Dame Josephine Abaijah: Flying Solo in a Man’s World

Josephine-Abajah

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.

7 thoughts on “Dame Josephine Abaijah: Flying Solo in a Man’s World

  1. I have always pondered and have many questions as I really want to know why Papua was a Territory of Britain administered by its colony of Commonwealth of Australia, when in 1975, we should have gained self governance and independence as the independent territory of Papua, Is this One Reason Why the National Capital was built in Port Moresby, to lure the papuans to own the capital city? Agh. What else? We PNGeans really have nothing more important than hanging onto our native customary land with our dear lives, my land is my one and only nonbankable asset, i will give up everything else, expect, to fight for my land, if only PB was aggresively supported, Papua would be a state of itself recognition upon my own native land..

  2. Hi Maso, I can recall that at the time there was a lot of Papuan support for the Papua Besena movement, particularly at the village level and around Port Moresby. It’s just that it was never going to be strong enough to overcome the greater number of voters who just accepted the idea of a single, united country – or at least were prepared to give it a go to see if it would work. Post World War II, Australia was administering Papua, New Guinea and all the surrounding islands as a single colony so it was just an extension of that. At the same time the whole process of Self-government and Independence was so new that lots of older people just voted for a local candidate they knew or trusted, without understanding the consequences. Michael Somare was leading the Papua and New Guinea United party and he was a charismatic and popular figure in those days. Unfortunately we are all guilty of voting for personalities instead of policies sometimes. Port Moresby just evolved over time as the centre of government with the largest concentration of population and it was inevitable, I guess, that it would become the National Capital. I am sure it wasn’t selected with the idea of luring Papuans away from Josephine Abajah’s separatist movement. My own view now is that Papua New Guinea’s provinces will always retain their own unique qualities and identities. For all Papua New Guineans, their land is everything. I hope your will never lose your land and I hope it is not under threat in any way.

  3. HAIL PAPUA! IF ONLY THERE WILL BE AN OPPORTUNITY IN THE NEAR FUTURE WHERE THE IDEA OF AUTONOMOUS GOVT SHOULD BE AN AGENDA AS WE ARE TREATED AS SECOND CLASS CITIZENSIN OUR OWN LAND. EVEN OUR POLITICAL LEADERS DO NOT HAVE ANY VISION FOR OUR FUTURE, WHERE IS THE SO CALLED PAPUAN BLACK SNAKES NOW? ARISE PAPUA NATUNA!

  4. Reblogged this on Tribalmystic and commented:
    I personally have always admired Dame Josephine. She has lived an extraordinary life and will continue to inspire the women of Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands. Thank you Veronica Peek for writing this story and sharing it with us.

  5. I really admire Josephine Abaijah for “In a country where women usually have little or no status, it seems remarkable that she was able to muster so much male support”.

  6. May PAPUA fulfil the biblical prophecy and may the entire nations and kingdoms bow down to Papua. Before Australia was born on 26th January 1901, PAPUA was already a Nation on 6th November 1884. Australia may you shake because you broke the CROWN INSTRUMENTS/ROYAL PREROGATIVES/LETTERS PATENT that QUEEN VICTORIA placed upon PAPUA and made PAPUA part of Her ROYAL DOMINION in 1884. Australia you prepare yourself for the consequences of what you did to PAPUA, no matter what you will have to compensate PAPUA. PAPUA will be Independent one day but first we will have to remove that 7th point on the Star of Federation that represents PAPUA so we leave you with only 6 points through an OBLIGATIONAL REFERENDUM. May GOD BLESS PAPUA!

    ANDREW EKO FANGU’U
    Bereina Chapter Coordinator.
    Papuan Australian Plaintiff United Affiliates Association In-cooperated.
    Inauaia Village, East Mekeo, Kairuku District, Central Province.
    PO BOX 307, VISION CITY, NCD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.