ONLY FIVE MINUTES FROM ELA BEACH and in view of many of the luxurious expatriate apartments on the peak above the Port Moresby CBD is the settlement of Koki, tucked in behind the public motor vehicle interchange and the famous markets.
The markets are supplied by local entrepreneurs some of whom work gardens on the few unsettled and undeveloped areas of the steep hillsides over looking Fairfax harbour.
Those with gardens sell primarily sweet potato and taro, with other vendors selling bananas, coconut, fish and mud crab.
We Australians and other foreigners are strongly advised not to venture into such areas without security, but it is here one meets the real face of Papua New Guinea and, like people the world over, the friendship and generosity offered from people who, by western standards have nothing, is humbling.
Within Koki settlement, there is a mixture of the original inhabitants and those who have left their villages and come to the city seeking jobs and the good life. The despair of these immigrants from the highlands and elsewhere is palpable and the feeling for outsiders is fraught.
A 20-minute ride by PMV to the outskirts of Port Moresby is the village of Vabukori. This is an original settlement, whose inhabitants have lived there for centuries.
Historically, like most of the coastal communities of the region, they were raided by the tribespeople of the hinterland who would come down to steal women to marry and work their gardens.
The land is not rich, blasted day in day out by the trade winds, but these people are fishermen so anything grown in their gardens is a bonus
Since independence, life in Vabukori has been on a downwards spiral as corruption, incompetent governance and migration from the highlands has reduced services and increased competition for the few jobs available.
By 2005 with unemployment hovering at around 85%, school attendances plummeting and youth resorting to hombru (homemade alcohol) and marijuana, the traditional chiefs and elders took the future of their people into their own hands.
Lacking the capacity to create employment they organised team sport. Vabukori became the Pacific powerhouse volleyball team and in 2009 won the gold medal at the Arafura Games.
Despite unemployment still at 85%, the result has been spectacular. Community pride has returned, substance abuse is unheard of and school attendance is at an all time high.
Within Melanesian society the position of chief is not hereditary; they are selected by the existing chiefs and elders for their wisdom and ability to take the community forward.
The lesson to be learnt from this is that the position of traditional chiefs and elders within these societies must be supported, especially in law, because it is within these traditions that lie the strong social fabric which has the capacity to carry these people forward.
Ask any of the old people who remember colonial times and they will tell you Australia was a good colonial power; but the people have been very let down by the process of decolonisation which placed too much emphasis on forcing a Westminster system of government and paid too little attention to their traditional customs.
See more of Tim Ashton’s splendid Koki and Vabukori photos at http://socialdocumentary.net/exhibit/Timothy_Ashton/1279