Genou Lepani—The Power of Family

A Tribute to my son Genou Tosibogwau Lepani

My son’s life has taught both him and me the importance of family.  On Genou’s father’s side, in the Trobriand Islands, family is everything and the network of family relationships and obligations is what holds society together through thick and thin.  On my side, although our family systems are much less networked and I have been a single mother since my thirties, I have tried to show my sons throughout my life that, as a parent, you stand by your kids through thick and thin.

Genou has four children, two boys and two girls—my only grandchildren.  They are not a conventional family, but are part of the modern world of relationship breakups and the challenges of bringing up children in blended families and as single parents while maintaining good relationships with our children’s other parents.  This is Genou’s story about the power of family.

Genou’s Trobriand Heritage

I attribute Genou’s love of being in nature, especially his love of the ocean and its wildlife—the fish, dolphins, whales and the sea eagles that soar overhead (not so much the sharks) to his Trobriand Island heritage on his father’s side. The Trobriand Islands is a special place. It is a small group of coral atolls about half way between the mainland of east Papua New Guinea and Bougainville. When dressed in their traditional clothing, Trobriand Island people are very colourful.

The women wear short multi-coloured grass skirts and the men wear cream coloured covers over the private parts made from pandanas palm, held on with a red string around their waist. Everyone wears red coral shell earrings and necklaces, and decorate their hair with carved combs and flowers. However since the missionaries arrived as part of colonialism, and more and more with the coming of modern life, more people are wearing European-style clothes. Family is everything in a tribal culture like the Trobriand Islands.

Genou was born in 1972 in Port Moresby shortly after I came  with my Trobriand Islander husband, Charles Lepani, to live in Papua New Guinea. We met as students at UNSW, where Charles was studying industrial relations and economics with Professor Bill Ford on an Australian Council of Trade Unions scholarship, and I was studying sociology and history.

Charles and I arrived to live in Port Moresby the year Papua New Guinea was transitioning to self-government after being a colony of the Australian Government. Genou’s grandfather, Lepani Kaiuwekalu Watson, had been an Assistant Ministerial Member in the colonial administration as the indigenous people were preparing for this transition. He passed away in 1993, but we all remember him as a very lively character who would dance and sing Trobriand Island songs with a clear high voice, with Genou’s father joining in with a deeper voice. After self-government, Genou’s grandfather went back to live in the village at Losuia in the Trobriand Islands, but later be returned to politics and became the Premier of Milne Bay Province in 1983.

I have often told my sons about a memorable journey we made with Genou’s grandparents to return to Vakuta Island, one of the Trobriand islands, where his great grandfather, Watisoni Upawapa was the chief. Genou was only seven months old, and he was their first grandchild. It was all a pretty big deal, as this was Charles’s first visit back to Vakuta since being at university in Australia, and it was to end the mourning for the death of Genou’s great grandfather. It was also a big deal because he brought with him a ‘white’ Australian wife, the first to ever marry into Trobriand Island culture. The Vakuta people made a great fuss of us, building us a special small hut in the village compound.  As soon as we arrived, Genou’s grandmother, Sarah, took Genou in her arms to meet all his extended family.

Between two worlds

Unfortunately Charles and I separated when Genou was only six years old, and I returned to live in Sydney, together Genou’s little brother, Justin, who was then only two years old. It was a bewildering time for them as they adjusted to being separated from their extended Trobriand Island family and finding themselves in a big and busy city. I had almost no friends of my own, and I had to go off to work every day.  I quickly had to settle Genou into a new school and Justin into childcare. Charles kept in touch with his two small sons, ringing them up regularly. Fortunately his job allowed him to visit Sydney quite often as by then he had become an important figure in the PNG government as head of the National Planning Office, which involved lots of negotiations with the Australian government in Canberra over foreign aid and big projects, like the Ok Tedi Copper Mine. He also arranged for Justin and Genou to regularly fly back to Port Moresby for holidays to be with him and his new wife and their new brothers from his second marriage.  In fact, when Genou and Justin were only nine and five years old, they flew unaccompanied all the way to Boston to join their father, after he finished his degree in Public Administration at Harvard University, in order to travel overland across America with his new American wife, whom Charles met in Port Moresby.

