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The Banz Highway

At the PALMS orientation course we were told the story of the two American doctors who happened across a fellow who had been hit by a car. They being doctors and in the country to help, stopped to see if they could do anything. At that point the fellow's relatives walked out of the bush, but completely mistook the doctors' intent and thought that they had in fact hit the fellow themselves. They became enraged and employed their customary Payback by hacking the doctors to death.

We had been warned, so we knew that we had to be careful.

"If you run someone over in the car, or even worse, hit a pig: don't stop! The payback can be dreadful! Possibly deadly."

One had to be careful when driving. It was good to be warned of possible dangers, but we were not told of the environment in which these dangers exist: the actual state of the roads.

We arrived at Mt. Hagen airport with fast approaching dusk. Mt. Hagen was to be our 'home city' where we will spend the next two years. Well, here and here abouts. We'd just had a magnificent roller-coaster plane ride from Port Moresby. Port Moresby certainly was strange, alien: part of the unknown; but that was alright, we were only stopping off there, which made it bearable. But now, we were here, home: Mt. Hagen. The unknown, which we were to make known. There was no getting away from this unknown: like childbirth, there is no getting away from it until it is made known.

Click to go to the maps page We were anxious to get home to Banz, to safety. Darkness made the unknown worse: at least in daylight you can see what you don’t know. Fr. Kees was there to meet us. He is the Rector of the College, an elderly man, but not old: a full head of grey-blonde hair and a slight stoop to his Dutch frame. After quick introductions and collecting our bags from the fork-lift that brought the luggage from the plane into the middle of the terminal (literally), we loaded ourselves and our bags (which Kees said must be for a longer stay than two years!) into the College's Mitsubishi L300 bus, and made for home. It's a ¾ hour drive from Hagen airport to Fatima, where the College is.

On the Road
Fr. Kees said he was amazed at the number of people on the road. The way Kees talked made me think that he too was encountering the unknown: he has actually been in PNG for 30 years! Apart from the amazing scenery, the drive home was uneventful: but it did not lack fear! Fr. Kees was right about the people: they were everywhere!! What created the fear was that the presence of these people did not cause him to adjust his driving speed — in fact, judging from his driving on the back streets, it made him speed up!

The whole trip, I was sure we were just about to hit at least one person. My conversation was reduced to monosyllabic answers to his questions as I stared wide-eyed out the windscreen, knuckles white as I gripped the seat. We were later told by Br. Maurice that Fr. Kees' driving style is common among old missionaries, and is in fact, a survival tool: You are gone before anyone who may want to stop you knows you are here.

Click to enlarge The roads have ceased to be a place of fear: this part of the unknown has become known. The Banz Highway links Kudjip and Fatima, and was newly sealed last year (a common political move in most countries apparently). The roads are not only a transport corridor, but probably more importantly, a conduit for the life of the community. Of all the people on the roads at any one time, only half are actually going somewhere. The other half are there to pass the time of day, tell stories, to laugh and joke, and when we pass, shout with huge, very white smiles at the boys travelling in the back of the ute. They do stand, sit and walk all over the road, but they share it well: they move off when a car comes along, muttering to their companions on the road, "Ka i kum".

They spend their life on the road, that is, they live some of their life there. Markets are dotted along the road, where people sell excess crops. Dart throwing (at a board) is a common activity, as is volley ball. The crops reflect what is grown in the area. Around Banz they are kaukau, cucumber and corn. The women carry the crops, and what they buy, in hand knitted bags called bilims. They hand knit them on their fingers, as they walk along the road, or sit in the market. The bilims are often worn at the back, supported on the head, and very heavy.

Life is full of fun, and fun is had on the roads too. The children love to see cars flatten things as they drive past, their faces full of excitement and joy. Tin cans, grass stalks, corn husks. Lines made with uprooted grass, sometimes across the road, sometimes along it. Shoe laces are tied together and the shoes thrown up into the power lines, where they stay until the laces rot.

The roads also need to be well drained, because of the high rain fall. There is always water in the open drains and running through the culverts. These, like natural creeks, have become a place of ablutions and laundry. Clothes are wrung out and placed on top of the culvert after being rinsed in the flowing water. Mothers wash themselves, and their children are lathered white before the metamorphous of rinsing returns them to their natural brown colour.

The roads are much cleaner than we'd imagined, very little rubbish; and everyone seems to care for the maintenance of the roadside: slashing with their bush knives or burning an embankment. The burning removes the vegetable matter that is constantly dropped: corn cobs, banana leaves used as umbrellas, chewed sugar cane pulp [see How to eat sugar cane ].

They are an amazing place these roads, full of life, not death as we'd feared: full of waves, smiles, "hellos". We have not conquered the roads at night. Darkness hides the little known we have, and makes the roads an unknown again. I'm sure Jesus has conquered that unknown: but we are not tempted into foolishness.

  The Banz Highway

  On the road

  The Banz Highway sketch

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