An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
THE IDEA of Meekamui was adopted in Bougainville politics by the late Francis Ona. But the concept was older than him, having been created by a student at St Joseph High School many years before: Damien Dameng from the Irang-Pangka valley in the Panguna District.
Damien Dameng was born in 1930 in Dongtare hamlet. He was in primary school at Sovele Catholic Mission in the Bana District of South Bougainville when World War II came to Bougainville.
After the war, Damien re-enrolled at Orami Tokples School, mainly learning the Catholic's catechism. Later he transferred to Buiana, a school led by a Father Mueller in the Toio valley of Panguna.
By the 1950s he was at Tunuru Catholic Mission where he was suspected of being with Betoro, a woman from Topinang, and he was punished. In retaliation, Damien attacked a nun, Sister Juliana, who reported him to the American priest Father Hogan.
Father Hogan duly removed Damien from Tunuru and transferred him to Puruata in Torokina, enrolling him at Mamarego Catholic Mission in Bana where he remained for two years. After spending time here he moved to Rigu, where he did Standards 9 and 10.
It was intended that, after this, he should go to Tsiroge in Buka to learn a trade like carpentry or teaching. But by the early 1960s he had come to believe the mission was destroying Bougainville and decided to turn his back on the Catholic Church.
He called Brother Bozaar, an Australian, and said, “I am not going to Tsiroge, I am going home”.
At this same time, the Hahalis Welfare Society in Buka and other grass roots movements were active with their work. Damien Dameng called a few Kieta leaders to Irang and told them: “The mission is killing us so let's go to our culture”. So was born his group, the Meekamui Pontoku Onoring.
Damien began protesting against the CRA exploration in the area and his movement soon had many followers across what is now the Panguna District. One factor in his success was captured by James Tanis writing in Bougainville before the Conflict (2005, p 461). “While Dameng consequently stopped his campaign against sorcerers; at the same time he realised that the local government councils were worried about his influence, making him feel stronger than the councils.” As support grew, Damien’s agenda broadened to include nationalism and independence for Bougainville.
We need an interpretation of Meekamui Pontoku Onoring. Meekamui is 'holy land' in the Nasioi language. Pontoku are sacred sites which have significant meaning in a clan's mythology or history. Onoring means ‘we are alive' and is derived in the idea that, despite being negated, Bougainvilleans are still alive and able to defeat enemies.
Damien’s movement had three pillars; all concerned to drive Bougainville to its purest roots. These said that: Western education belongs to the bad spirits; Western health belongs to the dogs; and Western religion belongs to immature kids.
James Tanis wrote that: “Dameng opposed church teachings as trickery, the colonial administrators as thieves, and CRA and BCL as destroyers of land and culture.”
These ideas, Damien said, were also presented along with six live pigs to United Nations officials when they visited Kieta to meet church and government representatives. For him, it was an outstanding success that the government and church now owed him yet as well as not answering his assertions satisfactorily.
His movement also forcefully closed schools in Panguna for three years in the early 1970s when the late Francis Ona was a young student. Most people supported the cause simply because it was vocal against the CRA operations in Panguna.
Damien Dameng travelled mostly Kieta-wide advocating his movement and the anti-mining protest. This and other movements the influential Catholic Church labelled as cargo cult activities but they could also be seen as independence and, anti-mining and economic progress movements with Christian icing on top since religion was still influential.
On the ground in Irang was Philip Nesii, Dameng’s cousin, who played an administrative role in what was now declared to be the Meekamui Pontoku Onoring government. People began referring to it as the 50 Toea Gavman due to its tax collection of 50 toea per head.
Philip Nesii oversaw the detention of sorcerers in harsh conditions on an unoccupied area of the Tairengku ridge between Mosinau and Pangka and also was in charge of building a self-styled ‘parliament house’ in the heart of Irang village. He said the parliament was to mature at Irang and later relocate to Arawa, the capital of Bougainville and Solomon Islands.
To Nesii, the parliament consisted of four political parties representing the four major clans known in Kieta: Basikang, Kurabang, Barapang and Bakoringku.
Parliament house was a square building with the Speaker’s seat at the centre and north. To Nesii, the Speaker’s seat was a 'holy of holies', and today what remains of it is still respected.
At the west end, the parliament had a 100 member chamber made up of the Basikang and Bakoringku clans. In its east was the chamber for the 100 members of the Kurabang and Barapang clans. The south end of the house was for the women and Bougainville's minorities, like the people from the atolls.
Beyond the parliamentary grounds was a symbolic monument in a form of a four-tongued star constructed with concrete in 1972. In its centremost part was a square hole representing the government of Bougainville and the four tongues were the major clans that made up the political parties of the Bougainville government.
Nesii and Dameng told me in 2011 that since the 1970s the late Francis Ona had been exposed to Damien Dameng’s government and adopted it but with no positive intentions. Instead, when the opportunity arose, he transformed the concept into ‘Meekamui Pontoku Si'punng eta osi'kaai-aang’.
As Damien saw it this was not much different from his and Nesii’s teachings. To the brothers, the late Francis Ona was a militant trying to politicise their works to win the hearts and minds of Bougainvilleans who were losing faith in Ona’s rule.
According to the brothers, Ona and his followers, by removing Onoring and replacing it with sipung eta osikai-ang, meant to make their government more appealing. The new idea now centred around the sipung eta (from the fireplace) and osikai-ang (owners of the land).
Francis Ona’s government in Guava pushed that it was based on the principles from the fireplace, meaning aperson is safe if attached to his rightful home and only powerful in decision making on the land he rightfully owns or has inherited from his ancestors.
The idea was that Bougainvilleans had to go back and reestablish their epistemological beginnings and protect all their land to be powerful enough to have control over their island.
Note: Damien Dameng died in mid-2013 when he was about 82 years old, passing away after an accident that led to illness. He was a very famous dog meat eater in the Kieta area. I was with the brothers for a week in late 2011.