FICTION - For millennia, land has been the lifeblood and spiritual amalgam of the Melanesian people.
Land. Much more than a possession to be traded. An ancestral bequest to the people, uniting the past with the future.
Brutal tribal wars were fought over the ownership of land. Countless numbers of people – both warriors and the innocent – lost their lives over land.
Land. The source of spiritual and physical sustenance for the 850 tribes of Papua New Guinea.
In the hausman the elders would say, ‘It is like the breast to the child. Take the source of succour away and the child is doomed’.
The Old Man glanced nervously through the morning newspapers. Grim headlines told of growing agitation and some violence. There were many stories of protest demonstrations and angry speeches throughout the country.
The stories had a common core. The rising would continue until settlers and disempowered landowners were given back their land or handsomely compensated.
But analysts and commentators agreed that this was unlikely. Influrntial elements in the government were corrupt. They would not back down. The government would claim it was acting in the best interests of the country.
So The Old Man was anxious. The capital city was a target of great protest and things looked like getting out of control.
Before independence Papua New Guinea had been a challenging country. Of course there was some warfare and civil disruption but it was largely peaceful. The people had been quick to understand that out of peace grew prosperity.
But over the years it had become more violent. The government seemed insensitive to the people’s needs. There was corruption at every level – starting at the top right down to office workers.
Too few people effectively did the jobs they were hired to do. Too many people wanted gris mani. The immoral practice of bribery had become the norm.
As a result, government systems were falling apart. The government had made enemies of the people. The government was sanctioning foreigners to evict nationals from their homes, to where only heaven knew.
‘We are not wild animals,’ read one slogan at a protest march.
At the same demonstration a speaker bellowed, “We’ve lived in these settlements for decades. Bill Skate grew up in these settlements. A prime minister rose from here.”
Strikes across Port Moresby, including amongst some police, called on workers to support the cause if they were affected or had family living in the settlements.
Meanwhile reports continued of armed men and youths from rural areas on the move towards the city.
Despite these menacing developments, Delisa continued to go to work at the hospital. In her heart, she wished she could help her new friend Bakri Kerowa deliver her baby before she went on her own twelve weeks maternity leave.
It was only a day later that Bakri rang to say she was in labour and on her way to hospital. Delisa was ready in the delivery room, a doctor on standby in case of problems. He wasn’t needed. Bakri delivered a healthy baby boy. Because of all the trouble in the city, Bakri had to go home that day.
In fact there were few women leaving their homes at all. The city was anxious and on edge. For the first time in many years, the hospital had few outpatients.
Delisa was happy and relieved to have helped Bakri. The next day Simon Kerowa rang to say there would be a christening party and could Delisa and The Old Man come. They could bring ten of their friends and wantoks if they wanted.
When they arrived, Delisa and The Old Man discovered Simon had invited many more people from almost all of the highland provinces as well as Momase, the Islands and a couple from Bougainville.
Kerowa welcomed everybody to his house and said he wanted his guests to return home before nightfall in these tense times. He said he had invited them to witness the christening but also to meet The Old Man.
“I want you to meet the man who made me somebody; a fine gentleman who took me off the street to live a decent life. I also want you to witness me name my new son after him. From now onwards, he shall be known as Akali Wakane Kerowa.”
People cheered and applauded. They wanted to enjoy the moment. Whatever would happen tomorrow nobody knew.
While food was being prepared Simon invited The Old Man to say a few words. The Old Man stood. He was ready to speak about the problems the city and the country now faced.
He first thanked Simon and Bakri for inviting his family and friends, and for naming their son after him.
“This is a special day but I am worried,” he said in a sombre voice. “I am worried for Akali Wakane Kerowa, the small baby. I am worried for my own unborn child. I am worried for all our children.”
He paused and looked around to see if he held their attention. He asked if any people were original landowners of the city. There were none.
“You see, that is why I am concerned,” he said. “We are all settlers in Port Moresby. Some of us work for money; others have property; others have very little.
“Our children go to school here. We have all made Port Moresby home. Just imagine if the city burns, if our homes and property are ransacked, if there is no law and order, if the airport is destroyed.
