No, Milne Bay does not want a road connection to the rest of PNG. The Owen Stanley mountains have inhibited travellers for thousands of years and there is no reason why they should be breached now.
Milne Bay Province spills out of the eastern end of PNG scattering tiny atolls, coral reefs and volcanic islands into the Pacific. Previously regarded as a ‘Cinderella province’, Milne Bay is now in boom-time, wealthy from the rewards of mining concessions and ready to develop its own infrastructure, people and economy.
Flying from the government offices in Alotau, Provincial Capital of Milne Bay is a bright flag. It is coloured red for tradition, blue for the ocean. It has a white stripe for sandy beaches and a vertical green stripe for green vegetation where progressive developments are taking place. A yellow star symbolises Venus which often appears in the east of Milne Bay at dawn. Myth says it is the star which missionaries and sailors used when they brought Christianity to the province.
“The missionaries brought change. They had agencies which developed us spiritually and even economically until the government came in. You cannot talk of the history of Milne Bay without including them”, insists Elijah Digwaleu, Secretary to the Cabinet. The first Marist mission on Woodlark Island was established in 1847 and was rapidly followed by Anglicans, Wesleyans and Catholics, all of whom set up schools and health centres. They set the pattern of language use and education in the entire province. More recently they have been joined by a number of Seventh Day Adventist missions in Alotau and Samarai.
“The Churches brought us a lot but they also killed a lot of our culture. Milne Bay people were strong believers in witchcraft. It made them afraid. It was a mode of control. It created good behaviour. If you walk past a boat and see a little piece of string then you know there is a spell attached. You don’t touch the boat. Remove the string, and anyone can take it”, muses Elijah Digwaleu. Yet for all his fears Milne Bay is one of the more peaceful provinces of PNG. It does not have a law and order problem. It is rich in traditional practices and intent on governing itself wisely.
Eighty percent of the population of Milne Bay lives on an island. The islands fall into groups more often than not named after explorers: D’Entrecasteaux, Goodenough, Fergusson, Normanby, Trobriand, Woodlark and the Louisiade Archipelago. The province has 2,120 kilometres of coastline. Centuries before the Europeans ‘discovered’ Milne Bay people traded between the islands, most famously in the Kula ring, a ritual exchange of necklaces and armlets which bound islanders together through a series of strenuous sea voyages in outrigger canoes. Even today, all inter island trade is conducted under the aegis of Kula expeditions.
The importance of Kula was brought to the rest of the world by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who wrote about it in “The Argonauts of the Western Pacific” in the 1920’s. He also wrote about the islands of love – the Trobriand Islands – and left an impression of free-loving, short skirted young women, which rather mistakenly lives on today. His “Coral Gardens and Their Magic” describes Trobrianders as great gardeners. To be known as ‘tokwaibagula’, a good gardener, and having a big pile of yams at harvest time is a mark of prestige. Yams are not just food, they are part of an elaborate scheme of social relationships which set out patterns of power and prestige culminating in the Paramount Chief – who has the tallest and most elaborately decorated yam house of all.
Each group of islands has its own characteristics. Trobriand is flat, has a hierarchy of chiefs and matrilineal inheritance. Goodenough is one of the most mountainous islands in the Southern hemisphere. Woodlark is famous for ebony forests and for being the site of the biggest gold rush in the country. Fergusson has numerous extinct volcanoes, hot springs and geysers. Normanby is hilly. The peoples of Milne Bay have somehow survived the influence of missionaries, notorious blackbirders (indentured labour for the Queensland sugar plantations), gold miners, planters and soldiers. On big occasions the people still dress in traditional costumes and beat drums to revive their ancient cultures.
This is the background to the current Provincial Government’s aims and plans for Milne Bay. “Here in Milne Bay we have a five year plan, the first of its kind”, says Jones Liosi, Premier of Milne Bay in 1995. “My plan is to serve the last first – bottom up planning.” So the first priority is to open up rural areas to growth. “It is absurd”, says Liosi, “that our potato growers who have successfully planted and grown long English style potatoes on Normanby for generations have to hump them down the hill-sides on their backs for hours before loading them into boats for distribution. T hey should have a road or at the very least a bush trail.” Normanby is a fertile island. Hybrid cocoa farmers can produce a good yield. But they too are hampered by negligible infrastructure.
Transport is simply inadequate at the moment, says Jones Liosi. Boats and canoes are the main form of transport. Milne Bay has a scant 400 kilometres of road and 330 registered vehicles for a population of 157,294 persons (1990 census). But it does have 23 airstrips including a runway at Alotau capable of taking international flights.
