In Port Moresby, Independence Day comes in the season of the laurabada, when the southeast trade wind whips up the dry season dust. On the 16th of September, a huge flag rises at dawn on the hill adjoining Parliament House.
Our party left the hotel at 5 a.m. and parked on the long road outside Parliament in a jam of cars and trucks filled with enthusiastic citizens. We joined thousands of Papua New Guineans in the pre-dawn dark of the tropical morning all headed for the flagpole on the hill. Nearly all are joyously, unabashedly, draped in the colours and motifs of the flag. While outsiders might insist that national consciousness is impossible in this country with more languages and cultures than it can ever subsume, the love for the PNG flag flies in the face of this argument. Tee shirts, Meri blouses and hats in contemporary or traditional representations of the black, red, and yellow flag spill out from shops around the city. All through Independence week Port Moresby was bathed in a sea of citizens wearing PNG on their bodies. Across their chests were quotations from the national anthem – From Mountain to Sea – or exhortations for Papua New Guinea to ‘Be Strong’. The early morning light of the tropics added a special vibrancy to the dominant reds, glowing in the daybreak air.
This bisected ensign – the lower black triangle grips the Southern Cross while the golden bird of paradise flies through the upper red section – was born from the final days of the colonial past. In the mid-1960s a United Nations’ Visiting Mission suggested to the Australian colonisers that Papua New Guinea was ready for a flag and an anthem in preparation for independence. In 1971 Susan Karike, a 15-year-old Papuan schoolgirl from Yule Island, won the colony wide competition with a hand-drawn entry torn from her exercise book. Forty-two years after independence Susan Karike Huhume died in poverty on the outskirts of Port Moresby. Her family was unable to afford the cost of a burial and her body lay above ground gathering the shame of the nation until then Prime Minister O’Neill provided funds for a state funeral.
Among the converging crowd, who exuded a sense of respectful, happy anticipation, we climbed the steep slope from the road – stepping carefully over a sleeping boy – to join those lining the path from Parliament to flagpole. Before us stood four young people in the traditional clothes of Chimbu and Bougainville, the official representatives from the 22 provinces dressed in local dress, or bilas (Pidgin). The young man and woman from Bougainville may well be attending their last ceremony. In the months before Independence in 1975, Bougainville seceded from the decolonising Papua New Guinea and declared itself the Republic of North Solomons, insisting it was geographically and culturally separate from a distant Port Moresby. But the province was tethered to the nation by the large Bougainville copper mine, which provided Papua New Guinea essential foreign currency. An ugly civil war in the 1990s fought between Bougainville separatists and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force finally ended with a deal that promised immediate autonomy in the present and a referendum in the future. The vote is set between 23 November to 7 December this year. Political commentators predict a landslide for an independent Bougainville nation.
We craned our necks from the back of the crowd of Papua New Guinea citizens but could see little. But this is 2019 and two drones hovered above us, so Martin, a Deakin PhD student from Enga Province in the Highlands, switched on his ipad for the live feed so we could see the faces of the dignitaries and bands rather than the tops of their heads. Another doctoral student, Brad, from Melbourne, lifted one small boy to watch the parade from his shoulders.
The crowd, like most Melanesian groups, was hushed. People spoke in soft voices in conversations between families. We – the only Australians present – dominated our section with our raucous jokes and our loud comparisons with Australian Day celebrations. We were the uninvited motley colonial crew, taking up more space than our Papua New Guinea neighbours, somehow both trusting and unsure of our welcome in the changed power relations of a decolonised country.
But it was not about us. At 5.50 the new Prime Minister James Marape arrived in a convoy and led the first of the dignitaries up the road, evoking a modest cheer. His maiden speech as Prime Minister earlier this year called for Papua New Guinea to be ‘the richest black Christian nation’ on earth. It is a bold claim that repositions the country set to the east of Muslim Indonesia and above nominally Christian Australia in a region increasingly dominated by China. The phrase rings out in this devout aspirational nation where the billboards advertise churches and mines. It is also a call for black pride based on a deep faith in Christian prosperity and equality rather than the radical politics of the 1970s.
Behind Marape came the Police Band, which struck up a rousing tune. On the first notes the last of the crowd sprinted up the hill to catch a glimpse of the men in white uniforms. At the top of the road the huge flag was draped over a snare drum in preparation for its raising. Following speeches by the Catholic Cardinal from East New Britain, recently elevated by Pope Francis, and Marape, it was drawn up the pole as the crowd softly sang the curiously old-fashioned national anthem. PNG Royal Constabulary bandmaster, Thomas Shacklady, composed the tune and the lyrics in the early 1970s. Given his age and his role, he was probably ignorant of the spread of second wave feminism. Around Port Moresby and in the universities, young independence period Papua New Guineans were debating the place of women in the coming nation. Yet the anthem begins with ‘O arise all you sons of this land’. The second verse is firmly devoted to the paternal Christian God and the ‘land of our fathers so free’. The choruses, however, are stirring and heartfelt, and while four million women of Papua New Guinea are conspicuously absent from the national song, boys and girls around the country sing the rousing lilting tune. The young girl standing beside us knew all the words, which end with
Shout again for the whole world to hear
Papua New Guinea;
We are independent and we’re free
Papua New Guinea
Happy 44th Independence Day Papua New Guinea
– Associate Professor Helen Gardner