Mosbi, an urban site

by Christine Stewart

Port Moresby is girt with mountains and is beautiful with its lake-like harbour.

Captain John Moresby, 1873.


Here in the dusty streets is the most polyglot town population…. Here the new order is being born; and this is the germ of the new nation. The melting in this pot … is limited to the indigenous groups for the most part; and the Australian sauce on top does not melt officially.

Charles Rowley, 1966.

Port Moresby’s ‘discoverer’ was right about the beauty afforded by the great sweep of Fairfax Harbour. Unfortunately, however, he arrived in the middle of the wet monsoon season, when the hills were lush with long green grass, and it never occurred to him that the reason for the absence of tall trees and jungle was the local rainfall pattern. An exceptional rainshadow along this part of the coast means that only scrawny sclerophyll eucalypts dot the harbour slopes and the plains beyond, and by the end of the dry season even the grass is dead.

The town grew on a peninsula separating harbour from ocean, flanked on both sides by a line of Motu-Koitabu villages strung along the coast from west to east. The Koita were originally an agricultural people who moved towards the coast from the foothills of the ranges to the east, while the Motu were fishing and trading immigrants. Intermarriage and mutual gain saw former enmities transformed as their villages joined forces in symbiotic relationship.

Nigel Oram describes how topography, land tenure systems and legislation, the self-serving wishes of the colonial administration and subsequent piecemeal planning have combined to produce a scattered and formless city, with residential and commercial areas interspersed with undeveloped land, much of it too steep to build on, and too high for the water supply to reach. To this list, Alan Rew has added the colonial policies of racial segregation which divided even the indigenous immigrants into ethnic groupings.

The harbour is bounded on its southern side by a long peninsula on which the original township was built. The Motu and Koita villages dotting the harbour’s edges hindered expansion along the shoreline to the north and west, so the town spread eastwards along the ocean shore past the canoe anchorage at Koki Point to Badili where, during much of the colonial era, most indigenous town workers were confined in barracks after the 9:00pm curfew excluded them from the town and confined them indoors. Curfew regulations and other laws restricting the movement of Papua New Guineans to and in towns, probably the most stringent in the world outside South Africa at the time, were gradually relaxed through the 1950s and finally repealed in 1959 following criticism from the United Nations.

Despite its poor climate and limited local agricultural resources, Port Moresby went from southern administrative headquarters to base for the Allied Forces in the southwest Pacific during World War II, to capital of the joint territory of Papua and New Guinea. After World War II, the town spread over the steep coastal hills and inland to the east. Extensive residential suburbs sprang up, including that of Hohola, the first experiment in indigenous housing. Urban development in colonial times followed a western pattern, predominantly by and for non-indigenous people, and the implementation of municipal management processes lagged well behind town growth. The repeal of laws restricting movement around the country and into towns led to a vast increase in urban migration during the 1960s, with permanent residence starting to replace temporary urban migration and the sex-ratio imbalance starting to even out, so that by the mid-1960s, according to Oram, migrant workers and their families had increased to an estimated 80 per cent of the population. The rate of urban population growth has continued to be high. Charles Rowley, however, pointed out that the sex ratio was by no means equal. In 1956, there were four thousand single men living in labour compounds, and he assumed that this number must have increased in the following ten years, influenced by the wage structure which was incapable of supporting a family in town. In his view, this situation provoked an increase in sexual offences, prostitution and homosexuality.

When I first arrived in PNG in the late 1960s, expatriates shopped in ‘Town’ on the peninsula, where the Pacific-wide trading companies Burns-Philp and Steamships operated department stores close by the main wharf, and the Hotel Papua and its adjacent movie theatre were the principal focuses of colonial social activity. Another retail centre complete with Burns-Philp supermarket at Boroko, one of the inland suburbs, competed with ‘Town,’ while the former site of the native-worker barracks, the Koki-Badili area with its market, tradestores and industrial area, had become the indigenous commercial centre. Increasing numbers of Highlanders were joining the ranks of urban migrants, and village ties were gradually being loosened by many urban settlers, although this process has not progressed to the extent anticipated by writers of that period. At that time, the unskilled migrant majority of the population was largely invisible to expatriate officials and academics, their settlements hidden in the hills, their comings and goings barely noticed.

