15 Jul 2014

Awakening in Port Moresby

8:55 am on 15 July 2014

You may have heard some of the stories. Shootings, stabbings, gang rape, hold-ups, car-jackings, robberies, black magic and corruption mingle among the headlines which mark Port Moresby as a regular on the world’s most dangerous cities lists.

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“We were shot at yesterday,” twenty-something Lawrence says casually, leaning against an SUV, which bears gunholes down the side. “About a payback. We aided some people in a fight. And the others, they later recognised me and came after us.” Lawrence laughs about the shooting like it’s a tennis match.

Then there’s the political mayhem which rears its head frequently in Papua New Guinea’s capital. In the past month, the city has been on a tightrope after an arrest warrant was issued for the Prime Minister Peter O’Neill over a major corruption case. Political fallout has spread fast with a subsequent series of rapid sackings by O’Neill and a move to disband the country’s anti-corruption agency Taskforce Sweep, which had recommended the arrest. He’s still holding out, yet to be taken in, but you get the feeling that something’s got to give some time soon.

Young Papua New Guineans have grown up in a society where corruption is a normal way of business. That doesn’t mean they accept it. However, those voicing disillusion with the way PNG’s elite has managed the country are finding themselves in the firing line while the groundswell taking to the streets to call for change are coming up against a police force that has been under serious pressure over attempts to arrest O’Neill.

In Moresby, it’s clear that the burgeoning young population is far better connected to the outside world than its predecessors. And they seem less disposed to putting up with the shitty living conditions and parlous social services that characterise life for the majority in the city.

PNG is a country on the verge of significant wealth generated by Exxon Mobil’s $19 billion Liquefied Natural Gas project which, having shipped its first cargo two months ago, is expected to triple PNG’s GDP in the coming years. The construction of the project and a boom in minerals underpin the country’s economic growth of the past decade. Now, despite its instabilities and poor reputation, PNG is becoming a major energy producer. And Moresby is very much the hub of all this – the junction where PNG’s rapid economic growth and the hugely diverse tribal cultures of its 7.5 million people meet.

The relatively few signs of affluence in Moresby are surrounded by suburbs of ramshackle urban villages known as settlements. A large number of Moresby’s population, which is well over 300,000 people, live in these communities; cobbled together out of corrugated iron, wood and other debris.

Water is the only thing they get for free in Hanuanada village, and even then, it’s from a dribbling tap.

Photo: Johnny Blades

In the impoverished stilted seaside village of Hanuabada, just around the corner from the affluent suburbs, a 21-year old woman called Enpala tells me she is supporting her parents and children by working a cleaning job, pointing to the CBD across the bay. “We barely get by for food and power but at least I have a job. There aren’t many jobs out there.”

Down an alleyway in another settlement, Joyce Bay in Sabama, a guy called Levi Balil shows me a crudely marked circle of rocks on the path.  It’s the spot where a young man was murdered the previous week - an alcohol-related killing, something about a jealousy over a woman between two men from different clans.

Levi says it’s generally harmonious here, but laments how only half the children go to school. Parents often hold their kids back, he said, forcing them to stay around the settlement and look after younger siblings.  “Some of the people are working, and some aren’t – they get hungry and have to sell firewood on the road or go fishing, down the coastal areas.”

The settlements are where migrants from other provinces come to stay – on state leases that fall under the National Housing Corporation. People live in cramped, often unhygienic quarters.

For many, the only form of income comes at the roadside selling small items like betelnut. PNG’s love affair with this stimulant is inter-generational. But you have to wonder how the city’s new, unpopular ban on public sale and consumption of betelnut will change what has been a way of life for many.

The notorious blood-red betelnut spit stains are vanishing from Moresby’s streets, and the trade is being driven underground. Maybe the rate of oral cancer and other side effects will ease. It’s hard to forget the image of a man with TB sitting in the corridor of Moresby General, nursing a coke bottle full of red spit. The system can’t help much - despite PNG’s huge resource wealth, the country’s main hospital comprehensively lacks basic drugs and, like most public services, feels like it’s fallen apart.

