In the years leading up to Independence in 1975, Johnny Banzak was working as a patrol officer in Madang.
In 1973, he was sent to Buang in Morobe province, where he comes from, to, prepare the people for the idea of Independence.
“There was a lot of resistance to Independence. A lot of people didn’t like it. I went with two colonial Australian officers.
There was also a lot of anger. Banzak’s job was to soften his people.
“I had to tell them about the good things. I said, if you look around, development is centered around the towns where the white man lives. We want development for everyone.”
By then, Banzak was already a seasoned officer in the colonial public service tasked with the job.
Banzak was born in the Buang area in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War. There were few schools in the mountainous region and that meant a late start to formal education.
At the age of 18, he started first grade. The missionary teachers used the Yabem dialect as the language of instruction. Yabem and Kote were the two main languages used by early German missionaries as common languages of instruction and communication when they arrived decades before the First World War.
It wasn’t until 1967, when Johnny Banzak, went to, what was then, Bumayong Junior High School that he began to learn English.
“There were Yabem teachers who blended, Yabem, English and Pidgin to teach us.”
He was already in his early 20s when he went to junior high school. He was among a group of older boys.
“The boys from Madang were much younger. They had started school early. But for boys like us who came from bush places, in Morobe, Finschhafen and Nawaeb, we were already young men.”
Life was tough for the students.
Bumayong planted its own rice. There was no money for anything else and the students were expected to grow their own food.
“The discipline was strict. If you broke a rule, they would have you remove tree stumps.”
In December 1968, at the end of grade eight, a vehicle driven by a government lawyer, hit and killed his mother at Eriku.
“One of my cousins ran after the vehicle and caught the lawyer in his yard trying to wash my mother’s blood off his vehicle. His neighbor who was a policeman had him arrested.”
Johnny Banzak, spent Christmas in Buang. When the start of the school year arrived, he had lost interest in returning to Lae.
“I didn’t want to return to the place where my mother had died.”
Armed with a grade eight education, Johny Banzak headed to Port Moresby where his aunt lived. Within weeks, he had found a job with the Government Information Services.
Then, when his former high school, was raising funds for the construction of the school chapel, Johnny Banzak, now fully employed with a fortnightly salary, sent a small cash contribution to Bumayong.
The envelope landed in the hands of the school principal, an American Lutheran Missionary teacher named Mr. Ronald.
“When he saw the address and my name on it. He called the police headquarters in Konedobu and requested for police to find me.
“At about lunch time, two police officers came into our office. They asked if I knew Johnny Banzak and I said, No. They were white officers and I was afraid of the police.”
It wasn’t until they asked his boss that he directed them back to where the two officers had passed him.
“They took me to the police station and called the principal. They said, the principal wants you to go back to Lae and complete your education.
“I refused. Instead, I asked for a transfer to a school in Port Moresby.”
Within a matter of hours, a transfer was organised and Johnny went to Kilakila high school where he went on to complete grades nine and ten.
At the end of grade 10, they were given school leavers forms. He chose to become a local level government officer.
In the days leading up to September 16, 1975, there was still a lot of doubt about the future of the country. With anti-colonial rebellions happening in Africa during the period, many people thought the new Papua New Guinea would head down the same path.
“I think a lot of people didn’t have confidence that the new government would look after us.
As the Officer-in-Charge of Karkar station in Madang, Banzak remembers that there was a lot of mourning.
“On the afternoon of the 15th, people started gathering. They came on their own. Some had begun preparing ‘koniak’ (kava).
“Then at midnight, when the Australian flag was lowered and the PNG flag was raised. People drank the koniak and cried. There was a lot of crying.
“In the morning, they stopped crying and the celebrations began. It was the same everywhere.”