The second most important strand in the plan is ‘social services’. The Provincial government of Milne Bay is critically aware of the poor record for health in almost all districts. Malaria and tuberculosis are major problems. But it was the appalling record of maternal and infant deaths in the Trobriand Islands that prompted one of the most exciting developments in social services.
Ten years ago visitors to Losuia, the Government station on the main Trobriand island of Kiriwina, were shocked to see children dying from malnutrition. In a joint effort Milne Bay Province and UNICEF called in an aid worker to assess the problem and implement a solution. They were fortunate in finding Jo Anang, a Ghanaian aid worker and nutritionist. “From my experiences in Ghana, I knew it’s not just a matter of going into a village and talking to people but of going into the village and talking to the person who is the most appropriate, the person who understands how people feel and who can be with the mothers everyday.” In a two pronged approach, Jo Anang went both to the Paramount Chief and to the women themselves to find out who should be involved in a training project.
Much to his credit, Paramount Chief Pulayasi Daniel has broken a centuries old taboo and involved himself in women’s affairs. Father of eleven children and husband to four wives, Chief Pulayasi was nevertheless aware that many of his malefolk laughed when he took an interest in the village births project. He is quite clear, “Basically it’s to do with people. When you deal with people, you worry about them, and part of the population is women and children”, he said. “For women alone to look after children is not enough. Men too must change their attitudes and look after their children.” Because of his active leadership the people of the Trobriands have become more aware of the importance of maternal child health care.
Traditionally none but close kin, a mother or a sister could assist with a birth, certainly no woman from another clan. The breakthrough came when the village chiefs selected one or two women, usually women with children, to attend basic training sessions at a centre near the clinic in Losuia. Selected women went through a three week residential course, leaving their children behind. “They are happy here, only problem is if their husband’s don’t like it” explained Nurse Susan. Most of the VBA’s are illiterate so a card system was designed to refer mothers to the clinic and to the care of the VBA. The scheme started in 1992 and now has 97 trained VBA’s. Success is evident in the dramatic decrease in maternal and infant deaths and an overall improvement in nutrition. The scheme is now being administered by Kenneth Kalubaku and a team from different villages. They have just extended the programme to train a group of women from the mainland.
Ultimately the success of the five year plan and all its various social programmes will depend on the success of economic development and the continued flow of funds from Milne Bay’s major resources such as forest, mining and oil palm.
While Milne Bay would not come high up the list of PNG log exports, logging is none the less an importance resource for the province. The provincial government would like to see more processed logs bringing more money into the province. They are now encouraging boat-building – capitalising on the early work of the Kwato ministry which combined practical skills with missionary work. There are now several boatyards around A lotau where master-craftsmen like Pastin Jack build everything from dinghies to 39 foot fishing boats using local hardwoods. Once Milne Bay boats were famous, now there is a chance that they will once again be seen all around the coastline of PNG.
The boats and even the incipient fishing industry seem meagre compared to the impact of the Misima gold mine. During its construction over 1,400 people were employed on the project at any one time. Currently there are over 300 Misimans and 150 expatriates operating the mine and it brings important revenue into the provincial government through the interest of MRDC the state owned mining company which holds a 20% share.
The only comparable export earner is oil palm. Fly into Gurney airport for the capital Alotau and you immediately notice the oil palm plantations below you. The first palm oil left Alotau in 1991. At present the company employs 1,100 people of whom six are expatriates. It is not oil palms, but coconut palms which will attract tourists to Milne Bay.
The provincial government is keen to encourage tourism but not the ‘wrong sort’ of tourism. He knows that Milne Bay has all the elements of a tourist paradise but he is anxious. “I don’t want people to be spectators in their own grounds. I want them to participate” declares Jones Liosi. Maybe he would be reassured by this account of Trobriand cricket. It was originally introduced by the Church as a distraction from more sexual pursuits.
“When the menfolk want to bowl a maiden over, they play cricket”, writes Michael Mackintyre. “Trobriand cricketers dress as they would for war – painted faces, feathers, bodies glistening with coconut oil to ensure courage and ankle-bands to promote speed of reaction. Before the game bats are painted with war colours of black and white and, by magic, endowed with potent hitting powers. Once the game is under way, spells are used by bowlers to swerve and swing the ball and mystify the batsmen. Like ritual warfare, cricket gives the men the chance to flaunt their masculinity before an audience of admiring girls who favour a fetching outfit rather like a diminutive skirt with no knickers”.
If they tourists want to share in the fun they can take home some exquisite carvings many of which favour erotic themes. The legend of the Trobriands lives on.