Upes Come out to Cast their Vote

The Bougainville Referendum Commission has provided special polling for 15 Upes in central Bougainville, as well as visiting bed-ridden hospital patients and those in the Buka Police lockup to ensure everyone casts their vote.

“For those who got themselves enrolled months ago, we’ve done our best to get to you,” Chief Referendum Officer Mauricio Claudio said.

Upes are boys and young men undertaking their ‘coming of age’ initiations. During long periods they remain in the bush away from the village learning cultural, medicinal, hunting and other rites of passage to become a man. During this time they wear an Upe – a tall, woven hat hiding their hair – and cannot be seen by women.

The Kunua (Teua) community, one of three communities in Bougainville where the Upe traditional is still practiced, is one hour’s walk in from the West Coast of Bougainville island. Returning Officer, John Sisiesi, who also cast his vote in kastom dress, said it was important to both respect and keep Bougainville customs alive.

“Upe is a long tradition in Bougainville and the Upe is at the centre of the Bougainville flag. So I’m happy that on the completion of all other polling in this constituency, we have been able to make special men-only polling
arrangements for these young men” Mr Sisiesi said.

The teacher of the young men, Mr Sam Manu, passed on the appreciation of the 15 young men who were able to cast their vote whilst also maintaining their reclusive initiation ceremony.

“It means a lot to them to be able to take part in this historic referendum.”
Yesterday, in another first for Bougainville electoral processes, the BRC regional team for north provided polling at Buka hospital for 87 staff, patients, and their family and carers. This morning, the same team visited the Buka Police Station lockup to allow 29 voters to cast their ballot.

Chief Referendum Officer said this was perhaps the most inclusive electoral process ever provided in Papua New Guinea.

“Through three phases of enrolment including a three-week public display, postal and provisional voting, to polling across three countries, to remote atolls, highlands and special pockets of voters – our officials have tried their best to make this an event for all Bougainvilleans,” Mr Claudio said.