Hazards and high hopes in Port Moresby

A reputation for crime and violence has tended to hide the improving opportunities for people in Papua New Guinea’s capital as the economy starts to boom.

Port Moresby sits on the waters of the Gulf of Papua, where European settlers first caught a glimpse of this coastline in the 1870s. In the 21st century, travellers arriving by plane are met by mighty views of a tropical city.

Despite its obvious vibrancy and growth, the capital of Papua New Guinea has been unable to shake its troubled reputation for lawlessness and violence. It has in recent years been placed among the world’s five most unpleasant cities to live in by The Economist business magazine. In 2004, its survey, which assessed political stability, health care, education and infrastructure, ranked Port Moresby the worst city on the planet.

The Australian government urges its citizens to be wary of “high levels of serious crime” in the city, where armed robbery, gangs and carjackings are “an ever-present threat”. Walking after dark is not advised.

“Research shows two in three PNG women have suffered from domestic violence, and up to half are at risk of sexual assault,” Australia’s foreign minister Bob Carr said on a visit in December 2012.

For parts of the population of around 300,000, especially women, a lack of personal security is a grim and daily reality. But Serena Sarangian, who lives in the suburb of Gerehu Stage 1, said her fellow residents “don’t go around with a cloud hanging over them”.

“I feel free to walk on the streets and catch the bus,” explained the 27-yearold lawyer. “I can understand why people would be fearful and I wouldn’t advise (foreign) expatriates to do the same thing.”

“We are always in continuous apprehension that if you drive a car you will be at risk of being held up,” she added.

Moresby, as the coastal capital is more generally known, has, however, a magnetic quality, attracting people from provinces across the country who come in search of work and better health care.

Generations of families have migrated to the capital, where urban drift and unemployment have created overcrowding, poverty and crime.

Anne-Marie Laumaea, a 30-year-old HIV research scientist who now lives in Melbourne, was born in the city after her grandparents relocated from nearby Gulf Province. The family home is in the Hohola district, where she says “life is very hard”. She complains that the benefits of Papua New Guinea’s resources bonanza have not filtered down to the poorest, creating “parallel universes” of a wealthy minority and the rest.

In Hohola, it is common to find extended families crammed into small houses. Joblessness is a perennial problem, while many households grow their own vegetables and rely on just one or two breadwinners to make ends meet.

“Not everyone can afford to send their children to school, so it is like a very vicious cycle; they can’t go to school and therefore they can’t get employed,” says Laumaea.

But despite the privations and challenges, suburbs like Hohola hum with a strong sense of community, where neighbours are regarded as de facto aunts and uncles, and residents assemble on street corners, chew betel nut and talk. These intimate bonds help insulate families from some of the worst excesses of a congested and overpopulated city, where power supplies can be unpredictable, along with a creaking public transport system.

Serena Sarangian, who is the executive director of the youth development organisation, The Voice, is, however, optimistic that her city is being transformed by a booming national economy.

“Moresby is changing rapidly,” she explains. “There are lots of opportunities being created now. The economy is growing. We are seeing stores, malls and cinemas open up. I am beginning to feel a buzz in Port Moresby.”

“If we begin to tackle the hard issues of corruption, I think Papua New Guinea is on the rise and Port Moresby is going to see some really good times in the future,” predicts Sarangian.


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