Mount Hagen, capital of Western Highlands Province, has the air of a frontier town, with its flatroofed modern buildings, some two or three stories high, and its wide, dusty roads thronged with incomers from the surrounding villages.
Mt. Hagen provides the 350,000 people of the Western Highlands with administrative services, a court, a hospital, shops and a famous market. Situated in the Wahgi Valley, a region well-known for its agricultural produce, it has both historical and geographical significance as a staging post in the development of the Highlands region.
Only 60 years ago, the Wahgi valley and much of what is now known as the Western Highlands was a closed book to the rest of the world. It was first visited, definitively, by Europeans in the years just before the Second World War. Michael Leahy and his brother Danny, both gold prospectors, and James Taylor, an Australian District Officer, led a large expedition across the Chimbu mountains. Their aim was to set foot in the valley which they had previously only sighted from a reconnaissance flight in a small aircraft.
On that occasion Michael Leahy had written in his diary: “We flew over the new valley and laid to rest for all time the theory that New Guinea is a mass of uninhabitable mountains. What we saw was a great flat valley, more than 20 miles wide and not telling how many miles long, between two mountain ranges with a very crooked river meandering. Below us was evidence of a fertile soil and a teeming population, a continuous patchwork of gardens, laid off in neat squares like checkerboards with oblong grass houses in groups of four or five, dotted thickly over the landscape….”
If the white men were amazed by the valley and the people who lived there, it was nothing to compared with the amazement experienced by the people themselves, who had never seen white people before. A common response to the sight of these large pale creatures was one of fear and dread. They were not thought to be men, but the spirits of ancestors, possibly returning with evil intent.
Somehow this first contact between the races was achieved without many casualties. Gradually other Europeans penetrated the mountain. At first it was more gold prospectors, then missionaries, followed after the war by the Kiaps, Australian patrol officers who strove to keep the peace between the new European settlers and local people and to stop tribal warfare. A significant event in the early 60’s was the completion of the Highlands Highway which came all the way up to Mt. Hagen from the coast at Lae. This formed the basis of Western Province’s present reputation as the transport and communications centre of the Highlands region.
Independence in 1975 was the cue for the departure of many settlers and the beginning of yet another phase in the crowded history of this area in the late 20th century. Building on what it has always been best at, Western Highlands now leads the country in the number of agricultural jobs. Coffee and tea are grown on plantations as well as smallholdings. The neat, checkerboard gardens which impressed Michael Leahy now produce a range of introduced cool-weather vegetables like spinach, broccoli, cauliflowers, broad beans and cucumbers as well as the traditional sweet potatoes, bananas, sugar cane, and greens. Pandanus palms and bamboo groves dot the landscape. Most of the vegetable growing is carried out by women and the beautiful gardens are their creations.
The people of Western Highlands Province were quick to respond to the new opportunities offered by the transport links which gave them such a central position. Even before Independence Western Highlanders were organising themselves into companies to protect their interests and keep control of their own wealth. One such group of companies, Wamp Nga is famous for its success over the past 25 years. ‘Wamp Nga’ means ‘belonging to everyone’ in the local Melpa language. Owned by the local government, it started as a motor business, Wamp Nga Motors, and is now a Highland conglomerate with interests as diverse as hotels, real estate and computer retailing. Wamp Nga also owns the Shell agency for the whole Highlands region. In an era of increasing privatisation it stands out as a shining example of successful local public ownership, evidence for all who need it that businesses in PNG can thrive on purely local initiative and energy.
Women too can be successful in business in the Western Highlands. Maggy Wilson runs a hotel just outside Mt. Hagen which is a model of style and comfort. Called ‘Haus Poroman’ (House of Friends), it is laid out much as a traditional village, with a collection of separate small thatched houses gathered around a large main building. With walls made of woven pandanus palm and bamboo, it is an intelligent response to the needs that tourists have for authentic experience and it is proof that local life-styles and modern comfort are perfectly compatible aims.
The Mt. Hagen Show, which takes place annually in August is an amazing, world famous event which puts on display a riotous assembly of dancers, drummers and musicians from all over the province and beyond. Like the other Highland shows, it is an opportunity to revel in the cultural diversity which still survives in a province which is otherwise taking every opportunity it can to develop along modern lines.