Friday, 2 November 2012

Yeleyamba home coming

By Abby Yadi

IT was a welcome rarely seen before on Rossel Island! As the dinghy pulled up on the shore at Jinjo, a warrior rushed out from behind a group of men chanting a magical mantra. The traditionally-clad warrior, armed with a black-palm spear, menaced the people that had just arrived on the dinghy. Behind him, a long line of people extended from the beach to a small square in the middle of the village.

As the warrior receded, a small out-rigger canoe was pulled to the side of the dinghy and the chief and his wife were ushered on the canoe. A group of men then lifted the canoe off the water and carried it on to the beach, led by two of the warriors who performed a traditional dance, also rarely performed in public.

This was the yha-a, a traditional welcome ceremony of the Rossel Island people, reserved and only performed for chiefly people and on very important occasions. The welcome was for Milne Bay Governor Titus Philemon, a Rossel Islander himself, who had returned home to thank his people for giving him almost absolute support through their votes in the recent National Elections, which propped up his numbers to unseat the seemingly invincible Sir John Luke Critten to the Regional seat and the Governor’s post. Singing and shouts of joy filled the air as men, women and children joined in the welcome parade.

Tears flowed when youths and children came on stage to sing welcome songs and utter messages of hope, of anticipation and of belief that the true son of Milne Bay would deliver the people from their years of miseries and disservice. It was also a home-coming for the only Rossel Islander ever to be Governor of Milne Bay.

Mr Philemon had a short stint in the top post of the province in 2001 and 2002, when he successfully displaced Dame Josephine Abaijah in a no-confidence vote. He then created history as being the first Open MP to remove a Regional MP from the Governor’s seat.

In the 2002 Elections he contested the Regional Seat but was beaten to second place by Tim Neville. Again he contested the seat in 2007, and again he was beaten to second spot by John Luke Critten.

In June this year, he tried for the third time, and this time, he won, beating Sir John Luke in a tightly contested race. Only on Rossel did Mr Philemon out vote Sir John Luke by a near perfect score.

Mr Philemon, accompanied by his wife Carolyn, officers Paulus Mumna and myself, travelled home to Rossel to thank his people for giving him that support.

The visit to Rossel began on the evening of Tuesday 9th October in Alotau. While correcting a comment made at the launching of the Administrative Assistant’s conference in Alotau International Hotel that evening that Rossel was the “last” island of Papua New Guinea, Governor Philemon, said Rossel is the “first” island of PNG, not the last, as it is where the sun rises.

A 45-minute flight on an Airlines PNG dash 8 the following morning saw the group on Misima Island. After a short stop over at Bwagaoia, the group boarded two motorized dinghies and set off on a four-hour journey through the Calvados Chain, with its rows and rows of atolls and reefs, to the Tagula government station on Sudest Island. The President for the Lousiade LLG Ben Kuli accompanied the group to Tagula.

On arrival at Tagula, the group was met by a dance group from the Nimowa Hope Academy, a Catholic church-run code school run via the internet. The Tagula station is perched on the hill on west Sudest, with stunning views of the surrounding islands of Nimowa and Piron islands to the east and Junette, Grass and other smaller islands to the north. The sunrise and sunset are majestic from the hill top above Tagula station.

The Governor attended the assembly meeting of the Yeleyamba Local Level Government on Thursday, where the LLG’s 5 year development plan was launched. He addressed a public forum then met with the Yeleyamba Women’s Association, then visited the Tagula Primary School and toured the station to see the badly-run down state of staff houses and other public facilities.

The main issue raised in the forum was the delay in building the new high school for Yeleyamba, and the Governor assured to push the process forward.

On Friday, it was on the dinghies again for another four-hour journey past the infamous Snake Passage to Rossel Island. President for Yeleyama LLG Andrew Sigoyoni joined this journey. And another majestic reef system awaited us. The reef runs a ring right around the Rossel Island, creating a beautiful lagoon.

The fishery here is also unbelievable. This being the first time for Mr Mumna and I to visit both Sudest and Rossel, there was plenty to ask over, especially the generally-held belief all over Milne Bay that Rossel islanders were powerful sorcerers and magicians and that there were certain taboos that visitors must watch out for.

