Friday, March 8, 2013

Wewak Under Spell

What used to be a quiet, out of the way township of Wewak, suddenly comes alive, bustling with myriad of activities. It’s cluttered with people and wrapped in some kind of cheap Asian fabric to give it an Asiatic aura.

With the opening of the new town market built by the Japanese government Wewak seems to attract two kinds of entrepreneurs. There are those who sell organic garden produce such as vegetables, edible greens, fresh and smoked fish, and fruits. It is the largest modern market in the country.  

The second group is made up of those who sell betel nuts and cheap Asian products outside the market fence. This group has its umbrellas up to provide shade for the traders. This group considers itself as the informal sector entrepreneurs of Wewak.

The informal sector entrepreneurs now have their stalls with umbrella shades ring the small town of Wewak from the post office to the market and again on the eastern beach front to the post office, up the road to Wewak Hill and around to NBC road.

For someone who had lived in Port Moresby most of my life the scenario reminds me of the informal sector markets in the city. This development is recent in the East Sepik capital. No one would have guessed the Sepiks would do such a thing. You can only see such market style of the informal sector in Port Moresby. Wewak is now adopting the similar informal market style.

That gives Wewak and the East Sepik a different spin to the ordinary tale of slow easy-going type of people. The new economic activity in Wewak is part of the larger trend of development witnessed in recent years. New settlements have sprung in places where no one would have thought people would live. The increase in population milling around Wewak in any onetime, the overcrowded streets with no new buildings, except for the new National Development Bank, the poor Air Niugini office seems to have been trapped in time among those old building.

One would think services in a small town like Wewak are better than other centres. The opposite is true. The queue in front of the banks such as BSP and ANZ is relentless and does not seem to move an inch or get shorter, especially on a pay week. Even the post office seems to have the same problem with lines and slow online access to its own services.

I tried to connect to the Internet from the Boutique Hotel several times.  The connection was very slow or that there was no connections made at all.

For someone who had grown up in Wewak for the best part of my childhood and teens a lot remains unchanged as if Wewak is under some sort of dangerous spell.  

My recent visit to Wewak unraveled for me something else: the Wewak that is waiting to be another Wewak. Perhaps with several major economic development in the mining sector, the agricultural sector, and increase in import-export market through a free trade zone might help trigger the new Wewak that is already showing its face.

I see the new Wewak with skepticism in that some control mechanism and urban town planning is necessary. I think the way the new Wewak is taking shape is the wrong way.  The need for controlled development and monitoring of the out growth of the township is most felt.  Keeping Wewak beautiful and ordered is a must, rather than allowing the out-growth and informal sector vending on the streets as an eye-sore.  The CBD is also denuded of shady trees and makes the town a very unbearable place in the sun.

The potential for Wewak to grow is there, but that growth must be done with some sense of order and grace. The provincial capital is trapped between what was and what it ought to be. It is up to the authorities in the province to find a balance between free urban growth and controlled developmental phase in a town’s growth.

The people in Wewak need also to step up their social responsibility with making sure that law and order is maintained. The high level of intoxication from illegal brews such as ‘steam’ and other forms of alcohol seems to have drained the better part of a young vibrant population. Given such a tragedy where would Wewak end up without any control mechanism in place?

Nonetheless, in this melancholic disposition I still have great hope for Wewak to rise up from the quagmire to find new glory some day. It may be that I have been away from home too long to sense what I might have missed in the stride towards that desired dream of its leaders. 

Perhaps Wewak is out of the nest and needs to walk on its own ability and strength?  In the great spirit of the people whose capital I am referring to here there is one principle that assures me of the final outcome. For the Sepiks once something is started they know they have to finish it. They will never let anyone take glory for it.

In that spirit I know that what has already started in Wewak will find an ending filled with all the great results that were envisioned in the dreams of their forefathers.

The biggest question I am asking is: Wewak I Go We Nau? Perhaps it is a question all of us from the province need to ask. I do not want to sound too sacrilegious, but it seems to me much of the decisions regarding what happens in the province is preserve of the leaders and provincial authorities. 

As I write this I am looking through Lorna Fleetwood’s book: A Short History of Wewak (1984).  It is a nice informative book that brings back memories of a time long-gone when Wewak was in its glory and fame. I do hope that a new book about Wewak will be written to capture the changing social and economic landscape. 

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