Mangi Asiwele Photography

Experiences of Arawa, Bougainville. Part 1 – Into coconut cloud forests.

A short bit of background

Over the next few days, I’m going to be uploading photos and stories from my experiences of Arawa, the former capital of Bougainville, an Autonomous Region of Papua New Guinea (PNG). A key aim of these pieces is to describe my experiences of Arawa and Central Bougainville through a decolonial lens, exploring different social, political and environmental angles to the region.

Secondly, I want to encourage people to learn more about the history and present situation of Bougainville, an island far too often ignored by much of the world, whose people’s inspiring struggle against colonialism and environmental destruction has helped highlight indigenous resistance around the world. For general background info I would highly recommend reading this great New Internationalist piece on the situation.

Lush forest in the mountains above Arawa. Bougainville is the aesthetically greenest place I have ever been to.
Lush forest in the mountains above Arawa. Bougainville is the aesthetically greenest place I have ever been to.

I also hope that my pieces here will encourage people to reflect on responsible travel, blogging and photography and to understand that those who travel anywhere in the world have an obligation to do so as responsibly and ethically as possible. For more info on all this and more please check out Tourism Concern and for info on Decolonising Photography, please visit here.

Unlike many travel writers, I have decided not to include the names or photos of people I met or travelled with in this piece. I don’t see why this should make travel writing any less interesting. Journalists, filmmakers, anthropologists and tourists and authors have a long and troubled history of travelling to Global South countries, publishing the names, details and intimate stories of those they have met, for a Western audience, often without giving a thought of how this might affect the people in question.

Suffice it to say, I’m not sure Westerners would be too happy if people they have met around the world were writing all about them and using their name, photos and personal stories on the wider internet. Well, the same applies to people around the world. A lot of my friends in Bougainville are on social media and for me that’s the place to upload photos of friends and I’m glad that we can share pictures and memories with one other there instead.

Finally, in these pieces I also want to dispel stereotypes people might have of Melanesia. While a lot of Bougainville is without electricity or plumbing, be under no illusion that it is somehow “primitive”. As I’ve mentioned, many if not most of the young people I met in Bougainville had social media, smartphones and varying levels of education but in reality there is no “linear path of development”. Hundreds of years of colonialism supported by white supremacy has led many to believe that the history of Europe and the West is the “benchmark of modernity” but all societies change and evolve (and always have done) in different ways. That’s why whether sleeping under thatched roofs or tiled ceilings, Bougainvilleans live in just as much of a modern and contemporary society as anyone in Britain, but in a different cultural and social context.

Only through dispelling such myths and stereotypes can we begin to start looking at the world through a decolonial lens and understand situations in depth, the way they really are.

Anyway, I hope people enjoy reading these pieces. Please do let me know any feedback.
Tampara bakei – Thanks! x

Part 1 – Into coconut cloud forests

The road from Buka (the current capital city of Bougainville), to Arawa (the former capital) is long, beautiful and bumpy as hell.

This road market is permanently set up along the way from Buka to Arawa and was a regular stop on many trips to and from Buka and mainland Bougainville. 

Having spent a long time with old friends in villages around Buka island in the far North of Bougainville, I finally left to visit Arawa in Central Bougainville in May 2018. I set off in the early morning from a village on the East coast with a close friend whom I call “Uncle” and who in turn also calls me “Uncle”*. We arrived in Buka town (the current capital of Bougainville) around midday and after the two minute boat ride across the Buka passage, arrived at Kokopau on the mainland, from where boarded a land rover and soon set off into the jungle clad hills. The smooth coltan road quickly turned into a bumpy dirt track which rocked like a roller coaster. I began to realise that it’s true what they say about mainland Bougainville being one of the most fertile places on the planet. It’s filled with river after river and everywhere fringed with lush, forested mountains, mountains which were wreathed in clouds yet still covered in typical, tall Bougaivillean coconut trees. The vegetation on the roadsides was impenetrable in the extreme and sprang up from a back carpet of soil as if it was on growth hormones. We passed by dozens of gardens, many of them bordered by pretty flower beds and the bright, purple tangket plants so emblematic of the island.

The road to Arawa is steeped in wide rocky rivers like this one, a welcome sight after dry Buka.

*While I tried my best to understand it, many Bougainvillean kinship systems were incredibly hard for me to comprehend. Unlike other places in Melanesia, here an uncle would call his nephew “Uncle”, who in turn might call his uncle “Uncle” or “Father”. More confusing still, an auntie might call her nephew “Auntie” or “Father” or “Child” as well and the nephew would refer to her as “Mother” or “Auntie”. It all made sense in the local languages which had terms built around their kinship systems but translating them into Tok Pisin or English (both national languages) just wasn’t going to be easy!

Every so often, we would pass by huge signs advertising Australian Aid, many of them bigger than the buildings they had claimed to have built. It was an overt political statement from the Australian government. As Gary Juffa, the famous Governor of Papua New Guinea’s Oro Province governor said late last month:

“The foreign aid is here to market propaganda for many foreign countries themselves…we must look at foreign aid so that they do what we want, rather than…putting a very big signboard and telling our people that they did it for us, therefore undermining us.”

