I AM INDEBTED FOR THESE PHOTOS to my old friend and workmate, Malum Nalu. The big building is the new, luxurious Grand Papua Hotel, of 20 storeys, recently opened upon the site of what was once known as Port Moresby’s “Top Pub”.
The other photo is of a recently-erected and quickly ‘spet upon’ anti-spitting sign, part of a city-wide campaign for urban cleanliness and order.
It was placed upon the city-side slope of the freeway that crosses from the massive Harbour City complex on the waterfront over to Four Mile where prime minister Peter O’Neill’s popular Paddy’s Bar & Hotel has replaced the colonial-era Boroko Hotel.
Once a part of the Steamships-Collins & Leahy joint venture empire, the onetime Boroko Hotel is at least owned and controlled by a citizen.
Not so the widely-spread STC wholesale-retail empire. It no longer exists, having been absorbed and digested within that amorphous commercial leviathan, the Asian wholesale-retail business invasion of the past two decades.
Whilst unlikely to emulate the gold-rush cities of San Francisco or Johannesburg in their early years, good old POM demonstrates a gamut of rash optimism, great greed, opportunism and corruption all enclosed, like the living seed of a rotten fruit, within the encircling, deteriorating flesh comprising the abode of ‘The Other’.
‘The Other’ are the low-paid, under-employed and often-destitute second-and-third-generation squatters live in varied circumstances or gradations of poverty, malnourishment, lacking proper sanitation and water-supply.
The squatters and the unemployed are largely denied rights of access to justice, basic health services and education for their children. Their young know well that they are bereft of lifetime opportunities.
Bedevilled by crime and affected by deeply-felt resentment, even hatred, these humans rightly consider they are intrinsically equal to all, but remain unequal in what they are told is a land of great wealth and promise.
Unable or unwilling to fulfil social obligations in the far-off places which they stubbornly call asples blo mi they know that they are condemned to remain unequal. Condemned by the system to languish forever in poverty and discomfort, without sight, sound or smell even of the clean green grass and clear water of what many still fondly call home.
The erection of numbers of large and luxurious hotels and blocks of residential units in Port Moresby, the result of a Viagra-like infusion of optimism, greed and rapacity driven by the rising tide of the liquefied-gas-export era, together with continuing rumblings of ever-more mineral and forest-timber extraction projects, is not invisible to these people.
But they are reduced in some cases to combing the Six-Mile dump for food scraps and items for resale, namely bottles, old car batteries, non-ferrous metals, repairable shoes, clean sacks and bags.
It is in these circumstances that betel-nut spet on signs such as the one pictured may not be regarded as evidence of rampant and endemic delinquency or stupidity. No, it is an indication of inchoate, unfocussed but deeply-felt resentment and discontent.
Discontent with life as it is lived today in the villages and the settlements of PNG where 95% of the population languishes. Long gone is the time, 50 years ago, when a visiting FAO agronomist could describe PNG villagers as living in a state of “subsistence affluence.”
Camped on the shores of the Gulf at Kaimare Island in the early sixties, I recall the pleasure created by a smiling lady who came along the beach with a greeting and the gift of a sago-stick made with grated coconut and added Sunshine milk powder, accompanied by a small pot of tea and a cup on a tray.
I also remember a man who came proudly to me one day, bearing what he described as a tinmit pie which he had cooked together with loaves of bread in his 44-gallon-drum oven.
He was at pains to tell me that he had worked for many years at the PMF bakery and that he wished for approval to trade as a baker here in his remote Gulf village.
These pleasing experiences may not occur today, for villagers can no more afford to buy packaged goods, bags of rice and flour, candles, kerosene, soap, needles and thread, exercise books and pencils.
And nor do the coastal shipping services - provided back then by STC, BP and the Federation of Cooperative Societies - exist to bring goods and uplift village copra and sago.
Cash income and opportunity for small enterprise are not just diminished. In many places they have vanished entirely.
The little cash available is saved for trips to the local district station or to the provincial capital for medical treatment; the aid-post system having broken down in most rural areas.
Doctors and nurses often send patients away to purchase medicine and bandages and disposable hypodermics, for often there is none in stock at the hospital.
