I CHECKED MY NEWSFEED on facebook and it was the usual; hormonal teenagers and their status updates, chronicling their fallings in and fallings out of love, in emotional and hybrid threads of Tok Pisin and English.
Among the love-sick clutter I found a thread by intending candidate for Moresby North-West Open and my Port Moresby National High School fellow alumni Kenneth Thomson.
The thread read: “Hosting a Fundraising BBQ now at the Gerehu Secondary School Hall. Everyone is welcome....!”
The thread struck me as unusual. Here was a candidate trying to raise funds for his campaign. Being a Moresby North-West native, that struck as extremely unusual and out-of-place with the “scheme of things” we in Papua New Guinea at election time have come to expect.
I have in my 21 years endured three general elections already and a by-election for the National Capital District regional seat in 2006 when Sir William Skate, the incumbent, died of heart failure.
I had never come across a fund-raising drive for a candidate in all these election experiences in the most ethnically diverse and commercialised district in Papua New Guinea.
Elections in Moresby North-West are unique. The urban road networks come to a standstill as noisy convoy competes with noisy convoy; loudspeakers, traditional dancers, messages of reform and all.
It’s the mad cacophony of the season’s carnival; its election fever in Port Moresby; of now or never sentiments and saviours of country and electorate, not foretold by prophets of old, but by posters, tarpaulin banners and rabid legions of supporter on file after dirty file of the noisy convoys.
The candidate is usually represented as the Big Man; he is the alpha-male in Melanesian society. It is hoped the notion of the Big Man will attract the confidence of potential voters.
In elections, this usually means establishing a reputation of material wealth; hence the noisy convoys – the saviour rhetoric is perhaps added for good measure.
The candidate, in order to come across as the Big Man has to be a man with money. His generosity with wealth and his seemingly depthless pockets are hoped to impress on the voters that he is the leader that they deserve.
Just like any Big Man of Melanesian old, the election candidate is an uneasy marriage of truth-telling, myth-making and mauswara. I was pleasantly surprised attending the fundraiser that Kenneth Thomson was none of these things.
At the fundraising barbeque I saw Kenneth’s schoolmates and teachers from Philip Aravure Primary School and Gerehu Primary School and Gerehu Secondary and Port Moresby National High School.
I saw youths and mothers from the Gerehu Stage 1 street where Kenneth grew up. I saw Kenneth’s family and his supporters from UPNG. Inside the Gerehu Secondary Hall, the giant mural of antiquity and modernity being bridged by two kids in school uniforms struck me as moving.
Kenneth later told me he had been school captain at Gerehu Secondary. I asked him when was the last time he stood on the assembly stage. Kenneth just laughed and said it was something like a decade before when he wore the green and whites that the two kids in the giant mural were wearing.
Kenneth, 28 years old, is one of 38 candidates racing for the Moresby North-West seat. In the absence of Sir Mekere Morauta, who has held the seat for the last few elections, there is a feeling of real uncertainty as to who is going to be the next member.
Moresby North-West is home to Papua New Guineans from perhaps all the 111 electorates in the country. As Kenneth himself put it in his speech later that night, racing in North-West is like seeking approval from the whole country just to run a single electorate.
Kenneth later explained that the purpose of the night was to raise some funds to see through the last nine days of his campaign. For any level of politics in PNG, the gathering spoke of the humility with which Kenneth has chosen to conduct his campaign.
There were no stage bands at the gathering, no alcohol and no 1001 stew packs to hand out; just a simple mumu for everyone gathered and a slightly annoying but truly entertaining master of ceremonies, Elton Kili.
The gathering was about the family, friends and community Kenneth had grown up in as a child of the ‘Savannah City’, as Steven Winduo would put it.
“I’ve grown up all my life in Port Moresby, in Moresby North-West,” said Kenneth. “I know the problems we all face. I’ve used Gerehu Clinic, I’ve travelled my whole life on Bus 9s and Bus 4s and Bus 11s.
“I used to go hunt for birds with my classmates from Gerehu Primary at the hills at the back of National Research Institute. Yeah, I did that. North-West is my home. I’m a child of Engan settlers, who left the old country to settle in Moresby. I grew up here and this is my home. I learnt its ways and it raised me.”
