PhD candidate, Brad Underhill, reflects on Papua New Guinea’s reputation for violence after partaking in the ‘Unity Walk’ in Port Moresby.
When news broke in the Australian media about the killings in Papua New Guinea’s Hela Province earlier this year, it seemed to reaffirm PNG’s reputation for violence held by many in Australia. One Australian, very close to me, with such views, was my wife. When I told her of my plans to go to PNG as part of a Deakin University visit, she reacted with much trepidation, concerned that I may be in some danger. I, of course, was just excited to be going, fortunate enough to be sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Education; included in a study group of three historians and five PhD candidates whose research is primarily focused on PNG.
To compound PNG’s poor reputation, a couple of days before the trip, we were watching the Australian TV news about a protest march in Port Moresby which supported the West Papua Independence movement. The story was not wholly negative, but the crowd certainly appeared rowdy. This is perhaps typical of how a majority of the protests I see viewed through the mainstream media. However, this representation did little to reduce my wife’s concern regarding the impending journey to the mysterious land of PNG.
From a historical point of view, PNG seems to have always been portrayed as divided, backward and violent; a land of ‘1,000 tribes’. For example, a simple search of Trove with the terms ‘New Guinea’ and ‘violent’ yields 22,000 digitised newspaper articles. I am not arguing PNG is free of violence. For example, during our trip, there were front-page headlines in the local newspaper regarding the problems of car-jacking in Port Moresby. However, from a personal perspective, I spent the best part of two weeks in PNG in a number of different locales. Across these places, urban, rural, public and private, I only experienced a generous welcome from Papua New Guineans.
So, it was somewhat of a surprise to find myself with fellow PhD candidates Deb, Anna and Martin at 6 am on a ‘Unity Walk’ with ten thousand Papua New Guineans. It appeared, from an outsider’s perspective, suspiciously like a ‘protest’ march! But from my own vantage point, embedded in the march, surrounded by Papua New Guineans young and old, families, babies, university students, I felt part of a group of people determined to have a good time and participate in a community event. As I looked at the participants, I saw happy groups of people, many dressed in shirts emblazoned with PNG’s national colours, a demonstration of the pride they have in their country.
The Unity Walk is a weekly event, part of National Capital District (NCD) Governor Powes Parkop’s series of initiatives to instil pride in both Port Moresby and the nation. Other activities range from the creative- Yoga in the Park – to employing local people to sweep the streets and a program – in part funded by the Australian Government– which aims to get marginalised youth off the streets and into training programmes.
We followed Governor Parkop who, with his megaphone, demanded marchers keep calm and walk in silence. I must admit, I wondered whether his comments were directed at the potential for misconstrued images finding their way into the national and international news. Was I a participant in a PNG ‘protest’ march?
Within a short period of time, the marchers subverted the Governor’s requests and became an energetic cacophony of noise and energy: children were singing and running themselves ragged, youths popped in-and-out of the back of utes that were being driven back-and-forth beside the marchers, older people held signs of unity while they tried to control the youngsters.
As I walked amongst these people, I was conscious that all around me was community energy and passion. An Australian equivalent might be a reconciliation or climate change march, but even that doesn’t begin to describe the peculiarly Papua New Guinean nature of this event. This was not a march to protest, but instead, to come together. It was a community event not tied to a specific event or date but, from the outside, appeared an earnest attempt to instil the values of home, family, and clan onto the broader community.
Two points I found most interesting from attending this event. Firstly, this was a peaceful walk by a community often portrayed in international media as being part of a violent and divided nation. Secondly, the activity is being directed by the State to encourage civic and community pride. This action appears to have significant community support.
From what I observed, these people seem to ‘buy’ into government messaging around national unity and I cannot help but reflect on historic parallels; that is, the State attempting to unite a disparate people is not something new to PNG. The distinction to the Unity Walk is that Governor Parkop is focused on Port Moresby, a city of 374,000 people in a country of almost 9 million. Port Moresby is by far the largest city in PNG and it also has a large itinerant population which means Port Moresby can be regarded as a microcosm of PNG society. Most people continue to live in villages, if Governor Parkop can unite the Port Moresby population, then perhaps his methodology will be rolled out throughout the country. He certainly seems to have captured the attention of the people of Port Moresby and has expanded the program in recent years to New Britain and the Eastern Highlands capital of Goroka.
During my recent visit to PNG I was fortunate enough to meet all manner of interesting people. This led me to exponentially expand my knowledge of this extraordinary country. However, for me, the highlight of my trip was the ‘Unity’ walk because, from an outsider’s perspective, it challenged my notions of PNG as a divided and violent nation. Instead, I witnessed both the State and local communities embracing nation-building narratives of diversity with recognition of their history as a country of 1000 tribes.