The Motu-Koitabuan resentment of these immigrants grew as the newcomers began appropriating the informal sector economy. Percy Chatterton attributes the origins of the Papuan separatist movement of the early 1970s to the smaller size and compact character of this former British territory compared to that of New Guinea, and the impact of Sir Hubert Murray’s long rule as a paternalistic and protectionist Lieutenant-Governor. These facilitated the growth of a concept of Papuan unity in a way which did not happen in New Guinea, a growth which was then reinforced, as immigration increased, by the economic neglect of Papua brought about by the adoption of World Bank policies of the 1960s.

Port Moresby of the decolonisation era has been described as

hung in a state of endless becoming, caught midway between its earlier role as a small, European center with a surrounding galaxy of native villages and labor compounds, and the more integrated role its apologists would wish for it in the future … no longer, as it was between the wars, a small European town with a fringe of native villages and compounds. It is now a complex network of functional and spatial positions creating distinctive settings for social life while it gathers a culturally highly diverse population to fill them.

Everyone lived in the town, or wanted to—but no-one owned it.

Gina Koczberski and others consider that the colonial control of the urban population has been replicated in contemporary times, often in more draconian form such as police raids and the bulldozing of informal housing. Attempts to provide low-cost housing failed to satisfy the accommodation needs of the influx of migrants, even before Independence. A substantial proportion of the population, which, in 2014, has been estimated as anywhere between 300,000 and 800,000, now lives in comparatively unplanned, unstructured locations known as ‘settlements.’ John Connell estimated that there were over eighty informal settlements around Port Moresby in 2003. Keith Barber describes one such settlement, composed mainly of related families from an area in the north of the country, who deliberately moved from formal housing dispersed around town to a reproduced ‘village’ in a settlement area, which enabled them to be together, carry out a little gardening, intermarry and provide their own internal security. Anou Borrey describes another, with a multiplicity of ethnic groups and less internal cohesion—inhabitants from one section of the settlement do not move freely through another part, especially at night. But these settlements are not segregated from the rest of the town. Outsiders may see a city divided in simple spatial and socio-economic terms, with a working population living in ‘legitimate’ housing contrasting to an underclass of the uneducated, the unemployed and the criminal; but closer investigation reveals a city of complex social organisation, with regional enclaves established in many areas, and complex degrees and forms of socialities pervading the entire town—Michael Goddard’s ‘unseen city.’

My impression of Port Moresby over the years since the 1960s has been one of space both resisting and adapting to attempts from on high to manage and control it. These adaptations can sometimes happen with remarkable speed. A retail centre is developed, or grows around a major retail enterprise (usually a supermarket/variety store). Gradually it becomes a hunting ground for pickpockets, bag-snatchers and carjackers; its storefronts provide an outlet for the venting of frustrations in demonstrations and riots, requiring extensive boarding-up and security grilles. The colourful thronging crowds through whom I once threaded my way thin and disappear; eventually, the centre becomes a ‘no-go zone’ for most shoppers; commercial enterprises relocate elsewhere; the crowds migrate there and the cycle repeats itself.

Unofficial roadside markets selling buai (betelnut), fresh produce and second-hand clothes spring up and many are eventually ‘legitimised,’ achieving official recognition from the city’s governing body, the National Capital District Commission (NCDC). Residential suburbs, originally planned as spacious single-family accommodation, are transformed into multi-residential compounds with houses and their colonial domestic quarters converted to communal hamlet-style residences, offices, professional suites or ‘guesthouses’; at the same time, industrial and commercial yards in other suburbs include small living quarters originally intended for single security staff but today occupied by extended families. Roads, even the main highways, are prone to develop alarming potholes in the tropical climate; mounds of refuse compost quietly along their verges; flamboyant gardens flourish everywhere; and the most noticeable change I observed when returning in 1988 after an absence of twelve years was that all the tree saplings planted and nurtured in the dustbowl of the pre-Independence town had grown strong and tall, greening the ever-growing city.

