redundancy so that she could go back to uni and get her Masters in IT communications. Doing a brilliant job and getting top marks so never underestimate the value of 20 years of hands-on journalism and editing.

  4. Hello Veronica. Thank you for sharing these wonderful pictures that give us a glimpse into an important part of PNG’s history and the life of the late Grand Chief.
    I am particularly interested in the very first image. I would like to produce a digital art portrait of it for a special use. If it’s fine with you, I will be happy to be in contact to privately elaborate on my request.
    Kind regards,

    • Hello Bradley
      The fact that you want to use the photo to create a digital art portrait means that it could be reproduced multiple times without either of us knowing how it will end up being used. It is the sort of situation that does worry me, given that Sir Michael Somare was a well known person both nationally and internationally. Under those circumstances, most photographers, including myself, would prefer to maintain the world copyright on the understanding that permission will only be granted to unaltered reproductions of the original portrait, to be used for historical reasons only. Perhaps in the future it won’t matter so much but his death is very recent. I am sorry to disappoint you but I hope you understand my position.

      Best wishes
      Veronica Peek

      • Hello again Veronica. I’m just checking if you’ve seen my reply to your message sent a fee days ago. Would love to hear your final thoughts. Thanks, Bradley

  5. Since my previous reply hasn’t appeared here, I’m assuming there was an error and it didn’t get posted so am posting again here:

    Hello Veronica,

    Thank you very much for your reply.

    I understand what you’re saying and I wouldn’t want to be involved in the careless reproduction of a historical image of PNG’s Founding Father.

    However, my intention for its use might be a little different from what you might have in mind… I hope.

    I wish to use the image to render a digital portrait to incorporate it into a logo design for the PNG National Cultural Commission.

    I believe that no other person best epitomises PNG’s vast cultural diversity under one nation than the late Grand Chief. And this single iconic image captures and symbolizes the essence of this in a powerful way.

    The logo design is a nationwide competition with a monetary reward, but my desire to use this particular image goes beyond that.

    For me, it would be a great honour to help make this image of such a great and historical figure of PNG into a logo for a national institution in charge of promoting and preserving the cultural heritage of the most culturally diverse country on Earth.

    If I am successful, the Cultural Commission will own the copyright for my logo containing the digital portait of the image. And my hope is that my design with this symbolic image will continue to inspire Papua New Guineans in the important endeavour to strengthen and protect our unique cultural heritage.

    If I am unsuccessful, then my use of the image ends with the logo submission there.

    I hope that my explanation here might cause you to reconsider.

    If you allow, I can send a sample of my logo design to you to see how I will use the image in my design and if you might approve, before submitting to the Cultural Commission.

    However, if you still maintain your original position, I will understand.

    Best wishes too,

  6. Hello Bradley

    If that is your intention then I am happy to give you single permission to use the image for your cultural logo entry, and wish you good luck with it. Yes please I would like to see a copy of your design before you submit. I am sure it will be fine. You are clearly a very responsible individual but I am just trying to make sure that its use is appropriate.

    Best wishes
    Veronica Peek

    • Hello Veronica,

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate your understanding and permission granted for this historical image. Thank you for your best wishes too.

      Yes, the logo submissions due date is on the 9th of this month. I will send you a copy of the logo as soon as I finish, before I submit.

      Please provide me your email so I can send it through once I’m done.

      Best wishes,

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