“We will all be doomed to miserable lives. Our property gone. Our people displaced. The only roads out lead to armed men marching towards us.”
The crowd of people murmured nervously. It was if they had only just realised their predicament. The government seemed to be losing control.
“We have no road to escape to our provinces,” The Old Man continued. “I for one cannot sit and watch our city destroyed.”
He paused and looked around again. Their full attention was directed towards him. They wanted to hear more. A man from Madang spoke.
“I am glad to have come to hear you speak. My father came as a mankimasta for a kiap. When the kiap left before independence, he settled down at Sabama and raised me and my siblings.
“Now I teach at Gerehu secondary school and my children attend city schools. I have no land in Madang. I do not want the city destroyed. It is now my place.”
As the crowd muttered approval, a burly man from Simbu stood up.
“Like my friend I’m a second generation settlement dweller. My father came to work at Doa rubber plantation as an indentured labourer. He ran away and worked at Steamships as a storeman.
“I too have no land at Gembogl. I too am fearful that my city may be destroyed. We must find ways to make the government give back the Old Dairy Farm land to the settlers.”
Then a man from Tari spoke.
“Yu na mi em mitupela brata. Mi Huli na yu Opone. Tasol mi stap long sait bilong Papua. Sapos samting igo bagarap, em ol Papua bai rausim yupela ol Niu Gini igo na mipela ol Papua bai stap yumi iet long hia.”
[You and me are brothers. I am Huli and you are Opone. But I am on the Papua side of the border. If this current crisis leads to us separating, then Papuans will chase New Guineans away to their own provinces.]
“Sapos mipela Papua kamap wanpela kantri em bai mi ino inap wan bel. Pasin nogut bai stap yet long gavaman. Tasol sapos mipela join wantaim Australia em bai mi laikim. Australia bai lukautim mipela gut. Australia gavaman save gipim moni nating long ol manmeri ino gat wok. Dispela mi laikim.”
[If we Papuans form our own government, I won’t like it. Corruption will still persist. But if Papua joins Australia, I will favor that. The Australian government will look after us well. They also give social security money to everybody who is unemployed. I like that arrangement.]
“Olsem na tingting bilong mi em paul liklik long lusim yupela ol Opone. Tasol wanpela samting mi laik tok olsem, ol lida bilong mipela save paulim yumi gut true. Ol stil tumas. Na mipela ol pipol painim taim.”
[But my mind is a little confused to separate from my Opone brothers. But something I’d like to say is that our leaders are causing all the problems. They are stealing too much.]
A Mendi man, also from the Papuan side of the border, agreed with everything the Tari said except he doubted Papuans would allow highlanders to remain if they broke away.
The leadership had to change, he said, and people had to value their votes and stop exchanging them for cash at elections. That must stop if good leaders were to be elected to parliament.
Several other speakers expressed similar concerns. They wished the corrupt leaders could be weeded out at the next election.
The Old Man saw the food was ready. He said the conversation was not yet over and invited those who wished to come to meet at his home the next day to work out a plan to avert the impending crisis.
The guests shouted agreement and, after eating paying their respects to Simon and Bakri, quickly left.
The Old Man and Delisa remained. “It is not beyond possible that the entire city will be ransacked,” he said. “They will then try to chase everybody else away to their provinces.”
In anticipation of such a scenario, The Old Man planned to send Delisa to Australia to give birth to their baby. She would stay with his son Charles’ family in Brisbane. If everything was brought under control, he would invite Bakri to accompany him there.
“That sounds great,” Simon said. “Bakri can go to Australia. I’ll stay to run the business. But first we must do what we can to avert the worst.” He said he would call his friends and wantoks to come to the planning meeting.
The Old Man said he would seek the views of trustworthy leaders he knew: former prime ministers, uncorrupted politicians and police chiefs, and churchmen.
That same evening, some looting of Chinese owned shops occurred across the city. The Old Man contacted Charles in Brisbane and asked him to receive Delisa at the airport on the next available flight.
There was much at stake. But at least his wife and future child would be safe.
Now he could devote his full attention to saving the city.