Balua’s Wife

First day at home copy

A warm welcome home for new baby Vanessa, February 1972.

An American couple has requested more information about what life was like for Papua New Guineans, living under Australia’s colonial administration in the mid- to late-20th century. This blog is primarily a picture blog but I’ll have a go and see if it works.

Balua was our first haus boi (pidgin for house cleaner) and he came to work for us on our first day in Port Moresby in 1971. He brought with him his soon-to-be pregnant wife and his toddler son, and they moved into the boi haus at the bottom of the garden. In those days the going pay rate for a haus boi was Aus$7.00 per week but Denis and I thought that was a bit miserly so we paid Balua Aus$9.00 a week instead. Throughout the seventies, Australian wages rose sharply so we eventually increased the haus boi wage to $11.00 per week.

By way of comparison, most Australian male public servants were on the Australian rate of at least Grade Six (Aus$250 per week) but often a lot more, with free accommodation thrown in. The expatriate Post Courier journalists and photographers didn’t get anywhere near that much but our free Pruth Street flat was very handy, given that the rent for a basic three-bedroom Port Moresby house in the 1970s could be as much as Aus$300 a week. If the expatriate wife was also working (and most were) the weekly family income was at least Aus$400-500.

Washing up time at Port Moresby

We tried to keep the working week for our successive haus bois down to about ten hours per week.

The wage discrepancy between Australian expatriates and PNG locals was embarassing. Here was a country with one of the world’s lowest incomes per capita stuck with an army of expat workers from a country with one of the world’s highest incomes per capita. We were next-door neighbours but it was never going to be an easy fit

Most of the Australian women that I met at that time got off the plane vowing that they would manage their housework themselves. They soon got the tired old “white man’s burden” message. Unemployment was so high that we had a duty to employ a haus boi at the very minimum. To have an unoccupied boi haus was seen as an extreme example of selfishness.

Washday with nappies copy

Balua doing the daily washing. In terms of being house proud and a stickler for cleanliness, he was streets ahead of me.

I thought at the time that I was a good Misses. Balua did the daily laundry and ironing, washed the breakfast dishes and made the bed. His wife, Meri, was about the same age as me and we were both young mums together. Until her own daughter was born, she was also a great second mum to baby Vanessa.

Newborn Vanessa comes home and meets the housekeepers

Meri was a perfect second mother.

One day Meri went down to the  Port Moresby hospital and came back with baby Veronica. She couldn’t get her lips around the ‘V’ so it came out as Wonica and Wonica her daughter became. I still like that name more than I like my own. Meri was a Catholic from the Chimbu region of the highlands so the choice of a Christian name made sense. But she also said that she had named her daughter after Misses. Talk about chuffed! We were playing happy families and I paid no attention to what was really going on around me.

It helps to have a picture of the aforementioned boi haus. It was about the size of a typical Australian laundry or bathroom, built from concrete blocks with an iron roof. It had a toilet and shower recess inside and on the outside there was a kind of lean-to which housed an ancient washing machine, some laundry troughs, and the ironing board and iron. Cooking was done outside on a small open fire.

Wanica about to fall asleep in her bilum bag copy

Baby Wonica in her bilum bag cradle cum cot.

View of Post Courier flats from the 'boi haus' copy

Meri and the outdoor kitchen of the boi haus. The four Pruth Street flats can be seen in the background and also Balua hanging out the washing.

The servant quarter had been designed to house one person, two at the most. After Balua had moved into it, a number of Chimbu wantoks from his home village suddenly turned up. No problem to us though, as they were all very nice and obliging. I don’t know how they ended up in Port Moresby because none of them seemed to have much money, so maybe they walked across the Owen Stanley Ranges using one of the well-worn tracks.

Balua and his family and wantoks lived in a one-room boy-house. Sometimes there were more

Seven people had to squeeze into a single room. That’s Balua with his son on the right.

Not long after Wonica was born a few close relatives showed up for an extended visit and maybe a chance to catch up with the new baby.

Balua's son (left) posing with visiting relatives

With visitors and a newborn baby overcrowding continued to be a problem.

It was also at about this time that Balua started to show the strain of trying to feed a small army of adults, a child and two babies on just Aus$9.00 a week, and to house them all in an outhouse about six metres square. He started getting surly and one night he came home drunk and started throwing stones at all our windows, telling us to get the hell out of his country and go back to our own. In the end Casper, another haus boi attached to the flats, turned up with his own wantoks armed with bows and arrows and chased him off the property. I was stunned. I had been so preoccupied with peering through my viewfinders in search of the picturesque that I had not seen Balua’s angry outburst coming.

The next morning Balua was back begging to have his job back but everyone including Casper thought he had crossed a line. I saw Meri for the last time walking slowly away with her head down, trailing after Balua with her two infants. That’s when I realised that not once in the 15 months that we had shared our lives and a common backyard, had I ever tried to find out her real name.

* Meri is pidgin English for woman;  wantok is pidgin for someone who speaks the same language, usually a relative or someone from the same home village.

Photographs from the Denis Williams Collection. Copyright Veronica Peek and Vanessa Williams. 

3 thoughts on “Balua’s Wife

  1. That was a sensitive and very interesting blog. The difference in lifestyles between the expatriate community and the “locals” was significant and not probably understood by the expats. I shared a small relocatable house in Lae with a bloke from Luton in the UK. We paid $5 each a week for a haus meri who cleaned the house, did any dishes and washed out clothes. I later found out that she walked many miles from her village every day. She was shy, very polite and very private. She was employed at the house before I arrived and was there when I left.

  2. I think I have a bit of retrospectve guilt that I made no effort to integrate into “local” PNG. In Lae in particular, the expat community was ring fenced. We ate, drank and socialised together. The Lae Club was totally expat. I made no effort to learn Pidgin. I might add that those who mixed extensively with the locals were regarded with a mix of bemusement and quietly disparaged. Yes, I would do things differently now.

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