Pictures of MakisBy Don Mitchell
September 07, 2009
In the white shimmering overexposed one he’s looking through his chrome camera at Niagara Falls in late December. This was before black cameras were the common things they are now, so the only black in the print is Makis’ face, though little of it shows above the fur collar and below the knit hat. It’s 1978.
In another he’s holding what we christened the world’s largest chicken, a stupendous fowl as big as a small turkey. He cradles it in the crook of his arm as if it were a baby. We couldn’t decide whether to boil it village fashion or to roast it whiteman style. In the end we roasted it because we had neither bush spinach nor coconut milk, and anyway, what’s the point of bogus village cooking?
But the one I’ve got on my wall, the one I brought down from the attic in 1996 when I heard he’d been murdered – that’s the one I like best. Christmas Day. He’s holding the Elvis calendar I gave him. I want you, I need you, I love you, it says along the top, above the picture of Elvis in a cowboy hat.
“This is a good one,” he said in real life. In the picture he says nothing. He’s just sitting on my Beluchistan rug, in front of my Japanese wedding chest, bottom of the Christmas tree at the top of the frame, wrapping paper spread around him. There’s a big can of Foster’s Lager, still in red tissue paper, which I got to make him feel at home. I couldn’t get any South Pacific Lager. Solomon Islands, Beluchistan, Japan, Christian holiday, Australian beer, and old Elvis, wreathing them all.
It took me a while to find those pictures. I keep my past in the attic, even though it ought to be in the basement. That would be more appropriate for a prehistorian: the past below, the future above. Now is somewhere in the middle, but of course when I hold a picture in my hand the whole thing gets confused. There’s the past right in front of me. I looked on shelves and in old boxes. I looked in envelopes. I finally found them in a drawer under a gyroscopic top and some chrome surveying tape clamps I used in the village.
“Hey Makis,” I said, “hey wantok,” a little catch in my voice, tears starting to my eyes. “Hey, it’s me. I’ve been looking for you.”
“Shit,” I said in English, “sonofabitch. Those fucking assholes!” I had to curse them, ineffectual as it was. What else could I do? I didn’t know who they were, the guys who killed him, even though I knew how it happened: two guys in ski masks (in ski masks? this is Port Moresby, only a few degrees off the equator) burst into his house, backed his wife and kids and his brother into a corner, and waited for Makis to come home from a peace conference in Lae. When he did, they blew him apart with shotguns, and when his brother leapt at them they knifed him to death. All this in front of Makis’ wife and kids.
The government put out the story that they were robbers. How could they imagine anyone would believe them? They were killing all the educated Bougainvilleans over there in Papua New Guinea, killing them as fast as they could. Nobody cared. Nobody was interested in a small corrupt country in the Pacific, a country that – when Makis was murdered – had a rebellion on its hands, one small but mineral-rich island that wanted to secede, and Makis, for all that he was a peace-seeker, was the revolution’s black face in the capital city.
Makis made his way to Buffalo out of a little village in Buin, to the Catholic high school at Kieta, into the University at Port Moresby, and then into graduate school in Ottawa, which was where he was when he came to visit me. Getting a Ph.D. in Development Economics. Before they assassinated him he became the Director of the research unit at which I used to work.
He came on the bus and I went across the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie to get him and bring him to Buffalo.
“What is your citizenship?” the US border guy said.
“US,” I said.
“Papua New Guinea,” Makis said.
“Pull over there, go to Immigration.”
Makis and I laughed about it, wondering which countries wouldn’t have to go to Immigration. Canada for sure. Maybe everybody else did, but I doubted it. I’d seen the guys in the booth looking at passports, though I’d never seen them stamping them. My passport was stamped SEEN AT PORT MORESBY, TERRITORY OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA, but Makis’ had no United States of America stamp in it yet. Once it did we pulled out, drove through the west side and on to my house.