After this journey, as Genou stood on the cusp of puberty, Charles and I decided that Genou and Justin should return to live with their father in Port Moresby. We recognised the difficulties of racism and very different cultures shaping their lives and we wanted them to be strong in both cultural heritages and know who they are in terms of their identity. It is not so easy being mixed race from two different cultures, with your parents living in two very different countries. Then, a few years later Charles took up a position as Director of the East West Centre at the University of Hawaii, and it was decided that Genou should return to Australia to live with me to go to high school, while  Justin decided he wanted to stay with his father and went with him to live in Hawaii. By then I was living at Stanwell Park, a small beachside village on the southern edge of the Royal National Park that separates Sydney from Wollongong, so Genou became a Stanwell Park teenager, going to school at Bulli High School. Genou spent his school holidays in Hawaii and Justin spent his in Stanwell Park. Then after three years, Justin came to join us at Stanwell Park.

Adjusting to life in Australia was difficult at first for Genou, as he had developed some very Trobriand Island ways of relating to his world. He wore his frizzy hair teased out in the ‘native’ fashion and would unconsciously put flowers in it. He soon learned that this was not a good look for a teenage boy in Australia! Genou also had to get used to the Australia way of insulting you as a form of friendship rather than abuse. When he got upset and confused by this, I would tell him that he had to listen to the tone, not the words, when someone calls you a ‘bastard’.

The ocean keeps us strong

The one thing that kept Genou strong was that he took to surfing in the ocean. I can remember one instance very clearly, which he told me about later. He was swimming at nearby Coalcliff Beach when he was dumped by a large wave with his leg caught in the tow rope. He told me that as he tumbled and tumbled under the surface, he was sure he was going to drown. Then, when he finally made it back up to the surface, another boy was siting on his surfboard. He looked at Genou and said, “Get a bit wet mate?” Genou said to me, “Mum that’s Australia!”  Slowly he was learning the Australian way of downplaying things, the importance of what I would call reverse psychology when dealing with fear.

Unfortunately Genou had a bit of a troubled life during his twenties, but the ocean is what has kept him strong and sane. As he would say to me: “You can’t control the ocean. You have to learn how to read it and the weather that shapes its patterns and currents. If you become one with it, you can ride on it and experience the sheer joy of speeding down a wave. But it can also toss you into its depths.”  Surfing also keeps the body strong as you have to battle out through the waves to get into a position to turn around and ride with them. Living at Stanwell Park also enabled Genou to develop a deep love for being in nature, among the trees of the forest, carrying echoes of life in PNG.

The other thing that keeps Genou strong today is going camping with his children.  At every opportunity, they pack up his ute with their camping gear and head off, away from all the traffic to a place filled with the natural world—trees, birds, beach and ocean, and as an added bonus, the odd visiting kangaroo.  Genou sends me lots of photos and short videos to share these trips with me.

Fatherhood

The other great thing that has kept Genou strong has been becoming a father. His eldest son Jasper is now twenty-one and pursuing a degree in fine art photography at RMIT in Melbourne. He is finding his feet through his art and skill as a photographer, where he is showing great talent.

Jasper’s panorama shot of sunset storm clouds from Genou’s balcony in Wollongong

Sadly Jasper’s mother and Genou separated when he was only two years old, and she moved to live in Melbourne with her new partner. Genou missed little Jasper so much that he followed and found work in Melbourne.  When Melissa moved to live in Healesville, Genou moved out there to be closer to him and able to spend weekends with him.

During this time Genou met his second partner, and they had a son, Finlay. Unfortunately for one reason and another, their relationship did not survive the stresses of a blended family and a working life that took Genou away interstate quite a lot, so he moved back to live in Wollongong, in search of living closer to the ocean and old friends. However Jasper’s mother and Genou agreed that Jasper wasn’t doing so well at Healesville with the breakup of her second relationship,  and he could therefore come and live with Genou to attend the Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts. Genou was overjoyed, as he longed for a sense of ‘family.

