Where the water flows

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday 10th Febuary 2012

THE jerry cans sat strafe in a tired little row in front of me. Each could carry more than 20 litres of water.
It is part of my life in Elevala-Hanuabada. At 5pm everyday the only tap that provides for my clan’s water needs comes to life. The tap is the centre of the clan’s social life. Near the tap, children play, scantily clad people with bathtowels wait turns to have a wash, mothers sell betelnut and cigarettes and cans of imported Pepsi.
Life in the village is a water cycle, not the one kids learn about at school, about evaporation and condensation and precipitation. Not that. Life in the village is a social water cycle, and at about 5pm every day I find myself at the centre of this social cycle, because as one who is filling up containers for a household, I, and fellow water-fetchers cued at the tap are at the top of this social circle.
The modern history of an urbanised village like Elevala can best be described as a cycle of victorious periods of full-pressure flowing water followed by long periods of dry taps. Every now and then, there is a cataclysmic event that throws history off its cycle, usually, only momentarily.
The most recent cataclysmic event was the outbreak of cholera in Elevala. A few villagers died and there was panic in the city that a full blown epidemic of cholera would hit Port Moresby. People in the village were terrified, and they weren’t alone indeed; the city authorities and the government were also terrified.
At the end Elevala and Hanuabada were rewarded with a 24 hour water supply, and the supply was great, so great water went up from the bridges and reached the houses. Kitchen taps, rusted dry from stagnancy were working at full speed. The aftermath of cholera in Elevala village was something. It was as if the outbreak had reminded whoever it is that controls the water pipes of Port Moresby that indeed there existed humanity in Elevala village; that there were thousands of people that live in squalor in this age of development and need reliable basic water supply just to get by.
Motuans of Elevala, known for their dark humour, even joked about the deadly cholera outbreak and the much needed attention the sickness had brought to the village; “thankyou cholera” was a common enough expression heard over the glorious rush of water from a basin’s tap.
One day at the start of this year the tap stopped. The cycle resumed. Today the tap comes on at 7am and stops at 9am. For the whole day there is no water. At 5pm the tap comes back on again and stops at 7pm. Not even Christmas warrants some courtesy. The taps in the houses gather rust from want of use. The single tap at the front of every clan bridge dutifully assumes its role as the centre of the social circle; the social water cycle.
Just a stone’s throw away from the tap I use every day is the site of the first court house in PNG. Our powerful judiciary, now embroiled in this current political crisis traces its history back to my village. Just beyond the site of the court house at Adare clan is Metoreia, where the London Missionary Society established the first United church congregations. Again along Adare down to Botai clan is the site where the Union Jack was first raised more than a hundred years ago. Again in the current political crisis, the placement of the Queen of England as the head of state of Papua New Guinea came to light. The site in question is where Queen Elizabeth II (by her Grandmother Queen Victoria) inherited dominion over Papua New Guinea through Commodore James Erskine’s declaration.
All these historical sites are just on one side of my tap. At the other side of the tap is what the history books call Tanobada Ariarana, where Sir Hubert Murray’s state funeral was held. It was also a key strategic area the allies held during the Pacific War.
All around the tap there is rubbish and mud. The place is a slum; a bogged out slum. It is my home, and it is the sovereign throne of the tap that serves clan and community. Every morning and afternoon I am up to my toes in the mud and rot halo that overlays the earth around the tap, fetching water with my siblings.
There is now a reported outbreak of meningitis in Port Moresby. One of the first places the sickness has been reported is Hanuabada. People are taking to the newspapers and social media expressing their disgust at the political in-fighting. We in the urban villages and settlements of Port Moresby, we the children of the tap want nothing more than a decent daily water supply.
We are but trivially interested in the finer points of the law and public policy in this political impasse between Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and Prime Minister O’Neill. One of the mothers selling Pepsi joked that whichever of the two factions provides decent daily water supply for Elevala and Hanuabada would receive her unconditional support.
I watch young kids of four and five play with the running tap. We wait for the government still as the December sun goes down on Hanuabada.
The cycle continues unhindered.