Feature

The Upe votes

We had protruded into a hamlet setting from our track with less than five houses, surrounded by few odd betel nut trees.

Teua women, top naked and in their grass skirts and betel nut stained red mouth very striking against their natural black beauty danced.

Teua women dancing

Men wore a lace decorated with scented leaf on it around their necks and blowing the conch shell and kaur (wind instrument made from bamboo) producing a charming bass sound.

We were told to stand in line across the track entering the hamlet.

From left to right, I can’t recall whether it was Jeremy Miller or Ben Bohane but I vividly remember Wayne Coles-Janess was on my left and I was on far right as we stood.

John Sisiesi, a local and the assistant returning officer, told us it was a welcome gesture.

Far beyond 20 metres, the Bougainville flag is hoisted on a bamboo mast and not far from it, a polling booth has been set.

People danced around the flag

The boundary set by green leafy coconut fronds.

The women dancing were holding bamboos as long as a metre and the top end had some leaves folded beautifully like a squared paper and shutting the hollow top.

Some women came close to each of us and placed the scented lace on our necks.

And with a surprise the next group removed the leaves covering the hollow top of the bamboo and they tipped it down to our feet, there came out water from a tap.

Our shoes and pairs of socks were wet.

I wasn’t prepared for this. I knew though in Buka it’s called the Tsutsu or the washing of feet to welcome a person who first visits a place.

I could sense a feeling of contentment and peace among the community- the day they have been longing and waiting for has finally arrived, the day to vote in a referendum for Independence from Papua New Guinea.

With a wet feet, we pulled video and photography gears out-it’s time to capture whatever we can because we will be there for less than 30 minutes before we leave.

We moved to the centre place where the Bougainville flag was hoisted and the men, women and children danced around the flag.

A man was dancing and blowing the Kaur and every time he comes to my side, he would wave at me.

I recognized him as Martin Sibo, 53, year old betel nut trader I interviewed him in Buka a week prior.

We caught up soon after and I gave him a packet of noodles and biscuit and a pop drink sachet.

Martin Sibo

He told me, “God bai lukautim wokabaut bilong yu.”

( God will protect you in your journey back)

While the dancing was going on, the Upe were in the forest.

They were supposed to dance and show off their liveliness and ability but we were informed that the sun was already up and high and they couldn’t perform.

And if they did, women were to be secluded in their homes. They are forbidden from seeing the Upe.

Information was passed to the Upe and with their teacher Sam Manu, their protruded from their hiding in line.

They wore the Úpe headdress, one of the designs found on the Bougainville flag, bare top, but they wore sports shorts and holding wooden javelins- beautifully decorated. It indicates a weapon traditionally crafted.

The Upe

One of skills an Upe should muster after spending about three years in the forest going through various initiations is to be able to go to war or protect his family.

The Upe were given special preference. Those who were 18 years went through the polling booth and voted but those who were ineligible on passed though the Bougainville referendum polling booth,  a sign of embracement and endorsement of the referendum vote.

Before they voted, their teacher Sam Manu told us through an interpreter that the Upe initiations and training promotes successful and happy societies and they existed hundreds of years ago.

He wanted the government to recognize and fund them-a deed he believed is a token of appreciation for having their design on the Bougainville flag.

Manu and his Upe students retreated into their jungle college after they voted.

For me and the Australian journalists, it was an experience seeing the Upe after hearing and reading about them.

We had a chat with the people there under a shelter.

Their area is regarded as the neglected backwaters of Bougainville.

They want a road to connect with Buka so that their cash crops, subsistence farming produces and the green gold ‘betel nut’ can be transported to markets.

As it is, using the sea costs a trader: K60 return passenger boat fare to Buka. K10 to pay a carrier to carry a bag of betel nut to the coast, almost two hours walk. Another K10 is needed to get the bag on a boat.

Martin Sibo and his betel nut in Buka

Health, education and telecommunication were their priority needs as well.

It was history the Upe took part in a political vote, the people were excited and like many rare moments in Bougainville the, referendum vote was a period of feasting and celebration.

The Upe in polling booth

It was historical, momentous, and we hope the story and plight of the Teua (Kunua ) people is heard and they are included in development planning, budgeting and delivery of services.

We bid them farewell and trekked back to our truck, then drove to our boat and arrived in Buka, after lunch sailing past high seas before Saposa Island.  Reflections over a lunch and a cold drink at Reasons Restaurant and Bar ended our reporting adventure.