Coffee, women and tyranny of terrain – an Eastern Highlands perspective

 Highlands women with coffee bags

By:  Jeffrey Mane Febi

They call us camels. They call us white horses. They call us semi-trailers. They call us many names. Names of things we don’t know much about. We’re they who walk with the strength of our grandmothers; those bygone women who tamed angry rivers; appeased bellowing clouds and walked with mists.

This very dawn, as light stretches its influence across a grey sky, a weary traveler under a rock shelter; or under a tree’s roots; or from inside a hastily constructed temporary shelter during yesterday’s twilight; wakes to an early dawn orchestra.

A stifled yawn and stretch, then a long loving look and gentle graceful touch at life warmly kept in her bosom’s softness; and then at neatly stacked pile of white bags dissipate lingering weariness from a restless night. The journey that started 37 years ago must continue.

On a rocky ridge where violent winds play and clouds more often than not watch and cry over those who rise with sweaty sleeves, blistered backs and heavy hearts in any given gloomy morning; a young family walks on somewhat silently under heavy loads. The mother firmly cuddles in her weary arms a package from which a pair of peering sickly eyes – devoid of animation and manifesting all life’s flaws-caught her gaze.

At the ridge’s foot, over a fast flowing river a cane bridge swings left dangerously, then right. A stretcher of wood and reinforced used-rice bags is being ferried across on bare shoulders – one step at a time while the river’s deafening roars remind the carriers what lays beneath. One wrong step and certain death is inevitable.

On the other side of the river a voice gentle and soft sings: ‘…oh mighty Wamu, flighty splashes! It’s only me, only him! Olomo’s mama, Olomo’s papa! Calm down now, warm down you! Don’t be cross, let us cross! Sorrow will be tomorrow’s! Don’t be cross, let us cross’.  It echoes into the heart of him who is in the stretcher and uplifts the spirits of the carriers.

Then a skinny arm, like a dry tree branch reaches out and attempts to steady the unsteady stretcher. It drops back in as quickly as it emerged.

On a lookout, resting place where multitudes have paused to marvel at the beauty of seemingly unending evergreen faces of mountain ranges, waterfalls and patrolling birds yonder; a teenager pulls a piece of newspaper from a side bag. Before he rolls his tobacco leaves, he reads aloud: ‘…the gov…ern…ment…’ and abruptly stops. However the next word is pronounced and whatever the bloody hell it means isn’t going to stress his exhausted mind – not now! Soon he’ll be puffing his exhaustion into circular skinny columns of drifting mists of vapor.

But close by watches his mother. Her heart breaks upon hearing her dear son. ‘He really misses school! Hope the coffee bags we’ve been ferrying for the last three days raise sufficient funds to ensure his return to school next year’, she started to cry.

A dry bitterness in her thirsty throat starts to grow. She looks up. The damn track, zigzagging endlessly up into the mists glared teasingly back at her as if she hadn’t conquered it before. Figures of women under heavy loads, accompanied by their spouses and grown children continue on in a long line like camels.

Eastern Highlands women from remote rural places like Unavi, Gimi, Marrawaka, Unggai and Wesan, are daily impoverished by the tyranny of its terrains. Other places in PNG: Teleformin, Menyyama, and Salt-Nomane to name a few also encounter similarly daunting circumstances.

Many a heroine, accompanied by a trustworthy husband, whilst waiting for the government to at least promise them a glimmer of hope, continues to tread treacherous tracks to make ends meet.

Their eyes have beheld countless sufferings and their ears have heard many a final cry but still they persevere. Giving up isn’t an option and still they derive and summon incredible strength somehow. It is truly a marvel – the strength of a woman.

And the journey continues; a journey to sell coffee beans, vegetables or meat for money and to access the nearest health facility.

Oh words of hope, which glisten and dance from many a leader’s lips, are words and mere words.

Highlands women with coffee bags
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The Eastern Highlands: trains, railways and tyranny of terrain

By Jeffrey Mane Febi

 

They call us camels. They call us white horses. They call us semi-trailers. They call us many names. Names of things we don’t know much about. We’re they who walk with the strength of our grandfathers; those bygone men who tamed angry rivers; appeased bellowing clouds and walked with mists. Our coffee beans shall not go to waste! Our coffee beans shall not go to waste! O no – no – no; shall not go to waste!

 

This morning a weary traveler, somewhere under a rock shelter, or under a tree’s roots, or from a hastily constructed temporary shelter during yesterday’s twilight, is awaken by a pre-dawn song; an eerie sound made by unseen creepy crawly creatures close by. A loud yawn and a stretch, then a glance at neatly stacked pile of white bags dissipates lingering weariness from a restless night. The journey that started 38 years ago must continue but the destination seemed further still.

On many a rugged hill, where clouds more often than not come to watch and cry over those that rise in any given gloomy morning with sweaty brows, blistered shoulders and burdened hearts; a father, a mother, or a  child moves on under heavy load.

 

On a rocky ridge where violent winds come to play, a mother firmly cuddles in her weary arms a package from which a pair of sickly eyes peered into hers; though devoid of animation, they manifests life and all its flaws quiet dramatically. It is only a matter of steps before life itself is shut out.

At the foot of this ridge, way down below, over a fast flowing river, a rope bridge swings dangerously to the left then right under a massive load. A stretcher, of wood and reinforced used-rice bags, is being ferried across on shoulders; one step at a time. One wrong step and certain death is inevitable. A skinny arm, like a dried tree branch, reaches out and attempts to grasp a side pole as if to steady the unsteady stretcher.

On a lookout, a resting place where multitudes have paused to gaze and marvel at the beauty of the seemingly unending mountain ranges, waterfalls and the evergreen faces of those ranges; a teenager pulls out a piece of newspaper from a side bag. Before he rolls his dried tobacco leaves, he reads: …the gov…ern…ment… and stops. However the next word is pronounced and whatever the bloody hell it means isn’t going to stress his exhausted mind; not now. Soon he’ll be puffing his exhaustion into tiny circular and skinny columns of drifting mists of vapour.

These typify the struggles of many of our rural Eastern Highlanders. Places like Unavi, Gimi, Marrawaka, Unggai and Wesan, for instance are daily impoverished by the tyranny of our rugged terrain.

Other places in PNG: Teleformin, Menyyama, and Salt-Nomane, to name a few, encounter similarly daunting circumstances.

The prevailing challenge is how to connect these largely organically rich and pristine areas to vital government infrastructure or how to deliver vital government services to them on a daily basis.

Roads seemed to be the answer at the outset but, over time PNG has learned that they become increasingly problematic. Soil type, high tropical rainfall, sheer vastness of these ranges and enormous costs of maintenance, makes building roads to remote places an overwhelming challenge.

This brings to mind railways and trains. Though un-tested technology in the PNG modern situation, it’s worth a try. No need for a province wide railway network. Imagine connecting only rural areas of Eastern Highlands named, to Goroka and Kainantu. Organically grown Coffee and vegetables which grow in abundance would be easily transported to markets. And medicine and school materials would be ferried back. It’s about tapping into the potential of under-utilised fertile rural areas; the opening up of a world of potential and ensuring rural people partake meaningfully in the economy of PNG.

And if all rural areas of PNG are likewise connected to markets, what may become of PNG will truly be unprecedented.

The next face of development and growth envisioned in the PNG Vision 2050 could ride on the back of trains and railways connecting the potentially rich and under-utilised rural Eastern Highlands and other rural areas of PNG.

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