During this time Genou unexpectedly became the father of a baby daughter from a casual sexual encounter. His baby daughter was taken into care at birth because of her mother’s history and after confirming that Genou was indeed the father, he applied for and was granted sole custody. Stevie came to live with Jasper and Genou when she was five months old and has brought such joy into all our lives, but especially into Genou and Jasper’s.  We were all amazed at how well Genou managed as a single father of a teenager and a very young baby daughter with many health difficulties in her early life.

Meanwhile, as the mother and grandparent I tried to help as best I could.  But I had a job in Canberra, which allowed me to telework from my new home in Katoomba every other week.  Genou helped me fix up my new home, proving to be quite a handy man when it came to painting, carpentry and landscaping.  Genou, Jasper and Stevie often came to visit me in Katoomba, and I would visit them in Wollongong.  But I have never been able to be the grandparent on hand, living just down the road, although I do try to help financially whenever I can.

The welfare system nightmare

Being a single dad to a baby daughter is unusual in our society, so it is not so easy. Mother’s groups don’t work so well for a single dad. It is also a struggle to manage insecure employment, the welfare payment system, living in private rental accommodation, and the health needs of a baby daughter.

Genou’s place of employment shifted from a location in Wollongong to Homebush, necessitating a long commute, departing at six o’clock in the morning, which meant getting up at five am.    He would find himself at work at Homebush, only to receive a call from the child care centre that he needed to take his daughter home to his flat in Wollongong because of a health scare, then if she was sick needing to take time off work, needing to get medical certificates for childcare subsides to continue against time not at child care. So, on top of finding himself suddenly a single father of a baby girl with health issues, while at the same time supporting his son in adolescence, he was caught up with the bureaucratic demands of Australia’s welfare support systems. It was a nightmare that saw Genou caught up in the whole welfare debt issue and claims of welfare fraud, which has impacted on the lives of so many Australians, particularly since the Government introduced the robot debt system.  He did end up going to court, and was given a community service order requiring volunteer work at a charity on Wollongong.  Meanwhile he had had to give up his job, but used this time to gain a Community Services Diploma at Wollongong TAFE, where he met the mother of his youngest child, Iris.

Love of family

Genou’s first two children are boys, and as Genou grew up with his brother Justin and his two half brothers, Andrew and Nathanial during the time he spent living in Port Moresby, he was used to boys.  Now he not only has his daughter, Stevie, but another daughter, Iris who has turned two years old late last year.

Today Stevie is a vibrant eight year old who loves dancing, joyfully composing her own lyrics as she dances. She also loves drawing and painting, and like Genou, she loves the ocean. Iris and Stevie are great friends and it is such a joy to watch Iris copying Stevie with all her dance moves.

Genou says that being a father to two daughters has introduced him to the world of girls and women. It has brought home to him the huge challenges facing women in our society and says it has made him determined to be as good a Dad as he can be, including to his young son, Fin who lives in Victoria with his mother.

Genou’s children have really taught him the value of being a parent as his most important role in life. Work is just something he does to earn a living, not to give him an identity. His parents and siblings are all university graduates and both his father and I have had strong professional careers, although mine has been very fragmented, mixed up with times pursuing my interest in Tibetan Buddhist meditation study and practice in Australia, New Zealand and France.  However Genou’s father’s career in the PNG public service, including as the High Commissioner to Australia, saw him knighted as Sir Charles Lepani.  As Charles’ eldest son, Genou often feels he let the side down.  But we are all immensely proud of the way he has stepped up to the responsibilities of fatherhood, despite all the challenges of being a single father. All his children are beautiful people and a credit to his love and care for them.  No amount of money and professional success can replace the power of love from parent to child.  In the end it is the best currency in life.

As Genou says to me: “It is my role as a father that keeps my spirit strong and brings joy and fulfilment to my life.  My parents and my experiences have taught me that family is what matters most in this life. We should treasure and protect it in whatever way we can.”