There are few greater contrasts in Papua New Guinea than that which meets arrivals at her capital city Port Moresby. On one side there are the stilt houses of the original inhabitants, the Motu people of Koki and Hanuabada, on the other side the multi storey concrete and glass blocks of the business district. Several miles away the dramatic new architecture of the Parliament building, the National Museum and the new Government Centre rise up at Waigani. The National Capital District, like many cities, is really a collection of villages and suburbs spread out in a ten mile radius around the deep harbour at Moresby which first attracted a British sea captain in 1873 to make it his base.
NCD now has 230,000 inhabitants. It is Melanesia’s largest city and PNG’s most populated area by far. Governor Bill Skate describes it as a unique province, for people from every other of PNG’s 19 provinces lives here. They are drawn by government duties, by commercial opportunities and sometimes, with unfortunate consequences, by the bright city lights and dreams of pavements of gold.
A person’s place of origin affects their chances of work and their social life. The Melanesian ‘wantok’ (literally ‘one talk’) system of clan responsibility still operates. A single salary may still be dispersed among many family members. Unemployed youths seek distant family and live with them until they outstay their welcome and find themselves out on the street. They have little alternative but to turn to criminal activities to survive. It has given Port Moresby a bad name. The ‘rascal’ problem is overplayed but there is no doubt that it exists. Governor Skate intends to solve it by putting the youths to voluntary work. “ A physical programme, like roads or bridge building, is something that is highly visible and they can feel proud of. We’re getting the Defence Force to loan us engineers for a civil action programme which will engage the unemployed youth in beautifying the city.”
Beautifying the city was high on the agenda of outgoing Mayor David Unagi. “I want people to know that Moresby is a place where people can live peacefully,” he said “We have problems, our infrastructure, particularly the roads, need improving. We have to do something about the water supply. This is a capital city. It is growing fast and we have to do something about these things.” David Unagi persuaded National Government to engage in a K60 million road improvement scheme and a K125 million airport redevelopment scheme. Construction has already begun. “It should make Jackson’s the best airport in the South Pacific,” says Minister Unagi, “a fitting gateway to PNG tourists and business people.”
Everyone who visits NCD comments on the water problem. Geographers say it lies in a rain shadow. Local residents who suffer an unusually harsh climate of rain, storms, dry spells and high winds, just know that all too often they have no water in their taps. It has become a major issue. Only 60-70% of Moresby residents have piped water. The system was put in 40 years ago for a population of 70,000. There is no way that it can cope with a population which will reach half a million by 2015. The supply comes from the Sogeri valley in Central Province but it comes through a single 800 mile trunk pipe. The debate revolves around how best to deliver adequate water to every district.
There are wide discrepancies in living conditions amongst Moresby residents. Not all have electricity. Many use kerosene for fuel. Some still use firewood collected from the denuded hills around the city. One quarter of Moresby residents live in squatter settlements. Moresby also has PNG’s tallest building and most luxurious housing. It has nearly 500 kms of sealed roads, far more than any other province, with 693 licensed PMV’s for passenger transport and a further 233 licensed to Central Province which lies at 10 mile. The miles are calculated as the distance from Town which is on the original harbour front. Moresby is the biggest coastal shipping port and the second biggest import centre after Lae.
The location of the Government in Moresby created a boom in office and housing construction. The government payroll gives NCD the steadiest economy in PNG. It can look to the future with a big oil refinery at Motukea Island in Fairfax harbour, a new ship-building yard and a container wharf. It is perhaps fitting that Moresby still looks to the sea. For the sea was as important in the past as it will be in the future.
The original inhabitants of this area settled about 250 years ago. Building their houses on stilts over the sea, they traded fish for plants with the Koitabu people living in the hinterland. They were two separate language groups. The Motuans spoke an Austronesian language like many Pacific islanders. The Koitabu spoke a language used by mountain people. Over the years the two have combined to form Hiri Motu which, with Tok Pisin, is now the major language of communication. The two groups celebrate their origins once a year with the Hiri Moale festival. In September 1995 it will be extra-special for it will be combined with the celebrations of 20 years of Independence.
The Motu Koitabu people survived their harsh conditions, monsoon rains from December to April and tinder dry conditions during the rest of the year, by sailing on the South East monsoons hundreds of kilometres to Kerema in Gulf Province, returning two months later on the North Westerlys carrying sago and betel nut. This epic voyage will be remembered in NCD in 1995 by the building of four lagatois, great two-masted sailing canoes, and re-enacting the farewell and welcoming ceremonies. The Hiri was much more than a trading trip. It was a test of manhood and an opportunity for Lagatois captains to become ‘big men’ wealthy and prestigious.
Today villages vie for the privilege of building a ceremonial lagatoi. But just how much of the ancient ritual is still incorporated is left unsaid. In the past a bau-bau (bamboo pipe) would be passed to each crew member as they joined. While the boat was being built the captain and the owner would drink only coconut milk or soup, while striving to obtain ritual purity. Magicians started their work as the first logs were set, casting spells over every part of the construction to ensure that the lagatois would sail straight and to ward off evil spirits who might attempt to sink it. Food taboos on the boat were strict. There were potions and chants for every calamity.
While the Motuan men were away on their dangerous expedition the women made tattoos on all female children. It began when the little girls were 5 to 6 years of age. Each year new tattoos were added and each year, when the lagatois appeared on the horizon, the girls would be taken out into the sun to show off their tattoo. Some tattoos were very special. The first born daughter of a lagatoi captain had a ‘tear drop’ tattoo below each eye. Tattooing would only be finished on marriage. Very few Motu Koita girls elect to have more than a token tattoo on their bodies today. But at the Hiri Moale festivities they will appear with tattoos drawn on the bodies with felt tipped pens. Decoration without pain.
In addition to sago, which was brought back in great clay pots, the lagatoi brought betel nut. Outsiders often find betel chewing pretty disgusting, especially when they see the red cud spat out on the ground. Moresby pavements are stained red with betel juice. Traditionally betel nut was a very genteel habit, only indulged in by men on returning lagatoi. To exchange betel was a great honour and to sit and chew together was regarded as a spiritual experience.
At the Hiri Moale festival in 1995 these old traditions will be remembered once again. Lagatois will sail once more in the bay. There will be canoe races including a race between 2 Gogodala war canoes and a Keapara war canoe. There will be singing and dancing and choirs and sky-diving and official presentations. It is a day when the National Capital District can forget its present problems and proudly to share traditions with all the many Papua New Guineans who have now made the city their home.