Sunday, 15 March 2015

Poroman, Work and Wantok.

So I’ve been here almost two weeks, and while the bright sheen of new experiences hasn’t quite worn off, I’m settling in and slowing down.
Buka itself is a fascinatingly varied place. Coconut trees line the gorgeous passage which walls in one side of the market. Women sell their vegetables, coconuts, mangos, jewellery and bilum (bags). Right next to this picturesque island scene, a dusty road is lined with coke cans and bright red buai (betelnut) juice seeps in to the clay. It is hot. It is so hot that the five minute walk home from work warrants an afternoon nap; so hot that as I sit under the mango tree waiting for the bus, droplets of sweat roll down my neck and trail down my spine. Cold showers are a given, as there is no hot water at my house, but they are also a necessity.

One fool proof way to cool down is with a swim in the Buka Passage. On Sunday, a few other volunteers and I organised a boat ride to one of the islands not far from Buka. We planned on having a swim, lying around on the beach and having some lunch before returning home. However, the boat failed to show after a miscommunication about what time we wanted to head out so we instead went for a swim in the passage at an inlet not far from my house. There were about 30 kids all swimming there too, jumping off the rusted wreck of an old ship, diving and splashing. As soon as us white meri (women) and man (men) jumped in too, we were incredibly entertaining and elicited many laughs. I’m not sure what the kids found so funny about us, but the journey from being self-conscious to just accepting that you’re always going to be hilarious to the locals can be quite humbling. The water was clear and calm, and the turquoise rocks below shimmered as I dived in. I gathered some poroman (friends) as I swam, three girls that would not let go of me while I was in the water. Luisa, Mary-Jane and Aliente were all young schoolgirls that live in Buka, and we had a hilariously broken conversation in English and Tok Pisin. Luisa reminded me of myself, talking about how much she wants to go to a gudpela skol (good school) when she grows up, and maybe she could go to university like me! I definitely tried to encourage those dreams. Education is so empowering, and here in Bougainville the youngest generation is benefiting from an education system that has only been re-established in the past 15 years. They are the future of Bougainville.

Kids jumping off the back of the boat that ferries vehicles across Buka Passage.

I started work last Monday too. My office (the Division of Media and Communications) has around 20 staff in it, all of whom are incredibly friendly. At the moment I'm working with my counterpart, Michael, to get to know the Archives office and how it works. He is a lovely guy and incredibly willing to teach me all about Bougainville history and culture. We're also possible going to get in to some research this year, which could be exciting. Due to the regular power shortages here, I've had many an opportunity to escape my desk and sit outside under the mango tree to chat to the other women I work with. Many women here marry quite young, have completed their university studies in Port Moresby while raising children, and now work full time while being wife and mother. They are pretty incredible women!

It seems that it is much easier for women to do such things in Bougainville due to the Wantok system, which in a way is similar to the role of hapū in Māori culture. When women are working, their sisters, or in-laws, or aunties, will help raise children. Many family households are made up of various parts of the extended family and several people will be responsible for looking after the children are various times. Wantok literally means ‘one talk’, and refers to the people who speak the same language as you, or an extended family. The concept of homelessness is strange to people in Buka because if you are in need of money, food, or shelter, your family will always provide for you. In this way, the government does not have a welfare system because the intricate web of Wantok means that people will not rely on welfare to survive. Of course, there are holes and the system is not perfect. Nor is it able to fit perfectly in to an increasingly capitalist and urban society where families move away from their village and become more isolated. But in Bougainville, the system is still very much intact given the low levels of urbanisation and the geography of the islands.

Looking out to the eastern mouth of Buka Passage from Ieta Village.

So, after a wee while here, I feel like I’m slowly getting to know Buka. My body has relaxed into the slow rhythm of Bougainvillean time, succumbing to the heat and the lethargy. I miss home, Daniel, my family, a lot. But I am taking it one day at a time. While I feel like my sense of self has been put through a complete overhaul, I am coming to love this place and its people. I know the novelty will soon fade and it will become more difficult, but seriously – bring it on. What an experience! 

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