LEONARD FONG ROKA
ACROSS BOUGAINVILLE RETAIL OUTLETS have many goods originating from a wholesaler in Choiseul Province of the Solomon Islands. Every day alcoholic beverages, food items and traditional cultural items are loaded on to Bougainvillean outboard motor boats crossing the short distance of the Solomon Sea to Bougainville.
Bougainvilleans are also now increasingly heading for Gizo and Taro towns in the Northern Solomons for recreation and shopping on weekends and during the festive seasons.
The highest concentration of boat departures are from Kieta in Central Bougainville, thence down to Buin and Siwai in South Bougainville. I just witnessed a peak season of travel and trade over these past few weeks.
Since Christmas Eve I have frequented the coastal village of Pidia east of my hometown, Arawa and where the movie Mr Pip was filmed.
The village is one of many launching pads for boats cutting across the PNG border from Bougainville.
Boats used by the Pidia villagers to make their journey to Taro are mostly driven by 30-40 horsepower outboards. And, for Bougainvillean travellers, a PNG passport is not needed to cross the border since they have a history that originated from the islands now called Solomon.
As our boat entered the village through a passage in the coral reef, I was amazed to see a flag pole implanted in the reef alongside the passage and supported by rocks. High on the pole flew the Solomon Island flag and below it a smaller Bougainville flag.
I asked our boat skipper why the Solomon Island flag was flying and he said, “We are Solomon Islanders. If you want, should I turn this boat and head for Taro? I cannot navigate this boat to the place you call Rabaul as I can to Taro. My uncle was killed by PNG on the border so I remember him and those who had perished on the border every time I visit Solomon.”
As I got escorts to show me around the locations of the movie, two boats entered the passage with women and men returning after a Christmas shopping spree in Taro, the provincial capital of Choiseul.
There are many small retail shops in Pidia village and a good number of them are selling goods from wholesale outlets in Taro. The boats come in loaded with goods.
I watched the men unloading countless boxes of goods like tinned fish and meat, clothes, beachwear, alcohol, kitchen materials, computers and so on.
There were cartons of Solbrew, the Solomon beer, for the Christmas celebrations.
There was also a young woman from Poroporo in the northern tip of Choiseul who was to marry a local youngster.
The Pidia boat skippers take some three to four hours to traverse between Kieta and Choiseul and they enjoy it, often remembering the days PNG was blockading Bougainville as a measure to punish and eradicate what it saw as militancy.
Boat skipper Robin Nareu is one such skipper with expertise to cross the sea from Kieta to Taro town. After failing to secure a place in secondary school from Arawa Primary School, he now makes a living operating his boat between Pidia and Taro.
From Pidia to Taro he charges K100 per passenger for the three hour journey. Most of the time he awaits hire from local businessmen or travellers who go shopping in Taro.
Once when I was at Pidia, a businessman from Koromira hired Nareu’s services alongside others to ship new boats from Buka Ela Motors to customers in Gizo, Western Province.
According to Nareu, the 13 boats were purchased at Buka for less than K10,000 but at Gizo they were sold for K30,000. Nareu says the Koromira man was robbing them well.
Many Bougainvilleans seem to rob their brothers in Choiseul and Western Provinces, thus people from those two provinces turn to come over to Bougainville to do business themselves.