3 out of 4 stars
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Robert had always been an anthropology enthusiast. After college, he applied to CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas). They posted him to Kairiru, an island in Papua New Guinea. At Kairiru, he got a job as a science teacher at St. Xavier’s High School. After several unsuccessful attempts, the school authority sought his help in convincing the reluctant people of Kragur to send their children to school. They agreed to his request, but with a caveat that earned him a memento that he still wears to this day. As a condition for their cooperation, he pledged to be a ‘was papa’ to the boys. In the course of his caretaker duties, he became especially fond of one boy named Lahumpo. They developed a close bond and their friendship changed them both in ways they didn’t foresee. Cloud Over Kairiru is a recollection of his time on the island.
Even though the book is non-fiction, Robert K. Henderson added some elements of suspense that kept me on the edge of my seat. I especially liked the first and third-person narration technique he employed; it was nice to read about the same event from unique perspectives. His relationship with Lahumpo and Nick is a beautiful juxtaposition of tradition and science. It also encapsulates the capacity of education to stretch the human mind. Though the book’s ending broke my heart, it insinuates a sequel and I look forward to that.
I admire Robert's eagerness to embrace the island's culture. He took part in their rituals, dance and even attempted to wear their famous ‘lap lap’ waist wrap. It was a colossal fail, but it’s all part of the experience that made the book worthwhile.
Societies and their cultures interest me, so I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the rich culture of the Kragur community of Papua New Guinea. As a Nigerian, what struck me are the similarities between some aspects of their culture and the culture of the Igbo people of Nigeria. Before modernity overrode some aspects of the culture, Igbo people had a ritual similar to the Kragur Puk Puk ceremony for pubescent boys. It was a mandatory ritual necessary for the transition from boyhood to adulthood. A boy had to undergo the process to be considered a man in the community.
Another intriguing parity is the Kairiru concept of 'bik man'. The term is used to refer to men of affluence and power that enjoy special privileges and respect not accorded to other community members of low standing. In Nigerian, such people are called 'big man' and the meaning and lifestyle is the same.
As much as I liked the book, I noted some holes in the story. The island natives communicate with the foreigners in pidgin. I expected Robert to provide an English interpretation of the pidgin words or an appendix at the end of the book. Sadly, most of the meanings were left for the reader to decipher. Also, during an expedition, Robert and his students chanced upon some vestiges of the Japanese War in a cave. They packed and put them back in the cave for safekeeping, intending to give them to the school authority, but they were not spoken of afterwards. I would have loved to know what became of them.
I spotted an empty page and a few errors while reading; the errors were minor and didn't detract from my reading flow. Considering the cultural richness, professional editing and Robert's fun and evocative writing style, I rate the book 3 out of 4 stars. I would have liked to give it the highest rating, but for the plot holes mentioned above.
Culture and travel enthusiasts will enjoy reading about Robert's experience in Kairiru. I would caution that Robert espouses some views that fundamentalist Christians might consider offensive. In addition, it contains some violence so I wouldn't recommend it for kids.
Cloud Over Kairiru
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