At Ela Beach On PNG’s 35th Independence Day

A bilum bonanza with an independence theme - naturally

Today is Papua New Guinea’s 35th Independence anniversary. I went to Ela Beach to see what was happening – a popular spot for cultural events. One in particular – the arrival of the Hiri Lakatoi and the beginning of Hiri-related cultural celebrations culminating in the crowning of the Hiri Queen. Going back in time, I remembered when the first ever Hiri Queen was crowned though I did not attend the occasion. It was in 1971 and the Hiri Queen was my schoolmate and one of my Motuan close friends from the nearby village of Hanuabada. We were at the Sogeri Senior High School about 26 miles from the city of Port Moresby.

Today I was told the lakatoi will arrive tomorrow (Friday, 17 September). The lakatoi for this year was built by the master lakatoi makers of Manumanu Village not far from Port Moresby city. Each year one village which has been part of the Hiri trade and voyages for generations builds the lakatoi.

Am not sure whether I’ll be going down to Ela Beach again. It will be a working day and I have a few priority activities to attend to – pity but am sure will see it on telly – not the same but better than nothing.

As I wondered around the beach area and waterfront I realised how everyone was in national colours – red, black and gold. There were also dresses and dress accessories in the national colours and that included bilum.

In national colours - the unmistakable red, black and gold
T-shirts of all sizes
More bilum with the flag as a fitting symbol of nationalism - em nau.

I was taken back and really moved at the sight of so many PNG entrepreneurs who were taking advantage of the huge crowd – a few hundred I s’ppose – to sell items such as the ever evolving bilum, hats, necklaces, dresses, tops, mats, shells etc. I bought a tapa hat – made of mulberry bark from the Oro Province – the only province in PNG which makes tapa-wear.

Laplaps, anyone?
Locally produced items
An uplifting sight
Locally woven mats - local patterns
Bilum - woven multi-purpose totes that are unique to PNG especially the patterns, material and the designs of the bilum. Some tribal and handed down through generations. Others are contemporary and very a personal choice.
More PNG made and PNG traditional crafts...a treasure trove alright

I wondered around and took shots of people and activities. It was a very relaxed atmosphere. Many people of different races and nationalities were also there wandering around buying PNG crafts and taking photos. I was a local tourist by any stretch of the imagination and I relished the thought that one day soon Papua New Guinea will embark on a deliberate robust domestic tourism strategy…hmmm. Food for thought.

I found this interesting. Everyone was trying their luck - I did not witness any winners.

There were also people selling food, cold drinks and of course buai or buatau – the betelnut  – with a mild narcotic but a national treasure. There is no crime chewing buai/buatau but it is a bad habit and unhygienic to spit in public places! Ela Beach was no exception…yikes!

Buai in Tok Pisin or buatau in Motu (one of the lingua franca of PNG), and some cigarettes

The crowds were polite and there was a definite buzz in the air. I really was glad I made the effort to get out of my apartment and check out the local scene.

Some of the crowd looking out to sea...and enjoying the sea breeze and soaking up the atmosphere
The national flag flying high...
The huts in the background is part of the props for the Hiri Moale Festival
Children swimming in the warm tropical waters of Ela Beach
More people on the beach

As I walked away from the hustle and bustle of the beachfront and the many entrepreneurs and a quietly celebrating crowd, I felt good to be here amongst my people. I felt a lump in my throat at the warmth and polite crowd which mingled happily, and an evident demonstration of national pride. A sign of things to come…a hope held dear by many Papua New Guineans since I arrived here 4 weeks ago.

I looked  back and saw these ladies, we were all patriots in our own way, I thought, as I took one more shot for the road. They said thankyou as my Olympus  Digital clicked. Now where else would anyone thank you for taking their photograph.

Patriotic compatriots...a special day for a special people.

I thanked them back – only in PNG  – very comforting. From a tourist’s perspective, a unique selling point.

Memories of my beach walk on this special day.

16th September, 2009: A Day With A Difference

Dawn on 16th September, 2009 - from my window
Dawn on 16th September, 2009 - from my window

I woke up on Wednesday, 16th September and as I drew the curtains, this was the sight I beheld that morning. As the rising sun gradually chased away the night clouds, it was anybody’s guess what kind of a day was going to mark PNG’s 34th Independence Day.

What sort of day is today going to be...I wondered
What sort of day is today going to be...I wondered

I recalled when growing up that if the previous day ended with grey clouds the following day would be a great sunny day. Well, when I watched the dawn slowly break over Middlesex I kept on wishing that it was going to be a great sunny and dry day. I could not remember what the sunset was like the previous day!

