H’lands women broker peace

National, Normal

The National, Tuesday 20th December 2011

“YOU know there’s no such thing as a free bilum,” the crusty old kiap – a patrol officer, one of the legions who never made it back to Australia after independence in 1975 – explained to this wide-eyed white meri (white woman) on her first foray into Papua New Guinea.
“If you are presented with a spear, the expectation is clear – you should bring back something from the hunt.”
A bilum is used to carry garden vegetables and fruits from the forest.
“It must come back, bearing gifts.”’
In PNG the cargo ferried in bilums along the nation’s fractured roads sustains families. While bilums are carried by men and women alike, they are powerfully symbolic of the burdens of women in a nation where the state provides them with little or nothing.
Indeed, the crisis teams installed by Medecins Sans Frontieres to help women brutalised by violence in the Highlands hot spots of Tari and Lae use a “bilum scale” to measure their patients’ distress – at one extreme a grim-faced, wretched woman is bent double under her heavy load; at the other end her bag swings lightly from her shoulder as she stands up straight and smiling.
My most prized bilum is a riotous rainbow of yellow, green, red and orange. It was given to me by Mary Kini and Agnes Sil, “peacewomen” activists from the Highlands village of Kup.
Together with their friend Angela Apa, they brought about a social revolution in their community, where 18,000 people had endured 30 bloody years of tribal war.
Teachers and health workers fled, buildings burnt, girls could not collect water without risk of rape, families went hungry because women could not work in their gardens for fear of attack, mothers buried broken sons.
Then Agnes, Mary and Angela began to meet secretly, and at great risk.
They colluded behind racks of second-hand clothes in the market stalls. They began an underground movement to end the violence.
“What was the fighting about?” I asked. Power. Prestige. Pigs. Compensation. The settling of old scores. Their men had fought with bows and arrows and then, devastatingly, with guns.
“Enough was enough,” Agnes said.
They rallied hundreds of women into a march – they wailed and sang behind banners declaring “No more tribal fights” and “Tears and love”.
They told the stunned men to shut up and listen. They gave harrowing testimony to the pain of raising children only to have them slaughtered.
“Our houses are burnt down, and the kids are with no food – we have had enough.”
When the Kup women finished speaking, one of the chief men stood up and declared himself ashamed.
Agnes says: “He said, ‘From now on, I am finished with tribal fights. From right now, I am wearing a skirt. I no more wear trousers that say I am a man – I want to become a woman’.”
He gave the women precious gifts: Power and authority.
The women used them to broker peace on the battlefields, planting themselves between the warriors.
They brought back the teachers, police, nurses. Aid agencies came in to support them. After years of progress, the fairy tale in recent times has ruptured and endured setbacks from renewed skirmishes.
Nonetheless, momentum is sustained by the knowledge that dramatic change can be achieved.
Cruelly, fallout from PNG’s present maelstrom may well include the fledgling Women’s Bill as the law required to cement the 22 seats in the 109 seats in the parliament in time for the 2012 election is waylaid.
I bring home a rainbow-coloured bilum full of stories, and the burden of expectation that something may be made of them.
And some morsel might find its way back to neglected sisters, neighbours, friends just a few hours flight and a world away. – Sydney Morning Herald