Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cry, the beloved country

Pothole along 8th Street, big enough to house the Loch Ness Monster!
Remains of the old Burns Philp Store, which was burned down last December
Road between the old airport and Angau Memorial Hospital
The rundown Angau Memorial Hospital
Vele Rumana Building towers over the remains of the old Burns Philp store
A couple of days ago, I was in my hometown of Lae to see my mother at Angau Memorial Hospital before she passed away, and noted with great sadness in my heart the deterioration of the once-beautiful ‘Garden City’ of Papua New Guinea.
The hospital in is a state of disrepair with a large part of it being eaten away by termites.
Around the hospital grounds, tents had been set up by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), to cater for the cholera outbreak in Lae and Morobe province.
With more that 75% of Lae residents living in settlements, all things point to a massive cholera outbreak in Lae, given the lack of health and hygiene facilities in these shanty towns.
I was born at Angau on Aug 9, 1967, grew up in Lae, and so was deeply distressed.
My Moresby-ite children asked me to stop a taxi for us to go home but, alas, I had to explain to them that taxis – which abounded in Lae in the 1970s and 1980s (remember the famous Jumi Cabcos and the big blue Lae Buses?) – are as rare as hen’s teeth, or better still, extinct as dinosaurs.
Potholes – some big enough to house the Loch Ness monster – are a feature of Papua New Guinea’s second City.
The streets are notoriously dangerous as zombie-like youths, fueled by marijuana and home brew, wait with knives for their next victim.
There are no recreational facilities for them to engage in other activities such as sports
My 10-year-old nephew, walking home from school, was attacked between Chinatown and Bumbu Settlement and his shirt cut by ubiquitous “drug bodies”.
The once-famous Botanical Garden - in my memory a beautful 'Garden of Eden' - is covered by bush, likewise, other public parks and sporting facilities.
Fighting and conflicts are prevalent, and the time I was there, employees of Lae Builders & Contractor and Frabelle were at war, while a gun battle erupted at Hunter Settlement just up the road from our Butibam Village.
Students from different schools are constantly fighting each other with sticks, stones, knives and even guns, which paints a frightening picture.
Health and education services - the basic building blocks for any wannabe country - are in a shambles.
These and the huge litany of wrongs in Lae epitomise how Papua New Guinea has gone over the last 34 years: backwards!
The people of Lae have just about lost all faith in politicians, public servants and any semblance of government, if any, as I gathered.
What is keeping the place running is the private sector as well as the church, particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church, although the churches can do a lot more work in spreading the ‘Good News’ in these troubled times.
On September 16, 1975, the massive stone set up before the Area Authority (now Morobe Provincial Government) offices was unveiled by Butibam village elder Kissing Tikandu.
The ‘Papua New Guinea Independence Rock’ has a plaque on it, inscribed with Psalms 118:1, “Oh give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His steadfast love endures forever”.
The Germans, and later the Australians and Chinese, built Lae – with its colourful history and characters – into a thriving multi racial town destined to become one of the best.
A bustling airport, famed as the last port of call for American aviatrix Amelia Earhart in 1937, was the point from which Lae developed as a city.
It was this same airstrip that opened up the Wau/Bulolo goldfields to the world, handling some of the heaviest air traffic in the world at that time.
Something of its business can be seen in this 1935 report in the Pacific Islands Monthly: “Lae is now a township ranking high in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. It is a centre of great activity and one of the biggest, if not the biggest, aircraft centres in the southern hemisphere.”
The airport was unfortunately closed down in 1987, after much politicking, ending a colourful era in Papua New Guinea and world aviation history.
World War 11 devastated Lae.
Only a few buildings were intact at its end, including the Ampo Lutheran church and the Guinea Airways hangar.
It also ravaged the local villages and made refugees of the people, who were forced to lead a miserable nomadic existence for four years in order to keep away from the savage bombing and shooting which tore up their homelands as the fighting see-sawed between the Japanese and allies.
Post-war Lae developed facilities that the old town had lacked – churches, shops, cinemas, bus and taxi services, a hospital, a school for European children – and became a garden city of scenic shaded avenues and neat bungalows.
Port Moresby, hemmed in by arid hills and roads leading nowhere, was the worst possible site for a capital.
But the Australian government had poured in so many millions into the place that a change to the obvious location of Lae – with its road links to Madang and the Highlands – was out of the question.
Lae’s main attractions were its spacious parks and reserves, the most notable of which were the Botanical Gardens and the War Cemetery; a visit to these became a feature of the itinerary of tourist excursions to New Guinea.
With the growth of the town, inevitably, came wave after wave of immigrants from rural areas – in search of the bright lights.
As more migrants arrived, Lae experienced many of the growth pains felt by other developing nations: the growth of squalid, unplanned migrant settlements; problems with unskilled and unemployed urban drifters; a rise in petty crime; failure to keep up the supply of essential services such as roads, water, sewerage, power and transport; housing and land shortages; and great pressure on health and education services.
In the period just before Independence, numerous prophets of doom warned of impending disaster in Lae, given the dislocation and transitional period Papua New Guinea would go through.
And, in retrospect, they were right in many ways.
For, in just one generation, Lae started going backwards that it hurt those of us – expatriates, non Morobeans and Morobeans – who were born and raised here.
Political instability and infighting became hallmarks of Morobe since the province attained provincial government status in 1978.
Sadly, all this at the expense of once-beautiful Lae becoming the pothole capital of Papua New Guinea, and at the same time losing its innocence to become a major hotspot of crime.
Not a day went by without some controversy, and oddly enough, long suffering Lae-ites and Morobeans came to accept it as part of life.
It will take, perhaps more so than anything, a complete change of attitude from every Morobean and Papua New Guinean living in the city and province if we want to open a new chapter.
We do not need the politicians and public servants!

1 comment:

  1. but the War Cemetery shouldn't be tarred with the same brush Malum, it is still a safe and beautiful park to visit.