Striving Against the Odds – for Peace & Business in Enga
“The child who is a warrior now, where is his future tomorrow?”
It was philosophical question, a musing on the place of the traditional warrior in a modern, progressive Enga.
The soft spoken Engan gentleman sitting in the drivers seat of his Toyota Landcruiser asked it calmly, the glint in his grey eyes reflected his unwavering belief – that the way to peace in his often violent province can be found with the children.
His name is Yaso Kome.
We had parked the car at a former tribal battleground. There was nothing here at one time; everything that was here, houses, crops, cars, pigs, dogs, and people were destroyed in one of Enga’s notorious tribal fights between enemy clans.
Up to 100 people had died here in a conflict that lasted up to 25 years.
Today it’s a different story. There is an elementary school classroom here. Children from enemy tribes and others in the area come to school here.
Yaso was responsible for building this classroom. He was responsible for building many of these classrooms all over the province, schools built on tribal fighting grounds.
Thirteen in all, and more coming. This is his contribution to peace in his province.
Yaso Kome is a man who knows what is right. I wouldn’t call him a visionary because PNG politicians have succeeded in making the term ‘visionary’ synonymous with a pretentious, elected fool. There is nothing pretentious about Yaso Kome. You cannot build classrooms in tribal fighting areas easily. It takes a lot of effort and trust. Tribal fighters don’t trust many people. But many trust Yaso. He is a man who knows what’s right and what should be done. In Buddhist terms, he knows a ‘way.’
A Chance Meeting
Meeting with Yaso was a chance encounter. Truth is that up to the day I met him in the cold of Enga Province, at a place called Surunki, I didn’t know who he was.
I had wandered up from the nearby Wabag town hoping to see the famous Lake Ivi, which is these days commonly referred to as Lake Surunki.
I was told that there was a guesthouse near the lake so I said great, and jumped on the bus. I was expecting a small village type guesthouse, nothing fancy, just a bed and mattress and very kind staff who probably needed some training.
I was stunned when I arrived at Surunki and found a great lodge called Yaso Kome Resort & Hotel. It was like something you would find in Goroka or Mt Hagen, it was well built up, had great rooms with giant beds, a conference room and dining areas and landscaped grounds overlooking the lake in the distance.
The staff were hired from hotels in Mt Hagen so knew their jobs. When I told them I was a writer with my own blog www.myamazingparadise.com, they said hang on and called the owner of the lodge who was in Chimbu driving up the highway to Enga. I spoke to him on the phone, he said don’ worry, the ladies would take care of everything and told them to give me a room.
I visited the beautiful lake that afternoon and toured the surrounding area.
The next day I met the owner of the lodge. Yaso Kome is not a big man, maybe 5 foot 7 with an athletic frame. He looked like he was in his late 40′s early 50′s but physically fit enough to handle himself in a fight with guys much younger then himself.
As I spoke to him that day and two or three other times over the next three days, the more I learnt about him, the more inspired I became.
Beginning of a Rural Dream
Yaso dropped out of high school when he was in Grade 9, choosing years ago in 1980 to travel from mountains of Enga to the island of Bougainville to drive a taxi in Arawa, during the heydays of the Panguna mine.
He later gained some mechanical training with BCL.
Dissatisfied in Bougainville he returned back to his home in Surunki. He married and started a family and life looked like it would slow down for the young gentleman. But around that time, work on the giant Porgera Gold Mine, an hours drive just up the road from his house, had began and the Highlands Highway was being connected all the way through to Porgera.
Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Yaso moved his family into a small hut behind their house and turned their family home into a simple lodge in 1991. He catered for travelers heading to Porgera and stranded passengers on the highway. It was hard work. He used to boil water in teapots for his guest to wash in at night.
During this time he would visit other hotels in PNG, and said to himself, ‘Wow” amazed by how modern the hotels were compared to his tiny upstart.
These visits to other hotels served only to ignite his imagination.
“I had a dream and I pursued it. With the place I had and the cash flow coming in, I will provide services and facilities on par with what these hotels where providing.”
Then he worked hard everyday. He did mechanical jobs and saved what he made from the lodge; investing everything he had to grow the lodge. This was in 1990′s.
Every year his small business grew.
He also had another creative source of income.
Yaso, as I found out, is one of the most famous of modern Engan painters. His work has been sold all over the America’s and Europe. In fact in all parts of the lodge you can see many of his paintings adorning the walls
He used everything he made from the sale of his art to build his lodge as well.
Believing in Surunki when no one else did
Motivated by his ambition to grow the hotel and resort, Yaso approached banks and government for assistance but his requests for commercial loans and State grants were turned down.
Surunki, his home, was seen as massive credit risk. Tribal fights here were notorious as everything was destroyed. No one would back an investment in a place with a bad reputation.