A main street in Boroko—all the trees planted in the colonial era have grown, and gardens flourish. Source: Photo by Christine Stewart, 4 September 2007.

The informal sector is everywhere evident, constantly defying efforts to manage and curtail its activities. Itinerant vendors roam the streets offering cold drinks and tourist artefacts. Increasingly these days, goods offered for sale include Asian imports of pencils, bootlaces, razors and so on. In the morning, these pedlars are joined by men (and recently, the occasional woman) selling the daily newspapers. Stationary vendors of food, iceblocks, cigarettes and most ubiquitously, buai, are to be found everywhere. Security issues have seen many vendors shift from the pavements outside their houses back into their front yards where they continue their business through wire-mesh fences. Inside many yards too are makeshift shelters for pool tables, dart boards and ‘black-market’ beer supplies. Or a tiny store constructed against the front fence sells basic tinned and packaged foodstuffs through a weldmesh security screen.

A ‘tuckerbox’ store constructed in a fence beside a suburban road in Tokarara, heavily screened for security. The graffiti are unsurprising.
Souce: Photo by Christine Stewart, 4 September 2007.

Most of the steep hillsides are still under direct government control. They are ribbed by garden plots built in the Highlands style, with downhill drainage which suits a high rainfall climate and contributes to soil erosion in Port Moresby’s rain-shadow climate. Once considered impossible to build on, the slopes are increasingly leased to land developers, particularly where water views are involved. This often involves ‘eviction’ of settler housing and destruction of food gardens.

An important feature of the city is its remarkably effective public transport system. A bus service was already operating vehicles of doubtful quality in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, the Port Moresby bus service, which provided huge vehicles on limited routes, was largely superseded by a local company, Buang Taxi Trucks, which operated a fleet of flat-top trucks with canopies and bench seats. Similar vehicles still operate rural services out to those Central Province villages which are served by road. In town today, however, the twelve- to twenty-seater passenger motor vehicles (PMVs) swarm everywhere. Most of these are operated as part of large fleets belonging to prominent businessmen; registration, routes and fares are controlled by a statutory body, the Land Transport Board. Taxis are more often individually owned and operated, and most are of dubious trustworthiness. Attempts to regulate their presentation, roadworthiness and fare charges are consistently foiled or ignored. Regardless of appearance and even safety, though, the PMVs and taxis of Port Moresby enable even the poorest of the population to move readily around the city. Meanwhile, the elites drive in air-conditioned four-wheel-drives, with windows rolled up and all doors locked, along ‘safe’ routes between destinations which are modelled on modern global lifestyles—supermarkets with fenced car parks patrolled by security guards with their leashed guard-dogs, five-star hotels, air-conditioned restaurants with elaborate security measures, apartments in walled guarded compounds.

High-covenant houses and apartments built to take maximum advantage of the spectacular ocean views. The houses are owned by politicians and other elites, and the apartments are mainly rented to expatriates.
Source: Photo by Christine Stewart, 27 January 2006.

The elites are not, however, completely insulated from their surroundings. Complex kin and ethnic networks continue to bind them into ongoing relationships which cross spatial and class boundaries. For example, a prominent lawyer friend once told me that she numbered many raskols among her relatives. Another friend of mixed ethnicity often found herself hosting visiting relatives from the home villages of both her parents, along with those of her husband who came from a different province again. Port Moresby has flung itself together, it belongs to everybody and nobody, and the process of its self-determination and self-definition is ongoing.

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