On the eve of Papua New Guinea’s 41st Independence Anniversary in September, a relatively large group of villagers gathered at Yalumet, a government station tucked away in the hinterlands of the of the Kabwum District of the Morobe Province.
They met for a ceremony marking the end of a long running feud between political rivals backed by their clans. Those who facilitated the ceremony came from the Morobe Provincial Government. For many it was rare for members of the government bureaucracy to visit this isolated community even on the eve of Independence.
Since the 1990s, Independence celebrations have become little more than commemorations of a day when school children raise the flag bearing the gold Kumul and the Southern Cross and sing the noble words of an anthem in a foreign language. Independence day has come to mean little for a people isolated and so far removed from the rest of Papua New Guinea.
As the country’s capital, Port Moresby, grows, evidenced by new four lane highways and tall concrete buildings, Yalumet has remained quite the same since the 1970s.
EMTV cameraman, Maisen Hungito, who brought back telling images of the state of affairs of the old government station and its people said in his own words: “The airstrips were built with ‘man power,’ crowbars spades and digging sticks.”
Airstrips were the initiative of the colonial government and driven by Chief Engam Dumulok who envisioned positive change in the lives of his people.
In 1927, when the first missionary arrived in Yalumet, Dumulok was a 7-year-old boy who saw for the first time, new things that would become part of his adult life.
Dumulok never got a formal education but was a highly skilled, intuitive organiser and leader. In 1968, he was appointed by a “Kiap” or patrol officer as a representative of his people.
He led the work parties that built the Yalumet airstrip. Later some of those skills and knowledge were passed on to other clans who built the neighboring Kabwum, Satuak and Sapmanga airstrips.
In 1975, Engam Dumulok led the independence celebrations in Yalumet as the Prince of Wales witnessed the lowering of the Australian flag in distant Port Moresby. Years later, he would be recognised by the Queen for his services to his community.
Airstrips built by Dumulok’s work parties became a lifeline for the young independent country and a people hopeful of ongoing development. Schools thrived and services trickled down from far off Waigani to the people. Messages were passed through letters sent by plane or by two-way radio.
But by the 1990s, third level airline services began to experience demise when the second biggest operator, Talair, abruptly ended its operations after four decades in the country. Over the next 20 years, flights into Yalumet and other nearby airstrips became irregular and the delivery of government services declined.
Teachers from other provinces who previously lived and taught in remote areas like Yalumet did not want to continue working in those locations as travel costs became unbearable.
In 2008, Engam Dumulok passed away at 88, after having lived through a period that saw the arrival of missionaries, the exit of colonial powers and the arrival of the computer age.
The promising potential of new socioeconomic developments Dumulok foresaw in the 1960s appeared to have waned after his death.
Early this month, the only third level airline servicing Yalumet and surrounding areas, North Coast Aviation, announced it was cutting back operations due to a shortage of fuel for its older piston engine aircraft vital for rural flights. The fuel shortage coupled with high import and maintenance costs will contribute to the further regression of Yaluet’s economic and social development.
On 16 September 2017, months after a new government takes office, the people of Yalumet will again, gather to see their children raise the Papua New Guinea flag and sing the national anthem in the language of the former colonial power.
One can safely bet that their living conditions will have seen little change, unless there is a demonstration of political will strong enough to bring about a transition for the better.