I visited Papua New Guinea on my first overseas business trip, back in 1987. I was green, setting out on my international career, awed by and slightly afraid of this country I’d heard about for so long.
Flying across the country from the capital Port Moresby, it seemed so vast; it was mountainous, bush covered, misty and mysterious. Port Moresby itself is only connected to the rest of the country by flights. There are no connecting roads, due to the difficult terrain, although the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have been trying to get projects off the ground to build roads and link production centres.
PNG is a beautiful country, with stunning tourism potential and vast resources. It should be a lucky country, but it is struggling. And has been for a long time. Like many colonies, the blessing of huge natural resources turned out to be not much of a blessing at all. Foreign companies wanted to exploit the resources, and the civil war in Bougainville, home of the vast copper mine, during the 1990s took a huge toll, economically and more importantly humanly. A novel I read recently (and which I recommend – Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones) highlighted this.
Look at the map of PNG. Like many former colonies elsewhere, the colonial powers got together, and drew an arbitrary straight line down the middle of the island, separating PNG from Irian Jaya, a part of Indonesia. Not that the people in the middle of this island were aware they were in different countries for a long time. It is densely forested, with remote tribes. There may be some even now unaware of this.
I can understand how there are isolated tribes, all speaking different languages. PNG has the highest diversity of languages in the world, with over 800 languages; the average language is spoken by only 5,000 people. Consequently they speak a pidgin English to those of other tribes and language, Tok Pisin, and it is one of the country’s official languages. I loved seeing and hearing Tok Pisin in action, and wanted to learn more. An example: In the bank, over a counter, was the sign “Moni kwik”.
PNG is not a country you would choose to visit as a tourist. It is a country where the rule of law is only skin dip, and barely stretches beyond the capital of Port Moresby and other major towns. There is an almost permanent travel advisory issued by the New Zealand government for its citizens. When I visited, the local diplomats gave us some rules. Never get out of your car at night. If you are in an accident drive straight to the police station, do not stop. I waited in the parking lot of a supermarket as our locally based colleague took one of my travelling companions in to pick up some supplies. “Stay in the car, lock the door and keep it locked,” he warned me. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, soft and warm, the bougainvillea brilliant and pink, about 2 pm. All seemed innocent and safe. But the warnings spoke of hidden dangers.
The people I met though were kind, extremely softly spoken, and with a gentle sense of humour. It seemed difficult to equate their good nature with the violence I knew existed in their society.
We were there hoping to be able to help them boost their exports. Frankly, I doubt that we did. They had a lot of obstacles in front of them. Lack of roads, power and skilled workforces limited them. There was a story of an aid project giving a community a coolstore for their produce. When the aid workers returned months later, they found the coolstore had been turned into a disco. The poor transport infrastructure meant that even if the fruit and vegetables made it from the villages to the coolstore, and the power was running sufficiently to keep the produce cool, there were no means to regularly transport it on to the marketplaces of the major towns. I don’t know how true this story is, but it is certainly representative of the challenges facing the country and the aid donors. Likewise, with the society in the grips of the wantok culture, doing business there is fraught with difficulties. Wantok means “one talk” in Tok Pisin, and means those who speak one language, or family/relatives/friends, and refers to the cultural obligation to assist these people whatever the cost. Whilst it is a worthy family and community centric custom, in the modern age it makes running a successful business difficult for both locals and expatriates.
I was there only briefly. A stopover in Bougainville, and time in Port Moresby meeting with government officials, seeing the town with its contrast of stilt houses on the coast, the taller commercial buildings in the port area, and the government buildings in Waigani away from the coast. A town of contrasts, representing a nation of huge diversity.
I suspect I’ll never return to PNG. But I’m very glad I had the opportunity to visit once, briefly but memorably.
And I wish them well.