Cash is saved to cover what once were rights but now are contingencies. This is an impoverished society, demonstrably governed and managed by the greedy and the lazy and the incompetent.
It is a nation yet to discover within itself a stratum of idealism, ethical leadership, energetic nationalism; a new, educated and detribalised leadership with the willingness to stand up to the corrupt and the manipulative, to insist upon the restoration of fairness, justice and an equitable share in the commonwealth of the people, for the people.
Yes, buai juice spat upon signs are a signal, a warning of what may come. A warning that wise leaders and citizens would do well to recognise and dwell upon.
But there are other signs, more complex buai spets.
In this and similar PNG-focussed blogs one sees quite lurid outbursts of frustration and resentment, shaped and delivered as withering critiques of the colonials of yesteryear and present-generation Australians in general. These appear quite frequently.
Whilst justified in cases where dishonesty or incompetence or arrogance has been proved to have existed, a broad anti-Oz sentiment seems to be widely present within that sector of PNG society which refers to itself as “the elites.” A current example is the outburst of Erasmus Baraniak published here a day or so ago.
Erasmus Baraniak is, one thinks, a first-rate writer, erudite, well-informed, and apparently apolitical. A poet, too.
One is thus driven to reflect that there must be something in the way of adverse personal experience with an Aussie or Aussies which drives a man to publish in these terms.
Of course much of what Erasmus says about Australia and Australians is either justifiable or arguable, and Erasmus is welcome to say what he feels. There is nothing of libel in what he has said. Two points come to mind, though.
First, having made something of a study of Australia, in many aspects one assumes that Erasmus is well aware of the ironical mindset, some may say thick skin, which is a component of the national psyche and which contributes to the somewhat strange Aussie sense of humour.
Thus he is on the receiving end of some very mild rejoinders from constant commentators among the PNG blogs readership. Even my friend of some 45 years, Tony Flynn, a man of strong opinions, is not inclined to come down hard upon Erasmus.
The thing is that this sort of critique is too virulent, verging on the petulant, to warrant a serious rejoinder from most Australians. Down these Aussie backs, Erasmus, your passionate invective and criticism will slide like water off the proverbial pato tail feathers.
Secondly, any reasonable and careful analysis of the state of the PNG nation today reveals that, in all prime human environmental and social development, it is doing deplorably badly, at huge cost to its future.
And this regardless of great and increasing wealth derived from extractive industries and the entry into the professions of many talented and able PNG men and women. Many of these, but not all, are lost to overseas employment, it is true.
This is the nation which acquired its independence with the acquiescence and agreement of the Australians and the “young turks” who formed PANGU, almost all of whom have held very responsible political, professional and management positions, and for many terms in some cases.
Names such as that of Sir Michael Somare come to mind, and Sir Michael remains both the recognised Father of the Nation and a vocal and very active member of the PNG parliament to this day.
This is the leadership which has overseen PNG’s progress for the past 37 years and thus must be held responsible for the results achieved.
So, may I ask you, Erasmus, is all your fuming and fulminating over the weaknesses and the calumnies, the falsely-based self-assurance and the arrogance of the Australians, a sort of elite or educated Papua New Guinean buai spet as reaction in shame and frustration to the calamitous state of your nation’s public institutions and the discordant and often meaningless spate of policy-promises and assurances that issue week by week?
Has the state of the nation, so to speak, driven you not to drink, as it well it might if you were an Australian, but to a huge, big metaphorical buai spet levelled at the annoying but hardly essentially important Aussies?
Would it not make more sense if a man of your undoubted talents and ability to evoke meaningful word pictures were to discover the idealism which must lurk within you and turn this together with all your other talents to the awakening of PNG’s educated middle-class to the desperate need for it to find itself as one big clan of common interest instead of a weak and insubstantial mass with sapped by concepts of tribal allegiance and ensuing distrust?
There are so many ways in which people of Erasmus’s level of learning and life-experience could help relaunch this much-loved land along a pathway where the common citizens’ democratic right to justice, to full and effective representation and to a rightful share in the commonwealth of the nation is restored.
Thus a happy, healthy and self-confident nation might soon take its place on the world stage with justifiable pride. All it needs is hard work, lots of guts and some self-sacrifice. There are lots of people who will get behind you once you give the lead.