These beliefs rose to the fore when we arrived at Jinjo, with the traditional welcome out in full force. And when on the second day a sudden gust of wind and rain hit Jinjo, disturbing a public forum, fear did swell in us, the new comers.

You see, the wind and rain was said to have been sent by jealous villagers to disturb the gathering. While we scuttled to take cover from the rain under houses, elderly men and women walked out into the rain, shouting at each other in Rossel language.

People told me later they were accusing each other of “making” the rain. Even an upset Governor had his own say, angrily rebuking any feelings of jealousy and differences that may have caused the rain.

He later apologized to his people over his outburst. The people also pointed out some sacred spots in the village, where women and children could not trespass. But these were things of the past, with these spots losing their “power”.

For me personally, these mythical believes passed quickly, after meeting several of my school mates from Hagita High School some 20 years ago. I also met some “tambus”, later also establishing that Governor Philemon was indeed a tambu too.

My mother-in-law, Shirley is part Rossel, and I was able to make the connection with her people from Wulanga Bay area. More than that, I met a young mother, Jennifer, who is half sister of my wife, Linda. Jennifer is Mr Philemon’s niece. I then began to feel at ease and at home.

The feeling of being at home was also aided by the fact that Governor Philemon was a simple man, with a house made of bush material. In this house, there are framed portraits of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, Sir Julius Chan and Sir Rabbie Namaliu. The Governor does not own a trade store or business operation on Rossel or anywhere else. Each morning, we walked about a kilometer to a running river to swim, with the Governor leading the way.

A big feast was hosted at Jinjo village, attended by over 1,500 people from all over Rossel. While there also, a dedication service was held for Governor Philemon at the Jinjo United Church, where his people set him free to return to Alotau and serve as leader for the whole of Milne Bay. At several meetings with Rossel island leaders and the community, it was stated clearly the people here needed better transportation and communication services.

While resources such as fisheries and other marine products were abound and plentiful, the opportunities to turn these into money were very limited. A lengthy moratorium on beche-de-mer harvesting has adversely affected the income earning opportunities for the people and low copra prices have resulted in plantations going bush.

The island is rich in its kwila resources but securing a good buyer has stalled any progress. Health and education services are better off here compared to other areas in Milne Bay Province, thanks to the efforts of the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. But the lack of effective communication and transportation services is even now hampering the churches’ capacities to deliver these vital services. A placard notice addressed to Governor Philemon summed up the situation for the people of Rossel.

It read: “I have been crying and mourning for years. Nobody seems to really care for me. I am glad you came along as you will be the one to dry my tears – Yele.” After a three-day stay on Rossel it was back on the sea to begin the return journey, calling in at Rehuwo, where the small community requested for help to fix an old boat engine, then to Griffin Point Primary School, another Catholic-run school perched on a hill, to Nimowa to visit the Hope Academy, which has some 76 students studying through distance education using internet-conferencing.

The centre has five other sites at G-Point, Junnet, Grass Island, Hobuk and Maho, within Sudest. After over-nighting at Tagula, it was off again to Misima, briefly stopping over at the Nimowa Primary School, which wanted a printer urgently and also raised concerns over termite destruction of their buildings, then to Junnet Elementary School and at Sabra Island, where an exciting project is taking shape. On the pristine lagoon at Luba, the people of Sabra Island have started a marine park, in which they are farming various species of beche-de-mer, mud crabs and clam-shells.

The villagers also propose to build a tourist accommodation on the site. The islanders need funding for a feasibility study to determine viability of the project, and also to increase its farm stocks and build the accommodation.

Governor Philemon said the visits to his home-island as well as to Sudest and the surrounding islands have heightened his concerns for the cries of the ordinary people, and especially those from remote island communities in the “East”.

He said as a the son of Yeleyamba (the LLG that covers Rossel, Sudest and the Calvados Chian) he will be working hard to see that the living standards of the people here as well as all around Milne Bay Province are improved.

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