GOROKA - The group of teenagers from Bougainville, the New Guinea Islands, Momase and the Highlands - their yellow and green uniforms indicating they were students - chit-chatted, took selfies, giggled and did the things teenagers do.
We were in the boarding lounge at Jackson's Airport in Port Moresby sitting and waiting for our flight to be announced.
The students were taking shots, hugging and even crying for each other. Among them, a New Ireland girl tried to comfort her sobbing Highlander girlfriend. Elsewhere, three coastal boys queued up for Wewak and Vanimo left their line to hugged the Highlands boys waiting for the Goroka and Hagen flights.
The Sepik boys said, "Plis noken lus tingtig lo plan blo yumi" (Please, don't forget our plans). I didn’t hear what their plan was but, yeah, that was it. I also wondered why these students were on a mass flight in October when they should still be in class.
At the next boarding call, I joined the Goroka-bound passengers and exited the boarding lounge for flight PX 160.
I took seat 6A while 6B was allocated to one of the male teenagers in the yellow and green uniform. We greeted each other and took our seats. The label on the pocket of his uniform said ‘Sogeri National High School’.
As we waited for other passengers to take their seats, I asked if they were on their way to a school game but he responded they were Grade 12 students travelling home as they have just completed their national examinations the day before.
I contemplated what had happened in the boarding lounge, seeing their affection for each other and their sorrow at parting, and I reflected on the relationships they had built at Sogeri.
I don’t know the values and philosophies promoted by Sogeri National High School but I reasoned, from its name, that this was a school of status. Others ran through my mind: Sogeri, Kerevat, Aiyura and Passam - all national high schools.
They were built not just to educate but to instil a spirit of nationhood and patriotism. Students from all over PNG attend these schools to meet, greet, socialise, learn and plan to build Papua New Guinea.
Students selected to attend national high schools are able to build the bridges that connect our nation.
I sensed that these students were infused with a sense of nationalism unlike students from provincial high schools and top-up secondary schools in the provinces: the ones that cause provincialism or regionalism in national tertiary institutions.
For example, in 2017 at the University of Goroka a seven-hour fight broke out between upper Highlands and lower Highlands groups leaving coastal students confused. Sepiks and Simbus were involved in a similar conflict at Unitech in Lae some years ago.
Students at many tertiary institutions in PNG have provincial groups that do not give them the liberty, courage and confidence to address national issues.
Students from national universities in PNG are supposed to address national issues as educated elites but this is not happening because there can be no unity when students promote provincialism.
On the same note, there is also a risk of sub-dividing provincial groups into district groups when the view of the nation is obscured. Provincial high schools are being localised into districts and no longer bear the name ‘Provincial High School’.
Most of PNG's founding fathers and other prominent leaders were brought up in national high schools and held the nation’s interests at heart.
The essence of my experience at Jackson’s Airport was that high schools and secondary schools are booming in provinces and even districts, but they are not necessarily building a nation.
This can have the knock-on effect of causing disunity among students at national tertiary institutions. How can citizens solve national issues if there is regionalism, provincialism, tribalism and other fragmented ethnic and cult-like movement among the people of this nation?