PORT MORESBY - I have finally satisfied my curiosity to see Kerema, the town about which top musician Robert Oeka penned the words ‘Yu yet kam lukim’ - a sort of challenge for people to visit his part of our beloved country.
I’ve flown over Gulf Province many times since arriving in Port Moresby in early 1975 to attend Form 4 at Idubada Technical College, transferred there after Lae Technical College experienced a shortage of electrical instructors.
I was privileged to be in Port Moresby because that was the year we got our independence, which I strongly felt we got too soon.
I remember seeing people carry placards that read ‘Still Primitive’ in 1973 when Michael Somare came to Wapenamanda as chief minister in 1973 to convince people it was okay for us to determine our own future.
Idubada Technical College was not far from Sir Hubert Murray stadium where the official independence ceremonies took place on 16 September 1975.
I saw many people cry when the Australian flag was lowered by soldiers who neatly folded it and gave it to governor-general Sir John Guise who handed it to Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam.
All that aside, after the release of Robert Oeka’s song there was never an opportune time before this year for me to accomplish his challenge to see Kerema.
It’s nearly 300km from Port Moresby to Kerema (also known as K-Town), the only provincial capital to be connected by road to the PNG capital.
The sealed Hiritano Highway was peaceful, disturbed only by irritating potholes and unnecessary police roadblocks.
At thriving roadside markets people sold smoked fish, fresh and cooked wallaby meat, bananas, vegetables, wild pigs and processed food and drinks.
The natural landscape and sights reminded me of driving along the Bruce Highway in Queensland, a reminder that the island of New Guinea was once connected to the Australian mainland.
The only difference in Queensland is that you see kangaroos and wallabies feeding freely on the roadside along with ducks, cranes, emus and other wildlife. And an impressive rubber plantation along the Hiritano Highway replaced the long rows of gum and pine trees along the Bruce Highway.
On the Hiritano, low grassy hills and scattered gum trees flew past my window as parrots, kookaburras, black crows and many other bird species took to the air as we drove past at high speed. We avoided driving over three snakes, one a very long python.
Excessive hunting has driven the wallabies further inland. They face possible extinction. In Kerema, I watched men carry wallaby carcasses home in the night. A wallaby is as good as dead when the hunter shines a torch directly in its eyes before he shoots it.
When we arrived in K-town at about 3.30pm, I was shown the mayor’s house which appeared to be incomplete, the secondary school, a fenced-in enclosure with a small building which was Bank South Pacific, the only hotel in town and the provincial headquarters building all situated along the one main street.
This day an election for council presidents was in progress. Some people were congregating around the main administration building but not as intensely as you would see in the Highlands, where people go crazy during elections resulting in unnecessary killings.
I don’t think provincial governor Chris Heiveta or any national politicians were in the building. The councillors alone exercised their right to freely elect their presidents to represent the people in the provincial assembly.
Nor did I see any police or police cars near the building. Everything was conducted in an orderly manner.
The main problem appeared to be that the headquarters badly needed a thorough fix and clean. It must once have been a handsome building and a standout in K-town.
Soon we drove to a playing field right in the main town centre where people were selling all sorts of goods. But at the main market, where I looked forward to buying some fish, a barramundi perhaps, the market stalls were empty.
Along one side of the only main street were shops and, like in Wabag, the single biggest building belonged to Chinese businessman. I was told an Engan owns one of the shops and runs a couple of PMV buses on the K-town to Port Moresby route.
As we drove further towards the wharf, I noticed fibro buildings been built by the colonial administration in the 1960s. These same style buildings are still in use in Enga and other parts of PNG.
We then drove past the airport and to the main wharf. Here, right in front of me was a couple of buildings on the mud-flats, buildings I had seen in a book ‘Faces and Voices of PNG’ published in 1985 to mark 10 years of independence. Now 34 years later, I was standing in front of the property taking pictures with friends.
The independence book was edited by the late UPNG vice-chancellor, Dr Elton Brash. I had taken part in the project and travelled with a Japanese photographer to collect some of the material.
This place, surrounded by the muddy shoreline where seagulls scooped low, looked as if it hadn’t changed much. We stayed a while, then headed home as dark clouds began to gather, not wanting to get bogged between K-town and Port Moresby on the only unsealed stretch of road.
