Cry, my town – Popondetta

Normal, Weekender

Popondetta, once a neat and thriving township is deteriorating and no one seems willing to take responsibility, writes COLIN TAIMBARI

THE age old klinki pine trees still stand tall in the park towards the centre of town but they have withered over the past 60 or so years since the town of Popondetta was relocated from Higaturu following the eruption of Mount Lamington in 1951.
The Mt Lamington Remembrance Park used to be neat and planted with beautiful flowers – it was one of my favourite spots to hang out after school in the early to mid 80s just admiring these giant majestic pine trees which I believed were from a very far away land as they were clearly different from all the other trees around town.
Just like the park, much of Popondetta town (originally called Popondotta – the Anglican Church still refers to it as such) then was neat and beautiful with well kept lawns, residences planted with beautiful flowers, tidy streets and its people having pride in their origins as people of Oro.
Popondetta has since lost its shine.
To say that the town is covered in dirt and overgrown grass would be an understatement. There’s literally a jungle out there and sadly no one seems to want to take responsibility to restore things.
The irony of this sorry state is clearly captured right next door at the Popondetta War Memorial which is all polished and well kept with a beautiful garden. Maybe the only picture perfect spot in town right now and it is maintained by the Australian War Graves Commission. 
After several years away from home, I took my two young children home last week and what I saw was not the town I grew up in. While many towns and cities in PNG – notably Port Moresby have rapidly progressed in the past 10 years – my Popondetta has rapidly disintegrated into a neglected rural outpost.
The only new looking structures are the Papindo supermarket, a refurbished Bank South Pacific branch and a few other modern conveniences.
Naturally, I reminisced and my fondest memories were of the golf course where we went every day after school or on Saturdays to caddy for the town residents, expatriate plantation owners or those expats coming in to establish the then Higaturu Oil Palm plantations.
Most of the expatriates have since moved on and the picturesque nine-hole golf course and club house, once the envy of many other towns in PNG have been taken over by jungle and illegal immigrants from way out of town.
I also remember Michael Somare and a much younger and active Ted Diro teeing off near the coconut trees down the par four fairways towards the first green. This was where I learnt to first swing a golf club and play golf.    
The nearby rugby league ground where we went every Sunday to cheer for our local stars or watch visiting teams for the Southern Zone trials, Cambridge Cup or the visiting British Amateur Rugby League Association (BARLA) take on our local Southern Zone boys is overgrown with bush. The iron sheets that fenced the entire length and breadth of the field have been removed by illegal squatters. The soccer field next door where we watched many a exciting match is also overgrown with bush and is been used as a rubbish dump by residents, a toilet for those in a hurry, sometimes for prostitution.
The market is also in a very sorry state – it has been left to deteriorate as locals continue to sell their produce. Just a few meters towards the back gate is a heap of rotting rubbish.
A building in the heart of the market which was originally erected for sale of fish and other fresh meat products is been leased by the town council to a Chinese national who has turned it into a fast food outlet.
Over the road, Popondetta High School (now Secondary), once a shining example of neatness and pride. At the beginning of each academic year, the school was divided into groups and allocated certain sections of the school grounds including the areas outside the school boundary beside the main roads to keep clean. We worked hard with pride to keep it neat and tidy – it’s just not the same today.
Even the one important building that symbolizes the pride and existence of Oro – the Horukari Bande or Provincial Assembly still remains a rubble since it was burnt down some 10 or so years ago. There is to date no indication of it been rebuilt. The only positive development here would be the new police houses at the town barracks but again, you have to strain your eyes through the tall grass to admire them.
During my visit there were times when I thought I would get lost in the bush going to the town market from my family hideout at Goruta Street because the grass is about two meters tall and if not for the small strip of bitumen road, it would have been covered in bush.
So who is responsible for restoring the pride of Oro, because for visitors Popondetta town gives the first impression for the rest of the province? I put that question to a very senior officer of Ijivitari electorate which also covers Popondetta town.
His blunt response stunned me as he said it’s the Governor’s job. This is the attitude of many public servants and people in Oro. As such the infrastructure and people’s lives are deteriorating while Oro leaders shun their responsibilities.
Meanwhile, millions of kina meant for development is been siphoned off by public servants and political cronies who would rather spend the whole day drinking alcohol at Bangoho Stone Divers than serving the people.
I saw similar cases of neglect in many parts of the province where I traveled during my one week break including a drive down to the historical war time village of Buna. The village was unfortunately cut off by floodwater and we had to turn around at Siremi primary school because our Toyota Land Cruiser Troop Carrier (10-Seater) was fast becoming a submarine and we risked copping the brunt of the hire car company.