It’s a stark contrast to a new shopping and entertainment mall in the capital known as Vision City. A huge, square and somewhat grotesque complex, Vision City stands in direct challenge to Port Moresby's traditionally popular fresh produce markets.

Malaysian logging company Rimbunan Hijau’s gesture to the people of Port Moresby, Vision City has introduced such cultural wonders as Donut King and, more recently, Cosmopolitan, a multi-level nightclub which presents dance cages and VIP lounges in a theatre of gaudiness never seen before in PNG.

For those who can afford to go there, Cosmopolitan is something of a novelty in Moresby nightlife, although when a gig by Shaggy constitutes a highlight on the city’s social calendar, you know they are starved for good touring acts.

Lawrence is one of a number of people who boycott the mall on account of the devastation that RH’s logging has inflicted on the country’s forests. He and his friends prefer to hang around at the roadside instead of the supermall. “Sometimes you have a betelnut night, sometimes a beer night,” he says.

One of Lawrence’s friends is an off-duty policeman, and he drives us around in a beaten-up police van. We trawl through Boroko and watch the late night hubbub in front of Big Rooster, one of several popular fried chicken franchises in Moresby. Out front, old, destitute people sit on the pavement while kids run around begging for a spare kina.

Photo taken by Johnny  during an interview with a local MP who placed his gun on the table as they spoke.

Photo taken by Johnny during an interview with a local MP who placed his gun on the table as they spoke. Photo: Johnny Blades.

Later, it gets uncomfortable when the police guy driving gets out to intimidate an old man sitting in the gutter – just so he can park there. Nothing like a gun in the face to get someone moving.

Guns are everywhere in PNG. From homemade to military issue, every level of society has them, including one MP who, upon sitting down for an interview with me, placed an automatic pistol on the table in front of us. And if not a gun, then a bushknife.

Another day, I head out to a community on the edge of town, Roku. Here, the community health worker recounts an episode where a local woman took ill suddenly, and people quickly rounded on a young man within the community, blaming him for causing the woman’s sickness through sorcery.

They had beaten him to a pulp before the health worker saw her and recognised the symptoms of pneumonia. The worker told everyone to lay off the guy but by then it was too late. Still, this case was unusual because most often in PNG, it’s women who are the victims of sorcery-related torture and violence.

Belief in sorcery is able to fester in an environment where tribalism exists strongly. In PNG, around two thirds of women have experienced domestic violence and around 50 per cent are victims of sexual assaults. It may not be too late to change those statistics, says Wapilya, a young woman who has been involved in the recent protests. She says that as with corruption, these things sometimes exist in a vacuum of awareness.

 In PNG, around two thirds of women have experienced domestic violence and around 50 per cent are victims of sexual assaults.

“How have so-called leaders got away with ripping off Papua New Guineans for generations?” Wapilya asks “Because so few of the people in this country ever hear about what the crooks in Port Moresby, in government, are doing. There has been no access to newspaper or radio, let alone internet.”

“If you go on (Taskforce Sweep chairman) Sam Koim’s Facebook profile, he’s probably the only Papua New Guinean who gets over a thousand likes and five hundred comments for a single post,” says Martyn Namorong, a prominent blogger and Med School dropout who used to sell betelnut on the streets. “It says a lot about where people stand on this issue.”

Given that some parts of PNG have not had outside contact until recent decades, the country is now undergoing telecommunications enlightenment. Mobile operator Digicel has recently become the first company to introduce 4G in the country.  Around 3 million people have mobiles and Facebook users are at around 300,000 which may not seem a lot, but in a place where 80 per cent of the population lives in remote rural areas, it’s significant.

Around two years ago, social media became a significant part of the political conversation around PNG’s diabolical political impasse which saw two groups claiming to be government for almost a year.

And even though the government is now beginning to try and clampdown on social media, they are still somewhat limited to focusing on Facebook. As Martyn Namorong explains, young people have various networks to organise themselves. There are plans for more protests.

There are people still anticipating an Arab Spring-type moment in PNG and it’s tempting to see this as one of those stages developing. Port Moresby is a city which teeters on the brink all the time. But if enough young people keep talking and demanding change, it could succeed in at least placing some restraint on the actions of the politicians.

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