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PNG Bilum Festival Lures Thousands Of Tourists

ALTHOUGH the much criticised but successful hosting of the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit in PNG by the then O’Neill/Abel Government did not earn any immediate benefits for the country, but its long-term economic positives, which were a pillar of strength for unwavering O’Neill in bringing the 21 World Economies into our shores, are already but slowly trickling in.

This can be attributed to a very successful staging of “2019 Goroka Bilum Festival” in Eastern Highlands which coincided with the 63rd Goroka Show and the 44th Independence celebrations, attracting many international tourists, particularly for the event. We will quite later return to the Bilum Festival story as is the focus of this article, for now, let us briefly touch the importance of the summit on women and their economic empowerment.
The summit, hosted under the overarching theme of “Harnessing Inclusive Opportunities, Embracing the Digital Future”, has through the prior forum for women – the Apec Women and the Economy Forum (WEF) provided meetings, workshops, seminar and site visits and conversations between women entrepreneurs in the country and representative (women) leaders from the 21 economies.

The meet for Apec WEF in the country in September, which was chaired by the then Minister for Community Development, Youth and Religion Soroi Eoe, was convened under theme of “Seizing Opportunities for Women and Girls in the Digital Age”. This drew focus on the new digital frontier and the opportunities and challenges it presented for women and girls. It sought to explore practical and meaningful ways in which Apec could respond to the challenges faced by our women, while realising and harnessing the many associated opportunities. The deliberations and efforts of our women during the meet were focused on the four main priority areas of: Empowering women to participate in the digital economy; gender inclusion and empowerment, which is a catalyst for growth in all sectors; leadership; and forging partnerships and narrowing the gap.

According to acting director economics Webster Yano Ake for the Office of Development for Women, Department for Community Development and Religion, 23 women entrepreneurs from across PNG were brought in to participate in the Apec WEF, who came as either individuals or a rep from an entrepreneur group.
One of these women in attendance, who is now soaring high in her entrepreneurship helping ordinary Papua New Guinean women is the founder and director of the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative Florence Jaukae, who is also known as “Bilum Women” after the exposure of her Bilum Products internationally.

Highlights of the event
Tourism Promotion Authority (TPA) and PNG Immigration record put international tourists’ numbers turning in for the 11th Pacific Island Trade and Invest Bilum Festival at more than a thousand, which also included attending the 63rd National Gaming and Control Board Goroka Show coinciding with the country’s 44th Independence celebrations.

The festival, previously localised for Bilum weavers only within the Highlands region has been extended to all parts of the country for the first time, with a total of 164 bilum weavers in attendance. A record amount of K61, 099 was earned during the festival culminating from a huge sellout of Bilums, which had received a major backing from the local government after a decade, since the inception of the festival in 2009.

To the cooperative director’s accolades, this year’s event has received a wide array of funding support from within and abroad in cash and assorted goods and services, with major financial sponsor being the Pacific Trade Investment Australia. Both the Governor for Eastern Highlands Peter Numu and Member for Goroka Henry Ame presented K12, 800 and K10, 000 respectively for the event as well, with minor support drawn from City Pharmacy Limited group of companies, Coca Cola Amatil, National Film Institute, Goroka Hardware, Endeavour Printing, Pacific Gardens Hotel and Jaukae Bilum Products.
Activities ranged from Bilum weaving demonstrations, Bilum Products display by weaving groups and Bilum wear displays by 15 models who were then judged based on their performances by judges comprising of National Museum Arts Gallery director Dr Andrew Moutu, Melanesian Studies Lecturer University of Goroka Dr Jil Awi and pastor Noah Komera of Four Square Church.

Many companies including Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) bought off 50 tables at the opening night of the festival on September 12, with the Pacific Garden Hotel venue filled to capacity. PJV also was the proud sponsor of Porgera Bilum Weavers Association, whose three entrants out of the four claimed all three prizes in the 2019 Bilum Wear Awards.
Awards and Categories

Bilum weavers were awarded in three categories. First, the modern or acrylic Bilum Wear Design category, second the natural fiber, and third the Bilum Sculpture Designs. As stated above, all three awards in the first category were claimed by Bilum Weavers from Porgera district of Enga, who entered the festival competition under the sponsorship of Porgera Joint Venture. Judged for their skilful patterns, the first prize was awarded to AK 47 bilum design, second prize went to parliament design and ant story claimed the third prize. In the second category (natural fiber designs), Eastern Highlands women claimed all the prizes with Marawaka design taking the first award, mountain design from Okapa on second placing and the skin pik design from Unggai Bena district taking out the third place award.
Jaukae at the close of the festival in Goroka said this year’s festival colours comprised of black, red, yellow and green, and all Bilum Wears were designed incorporating those colours, which were decided for their significance to our environment.

“Many of you would say that they are Rasta Colours, but these colours have significance to our beautiful environment and place. Black signifies our land, red is for the blood in us, yellow is for the golden sunshine we are blessed with and green is the natural environment we have, from which we as mothers draw our natural fibres for our Bilum Wears,” Jaukae explained.
“At many occasions, people say this and that to us, such names as skin pigs or women without value. But we are all blessed with everything like land, sunshine, environment from which we sustain our lives from. When morning sun rises, you go to your jobs, we Bilum Weavers also go to ours. We mothers make our lives out of it. You have work, we also have work, we are all one, therefore respect for one another should prevail in our land.”
The Bilum Festival, now in its 11 years of existence since 2009, as gone from strength to strength. Florence says it was begun with very slim resources in terms of finances and skilled weavers. It has now climaxed in popularity not only locally but also most importantly internationally, who have already begun to flock in numbers this year.

And Eastern Highlanders having initiated the festival, especially the show of the Bilum Wear Designs fast gaining popularity, Jaukae said she then began to think of ways to diversify the skill pool of the weavers from Eastern Highlands to other forms of products within the Bilum industry.
After much thought and deliberation her thoughts dwelled on Bilum Sculpture Designs. She then began to work with a famous sculpture artist from Simbu Gigmai Kundun on creating designs for Bilum sculptures which would depict Bilums designed and woven from stories of the traditional way of doings things in Eastern Highlands or just mimic things in the nature.
The Bilum Sculptures that birthed from these innovative thoughts had three of these award winning magnificent creations shown by the models at the event, with inspirational stories of their designs and the creations were brought about using tube rubbers, electrical wirings, flowers, and natural fibres and pieces of pipes.

The Bilum Sculpture that claimed the third placing award that depicting a belly of a moth, with second placing taken by a design of a sweet potato leaf crown. The Rachel Kaukau leaves, a tuber famous in Eastern Highlands, had been worked upon in honour of women who when working in the Rachel Kaukau gardens during scorching heat of the sun would make shady crowns using the Kaukau leaves to put over their heads while in the garden. And the first placed sculpture was created as a tribute to women from Bena district, who during tribal fights used to carry spears in the Bilums while staying by their husbands and fathers’ sides to draw spears from.

These indeed were skilfully designed and knitted together, with Jaukae saying that it required much skill, effort and time to produce every piece including others that did not get awards. And of course, praise is not only due to the designers and weavers, but the 15 models also who depicted the pieces making the task of judges easier. Their efforts have been awarded by the CPL company with K200 shopping vouchers.

Jaukae’s Bilum Products currently have a standing in the international markets and this is a huge plus for our ordinary womenfolk in the country whose designs and weaving skills are second to none. Visit Goroka Bilum Festival next year in September and see for yourself the epic magnificence on display.

Press Release

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