Monday, 22 June 2015

[a long-overdue update]

Happy June, everyone! I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written; it’s been such a busy month! Here is a mammoth blog post to sum up the past two months…

Buka has been full of activity for the 2015 ABG election which has been running since May and only just wrapped up. This 2015 election is incredibly important; the referendum for Bougainvillean independence from PNG is due to be held before 2020 and so the winner of the presidency, incumbent John Momis, will have a huge influence on the future of Bougainville. In the meantime, I have been working on some ABG research that is being undertaken by the Centres for Social and Creative Media (CSCM, University of Goroka). My counterpart Michael, another staff member from the ABG called Moses, and I are working alongside researchers from CSCM to coordinate the project. The research seeks to increase understanding of the information and communication landscape in Bougainville, including current knowledge and misconceptions, regarding the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) and referendum. Hopefully, the outcomes of the research will directly inform the development of communication materials in regards to the referendum.

In mid-May, we held a five-day research workshop that included 16 field researchers from all around Bougainville. Following this workshop, the field researchers were sent to collect data from every COE (local government body) in Bougainville, while Moses, the CSCM team and I travelled around Bougainville assisting field researchers and gathering completed data. Not only was this an amazing experience in which I learned a lot about Bougainville and research is this very unique context, but it was also so much fun! We travelled with Llane and Cythia, two Bougainvilleans working for CSCM, and they provided constant entertainment; we had singalong sessions in the car while driving down to Arawa, spent the afternoon swimming in the cool water of the Bovo River, sung songs with Llane’s family from Kieta on a Saturday night and ate a lot of cake. It was really lovely to be working alongside young Bougainvillean women, and also to work more closely with Moses. 

The Bougainville Audience Research Study field research team.

Young boys playing in the Bovo River, Arawa.

During our first few days coordinating the research, Cynthia, Moses and I drove through Panguna and over to Bana, which is in South Bougainville. The journey through Panguna was pretty incredible. Until a few years ago, not many non-Bougainvilleans had been to Panguna since the Crisis. An armed road block at Morgan Junction was set up by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) during the Crisis to control entry to the mine. Even now Australians are rarely allowed through; New Zealanders receive a much friendlier response, but the likelihood of passing through Morgan Junction depends largely on who is manning the road block that day, and who you are travelling with. Sitting in the back of the Land Cruiser with Cynthia, I broke a sweat as we approached the road block. What if we were turned back, just because of me? What if my blatant foreign-ness meant I had to return to Buka and leave the research behind? Despite my active imagination, I needn’t have worried; our driver, being familiar and likely related to many BRA families, was waved through without a fuss.

The site of the copper mine which sparked the 10-year conflict in Bougainville, Panguna is high up in the mountains and is a vastly different environment than Buka. The clouds graze the treetops of the bush, which gets thicker and more impenetrable the higher you climb. Panguna mine itself is breath-taking. Once the largest open-cast copper mine in the world, injecting billions of dollars in to the PNG economy and in to the pockets of its Australian owners, it now sits in silence, slowly being reclaimed by the bush. Mining machinery lies in disrepair, gathering rust. Many parts were collected by combatants during the crisis; when PNG imposed a blockade on Bougainville in retaliation to the protests around the mine and desire for Bougainvillean independence, Bougainvilleans no longer had access to medicine, machinery, petrol, clothes or any foreign goods. Having fled in to the bush, away from the PNG defence force, many Bougainvillean villages devised genius ways of surviving. They created DIY hydro-power plants using local rivers and materials sourced from the mine; they created generators out of mining machinery engines; they made coconut oil and ran their cars off it; they used coconut water in IV lines and revived the art of bush medicine. Now, many of the landowners that originally lost their land to the mine and saw the subsequent environmental degradation are once again living on the land; in old miners’ accommodation and in traditional bush material houses looking over the huge hole in the earth. Two hundred meters either side of the huge Jaba River, the vegetation has died off due to leaked and toxic mining tailings. Amongst the tailings, without any protective equipment, women and men bend over and sift through sediment to extract what precious stones remain in their land. Bougainvilleans take the idea of the ‘number 8 wire mentality’ to a whole new level. 

Me and Moses, with Panguna mine in the background.
A liklik pikinini in Maletai, Central Bougainville.

