The day after the WPBI program launch, Ambassador North embarked on a multiple day tour of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Our USAID supervisor planned to accompany his caravan on the first leg of the tour, which was a journey from Buka to Arawa, with a stop along the way to visit a community center in Wakunai. Ali and I were asked to participate in the trip, so we arranged to join the caravan traveling down to Arawa and planned to return the same day.
Most locals will tell you that the road between Buka and Arawa is excellent, particularly right now because the Japanese development agency (JICA) has recently completed building bridges over the major rivers that crossed the road and a car can make it one way in about 3 hours.
However, these things tend to be a matter of perspective. As the journey commenced, Ali and I found ourselves in the back of an all-terrain vehicle with bench sets that face each other down each side along with our Counterpart vice president and two USAID staff. As the truck barreled along the – at times asphalt but most times compacted dirt and rock – road, swerving or abruptly slowing down to avoid potholes, washouts, people, and the occasional pig/dog/chicken, we did our best to stay upright and hold a conversation.
But the funniest part was that the movement of the truck as it bumped along the road made our voices sound like something out of a cartoon—our voices sounded like goats or old ladies as we tried to speak, and a sudden drop or bump could cause you to lose your breath! We frequently had to stop what we were saying, and we often burst into laughter. We eventually found ways to sit as comfortably as possible to minimize the discomfort, and we discovered that the seats closer to the front of the truck were less bouncy than the seats all the way in the back. But we were very relieved to stop in Wakunai and eventually Arawa, since our bottoms became pretty numb!
Our stop in Wakunai was brief. While the Ambassador spoke with some of the community leaders, the rest of us looked around the community buildings and enjoyed the chance to stretch our legs. Then, it was back in the trucks for another hour or two to Arawa.
We arrived in Arawa around mid-day and drove through the town before arriving at the Arawa Women’s Training Centre. This centre is both a guest house as well as a training centre that offers skills training and education to local women. As we disembarked, it was clear that they had planned a special welcome for the Ambassador and his entourage. We were all greeted by women who brought us each a necklace made of a bunch of greenery and string. Then, a procession of women walked in a double line and sang as they led the Ambassador to the entrance of the centre.
We were taken to a meeting hall inside the centre, where they greeted us with a welcoming ceremony that included dipping some fresh green herbs in a pot of clear oil and brushing it across our foreheads. Then, the women gathered in a circle and sang a few songs of welcome. Afterwards, they served us lunch – the main dish was meat pasties, but I was happy to eat the fresh papaya (they call it “po-po”), banana, and some lemon pastries.
You can view videos of the procession and one of the welcome songs below:
After lunch, we parted ways with the Ambassador’s caravan because he was continuing his agenda and had several meetings to attend. We went with our USAID supervisor to visit one of our partner organizations in Arawa, so she could visit the office and meet some of the staff. I’ll write more about that organization later, because I will return to Arawa for an assessment and will describe them in more detail then.
Because the evenings become pitch-black by 6pm in Bougainville and because there are no lights on the road, we had to begin our return by car to Buka no later than 2pm (plus, leave plenty of time for delays). So after meeting with our partner organization, we began another bumpy journey back. It was quite a lot to do 6+ hours of that road in one day!
We made it to Buka around 5pm and were very happy to end the day with a cold beer on the restaurant deck of the guest house called Reasons, overlooking the crystal clear waters of Buka Passage. They may not have air conditioning on their deck, but the beer was at least cold.