What Mama & Papa told me
Walking & living an empty life after burying my Dollorose

How good kumu grew from the ashes of the fire

Enga Governor Grand Chief Peter Ipatas MPDANIEL KUMBON

An entry in the 2015 Rivers Award
for Writing on Peace & Harmony

IT was in the 1980s that I first began to worry for the future of my children, my Enga Province and my country.

There was a widespread breakdown in law and order. Tribal warfare, armed robbery, rape and other social problems reached high levels as government services deteriorated. Intense politics and deep-rooted corruption took centre stage.

The culmination in Enga Province was  the wholesome destruction of the provincial administration complex - a K3 million modern building gutted in an arson attack on 23 March 1993.

I stood helplessly and watched it burn to a smouldering ruin within four hours. I saw police commander Willie Ambros with a handful of men try desperately to put out the flames.

And I heard a lone leader from the Lankep tribe, one of five original clans that owned the land on which Wabag town sits, shout repeatedly to nobody in particular: “Why are you burning the office which belongs to everybody in Enga Province?”

Inspector Ambros and his men struggled to break through a deadlocked door to fight the fire. Others tried to put out the flames through the window with very old and very useless fire extinguishers. There was no town water supply.

It was heart wrenching to see brave people who had poured in from nearby villages try to put the flames out while others rubbed themselves in mud, cried and walked around the inferno.

Some heartless people looted. "I don't see any reason that prompts these people to loot government property. Don’t they realise that with those flames goes Enga Province?” a policeman from Eastern Highlands asked.

"People don't seem to realise what long term implications this destruction has for Enga - the province is burning in that fire."

Earlier that Friday afternoon, I had locked my office and gone for a drive. Half an hour later, somebody at the market told me the Bromley and Manton supermarket was on fire.

I hoped that Bromley and Manton did not burn down a second time. In 1989 the company had lost goods worth thousands of kina when arsonists torched the building after Malipu Balakau was shot dead by rascals in Mt Hagen.

But to my horror this time the main provincial headquarters was burning. My own media office office was housed in a separate robust wooden structure built in the 1960s by kiaps during the colonial period. I hastily ran in and grabbed whatever I could - my word processor, typewriter and a few files. A horde of looters took the rest but the building was saved.

The wanton destruction was the culmination of a period of political upheaval. First Communications Minister Malipu Balakau was killed in Mt Hagen. Then the Enga Provincial Government was suspended for a second time under premier Danely Tindiwi.

There were then various senior appointments made and fought against and finally the office complex was torched. The combined efforts of police from Enga, Mt Hagen and Port Moresby failed to catch the culprits.

Then followed much tension and confusion in the province. People from Porgera, Laiagam, Kandep and Maramuni threatened to break away to form their own province of West Enga. People from the east wanted the headquarters to be relocated from Wabag to Wapenamanda.

The destruction of the headquarters was seen as an act of terror perpetrated by someone against the state and the people themselves. The wanton destruction rocked the foundations of established Enga society.

The ruins of the handsome building spewed smoke for days. The public service machinery was rendered useless. I came across a public servant who said: "I hate to be an Engan. Everything about this place is always negative...negative. I hate to have been born here."

Grieving with the people of Enga was Wabag local government council president Peter Ipatas.  He was a mere spectator. Council presidents had no power in those days.

Ten years later Ipatas was to replace Enga's lost pride with a state of the art, three-story office complex with two wings and a helipad. It cost over K21 million. Having won the 1997 national elections as governor of the province, Ipatas was able to secure government funding to construct the new headquarters.

Friday, 28 November 2003 was a proud moment for me because I had seen and felt the heat of the destructive flames that had consumed the former building before my eyes.

“Good kumu can grow from the ashes of a fire,” elders told me in the hausman. They added that it took real guts for people in the community to brush aside problems, think positively and provide the best for their families and their tribesmen.

So Governor Ipatas replaced the old gutted building, christened it the ‘Ipatas Centre’, formulated the free education policy and encouraged people to start lodges and hotels to tap into the lucrative tourism industry.

“Education will open your eyes. You will eat rice every day of your life if you send your children to school,” Ipatas told people wherever he went.

“Porgera gold mine will cease to operate one day. It is through other people that money will be generated. Look after visitors and tourists to the province well. They will bring in the money.”

These days, many Engans hold important positions throughout PNG in both the government and the private sector. And tourism activity has grown remarkably. Wabag alone has over 10 hotels and guest houses.

Despite law and order problems and political antagonism, Enga has been able to enjoy stability and noticeable achievements in the last 20 years. PNG will grow to new heights if political leaders and top bureaucrats follow Ipatas’ example.

That will be one of the ways peace and harmony will be restored in the communities throughout the country. What PNG needs right now is effective political and bureaucratic leadership.


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