I found myself growing emotional at these statements. I could claim that my Motu-Koitabuan ancestors walked Moresby North-West long before Kenneth’s parents took a fateful plane ride out of Wabag and settled in Gerehu, but here I was, a young person in the urban confusion and decay that is the City of Port Moresby, just like Kenneth, trying to look for solutions and work hard to turn my anger and disillusionment into positives.
The city belongs to us. Steel and glass canyons and asphalt snakes a poet may conjure, in the collision with the dirty savannah and red earth, scorched by sun in bright blue sky, through the corrugated iron fencing and artless graffiti and the matchbox houses of Gerehu and Renbo.
This is the electorate Kenneth and I were born into. The electorate where the Baruni Dump is always in a smoky haze and the cargo cult promise of LNG depends on the road structures, tattered and cracked, greying from neglect.
These are the promises Kenneth and I and the children of Moresby North-West grew up with. I spent two days recently at Gerehu Clinic looking after a loved one who had fallen into a coma. I was embarrassed to show my grief and depression too clearly because the clinic was overwhelmed day and night from people from all over the North-West, who were all in sorrow, but put on a brave face for each other.
With all due respect to the former prime minister, I do not think these pains and problems are the nuisances and nuances Sir Mekere Morauta experienced in his many terms as the member for Moresby North-West. I doubt he was even capable of comprehending such.
The colours and the textures, the cacophony and quiet, the tastes and the sights are things only those of us who have grown up in Moresby North-West are capable of comprehending.
The thick layers of paint in a classroom at Badihagwa or Gerehu Secondary, the refreshing taste of a 20 toea ice block and a 60 toea scone, or the rush of wind on your face while hanging on the door of an overloaded PMV in the hurry to get to school.
I’ll remember and support Kenneth Thomson because of these peculiarities that are to me and him, and to kids everywhere who grew up in Moresby North-West, nothing but the familiar.
I asked him about his arrest a few days earlier. Kenneth explained he had been arrested for allegedly converting property and failing to carry out acquittals while employed in the PNG National Commission for UNESCO.
Kenneth later showed me his acquittal documents and all the processed documents for the things he is accused of converting.
“Genuine mix ups do happen in record keeping and such, but I have confidence in the people who carried out my acquittals and with these documents any reasonable person would know that everything is in order.
“I’m left to conclude that my arrest was politically motivated. It’s a smear campaign. There are people who don’t like me and I’m aware of that. I am innocent. The timing of the arrest is very suspicious.
“Whatever findings investigations ascertain may most probably only confirm my innocence. The damage has been done though. But it is reparable. The hardship this has caused, especially in my election campaign, in a time when I’m most stressed out, it’s just cruel and unacceptable.
“The police who came in to carry out the arrest seemed to all have made up their mind that I was guilty. I tried to reason with them, sit them down and have them look at the documents from the processing and acquittals of the alleged converted property, but all they said was, ‘You can use them as your evidence in court’…”
Kenneth, a lawyer by profession, is disappointed with how the police refused to cooperate to help him understand exactly what they had found out in their investigations to warrant his arrest just a few days before polling begins and the stress of running for elections in PNG is at its highest.
We talked at length about the future of Moresby North-West Electorate and the future of the country. They are exciting times, we both concluded.
At the bung I saw ordinary Papua New Guineans go up to Kenneth and give him fuel money and lunch money for his small staff of mostly UPNG students for the next nine days of campaigning. It was a pivotal moment in my own experiences in elections in North-West.
Here was a candidate being helped by his supporters with cash and kind, not the other way around, which is really the only way I and many in Moresby North-West have grown up seeing.
After a very tiring night and much discussion about the next nine days, I was finally dropped off at the village.
As we drove into Hanuabada I told Kenneth what I thought needed to happen to Motu-Koitabu villages to get them truly empowered and functioning. I told him about the Papuan candidates all scrambling to raise their flags over Hanuabada and the other Motu-Koitabu villages.
As the backlights of the vehicle slowly faded from my stretch of the road I wished Kenneth Thomson all the best in a whispered prayer.
My day with Kenneth gave me hope in Papua New Guinea, as a united, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society where Highlanders and Nambis kids can stand united, in unions other than of the genes in the blood in their veins, but in a common belief for tomorrow, and a hope that new leadership is dawning in Papua New Guinea.
A hope that maybe, just maybe, the Big Man brand is in demise.