Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An eventful year for Lae

Captions: 1. Evangelical Lutheran Church of PNG Head Bishop Dr Wesley Kigasung...his death brought together a fragmented church, city, province and country.2. Dr Kigasung's body is hoisted by six PNG Defence Force pall-bearers at Sir Ignatius Kilage Stadium.3. The sad remains of Best Buy, formerly Burns Philip, store in Lae. It was burned down earlier this month, bringing an end to a part of Lae history.
By conservative estimates, half of its residents would not be able to recall the garden city that was Lae.
This was a city, and before that a town, that was lined with flower beds running along its residential, business and industrial zones’ streets. The beauty of the streets gave Lae the glamour and serenity of a metropolitan city by the harbour of a sprawling valley that retreated for miles into the Madang and Eastern Highlands mountains, a feeling unlike any other.
Now an incongruent mosaic of industrial establishments, potholed streets, bushy over growths, and semi-permanent houses, clustered around concrete edifices, and colonial architecture, Lae has become a huge urban settlement of more than 300, 000 people.
In a nutshell Lae is a city of contrasts.
Throughout the year, the events that have happened in the city have shown the attitude of a people who are living in the computer age and practicing Stone Age beliefs.
To start the year off, the indigenous Ahi tribe’s local level government area was gripped with fear of a man-eating alien. The Komodo dragon, native to the Indonesian island of Komodo, could never have left its home except for the imaginations of several old women and the marketing skills of journalists.
There was much consternation and fear fuelled by newspaper images downloaded from the internet that irrelevantly, the military was called in with much media hype. Furtively, scientists from the Department of Environment and Conservation slipped into the bushes of Kamkumung, Butibam and Yanga and declared: “Nothing.”
The entire episode was a hoax. It showed the frightening scale a rumour could gain.
Perhaps because of the high level of ethnic mix of blue collar workers for its many factories, most of whom are at best semi-literate and ill-informed, what is more but not relevant is read into a situation.
Only last year, immediately after April 1, the entire population of Lae panicked when rumours spread that the sea at the end of the old Lae airport had retreated. Its return would flatten Lae – and Top Town, nearly 100 metres above sea level!
Thousands of school children ran away from classes. Several primary school teachers hopped on PMVs and headed for the Highlands.
Years before, in 2000, a similar incident sent people packing their belongings and heading for the mountains in droves.
No contrast was more obvious than in the attitudes of people. It was disconcerting to see the medieval practice of burning witches at the stake being carried out when a woman was burnt at the stake and her tortured body left for police to remove to the Angau Memorial Hospital morgue after it was claimed that she had kept the tongue of a youth salted in a banana leaf near her bedside fireplace at Tent City on the outskirts of the city.
To contrast that heathen ritual, the people showed a sign of religious fervour unlike any ever displayed in Lae when Dr Wesley Kigasung, head bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea, died in May. Symphathisers lined the 50km from Nadzab airport to the church headquarters at Ampo.
That unity in religion had come off the back of an ethnic clash that clearly showed the fracture in the neighbourhoods. Eastern Highlanders had fought with Engans at Kamkumung and Morobeans fought with Sepiks at Malahang.
All throughout the year there were sporadic unrelated clashes and towards Christmas, the Western Highlanders and Eastern Highlanders closed the violent aspect of the year.
The ethnic and cultural melting pot that is Lae, coupled with the level of education and the economic status of each individual, has given the city its peculiar problems.
In town, the graduate engineers, doctors and accountants, the cream of university graduates catch a rickety old PMV bus to work. They can’t afford to buy a vehicle because of the high cost of fuel and the even higher cost of overhead charges on vehicle parts that are rendered by the potholes.
While waiting for the K50 million road works to be completed, the educated and the uneducated masses have to live in settlements at Hunter, Malahang, Bumayong, Kamkumung and the Miles areas. There virtually is not enough affordable housing in Lae.
The professionals, according to the PMV bus conductors, can not read. So they shout in their faces: “Eriku, Boundary, 1, 2, 3, 4.”
In the meantime, local Ahi landowners, have to fight for claims to the Lae land. It is a bitter dispute that divides clans and families.
One of the major disputes is over the land at the old Lae airport which has been divided into urban development leases.
Another development, that of the US$100 million Lae port, awaits start.
Here settlers are still waiting to be reestablished in other areas in Lae or be repatriated to their villages, particularly in the East Sepik and the Highlands provinces.
Economic developments in Lae and Morobe province in general have been enhanced by the rebuilding of the old Bulolo airport to cater for flights to the former gold town that would be the hub for the operation of the mine at Hidden Valley in Wau and the exploration at Wafi in Mumeng.
The Bulolo district is now rising to its old heights with the election of a young Member of Parliament who is showing the way for leaders throughout the country.
Exceptionally young and very inexperienced politician, businessman Sam Basil clicked into action barely a week after taking his oath of office as a Parliamentarian in Sept 2007.
 Now, he is the toast of the entire Bulolo district, and the envy of all Morobeans, after putting water supplies in his rural villages, linking them by road and telecommunications, building police house, and then demanding and being given 50% of the provincial government’s cut from the Hidden Valley Gold mine.
He was aiming to improve the lot of his people.
The economic survival of the worker was touted by students at the country’s premier technological institute. Students at the University of Technology through their representative council and its umbrella organisation the National Union of Students boycotted classes to push the government into establishing the Minimum Wages board hearings, whose report will be tabled to the government in the second week of next year.
While the students did well for their parents and working relatives, and their future, they could not help but get back into the ages old practice of ethnic rivalry. It seemed an end-of-year routine when the fight between Sepiks and Highlanders disrupted classes and left one dead and many unable to sit for their final examinations.
As the year raced to the end, nature took its toll, as a tidal surge left 5000 Siassi islanders and Sialum villagers without homes, food and water. Their lives are slowly being rebuilt.
What can not be rebuilt though is the epitome of trade and all things good and European, and a hallmark to the legacy of the colonial era, the former Burns Philp department store, which lay in ruins.

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