When I look back now on those seventies years in Papua New Guinea, there is one politician who stands out as personal favourite, and that is Dame Josephine Abaijah. In those days when she had no title, Josephine and I were neighbours of sorts. She owned a news agency in the Port Moresby suburb of Boroko and it was at street level, of course. Up one flight of stairs and directly above her shop was a suite of rooms where I had my photography studio and darkroom. If the acrid chemical smells emanating from said darkroom ever troubled her, she didn’t say so.
My memory of Josephine, then, is of a dainty, impeccably groomed lady behind a counter who served me my copies of Australian newspapers and magazines. Thing is though, she wasn’t always there. This little lady had bigger fish to fry.
Dame Josephine Abaijah, as hopefully any Papuan woman can tell you, founded and led the Papua Besena movement and she campaigned tirelessly but unsuccessfully for Papua to have a separate identity to New Guinea. In the lead-up to self-government and independence, she toured Papuan settlements and villages promoting the separatist movement. In the photo above she is shown raising the Papua Besena flag in a village or settlement in or near Port Moresby and unfortunately I can’t identify it. To say that she was a thorn in the side of people like Sir Michael Somare, who believed with equal passion in a united Papua New Guinea, is putting it mildly. Somare respected her as a person and conceded her right to have her own political movement but on an ideological level they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. In the photo above we can see that she has pointedly lowered the official flag of PNG and replaced it with her own party’s flag.
What the photo also shows though is that Abaijah, who stood for and won the seat of Port Moresby itself, attracted huge crowds of Papuan supporters to her rallies, including in some instances many hundreds of men. In a country where women usually have little or no status, it seems remarkable that she was able to muster so much male support, but there weren’t too many politicians at that time preaching the message the menfolk wanted to hear.
Dame Josephine Abaijah, GCL, DBE, was born in 1944 and is the same age as me, but in her lifetime she has achieved so much more than I ever did or could. In 1972 she was the first and only woman elected to the Papua New Guinea House of Assembly. She was elected again in 1977 and then again in 1997. It would be nice to be able to say that she was the first of many indigenous female Members of Parliament in PNG but unfortunately, not so. If anything, the path to politics is harder for women now than it ever was.