Gutok Was Here

Courtesy Rajaie Batniji

Culturally and physically, Papua New Guinea is about as far as you can get from the Farm. Or so thought Rajaie Batniji last summer as he neared the village of Tongajumb after four hours paddling a dugout down the steamy Sepik River.

He and 10 other students had come to the island nation through the Stanford PNG Medical Project (“Getting Better,” November/December 2001). Already, their trip had been marked by surprises, like getting caught in an election-day brawl among men wielding blow guns and sticks. But remote Tongajumb held the biggest surprise of all.

As the students set up a makeshift clinic by the river, an old man hobbled over to Batniji, ’03. In broken English, he asked, “Where do you come from?”

“We come from America,” Batniji replied.

“I go to America,” announced the man, whose name was Gutok. “I work there.”

During the medical exam, when Gutok complained of back pain, a local translator said it started after he came back from California. “What was he doing in California?” Batniji asked.

“He carved wood and stone of our ancient idols.”

Could Gutok be one of the master carvers who had come to Stanford in 1994 to create the New Guinea Sculpture Garden near Roble Hall? On that hunch, Batniji says, “I told him we live with his work and enjoy seeing it all the time.”

Back on campus, Batniji found Gutok’s name carved into several of the sculptures, as well as a photo of the artist and a map indicating his village. The old man had indeed left his mark on the Farm.