“You know,” Makis said, “I never fool around with officials, the government. It’s dangerous and you can’t trick them anyway. My passport says Papua New Guinea on it and it’s got that Canadian student visa in it, so I am what I am.”
I said, “There was a cartoon character who said ‘I yam what I yam,’ but he didn’t look like you.”
Makis said, “Yes, I believe that was Popeye The Sailor Man. I don’t have forearms like his. But in Ottawa when I’m dealing with regular people I tell them I’m from Gambia, and sometimes I tell them I’m the Gambian Ambassador to Canada, and they believe it. No one in Ottawa can tell the difference between a Bougainvillean and a Gambian.”
I laughed. “What made you pick Gambia?”
Makis said, “I just looked at an atlas for a small African country. Burkina-Faso was too hard to say, and I liked the sound of Gambia. That’s how. So some of the people in the bars in Ottawa think I’m the Gambian Ambassador.”
By that time we were home.
“This is where I live,” I said to Makis, “this is my house.” And I was aware that to him, coming from Canada instead of the village, it would seem ordinary. I was sure he’d find some differences between student apartments in Ottawa and big doubles in Buffalo, but not much, not really.
I said to Makis that it seemed unfair that when he came to see me I couldn’t show him anything unusual, anything really strange to him. It was just an ordinary house in an ordinary northeastern city in winter. Nothing he hadn’t seen before.
“You know,” I said, “when I went to Bougainville and walked into a village for the first time it seemed strange to me because it was strange. I hadn’t ever lived in a leaf house in a village in a clearing in the rainforest. And I could hardly speak the language, either, and I was really overwhelmed.”
“True,” he said.
“And now you’re here with me and I’m wishing that I could have offered you something really different,” I said, “but I can’t. Except that you get to see me in my actual house. Well, Niagara Falls. That’s about it. I think I even wish I could overwhelm you, because it would be fun, and payback too.”
Makis said, “It doesn’t matter, but it would have been fun. You should have seen me when I first went to Sydney and saw what a really big city was like. I was amazed at the scale of the thing, but now I’m used to it. So you’re right. There’s not much new here for me, but it’s OK. I can learn your neighborhood. Neighborhoods are always different.”
The Gambian Ambassador and I went down to Cosentino’s Deli to get beer. At the cooler I said to him, “Why don’t I pretend you’re the anthropologist and I’m the informant, and I’ll introduce you to our local poisons. You can do participant-observation.” I got him a six-pack of Iron City, a forty-ounce bottle of Colt 45, some Genesee, and some Koch’s Holiday.
Mr. Cosentino was minding the counter, and I was thinking about the Gambian Ambassador thing, but while I was thinking, Mr. Cosentino looked at Makis and said, “You’re a Solomon Islander, aren’t you? I was there in the war.”
Neither one of us thought of saying No, he’s the Gambian Ambassador to Canada.
When I was a little boy my favorite waking dreams involved time travel and modern weaponry. In these dreams I was transported to scenes where my heros were besieged by enemies of their own time, enemies who had triumphed in historical time, but would fail in dream time as soon as I arrived with my favorite weapon, a fifty-caliber machine gun. I sat, legs braced against its tripod, spewing unexpected, astonishing magical death: the invincible boy, as terrifying and devastating to the enemy as any spirit or demon or alien could be. We would not be overwhelmed. We would not die. Of course I understood the falsity of these dreams. I had not changed history, witnesses being my teachers and the books in which good died and evil lived. I dreamed anyway.
Makis, I know there’ll be trouble tonight, so I’ll be at the compound gate. No heavy machine gun; instead I’ll be your bodyguard, skilled in martial arts, cat-quick and lethal. Let one assassin raise his shotgun and before he slips the safety, before he can raise it and point, I’ll leap and kick. Only roofing iron will die. I’ll subdue them while you watch, amazed. You didn’t know I could do this. You’ll move to protect your kids, your wife, your brother. But you won’t need to because I’ll already have the knives and guns. I’ll hurt the ski-masked thugs, those bloody redskinned Highlanders, until they tell us who sent them, and why.
