The grass went up to my knees. As I walked towards the health centre, little thorns that would irritate me for days attached themselves to my socks and trousers. When I reached the bleached brown verandah, the health worker who greeted me turned to sweep his hand across the flat green landscape. “You see, no one cuts the grass here. The government doesn’t see us. People in the community don’t help us. We just use our own strength to keep working.”
Across the Middle Ramu district of Madang Province, with its rugged mountains that rise up into the New Guinea Highlands and the swampy hot Ramu river valley that winds its way to the coast, I encounter the same story. Grass matters.
The district has no roads in working order. The only way in or out is by boat or plane. Fuel prices for both are rising and all but one of the air strips along the river basin are closed, with small air companies cutting back their routes every year. The district station is marooned on a plane of mud midway between the mountains and the river.
Before independence in 1975, colonial officers patrolled the area. New powers of ‘law’ and ‘government’ were backed up by the gun. People followed orders when told to cut the grass without payment. Monday was ‘government day’. Everyone was expected to contribute to the maintenance of ‘public’ spaces like schools and health centres. Huge square patches of even pale green were cut out of dark rainforest and garden land.
“People aren’t stupid anymore” Frank, the officer in charge of a facility positioned further on along the river explained. “Before the white people said ‘Oy! You kanakas [black hillbillies] you clear the grass’ and people did what they said. But now they have knowledge. Now they know the services have money. They won’t clear the grass for nothing”. Frank employed two people at 50 kina a fortnight (£12) to do the gardening for the health centre. The beautiful lawns, bordered by bright rows of flowers sloped down the hill to the river. The Catholic mission that ran the station had told him to lay them off, but he refused. “I told them. If I lay them off, the bush will be up to the window, it will start coming in. When people come here they see the place, the grass, the buildings, and they know what kind of people we are.”
But most facilities continue to rely on reluctant communities, resorting to shouting and chastisement when people refuse to help. One health centre refused to give people treatment until they cut the grass. People don’t get sick on Mondays anymore.
Patients, community leaders and local councillors reminisce about the colonial era, when aluminium roofing was flown in on planes and water tanks didn’t leak. They have forgotten that they also had to cut the grass. ‘The government doesn’t see us’ I heard everywhere I went ‘Look at the rusting aid post roof, the long grass, the bush material walls.’
Colonial attempts to manufacture publics reverberate in spatial relations in the present. Communities who watch government health workers in a facility with no medicines install solar panels on the roofs of their homes know that this ‘place of government’ does not belong to them. Health workers sit on hot verandahs waiting for government to arrive with a lawnmower or the ‘ungrateful’ community to bring their bush knives. ‘Development’ looks like a clean green square with shining aluminium roofs. But who is going to cut the grass?