The Bilum Wall of Waigani
Port Moresby, May 2015: This was my Nth time in this capital city of Papua New Guinea since 2012 and, boy, was I thrilled to have had some new experiences in this place, among them a longer time and exposure at what is unofficially called the “Bilum Wall of Waigaini”.
I have written before that Port Moresby has some unfavorable reputation especially in relation to safety and security of foreigners in particular. The reputation may not be totally justified. Foreign media might have exaggerated the real situation and international offices (such as the one I’m working with) might be overreacting in their security measures. I have seen improvement over the years and am now really happy that secure open public places where one can walk around comfortably without much worry about getting robbed — have gradually sprung up in various parts of the city. The government apparently exerts serious efforts to continue improving the situation and, in fact, is bold enough to host the 2015 Pacific Games and the APEC Summit in 2018, indicating that they are confident that security forces will be able to bring everything under control for such huge international events.
In any case, this “Bilum Wall” had always been there and had survived many a turbulent years, through the bright times and the darker days of this intrepid city. The wall has witnessed many crimes and good deeds, has seen its surroundings evolve over the years, but has since been sending part of PNG culture to many parts of the world. Here’s my photo story of what I saw.
At the central area of Port Moresby called Waigaini; by the busy intersections that serve prominent establishments such as Holiday Inn and Lamana Hotel; by the sidewalks that gets occupied by locals and visitors on most days; stood this wall that showcases a significant part of the PNG culture — the Bilum Wall.
The “bilum” is the colorful handwoven or knitted shoulder bag, a popular souvenir for most people visiting Papua New Guinea.
Traditionally woven from native vines and fibers from plants or trees, thus also traditionally prepared in natural hues; the bilum has, over the years, evolved in color and material. The more recent and very colorful ones are made of commercially produced yarn, in these ones, red – the dominant color in PNG flag – also dominates the colors of the bags.
Various souvenir items, not only bilums, are actually being displayed by local artisans and entrepreneurs along the wall.
Another popular souvenir from PNG, the “Buka Basket” is crafted from indigenous materials and dyed brown with natural saps.
Some of the vendors do their knitting while keeping watch over their souvenir items
Bead necklaces, bracelets and other trinkets, many of them crafted on-site, are also available.
Paintings and wood carvings are also on display. Some parts of the wall are dedicated to local paintings and indigenous art. There are also other areas in Port Moresby where whole walls display indigenous art for sale.
Of course, traditional masks, spears, bows and arrows, and a whole lot of other PNG souvenirs can also be found along the wall.
But, due to their often bright colors, the bilums are the most attractive and thus the wall was named after it.
And, because the wall is along a street where roadside parking is allowed; a souvenir hunter can just park his car or taxi next to the wall, pick and order one from the vendor even without leaving the car, and then go once a transaction is completed.
But that’s not too much fun. The joy of souvenir-hunting has to be enriched by a personal interaction with the sellers — learning more about the item and the role it plays in local culture — and of course, bargaining for a lower price. And the friendly vendors are just happy to haggle.