As we drove west of Panguna, we entered Bana. We stayed in two villages; Mavele, a village just off the main road through the district, and Singkondo, a mountain village which is much more remote. Mavele is the village of Cynthia’s father’s family to which she had only been once before. When we arrived, the people in the village organised a welcome ceremony to allow us on to the land and to welcome Cynthia back to the place of her ancestors. We were made clean by water sprayed over us and each given gifts; I was given a beautiful necklace made from tiny polished shells, which traditionally were used as a currency in the Solomons and Bougainville. Now, people usually trade with the PNG Kina, but this shell money is still used in ceremonies such as the exchange of the bride price. Bana is, like most of Bougainville, matrilineal, and Cynthia’s aunt Grace is the chief of Mavele. She is a hilarious woman and I spent all afternoon ‘storying’ with her and laughing. We were surrounding by a gaggle of young children listening to us and after a while Grace asked me to talk to them all about New Zealand (in my limited Tok Pisin). I was showing them photos of Wellington on my phone and they were all impressed by the huge buildings and the harbour, but the photo that got the most uproar and wolf whistling out of them was when I showed them a picture of man blong mi, Daniel; they all thought he was VERY handsome!

Following my crazy weeks of work and research, I flew out of Bougainville to New Britain, one of the New Guinea Islands, for a wee holiday and to meet Dan, who was flying in from New Zealand. I flew in to the capital, Kokopo, around midday. Given that Dan wasn’t to arrive for another five hours, I was FORCED buy some lunch at a nearby resort, which I ate while lounging by the pool. After a week of sleeping in bush huts and eating two minute noodles and rice while researching, I was in dire need of a bit of luxury. Some people may call this “white development worker privilege”; I do find it difficult to reconcile myself to the fact that I am able to live in the relative poverty of an average Bougainvillean and then fly out to a resort to make myself feel better. Nonetheless, it was amazing to finally relax and soak up some sun. Once Dan arrived with very little fanfare (it would have been incredibly inappropriate for me as a woman to hug, let alone kiss, a man in public, so I settled for an adoring gaze) we made our way to our accommodation for the night, at the house of another VSA volunteer and a university friend of mine, Laura.

Dan and I spent a fantastic week exploring Kokopo and spending time with other volunteers. I did get especially excited to find out that the shops had a lot of food I’m unable to buy in Buka, and my bag was distinctly heavier on the flight home due to my cravings for pasta and mustard, coffee and tea. We also travelled about an hour out of Kokopo to a place called Kabaira and stayed in a bungalow on the beach for a few nights. Tucked away amid thick banana groves and slender coconut trees gently swaying in the wind, we lounged, swam, snorkelled and kayaked for four glorious days. There was no real beach to speak of, but right by the shore there was a gorgeous coral reef, teeming with brightly coloured fish. Wispy angel fish, curious clown fish and a grim looking eel, besides innumerable other species, flitted through the other-worldly coral. Having lived in the region since pre-independence days, the Australian-PNG family who ran the guest house regaled us with the histories, myths and politics of the area.

Dan and I on our way to Kabaira, East New Britain.
A cultural performance group from Nissan Island, with the duk-duk, of the Tolai people.
Dan has come back to Buka with me for the next two weeks, and while I have to work (sometimes), we will also do a bit of travelling around Bougainville. We have spent some time exploring Buka and its surrounding islands, and next week we will travel down to Arawa and Kieta. Last week we spent the day watching the celebrations for the inauguration. A lot of different groups from different clans around Bougainville performed their traditional dances and there were quite a few (live) pigs offered to the new members of parliament as gifts; quite a valuable gift here, but one that I do cringe to see trussed up by its trotters while waiting for the ceremony to be over so it can be slaughtered. The colours and traditional dress donned by the dancers were pretty incredible; my favourite is the duk-duk from Nissan Island and the New Guinea Islands. This costume involves a person being covered in large green leaves, topped with yellow leaves, until he/she looks a lot like a giant pompom with legs; on top of this leafy body is a tall, conical head topped with feathers and flowers. The duk-duk is a representation of a particular spirit or ancestor of the Nissan people, and the dance it does while flanked by warriors can tell all sorts of stories. It was a beautiful, if not somewhat unusual, sight to see!

Having a  holiday has reminded me how much I love Bougainville, and what a fascinating place PNG is. It’s also made me incredibly homesick though; I have a lot more time to think about home and although I’m amazed that four months has passed already, I’m very aware that I still have six months to go before I can see my beautiful New Zealand again. I suppose that is the double-edged sword of such adventure; to explore the world one must leave home behind. 

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