Meeting friends of past in Alotau is one of the highlight of a visit made in early October 2013. I had least expected to see Ms. Kenomole Labidi, one of my former students, who now works in the UPNG Centre in Alotau. Then there was Mr. Patrick Panta, someone I knew in the literary circles of the early 1990s. Mr. Panta was writing good literary works in those days. Now-a-days Mr. Panta directs the UNITECH Open and Distant Learning program in Alotau.
Spending a week in Alotau helps one to discover new linkages in who might be in town. One of the people I met happens to come from the next village to mine in the East Sepik province. I then proceeded to ask how many of them were in Alotau. To my surprise he said to me: Almost the majority of the Sepiks in Alotau are from one village in Kubalia. My worth what did I know. It got better the morning before I left Alotau I discovered that the first five or six informal sellers outside of the main market began speaking to me in the Nagum Boiken dialect, my mother tongue. Thinking I had discovered enough of me a last surprise came from the inscription Maienduo (sanguma or sorcerer) written on the boot of a cab.
In that discover I felt that Alotau had become all too familiar. Seven years ago Alotau exuded an air of the sleepy gently coastal town. Now Alotau is bubbling with activities and new developments. The township itself has changed various aspects of it. Like many of the small towns in PNG Alotau is also catching the wind of change—some of great benefit and others of regressive fever. Yet in that whirlwind of movement forward and backward there is one certainty though: Good leaders and a provincial government that works.
The hospital is given attention with new extensions, there is a guesthouse that caters for the accommodation needs of the 16 LLGs in the province, and a new wharf and development of the Andersons Bay. There is a sense of development resulting from a well-planned and coordinated effort. There is a sense of order and purpose in the air.
For me Alotau is alluring only because the potential it has in becoming one of the major coastal towns in Papua New Guinea is embedded in three things. It has a rich cultural foundation with a diversity of Milne Bay traditions exhibited through various events and venues such as those during the Canoe and Yam Festivals, provincial day celebrations, and for various reasons.
Second, Alotau has a rich contemporary history in terms of the Second World War, the arrival of the first catholic missionaries in Woodlark, the establishment of the Kwato mission station, the first PNG gold mine operations on Sudest Island, and of course having some of the decorated men and woman who provided leadership in the formation and march to Independence of PNG.
The next chapter to be written is by the contemporary generation of men and women, boys and girls of Milne Bay. It is a town imbued with vibrant raw energy that needs harnessing and unleashing it to the greater good of society. One could sense this on approaching Alotau from the air, a moment of ariel perspective of development on the ground, especially with the massive oil palm develop around the airport area.
The land with its vastness and spaciousness offers the opportunity for social and economic development. It has the potential to burst into the tourism industry in a natural way. It has contributed a lot to that industry, but what it needs now is strategic development of that industry that must give the local people the opportunity to participate as business people rather than as performers and spectators in that industry.
It also has the potential to provide quality education to its own people as well as to other Papua New Guinea. I was in Alotau as a member of the National Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation Committee (NHEQAAC), which gave me the opportunity also to learn about provision of higher education in the Milne Bay Province and also the potential it has in developing Technical and Vocational Education. There is no doubt in my mind that Alotau or for that matter Milne Bay is an ideal place to set up higher education institutions.
One of the education institutions we visited was the St Barnabas School of Nursing, an institution that provides training to health workers, especially nurses. The Principle of the School of Nursing informed us that students in the School of Nursing are from all over Papua New Guinea, rather than from within Milne Bay province only. St Barnabas has so much potential to develop as one of the top nursing schools in the country. We hope the three churches sponsoring it will find a common ground to improve the status and bring it up to the next level. There is obvious cry for help in realizing its full potential.
On our way down after visit St Barnabas School of Nursing we noticed for the first time that there was a taxi service in Alotau. The realization was that for a sick man to get to the hospital the services of a taxi is critical to transport him or her up to the mountain. Suck a drama captures the subtleness of a place that prides itself in declaring the provincial government centre as the “ Service Delivery Centre”, which sinks right into the core of the national development experts who go to Alotau to have conferences and workshops.
I met an old friend Mr. Abby Yadi at Gurney Airport before my departures to Port Moresby. He was waiting for the arrival of cultural officials from the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) to view Milne Bay as one of the satellite towns for the 5th Melanesian Festival of Arts and Culture in 2014.
Alotau is the rising star of the eastern shores of PNG.