Beyond the horizon the sun rises....16th September!
Beyond the horizon the sun rises....16th September!

As the sun sluggishly rose behind the leftover night clouds,  I began to feel an adrenalin rush. Today was a big day for all PNG wantoks who have been invited to the Independence Day celebrations that evening to be followed by the first ever contemporary PNG art exhibition. I really was looking forward to an Independence Day celebration with a big difference – to witness history being made. Wow, tarangu PNG yet ya!

Watching the sun rise for the very first time was an interesting experience...
Watching the sun rise for the very first time was an interesting experience...

Funny how every so often I stopped to think about nature and how God’s hand is in everything that’s around us. I wondered if the day was going to be different but more importantly whether the difference was more about my own thoughts about the day than the rising sun outside or anything else for that matter. I decided that I’d allow my thoughts to shape how I was going to celebrate the day. How many of us take a day for granted everyday? – just plowing through the day without thinking about it’s significance for that moment in our lives. I know, I am one of those people.

The excitement of 16th September and the fact that in a few weeks after the Independence Day I would be clearing 5 full years on my job contract was significant. My thoughts turned to that momentarily. But I decided I’d remain focused on the celebration of 16th September.

So peaceful and tranquil...not a car in sight!
So peaceful and tranquil...not a car in sight!

Meanwhile the rising sun, although not as spectacular as some of the ones I’ve witnessed growing up in Milne Bay and later on in Port Moresby, created a brief suspended moment so peaceful, it was hard to describe. All I could think about at that moment was how great our God is. He is Omnipotent.

I wondered whether the sunrise, the fact that I’m noticing if for the very first time, was a direct correlation to the significance of 16th September. The lyrics of the beautiful Hetei Dickson classic came to mind, “…16th of September, a day to remember, as brothers united we stand.” Oops, perhaps I can sneak in “…as wantoks united we stand” – just so gender-sensitve people don’t get hot around their collars.  Anyway, as far as I was concerned 16th September was  going to be my bestest day.

Yes, "...16th of September, a day to remember..."
Yes, "...16th of September, a day to remember..."

The curtains now fully drawn, and with the sun’s rays streaming through the double-glazed glass windows, I allowed my adrenalin rush to take over as I charged the battery to my Nikon D80 and looked forward to the photographs I would be taking at the Independence Day reception.  I was definitely taking photos! As I buzzed around getting ready for my daily commute to the office, I hummed the timeless Hetei Dickson classic and felt extra special. I was the only PNG person – yes, mi wan pis tasol long wok ples so why not. Feeling special for a special day was free.

"Let the flag of our nation fly high..."
"Let the flag of our nation fly high..."

Additional excitement…this was the day when the PNG flag will be flying high over my office building. This is a tradition of the organization, don’t know when it started, but whenever it was a national day for one of the Commonwealth member countries, that member country’s flag will be flying over the building on the designated day. Today was PNG’s and how fortunate, privileged and proud I felt as I anticipated seeing the PNG flag atop the building today. I felt blessed and excited as the day unfolded. The flags are always fresh and crisp and what pride one feels when one sees one’s country’s flag flying high over London. Perhaps not so high as my office building is only 3 storeys high. But it was better than nothing.

I looked up expectantly and there it was! What a proud moment as I sailed into the courtyard.
I looked up expectantly and there it was! What a proud moment as I sailed into the courtyard.

Back home as I took off for the train station my thoughts turned to the “Hailans to Ailans” historic international exhibition of contemporary PNG art which was to be officially opened by PNG’s High Commissioner to the UK and Northern Ireland and, I was going to meet five iconic PNG artists. I wanted the day to be the best for all of us – the PNG wantoks and me. I wondered too who I was going to meet at the reception and whether the wantoks I know were going to be there…

Well, the day ended, a dry sunny day not a rainy and windy one.  I recalled the grey dawn and sunrise over Middlesex at the beginning of that day and wondered whether there was a great sunset on 15th September and therefore a good omen for our 34th Independence celebration on 16th September. I’m not sure whether the traditional anecdotes from my Suau-speaking tribe handed down through generations of mothers and aunties is  worth keeping in my bank of traditional knowledge of unwritten facts of life.  Could I hang on to it? That a grey end of the previous day heralds in a bright sunny day in the next? As the celebration ended and I headed home, I smiled and grinned like a Cheshire cat as I reflected in silence – yes, without a doubt,  it was a great 16th September, a day with a huge difference. How many wantoks felt the way I did that evening…one of these days I’m sure to find out.

Infront of one of Martin Morububuna's cubic shape masterpieces
Infront of one of Martin Morububuna's masterpieces