Papua New Guinea
The Port Moresby Golf Club has a clear racial profile of its membership: one third white, one third Asian, one third Papua New Guinean. The Papua New Guinean list includes politicians, wealthy businessmen, even the governor-general. I take the path down the hill from the club house to the fenced in caddies' enclosure where young boys, aged eight to sixteen, wait to caddy for club members, often for many hours, in numbers that guarantee most will not be selected, and, therefore, will not be paid. Most say they do not attend school.
The golf club has a visible security team of men hired, as with the caddies, from 'settlements' around the club. They are armed with bows and arrows. Violence against person and property is more than a problem, not only at the golf club where intruders have been shot with arrows, but also around Port Moresby and, it would seem, everywhere else in Papua New Guinea. Such is the fear of violence in Port Moresby that razor wire has become part of the city's architecture, as much as graffiti its repartee.
Since independence in 1975, Papua New Guinea has taken on a standard Third World look: a small wealthy elite who come and go at will, set against a huge backdrop of subsistence. The desperation of the have nots is clear to see when passing through the 'settlements' of Port Moresby, the shanty towns of rapid urbanisation, where tuberculosis, measles, typhoid and a variety of other treatable diseases and their complications, conspire to kill 58 out of every thousand infants. Around Port Moresby, and along the Highlands Highway, a key transport route from the port of Lae into the Highlands, occasional billboards warn against the spread of HIV/Aids. According to one regional report, the disease is poised ready to afflict a vulnerable population and a health system already under terminal pressure.
Urbanisation, and the inevitable unemployment that goes with it, has confounded efforts to improve the lot of Papua New Guineans, as much as corruption has redirected the money with which this could be achieved. There's even talk of food shortages to come in the Highlands. A recent prime minister, heading into the new millennium, and looking back twenty-five years to the heady times of independence, said, "We have fallen short of the mark." And now, as if to make daily living more painful, the government has implemented an economic austerity plan put up by an International Monetary who, according to Guardian Weekly reports, regret, over the past ten years, not taking into account in their policies, the damaging affects on Third World clients of corruption and economic fragility in the face of free-trade.
While waiting for a flight out of Port Moresby to Mt Hagen in the Western Highlands, I'm told Papua New Guinea's five million people speak as many as 800 different languages and have 50 different counting systems. The primary school syllabus, even though 50% of school age children do not attend school, is delivered in 200 languages. There is a plan to add 600 more!
Music from a primary school near Mt Hagan drifts up the valley to where I'm shown about a farm that has diversified into coffee, owned and run, unusually, by a woman. Cecelia Paraka, as an 18-year-old, grew kaukau (sweet potato) and pineapples on 500 square metres of family land. She used the proceeds from her first crop, along with a cassowary and a pig, to buy a further 500 square metres, and has never looked back. She is a success story amongst much wretched news. I follow the music down the dirt road to a school fund raising sing sing (gathering) where some of the participants can remember seeing their first white man as recently as the 1930s.
Back on the Highlands Highway, I drive quickly past a police four-wheel drive as two policemen with rifles clamber out with intent. The deputy prime minister, a few days before, had overseen a peace meeting here between two warring tribes. Further on, I join a crowd at a land dispute meeting in an open building beside the road. I don't eat anything from the many makeshift stalls offering food in battered aluminium pots every kilometre of the Highway, and neither do I spot any 'Highway Marys', prostitutes to truck drivers, said to loiter at road stops along the way. And in Kundiawa, as in every town across the country, there are those second-hand Australian clothes for sale, by the thousands of pieces, that have completely taken over the country's dress code. And always people walking. Some of those I spoke with were optimistic. Afterall, Papua New Guinea is a democratic nation, rich in natural resources.
Jeremy Rose, August 2002
© Bruce Connew 2004