It was a moment of awakening for Yaso. He realized then and there, that he could either abandon his home and start his business again somewhere more peaceful, or he could keep going, keep building, to take the road less traveled and stay. He realized then that peace was that answer for the future of Surunki. And no one would invest in Surunki. Only him. He was a man alone.
So he put his heart and soul into the hotel and to the local tribes people in the Surunki area. For over a decade he has employed the locals to work with him at all kinds of tasks at the lodge, he involves himself with the youths, he has actively sought to bring a message of peace leads to prosperity.
In Enga culture, there are two types of leaders, those who lead fights and those who bring peace. Yaso is the modern version of the latter.
“God has used me to bring peace in the Surunki area. I regretted leaving Grade 9 so early, but I am okay, as I have contributed to peace in the Surunki area. We have enjoyed relative peace here. We have leadership now that is stopping it (tribal fights).”
If I were afraid, I would not put investment here.
Peace is what all Enga people want, if you don’t have peace, you will not have all the other good things.”
Respect and Recognition
Yaso has no idea what the lodge is worth. I believe it’s better than many of the lodges in Port Moresby and looks like it could easily fit into the Coral Sea chain of hotels. It has 18 well-furnished guest rooms, a kitchen and a conference room and is situated in one of Enga’s most scenic basins, overlooking the Lake Surunki.
He plans to make it the best rural hotel in PNG and has plans to develop a Chinese restaurant up here and have quarterly cultural shows at the grounds every year, inviting singsing groups from all over the highlands and the rest of Papua New Guinea.
In recent times the Provincial Government and local businesses have become major clients and supporters of the hotel. At the recent opening of the hotels newly built rooms, the Minister for Planning and Rural Development Moses Maladina arrived to be special guest at the ceremony, much to surprise of Yaso Kome and the people of Surunki. He was surprised even more when the Minister announced that the State has awarded a business grant of K200, 000 to the Yaso Kome Hotel and Resort built in the wilderness of Surunki.
Even the banks are now talking to Yaso. Recently one of the banks has approached him to install an ATM machine in his hotel, which will help thousands of people in the area.
“Before I only had a dream, now I am starting to have recognition and guests.”
Yaso’s Contribution to Peace in Enga
Yaso has sought to implement his idea for peace all across Enga in the tribal fighting hot spots. His idea is simple – build elementary schools in places abandoned for years because of tribal fights.
“The Provincial Government is scared to put hospitals where hospitals were burnt down before. These elementary schools are far more important to bring peace and a future to these tribal fight areas.”
Before building the classrooms, Yaso visits the various tribes and their leaders to get their cooperation as he explains his intent to build the classrooms.
“I talk to them. I tell them how important it is to build these classrooms. Only when we built these classrooms that they realized the importance of the next generation.”
The Provincial Government’s scope of works for these classrooms is K250, 000 per classroom, but Yaso builds them only for K50, 000, involving local communities in the process, sourcing logs and locally produced timber and his own carpenters to build these classrooms. He helps the Enga Government save K200, 000 per classroom, which they can invest in other areas of Enga.
“I love Enga and if I can contribute to help then I can do something meaningful for the benefit of Enga.
If there are wars all over the place, how can we develop? So the question is how can we bring peace to Enga? In time I want to see Enga s as the best place to be.”
Building these classrooms has had far wider impact that just at the project site.
“We have only one language, so when we build a classroom in an abandoned place, the message spreads all over Enga.”
A testament to his reputation as a man of Peace
Because of his efforts in Surunki and his work with other tribes, many in Enga see Yaso as a man of peace. His reputation is such that many people feel safe from their tribal enemies in his area.
In the 2011 State of Origin decider, several thousand people from all over Enga and from places in Southern Highlands traveled to his hotel in Surunki to watch the game. There must have been over 5,000 people gathered there.
Mr Kome normally lets outs his large TV screen in the hotels pub and large car park for viewing, but that night there were just too many people. The pub was full, the car park was full and the highlands highway was jumped packed with people.
So he took all the TV’s out of the hotel rooms and rigged them up on the highway so that people could watch.
These people were special. Many of them were tribal enemies, who at any other place might have attacked each other with axes, guns and knives. But not this night. At Yaso Kome’s beloved Surunki, they came to watch the game in peace. After it was over, many of them stayed till daybreak, getting drunk, singing songs or just plain telling stories by fireside all night long.
“One of the results of all the years of contributing to peace means that people can come to where I was and know they will be safe.”
At the end of the day, nobody wants to fight or be attacked, but it’s hard when violence is a part of your culture.
Yaso Kome, high school drop out, world famous painter, hotel owner and businessmen has worked hard to show that peace can be achieved – you just have stay true to what you believe in.