Monday, September 20, 2010

Island Time, Buka, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea

A 3.00 am alarm, 4.00 am taxi ride and 5.30 am flight saw Niki, I and 70 kg luggage on a QANTAS Link flight from Cairns to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Only problem being next flight was a domestic one with Air Niugini that came with a luggage allowance of 16kg per person and a huge bill for excess. Taking presents to her extended family in Buka was becoming an expensive occupation however, as she said, it didn’t add up to too much if she divided it by the 10 yrs since she had last seen everyone.

Buka & Bougainville Islands

We landed at our scheduled time and enjoyed the simplicity of Buka’s arrivals hall and Baggage Claim while waiting for our ride. A quick phone call to Aisha, Niki’s ‘sister’ brought reassurance that Nick, her husband, should not be too far away. Sure enough we were soon greeted with a warm smile and huge hug by a very well dressed Bougainville National. Niki had met Aisha during her time on Lahir Island where she worked as Operations Manager on the mine from 1994 until 2000. During this time Niki and Aisha had become close friends and just prior to her departure Niki had been initiated into Aisha’s clan.

Buka Arrivals Hall

Isa and Nick rent two rooms in main town Buka where they live with their family. This includes their six children aged 11 yrs to 2 ½ months, their 9 yr old niece who has pretty much been part of their immediate family since birth along with Aisha’s mother (Mama) and father (Papa) without whom two full-time working parents would probably not be able to consider such a large family. It is also perhaps good reason why they had organised a room in the guesthouse next door for Niki and I to stay for the night before we headed north up to Lemankoa and Aisha and Nick’s home village of Tanhum.

After introductions and distribution of gifts to immediate family we were taken on a walk around main town Buka to meet the rest of the extended clan that resided in the main settlement of Buka Island. This is where it came in very useful to learn that is was absolutely OK to refer to all extended family as aunty or uncle and be referred to as aunty or sister.

Ferries to Bougainville

Niki had a very emotional reunion with Papa, Aisha’s father. During her time on Lahir Island Papa had gone missing at sea. He had always told family never to concern themselves if he should be away for 2 – 3 weeks however after this length of time Aisha and Niki both had major concerns. Aisha had taken leave from Lahir to return to the village while Niki stayed on so that she had access to international communications. And, sure enough, Papa and his friend eventually turned up in Honiara, Solomon Islands after 44 days at sea living off, rainwater, the odd coconut they found floating in the ocean, raw fish and sea birds. Niki sent her credit card details to buy Papa a ticket home and shortly afterward was initiated into Aisha’s clan.

Niki & I in our Merry Blouses from Aunty

On return from our wanderings Aisha, a queen in her respective clan, as are her mother and first born daughter in this matriarchal society, filled us in on the basic program for our week with family. Tuesday would be spent shopping and travelling to Tanhum, Wednesday visiting old house and grandfather’s grave, Thursday was reserved as home-brewing day, Friday boat trip to Hiku Island and Saturday would be a Mu Mu, a traditional feast family gathering and celebration in our honour before returning to main town Buka on Sunday.

Niki took us out for supper across the road at the Kiva Resort, which we had been recommended was the best place in town only what we didn’t know was that it would be packed with the opening evening of a conference for health workers focused on rebranding of an organisation that opposed lateral violence in the community. It was interesting to observe what else was happening in a space where group of like-minded individuals had gathered to promote awareness of lateral violence and HIV problems within community when at the table next to us a middle aged man was doing his best to secure the attention of a young woman of an age that could easily have been his daughter.

This is where I observed ‘community in action’. While most of the conference attendees were dancing to the music of the Bamboo Band Aisha and her mother began to step in. Their glances and remarks were very subtle at first however when these went by unnoticed they soon became much more focused speaking directly to the young woman and explaining that this man had a wife and family at home and she would be better to spend her time elsewhere. Eventually the young woman got up and left and the scene passed unnoticed while the music and dancing continued.

It brought me back to a conversation I had shared early in the day with Nick, Aisha and Niki about how much the more traditional society of Buka had fallen away in the 10 yrs since Niki had left PNG. Aisha and Nick commented on a whole generation of youth from their mid-teens to mid-twenties that had little to no respect for their elders or traditional ways. And of a youth culture of alcohol and marijuana smoking had taken over clouding the minds of the next generation.

Perhaps this partially explained why there was such a high presence of NZ Police in Buka at the time. And it was certainly the reason why there was a cruising yacht moored off Bougainville and six Australians being held by the authorities for being caught smuggling in weapons to Bougainville as trade for marijuana. This was followed up by a newspaper report a few days later stating that 80% of Bougainville’s youth were dependent upon marijuana.

View from Nick & Aisha's house observed from the verandah of our guest house

The following day Niki and Aisha kindly took over the shopping duties which allowed my otherwise controlling self to surrender and trust that they were quite capable of organising our supplies for the week while I spent some time catching up on a few overdue blog entries. As it happened the girls did a great job and I enjoyed five hours completely undisturbed as I downloaded my experiences of the past 6 weeks into the written word so that I would again be completely empty and present for whatever my week on Buka Island had in store for me. It also showed me how much time I have been spending on email and internet during my time in Cairns and how best I might consider organising my time in future.

Buka main town market

Nick had managed to borrow a Landcruiser Troop Carrier from his workplace which meant that we; 7 adults and 7 children could travel in relative comfort to the north of the island, a 1 ½ to 2 hour journey that would have otherwise taken 2 to 3 hrs in Uncle’s truck. The kids had not taken long to get over their shyness and we had a fun journey arriving in Tanhum just after dark and just in time for feet washing, a custom to physically and energetically cleanse the visitor that I was to experience on several occasions over the coming week.

Journey to Tanhum

Foot Washing Ceremony

Everyone settled in and found their allocated space and I soon discovered that in a four bedroom house with 9 adults and 7 children I had been given a room all to myself. I quickly explained to Aisha that this was not necessary and shortly afterward found myself with two 9yr old roommates; Annyella and her cousin/sister Isaleen.

It was full moon when we arrived so after supper I decided to make the most of the occasion and lay down on the grass outside to listen over the generator for the sounds of the jungle while I soaked up some moonbeams. The tranquillity only lasted a minute or so until both Aisha and Nick were by my side to check that everything was OK as certainly such bizzare behaviour was not common practice by anyone who was well! Relieved that I hadn’t suddenly succumbed to sudden illness or been overcome by a bad spirit, which for them was a very really possibility in a culture steeped in sorcery and black magic, the children soon joined my game and we played with their fluorescent bracelets and the fireflies beneath the southern stars...

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