ENGA - People in those many isolated pockets of remote Papua New Guinea contribute resources of their own when a much-needed school, aid post, airstrip or a new road is required in their area and will cry openly when it is built.
They team up to condemn – sometimes even attack - members of the community who oppose such developments or who greedily claim compensation for property damage.
Most people know how rare the opportunities are to establish important services and infrastructure.
Several people from the remote Ambum Valley in Enga Province recently expressed such sentiments to me as two excavators belonging to K Star Construction moved in to extend the Monokam to Londol road in the headwaters of the turbulent Ambum River.
Two men explained how they had paid more than K1,000 for the machine operators and crew to make sure they were well-fed and supplied with enough buai and cigarettes as they worked. They rebuked people who wanted payment for yar trees and other property damage.
“What are yar trees and gardens when we see change come to our valley for the first time,” Jop Tale a community leader said. “People should give up these things so our road can be improved. We cannot keep on living like our ancestors did.”
After 50 years of neglect, this was the first time the people had seen big machines move into their area to extend a road they had built with their own bare hands during the colonial period.
Jop Tale, who is from Wapis village, said he gave about K480 worth of goods and cash from his small trade store as part of his contribution to encourage the operators and crew to work harder and complete the job properly and on time. Another man contributed K500.
Tale said they both saw how people in the Tsak Valley of Wapenamanda did not claim compensation for property destroyed when a sealed road was built in their area.
“I saw people living along the Tsak road in Wapenamanda contribute food and cash and give up their yar trees and other property when Cr Paul Kurai took us there to see progress on that road,” Mr Tale said.
“The Tsak people now travel on a good road and my people here must have a good road too.”
Cr Kurai had taken Mr Tale and a couple of others on an educational tour of the Tsak Valley to see how the people there restrained themselves from claiming compensation and allowed road to proceed without interference.
Like Ambum, the Tsak and Lower Lai areas in Wapenamanda were cut off for many years until funding was provided through PNG’s foreign affairs minister and local MP Rimbink Pato, which has seen the areas transform in the last few years.
Cr Kurai is managing director of K Star Construction which had been awarded contracts to build the Tsak and Lower Lai roads in Wapenamanda district.
Now his company has been awarded a K3 million contract by the O’Neill-Abel government to upgrade the 11 kilometres of road from Monokam to Londol.
This section of road is only a fraction of the whole Ambum Road which starts many kilometres away and runs parallel with the Ambum River and is regularly closed by landslides during the rainy season.
Last weekend I visited the Ambum Valley with Fr Justine Ain. First, we drove up the Highlands Highway until we reached Lakolam and turned right on a recently built and freshly gravelled road – the gravel transported from the Lai River bed at Yakananda village a couple of kilometres away.
This new road winds its way down a steep gradient on the Monokam mountain range and was also built by K Star Construction under a mutual agreement as a private project with trucking tycoon, Jacob Luke from Monokam village.
The village - with a school, health centre, churches, trade stores and a permanent market - is visible from the top of the mountain. Much of the funding continues to be provided by Jacob Luke himself.
I wasn’t driving but pressed my left foot hard to the floor as we made the steep descent to the bottom of the Ambum Valley.
It made me shudder to imagine what would happen to the two excavators and tipper trucks working on the road if they got involved in an accident.
Fr Ain proved to be an excellent driver. He grew up at Tsikiro village on the banks of the Ambum River, attended the Catholic primary school there and trained to be a priest. He now lives at Sari Catholic mission near Wabag and often visits his village.
When Fr Ain attended primary school at Tsikiro, he used to watch an American priest, Fr Anton Krachy SVD, load gravel on to his truck to mend sections of the road as he travelled to Londol, Par, Yampu and other church establishments in the valley.
Returning home, we drove down on this same abandoned but still passable road. Fr Ain drove slowly showing me sections of the road built by the colonial kiaps. These sections remain strong to this day despite lack of maintenance, landslides and the overgrowth of grass.
Soon we drove past the abandoned Ambum government station, now besieged by elephant grass. The roofs of Anditale High School were just visible to our right as we crossed a permanent bridge across the river.
This was the Ambum Bridge officially opened on 7 March 1988 when the late Malipu Balakau was communications minister. He was accompanied by then premier Ned Laina and works minister Aita Ivarato.
This had been the last time I had come here to cover the event for my newspaper, Enga Nius. Previously I travelled here with the British high commissioner to PNG at the time, Michael Howell.
Now nearly 30 years later, I was crossing the Ambum Bride again to see it unused and still in good condition.
After driving along a narrow stretch of road with the threatening Ambum River rushing below us, we finally arrived at Fr Ain’s village of Tsikiro, proceeding straight to the Catholic mission to be met by Sr Dorothy Kunuimbui from Wewak, who provided lunch.
Most of the fresh vegetables and fruit she put on the table were grown by the sisters themselves – tomatoes, pawpaws, pineapples, oranges, guava, bananas, mangoes, apples, breadfruit all thrive here. Soon the coconuts will bear fruit.
The good sister gave me a plastic bag full of fruit to take home. That backyard garden looked something like the Garden of Eden.
The Ambum Valley is capable of producing all manner of cash crops including coffee but the people desperately need a good road network to get things started.
When Sr Kunuimbui heard how the Monokam to Londol road was being improved, she smiled softly and said it was good news for the people.
“When I lived at Londol catholic mission four years ago, I used to walk up and down this road,” she said.
Life has been hard for Sr Kunuimbui and the Ambum Valley people. It’s a story repeated many times over in other parts of rural PNG where the masses quietly toil on.