Lessons from the Lower Watut

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday July 27th, 2012

Urban dwellers can learn a lot about cleanliness and health from rural villagers, writes MALUM NALU
VISITING the remote Lower Watut villages of Morobe province, situated along the banks of the great Watut River, is – for a city resident like me – akin to visiting another planet.
That’s because Port Moresby, Lae and the other major towns in Papua New Guinea are full of buai pekpek (betelnut spit and thrash) and other litter.
Buai pekpek has turned Port Moresby into one of the filthiest capital cities in the world, our streets and buildings being painted red by seemingly everyone from politicians, pastors and Phd holders to the grassroots.
It is my hope and prayer that the new government declares a state-of-emergency against this insidious impasse that, in my book, is on the same level as crime and corruption and dragging us down to the buai.
For someone like me, who detests buai pekpek and general littering in our towns and cities, visiting Lower Watut on July 6 and 7 is like heaven to me.
Yes, the people, strong God-fearing people, do chew buai, but unlike us so-called “civilised” and “elite” people in towns and cities of PNG, these simple villagers don’t spit everywhere like an out-of-control machine gun.
Suffice to say, “civilisation” is here, not in the towns and cities, and we could learn about much about cleanliness and health from our brothers and sisters in the villages.
The villages themselves are spic-and-span, something straight out of a picture book, surrounded by lofty mountain grandeur and the rolling Watut River.
Houses are predominantly made of bush materials, given that there is no road access, and the only means of transport to the Lower Watut is a long motorised canoe ride through the Markham and Watut rivers.
I just admired the village-style architecture as I walked from house to house, extolling their virtues and taking pictures, and wondering if ever we in towns and cities could take pride in our homes as such.
I call them “self-sufficent houses” as they come complete with storage areas for firewood and food items such as taro, bananas, yams, kaukau and other vegetables grown in the fertile river valley.
Any enterprising tourism operator could make a good business out of ferrying tourists up and down the Markham and Watut rivers, given that there is so much potential for eco-tourism and home stays, similar to what is being done along the Sepik River.
Already, the Watut River rapids are rated as among the best in the world for white water rafting, and are infamous for an incident in 2005 in which a number of Israeli thrill seekers were killed in the fast-flowing waters.
One of the greatest gold rushes the world has ever known began here along the Markham and Watut rivers, so it is a place embedded in history.
On Friday, July 6, we stayed at Kapungu village along the banks of the Watut, where we enjoy village hospitality, accommodation and food for the night.
What really touches me about these simple villagers is that they don’t have much, moneywise, but what little they have, they share.
For instance, at the house I stayed, village woman Miriam Bingeding and her babies Binganu, Jessica and Susan shared their food with me – which to me was worth more than a million dollars!
Early next morning, soon after the cocks crow, we hit the river again bound for Maralina, again passing magnificent river scenes.
All along the three-hour ride to Maralina, we pass villagers working doing small-scale mining along the riverside, which is their main source of money.
At Maralina, we trek for about an hour further inland through sweltering heat, to get to Maralina Primary School, stopping every now and then for some fresh kulau (coconut) juice.
One thing that strikes me about the hamlets all the way to the main village is that they are spotlessly clean, there is no buai pekpek like Port Moresby, Lae and other towns, and there is a huge amount of community pride.
We walk through cocoa and coconut groves, well-kept gardens, and kunai grass to get to the school.
Cocoa is the second major source of income for the villagers after small-scale gold mining.
There are so many taros, bananas, yams, kaukau and other vegetables growing here in the fertile river valley.
Village leader, Simeon Gulup, tells there is a good community spirit among the Lower Watut villages, which is the key to their happiness.
“This is the way we live,” he says.
“You won’t see the bottle (alcohol) here.
“We have good quality kids here.
“Yes, we do have a problem with marijuana, but we don’t have a problem with alcohol and rascals.
“We know that we will get nowhere with this kind of attitude.
“The church is there, the law is there.
“If you do something wrong, you will be charged and fined by the magistrate.
“The church elder is here.
“We go to church.
“We work together as a community.
“People are respectful.”
There was a Korean TV crew travelling with us that weekend up the Watut, who were carrying with them thousands of kina worth of cameras and other equipment, to shoot a documentary further upstream.
At Kapungu, where we overnighted, they left everything in the canoes on the banks of the Watut and nothing was stolen.
That, in a nutshell, shows what the Lower Watut people are like.
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