As the PMV (local minibus) came to a grinding halt at an intersection in the centre of Port Moresby, I came eye to eye with a sign straddling the traffic light pole declaring “Treat our City as Your Pikinini”. The city as “child” is an engaging new metaphor for metropolitan city space, but particularly apt for this organic, idiosyncratic and human-centred city.
It offers a clue as to why PNG’s capital, its functioning logic a mystery to many visitors, remains persistently calm through tempestuous and challenging political times.
The day a military mutiny occurred not far from our route, dominating the nightly television news, the city and its bus drivers didn’t miss a beat. From the north of town, our driver maintained his aloof attention to the road, roaring in and out of bus stops, disgorging dust and passengers in rapid succession. If you missed this bus, the next one would be along in two minutes.
Gordons Market was still full of peri-urban food gardeners intent on selling their produce, people were relaxing along Ela Beach in the heart of town and street vendors would not think of abandoning their roadside market tables and potential sales of betel nut, cordial and cigarettes.
The following morning my fellow PMV passengers were brandishing copies of The National and Post Courier newspapers, reading the latest accounts of the city’s dramatic events, but with detached demeanours, soon distracted by their need to get to work or complete their daily errands. In a nation where 85% of the population support themselves through the informal economy, the reality is that, for most people here, the lives and exploits of the elite occur in a separate parallel universe.
They are not fazed. Governments and politicians come and go, while their lives remain, for the most part, unchanged.
Fifteen per cent are employed in the formal sector, but for the majority, a livelihood depends on self-generated microeconomic initiatives, many associated with cultivating food gardens on the city’s periphery and local market-based selling. At Gordons fresh produce market, Bire, one of many vendors who works with his “wantoks” to grow, market and sell produce, is unhesitatingly proud of the fact that “we do all of this ourselves”.
The forthcoming 2012 national election will be an important opportunity for people to select their desired leader, but, in Port Moresby communities, it is not individual politicians’ personalities or parties, but the real issues affecting their lives that generate discussion.
Informal settlements on the outskirts of the capital are home to diverse communities from every province in the country. Residents include public servants, professionals, university lecturers and remarkable achievers, such as distinguished artists and decorated civic leaders, as much as those who are unemployed. Here there is no ambiguity about the real issues.
In 8 Mile Settlement in the city’s north, Mary said: “Some people have stayed in this settlement for maybe 10, 15, 20 years and there are no government services. We want power to be installed, we want water to be installed; we want this place to be developed. We want to see this settlement here urbanised, developed and we want people to settle down and get things done. And then we will see some changes.”
Enabling human talent and capacity is another priority. “Better training venues are required here,” claimed Luna, “Where our children, or ladies, or men who are sitting and doing nothing could train in means of agriculture, in means of setting up businesses, market set ups and other things. There should be some kind of training continually going on.”
“We’ve got talented ladies here who can really do things,” Mary added, “We are really wishing that somebody from the government helping us out there could come and set up a market for us. Our Highlands ladies, they make bilums, they make crafts and they sell them. Now Sepik ladies, they make carvings, they make bilums, baskets, crocodiles, masks.
“The tourism office should come and see us. They should really see what we make here and set up a place for us. These talented ladies are sitting at home. There is no market for them. They keep them in the house. We want to sell them.”
Through their sheer energy, positive attitude and unfailing community co-operation, the ordinary people of this metropolis are doing it for themselves. And, in so doing, they ensure that Port Moresby, seen as the centre of a crisis by the world’s media, continues to function every day for themselves and others, no matter what the day brings.