A roadblock to progress

Normal, Weekender

Harassment and demands for instant payment by local people at landslips and damaged sections of roads are common along highways and feeder roads in the Highlands, writes KEVIN PAMBA

Dateline Kumitpe landslide site, Nipa District, Southern Highlands Province. The time is 3.16pm, Friday 16th October, 2009. As rain begins to fall a dozen young Southern Highlanders armed with bush knives surround a vehicle that comes to a stop.
These are mostly teenagers and young adults who should otherwise be in secondary school and university or a college studying to become somebody worthwhile in Nipa or elsewhere in SHP and Papua New Guinea.
The young men mostly from Towan village that surround the vehicle are among many local men, women and children at the scene of the landslide.
If some of them were to be students from the nearby Nipa Secondary School, they would be preparing for the final exams instead of wasting their time and taking the law into their own hands with their
On this rainy afternoon these Southern Highlanders are confronting the driver and those in the vehicle to milk money out of them under duress.
They put a price tag of K300 for this vehicle to pass through the small bypass they have
created alongside the major landslip that has blocked the Mendi to Tari road for a week.
This Toyota Hilux Fifth Element is behind three other vehicles waiting to negotiate the boggy passage. As the driver and passengers of the Hilux wait, several of the youths become restless with their demand of K300. The driver does not respond immediately to their demand and tells them that he will have to cross the bypass first before he ‘pays’ them.
When the driver repeats his stand, two of them become more uneasy and call for reinforcement from their wantoks on the hillside in the Nipa Angal (local dialect). They are not aware that the
driver of the Toyota Hilux can understand bits of the Nipa Angal because it has traces of the Kewapi language of the eastern part of SHP that he speaks.
The Nipa youths probably do not realize that the driver is also a Southern Highlander and he understands their mindset, their language and what they are up to and he is also very familiar with this part of the province.
As rainfall increases the condition of the boggy bypass deteriorates and the vehicles before the Fifth Element struggle to negotiate. The driver then makes up his mind to return to Mendi town, a three-hour drive away.
The driver reminds his family and others in the vehicle of his decision that there is no guarantee that the Toyota Hilux will negotiate the crossing.
They decide to return to Mendi for the safety of the vehicle and two of his children who are crying as they are not used to lengthy trips on rough roads and duress.
As the driver informs the Towan youths that he is turning back to Mendi because the vehicle cannot negotiate the boggy track, they think otherwise. They try to convince the driver that the Fifth Element can make it as there are no large rocks in the mud that could damage the diff and other parts of the vehicle. But the driver is not persuaded. He then uses a Digicel phone to call a policeman on the other side of the road block with his colleagues from Tari to organize police protection when he turns around the vehicle in case the youths become frustrated over a missed opportunity of making K300 from him and his passengers.
The Tari based policeman arranges for escort from the Highway 20 patrol vehicle from Mendi who is at the road block and is on its way back to the provincial capital.
The two cops in the Highway 20 vehicle then agree to escort the driver and his passengers to Mendi and watch as he turns the vehicle around. They were at the road block delivering the message from provincial authorities that they must allow a contractor to clear the road block and they were to be compensated with K20,000 but the villagers refused.
With police escort, the Toyota  Hilux makes the return trip to Mendi in peace while the driver and his family members enjoy the majestic afternoon scenery of limestone cliffs, waterfalls, fast-flowing rivers, misty gorges and valleys whose natural beauty belies the lawlessness propagated by some Southern Highlanders such as those at the Kumitpe landslide area.
The next day, the driver and his family and friends leave behind their vehicle in Mendi and resume the journey to Tari on the Toyota Landcruiser of a relative and pass through the Towan road block with ease after paying K50 as the owner of the vehicle is known to the locals.
The villagers have been making amounts ranging from K50 to K500 on every passing light vehicle on either direction for over a week since the landslip occurred on the early morning of Monday 12th
October, 2010.
The conduct of the youths in this part of Nipa is a microcosm of how many Southern Highlanders have regressed in their thinking and worldview in recent times.
Similar harassment and demand for instant payment/compensation by local people at landslips and damaged sections of roads are becoming a common place along highways and feeder roads in the Highlands and it is catching on in other parts of the country.
The Nipa incident could be an outward sign of the impact that the widely-publicised management and governance problems have had on the people of this once progressive and peaceful province.
Southern Highlanders with the mindset of the young men at the Kumitpe landslide live in a world of their own oblivious of the progressive strides made by much of humanity outside of their tiny tribal territories.
This regressive thinking Southern Highlanders can be freed from being prisoners of their unfortunate circumstances with increased access to education and other modern opportunities available to the rest of the civilized world.