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April 01, 1993

It is not every day that Orange County high school students are greeted by a distinguished-looking 5-foot-tall man in a wraparound "lap-lap" skirt and sandals. When the visitor turns out to have been raised by cannibals and was once an officer of the United Nations, the students sit up and pay attention.

Sir Paulias Matane, 61, visited St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano last month as part of a fund-raising tour for his country, Papua New Guinea. To mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of his homeland during World War II, Matane hopes to find contributions to build a multipurpose building for villagers back home.

Matane was raised in large part by his grandfather, a cannibal and local chieftain who kept a club with notches to mark the number of men he'd killed. Illiterate until the age of 15, Matane said he and his friends would spend countless hours playing in the trees, traveling great distances from treetop to treetop. By the end of World War II, many islanders had been Christianized, and Matane attended school.

He quickly became active in the education system and later in the political system. When Papua New Guinea achieved independence from Australia in 1976, he became the nation's first ambassador to the United Nations, the United States and Mexico.

In 1979 he was named a vice president of the United Nations General Assembly and in 1986 was knighted in recognition of his life of public service. Rather than travel to England to be honored by the Queen, Matane took the highly unusual step of asking the British Governor General to knight him in his home village.

During his U.S. visit, Matane brought a message of gratitude for helping his country during the war. He enthralled the students with tales of growing up in a jungle village.

"It was amazing. I have high respect for the man," said Jennifer Hernandez, a senior. "His presence brought all the books we read about other cultures alive. The stories were real and touching."

The tribes in Papua New Guinea are very close, and extended families often live together, Matane said. He and his wife, Kaludia, whom he did not meet until their wedding day, have five children and 10 grandchildren.

He is his nation's most prolific author, with 13 books, and also produces a TV show.

Susan Blackburn, a Latin teacher at St. Margaret's, arranged Matane's visit to the school. She had visited Matane's village in high school during a business trip by her father, and her family has remained close to Matane.

The "living memorial" he hopes to build will be a center for worship, adult literacy classes and other programs. Currently, Matane said, these activities are conducted in a small structure threatened by rain and age.

Ryan Newman, a junior at St. Margaret's Episcopal School, contributed research to this article.

"I tremble for my species when I reflect that God is just."

--Thomas Jefferson

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