Central and Gulf provinces have the potential to supply Port Moresby with fresh farm produce but it seemed the major economic activity was betel nut growing. I saw plantation upon plantation of betel nut palms on small holder blocks.
The precious nut was sewn into 10kg copra bags that lined the highway. It appeared to be the only activity putting money into the pockets of the Gulf people.
Most of the passengers in the PMV bus with me were city dwellers who peddled buai on the streets of Port Moresby to make a living - despite the ban imposed by city authorities. A couple were travelling back with 20 bags. Another man had five and a couple more passengers had a bag each.
We came upon another bus in the night, broken down with a heavy load. A u-bolt had sheared. The bags of precious buai were being transferred to a Dyna truck.
There is also a potential for seafood to transform Central and Gulf provinces. People do not have to look for markets because Port Moresby already has major hotels, food bars and supermarkets where the customers are.
The Gulf people already have this major road link and with the Papua LNG project soon to come into operation, they just have to work a little harder to participate in its spin-off benefits.
Prime minister James Marape has shared on Facebook how he struggled to receive an education when he lived at Warakum in Mt Hagen. He said people should not blame others for their failures but ask themselves some searching questions like ‘do I give up easily, do I work extra hard, do I humbly accept failure and restart, do I convert opportunities through productive use of time and skills?’
Good questions to ask instead of sitting around doing nothing or blindly celebrating independence without getting your own life in order or helping your family members to future success.
Oh, and finally, of you see Robert Oeka you can tell him that ‘mi yet mi go lukim Kerema pinis na laikim em moa yet’.
But you can also tell him the potholes and conditions in K-town don’t seem to have changed much in the last 44 years.
Reflections on an article by Francis Nii
Before travelling to Kerema, I had written some comments responding to an article in PNG Attitude by Francis Nii about how he felt about the independence celebrations. The comments had motivated me to take this trip – to get away from the city and see parts of Central and Gulf provinces to determine how much PNG has fared in 44 years. Here’s what I wrote:
Francis, I feel like having a cold one too in this Port Moresby heat amidst all the frantic Independence Day activities but 'maski' I can do without it. I vowed to stop drinking so I'll stick to my promise.
Vows are very important to keep.
Leaders ought to honour their vows too because they swear before God to serve the people.
In the last few days, I did not attend any of the attractive provincial day activities here in Moresby, not even Enga Day which was celebrated yesterday.
I won't even attend official celebrations on Independence Day either.
I have celebrated enough in the last 44 years, even adorning myself in traditional dress on two different occasions.
Let the younger people enjoy the activities and be proud of their country. The future indeed belongs to them.
I plan to see everything on TV and read about it in the papers tomorrow.
Today I will just stay at home and conserve my energy to go on a road trip to Kerema, a part of our country I've never seen before.
I have come to a stage where I begin to worry - not for myself but for my children.
And you know a grandson has been born to me up in Wabag while I have been here in Moresby. He was born just six days short of PNG’s Independence Day.
Nobody told me to bring forth all my children into the world but they are here. And I have been constantly worrying for them.
But I am comforted by the fact that tomorrow can take care of itself.
PNG is rich in natural resources and people can very easily live off the land like our ancestors did. Even now, most of our people still live in isolation in the far reaches of this beautiful country.
What I must do is to make sure I facilitate for my children’s future well-being by making sure they all receive an education.
I know I have land at home where my siblings can fall back to if they can’t establish themselves in the urban centers.
But will they go back to the village?
I have no answer nor should I worry about it for it’s a state responsibility as well as equal responsibility the children themselves must take on.
And like you, Francis, I believe in James Marape.
First impression count, I have been following him since his first maiden speech after he was elected as the eighth prime minister of our country.
He only needs to be surrounded with like-minded leaders - leaders who have a heart for the wellbeing of the people.
I am glad Sir Mekere Mourata, Bryan Kramer, Kerenga Kua and others like governor Garry Juffa have joined government ranks.
These leaders bring hope to our people.
So long as they are provided with the basic services and infrastructure, like proper roads and bridges, health and education facilities.…
….so long as the government is transparent, honest and remains 100% committed to the people, PNG can very easily transform itself.
I believe it will happen.
But right now, I hold my breath these early days.