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Roads connect but government can divide

Highlands road at Oiyarip looking toward Mendi
Highlands road at Oiyarip looking toward Mendi


MAYNOOTH, IRELAND - My initial response to Jim Moore’s item, ‘Thoughts of Then, Now & Cultural Variance’, was to try to figure out which road Jim was referring to and what clans were involved.

Then Jim continued to discuss the appropriateness of the Western parliamentary system for an independent Papua New Guinea. So will I.

Between Mt Hagen and Togoba there are at least two roads heading towards Bukapena.

One branches off the highway near Keluagi and goes through Moika and on towards Bukapena.

Another branches off near the primary schools at Keltiga and also heads towards Bukapena.

Both go through an area inhabited by the Jika Mukuka clan.

Pena Au, a former member of the House of Assembly, was from the Jika Mukuka.

And the current member, and former prime minister, Paias Wingti is also from that clan.

Perhaps Jim was referring to the road near Pena Au’s area.

Then Jim went on to discuss the appropriateness of the Western parliamentary system for an independent PNG.

In my experience in the Hagen area, the pre-independence system of local government councillors was quite effective, and in many ways it linked in well with the local culture and customs.

The local government councillors were generally close to their people and did not become a separate elite group.

Councillors such as Komp De, Minimbi Ken, Wamp Wan, Jika Rumints, Ulga Ugl, Truga Kuri and others were well respected.

In my opinion it was not independence itself but the later introduction of provincial government that caused the local government councils to lose their power and influence.

Fr Garrett Roche
Garrett Roche

And provincial government itself later lost power to the centralising national government.

Provincial government may have been an attempt to bring politics to the grassroots level.

But, to my thinking, by weakening the existing local government councils it ultimately led to a more centralised civil service.

After spending 47 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary priest and university administrator, Dr Roche is now a canonical consultant to Divine Word Missionaries. He lives in Maynooth, County Kildare, Ireland


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Garrett Roche

Phil - the American priest you remember with the cheery smile may well have been Fr Arnold Steffen, who was at various times based at Kurek near Balk, and at Kumdi and Mun. Local people sometimes called him ‘Pater Seven’.

He later also was in Bomana and Bougainville. He died just a few months ago back in the USA.

I would have passed through Bukapena several times on my way to Kwinka where there was an ‘outstation’ Catholic community. I also visited Bukapena when the late Ken Logan was stationed there.

Jim - I met Pena Au a few times but would not have known him well. He was well respected and had a good reputation. Another Councillor I could have mentioned was Kombra Kelya, originally from near Hagen but perhaps representing the Kindeng area.

Arthur Williams

I took over at end of 1970 from Ves Karnups as Local Govt. Adviser for Lavongai Local Government Council. Two-thirds were not only Councillors but also members of the copra co-operative TIA (Tutukuvul Isukal Association) which had grown out the early 1960s Johnson cult events.

I soon decided that the current Administration attitude to them was strange as the grassroots members had planted many hundreds of thousands of coconuts in plantings near to their villages and they had the advantage of a well organised cooperative thanks to the initial efforts of Father Bernie Miller.

Their agricultural endeavours seemed to be very much in line with some of the slogans we heard around the 1970s of: 'Yumi Yet', 'Bung Wantaim', 'Plantim diwai mani long graun bilong yupela' etc.

Thus it was strange that they were viewed with suspicion by us kiaps while we happily befriended the non-TIA spivs who frequently came to Taskul to report what such and such a TIA Board (two leaders per village) had been overheard talking about.

With two-thirds of the island Councillors also members of TIA it was not surprising that the President of the Council was also President of the TIA. I don't know if it was a plan of the District, Konedobu or Canberra but there was a move to have an unelected Village Leader for all the island's villages.

This dual leadership per village was confusing to the average villager and normal nature's urges meant that the people could play each against the other.

I don't know if this was a feeler about the thinking in Moresby of how to weaken the role of the Councils. The initial PNG modified Preferential Voting was soon replaced by the FPTP or 1st Past the Post voting system which too often would elect someone who had only a tiny percentage of the votes cast and mainly from his own locality and/or hauslain.

The MPs I felt considered another way of controlling the Councils was to introduce a second level of governance between the National Parliament and grass roots Councils.

From 1977 the new Area Authorities held the purse strings and so could support or neglect council wards that appeared to be in opposition to an Authority Member who often relied upon the sitting MP and his party for finance to get elected.

The Area Authorities would become Provincial Governments and gradually became more powerful until the most recent reform is for the Regional MP to automatically become the Governor while also sitting in the Parliament at Waigani; as do the Open MPs of his Province. The Councils have become political eunuchs.

The ultimate so-called reform announced 21 August 2020 by the Attorney General is to abolish local governments. Though he did add a typical Waigani ambiguous rider to his press release: “The idea was to have only two systems of government: the national and provincial. At the provincial level, we are suggesting that the (future of) local level governments be decided by the provincial governments.”

The average rural villager will thus be more distant from those who govern them than at any time since the arrival of the whitemen. Perhaps one day PNG will echo to the ancient cry, “No taxation without representation!”

Despite the reforms completed or proposed I smiled at the latest irony from the Waigani swamp: “With the second postponement of the 2020 Census some MPs have called for the Ward Councillor and/or his Secretary to conduct a head count."

Even going so far as to supply each ward with a Ward Register (again) and one praised the Kiaps who could quite easily make a nationwide annual census and do so far far cheaper than the K200 million or whatever is the latest sum demanded by the Census Office.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was out at Bukapena in 1968 and there were two roads that came into it.

One branched off the Hagen - Baiyer River road and the other came in from Togoba way.

The road from Togoba (or thereabouts) was pretty rough and not used a lot.

There was an American priest living at the other end of that road. A big bloke with a cheery smile.

The road from Bukapena went on towards Baiyer but stopped at the gorge. I was cutting the road down through the gorge but left before it was finished.

It was pretty hairy because we had to blast rock and there was a hell of a drop. The Hagen - Baiyer Road was on the other side of the gorge and was frequently blocked by landslips.

Jim Moore

Thanks for jogging my memory, Garrett, on the name of the then-MHA for that area. As I recall, the road was to go directly past Pena Au’s place - surprise, surprise. I can’t say now which it was of the two roads you mention.

Paias Wingti MHA, and later PM, probably would have been in high school at the time of the incident on the road. The Jika clan was legendary in the Hagen area.

The other Councillors’ names you mention are also the stuff of folklore. Komp De, Minimbi Ken, Wamp Wan, are names that ring down through the years to me, even now.

Wamp Wan in particular, I remember as not just a very bigman in his own right but also a successful entrepreneur. I remember he had a huge smile. Wamp-Nga Motors was I think an enterprise of the Hagen Council, but he was the driving force behind it.

The generation before those men was the last before white society entered the Highlands. So their status as bigmen was earned in the turbulent days when people were working out how tradition and custom could co-exist with the new world.

It says something about their skills and wisdom that they were able to make that transition, yet retain so much of their culture.

As Garrett says, “the system of local government councillors was quite effective, and in many ways it linked in well with the local culture and customs.”

Later, as societal circumstances changed, the nature of how bigmen earned their status and how some were able to use the local government system to enhance their status probably lead to irreversible changes in both local government and the concept of bigman.

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