In fact, the Australian Aid office in Buka town had a yellow sign outside which in Tok Pisin essentially stated that the people who worked inside were Australians and did NOT want Bougainvilleans hanging around, speaking Tok Pisin, chewing betel nut and generally being Bougainvillean…. Colonial legacies die slowly.

Throughout Arawa and Central Bougainville, the remains of huge buildings, destroyed during the crisis can be seen, now overgrown and lying in decay, or in some cases being reused as contemporary housing.

Across Bougainville, I met people sceptical of the litany of promises of government ‘aid’ and ‘development’ promised by regional powers. While there are genuine and important international development projects in Bougainville, much of what seems to be politically and economically implemented on the ground is a far cry from what is promised in rhetoric. A new documentary, ‘Soldiers Without Guns’ reportedly shows the “unsung Kiwi heroes” of the New Zealand military, bravely bringing peace to Bougainville where others had failed. Although Aotearoa New Zealand did indeed play an important part in the peace process, it was the people of Bougainville who brought peace to Bougainville but I’m sure it’s no-coincidence that this film has come out just before Bougainville’s 2019 independence referendum.“They want their hands on the mine”, I was told several times by friends when discussing foreign government aid programmes for Bougainville. After passing by an Australian Aid worker in Buka town once, friends laughed and told me that these workers were extremely naive and would bring no benefit to Bougainville. From Mister Pip to The Unhappy Isles, I’m looking forward to critiquing the white savour complex in Melanesia more, and the Western imagination’s inability to conceive how Melanesians can bring about peace and development by themselves.

Also on foreign perceptions of Bougainville, I was told before going there that following the crisis the entire region was incredibly dangerous, especially around Arawa. In fact, the UK Foreign Office Travel Advice reads:

Take great care when travelling in Bougainville. Be particularly vigilant when travelling beyond Buka into central and southern Bougainville. The mountainous area in central Bougainville around the old Panguna mine is a ‘No Go Zone’. You should not enter the ‘No Go Zone’.”

Another relic near Arawa from the time before the crisis. Over time, Bougainville’s vibrant flora reclaims everything.

So there I was entering the No Go Zone in May. After hours of travelling we arrived at the infamous Morgan Junction where the zone begins just outside the area of the old Panguna mine, the main source of all this conflict on Bougainville.

I couldn’t see the armed guards I was told would be everywhere but instead I saw signs reading things like STOP, DANGER and TAMBU (forbidden) and behind all this was a roadblock, which was quickly pulled aside as the driver approached. We passed through for just a few minutes into a wide clearing as the driver gave some sweet potatoes and bananas to the people beyond the junction. It was a truly surreal atmosphere. Overgrown with foliage stood a huge, white skeleton of a building, which had clearly been decimated long ago and appeared to be empty. I then noticed a family peering out through where there were once windows and doors, to see who had crossed the roadblock and come into their community. It’s been 17 years since the Bougainville Peace Agreement brought about an end to the crisis but here, even for a foreigner like me, the effects felt tangible. From the burnt down buildings to the eerily quiet atmosphere, there had clearly been terrible suffering in Central Bougainville, where this conflict had begun. To see people living in what was essentially ruins after all these years was deeply unsettling and a wake up call to the still visible scars of the conflict.

After passing through the No Go Zone, we continued to drive into the mountains until finally we got back to a much welcome coltan road. Driving down in a spiral, we then arrived at Arawa around 4 pm. It was spectacular. Surrounded on sides but the sea in dripping wet cloud forest, it strangely reminded me of the Swiss alps, (if they were tropical and 9000 miles away).

This huge river flows right around the outskirts of lush Arawa.

A friend in Buka had described Arawa as a “ghost town” and while some 40,000 people live there, I began to realise what he meant. Throughout the town and in fact everywhere around Central Bougainville, there were huge, metal structures and enormous buildings from the time before the crisis, now all rusted or rusting but with people living in them or using them for services like petrol pumps. Parts of Arawa still seemed like an abandoned city, which for many years during the crisis it was.

Many of the old buildings were overgrown with giant, tropical plants sheltering worn concrete and thick black soil. In the late afternoon rain and the alpine mist, there was a really mysterious feel. Dark, dripping and wet, filled with lush, green spaces, mighty rivers and towering trees, it seemed the opposite to flat, crowded and dusty Buka town.

While even the villages of Buka island were often noisy at night, Arawa seemed strangely quiet, the only sound on my first night was a TV outside playing live BBC News coverage of the royal wedding. During my time in Arawa I was to discover just how much the legacy of colonialism and even the royal family had played in shaping Bougainville’s fate. But for now, I slept with thoughts on my mind of this eye opening journey to Arawa, and the many wonders of Bougainville to come.

Surrounding Arawa town are high and thickly forested mountains from where the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) had started their struggle against the Panguna mine and the Papua New Guinean government.

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