You’ll say, “Thanks, mate.”
I’ll say, “I do what I can, Ambassador.”
Late-arriving readers need to know that when TNB shifted to its current version, old comments were not transferred.
[…] at the University of Papua New Guinea, and Somare was the guest of honor. The students included Ephraim Makis and perhaps a dozen […]
This week our daughter graduated from University in the UK where we live. My wife and I were very moved. So last night I decided to look up old classmates from my days as a student. I have been looking for Ephraim now and then for the past thirty years but never found him. Last night I did but I was too late.
My wife and I shared a house with Ephraim when we were students in Ottawa in 1978.
I am immensely saddened.
We survived burning the house down in a drunken stupour boiling spaghetti but forgetting to turn it off.
Ephraim survived cycling across the bridge to Hull on a freezing Canadian night and walking back the next day forgetting where he had left his bike.
A man once said to Ephraim “Oh you come from Papua New Guinea is that the place only recently discovered by man?”
I’m sorry Ephraim because it seems man found you… RIP and May God Bless You. I am sure you are now a bird in paradise.
I feel shock, reading your story about Makis. I have a colleague going to PNG next week, and I was going to ask him to find Makis for me while he was there…and then, I thought, I should just google his name and see if it comes up. Afterall, we always knew Makis would be someone important when he went back to PNG. What I learned was not what I was expecting, nor what I wanted to know. It makes me very very sad.
Makis was my friend, a dear dear friend, during my university years at Carleton in Ottawa. He was in the International Affairs masters program. We had lots of dinners and parties together, and I remember he married a fellow student, an Italian girl, Louise Santangelo?–I’m not sure about her name anymore–she wrote to me a few times, and I remember I called her mom and was told Louise had broken up with Makis and had come back to the US. We lost touch. There was no email back then.
Makis was always smiling, a gentle man, always full of joy and kindness and so much laughter and fun! I remember my roommates and I took him skating for the first time, on the Rideau Canal , and we laughed when he said he would be taking the skates to PNG with him, to put them in the museum. My arms were going to break from holding him up! I remember sitting and talking one night and hearing his stories about life in PNG, and how the people believe in ghosts etc. It was such a different culture, and he had to adapt and learn so much when he was with us. I always worried about him going back, that he wouldn’t feel comfortable at home anymore, wouldn’t fit in because of all his time away, studying and living the “white” culture.
May God bless your sweet soul, Makis, and bless and protect your family in PNG.
Makis was la joie de vivre and more god bless them
At the instigation of my uncle Jack/Sean Morahan who taught in the Solomon Islands many years ago I became a pen pal of Ephraim – probably in the late 1950s. We corresponded for a short while before I started secondary school. I often wondered what had become of him and I decided to google him. I was shocked and saddened to learn that he had been murdered so brutally in the presence of his wife and children. I would like to know more about him. May he rest in peace
I am not sure how relevant the following is to Ephraim Makis. However there is so little published about Bougainville the following documentary may be of interest:
I, like Paul Goulding, has the honor & privilege of knowing Ephraim Makis when we were all graduate students in International Affairs at Carleton. Makis as he was known was a gentle giant who I knew was destined for great things by his intellect & personality. So sorry to read of his murder but tribal politics remain extremely dangerous in PNG and Makis was a revolutionary seeking societal change for a better future for all PNG peoples. RIP my friend Makis!
I also knew Makis and shared an apartment with him and another NPSIA student, Leo, Ottawa. A little three bedroom, 2nd and 3rd floor apartment on a street with a tree name…May -Dec 1978. Even when he almost burned down the house (cooking spaghetti of course!) you could never stay angry with him – he was always so positive, friendly and good natured. I was shocked and sad to hear of his murder – from Leo, who while posted in the neighbourhood, ( Solomon Islands) looked him up to try to arrange a visit. so sorry.