A glimpse of PNGreality

Normal, Weekender

PETER COMERFORD returns to Kavieng to give his daughters a taste of the PNG experience

THE decision to make my second trip to New Ireland in 16 months, was made quickly and with limited preparation.
The original reason was to take medical supplies to Kavieng Hospital and reading materials to Carteret and Tsoi primary schools. But another dimension came into play when my wife suggested that I take my twin daughters Penny and Katy with me.
They were born in Popondetta and left PNG in their mid-primary years.
The place was going to be very different for them as adults: one a nursing sister; the other studying teaching at university.
They had traveled in Asia, Europe and the Americas, so presumably had the experience to cope with culture shock and the patience to ‘go with the flow’ when things did not progress at speed or go to plan.
To assist in their preparation, I downloaded a copy of the independence edition of PNG Attitude which contained current and interesting commentary on PNG 34 years after independence
So, armed with Attitude, two suitcases of medical supplies and reading materials, gifts, a couple of Parramatta NRL guernseys and caps, a first aid kit and very little else, we checked in with Air Niugini and to my relief, when I explained what we had in the suitcases, were not charged excess baggage.
Arriving in Port Moresby, people could not have been more cooperative and, after completing immigration, we were ushered through customs to be greeted by the heat, crowds and the smells of the airport.
The girls told me later that this was the most daunting part of the trip – the sudden confrontation by a predominantly male crowd and the eyes upon them as they made their way through the automatic doors into the heat.
The feeling was only temporary, and we were soon greeted by the hugs from smiling Bougainvillean and New Ireland school friends.
Penny was the first to get a real glimpse of the lack of resources and third world nursing conditions. I left her in the company of an ex-student and graduate nursing sister who was running the post natal clinic at Kavieng Hospital. What an eye opener it was.
Penny is an intensive care nurse who has worked in Dublin and Australia and she was confronted with all types of medical situations at the hospital. She said to my wife Marian on our return, “I don’t know how you handled all these things on a day to day basis when you were so young and the matron here.”
Things were different then with some experienced expat staff support and more than meagre medical supplies. Not that, even pre independence, it didn’t have its challenges.
An ex-student, who was to die a week after we left Kavieng, was awaiting biopsy reports and sharing the only oxygen bottle with numerous other patients.
Penny had nothing but praise for nursing staff.
She was in awe of one of the nursing facilitators who had an incredible intellect and wonderful insight and diagnostic expertise.
But everything is lacking – people with skills, support and medical supplies. PNG medical staff are sometimes sent overseas to gain experience but this was not always relevant to the conditions and needs in PNG.
Katy’s experience in the primary schools was also an eye-opener and she commented on how few resources were available, how well behaved and attentive the students were and how a simple game similar to marbles could be played with incredible accuracy and skill using rubber bands. A winner’s skill displayed proudly by the number of bands adorning their wrist.
On our arrival at Tsoi Primary we were formally greeted at school assembly with the Tsoi Island song sung in the typically beautiful harmonious tones of the Pacific. The girls and I were called upon to address the students and this was followed by the donation of materials to the deputy headmistress who later distributed the teaching resources to teachers and the teacher responsible for the simple library.
The ‘outcomes-based education’ has teachers struggling with few if any appropriate resources. The approach has not been particularly successful in Australia either. But in PNG well paid consultants introduce these schemes with what appears little understanding of the real needs of a poorly resourced third world education system.
The teachers we met were dedicated and innovative. One in Tsoi was cleverly using plastic bags and aluminium cans for art and craft. The bags were cut into strips to be woven into ‘pom poms’ and the cans cut and shaped into mobiles to provide some simple but clever displays in the classrooms.
Chalk boards were neatly set out in beautiful cursive writing with the week’s program and topics. School and class rules adorned the limited space on walls at the front and back of classrooms together with displays of creative writing activities.
There was a lot of discussion about the decline in educational standards and facilities, and strong comment that pre-independence New Ireland schools used to be among the leading schools academically in the country are now well down the list.
Some people blamed this on the lack of skilled expatriate teachers; a desire to return to gutpela taim bipo when there was discipline, respect for teachers and family, a desire to learn and a pride in the school. I could have been listening to the same comments here in Sydney.
Others felt that declining academic standards meant a decline in the standard of teacher education, teachers did not really care as much these days. From personal observation and what one reads in newspapers there may be some substance to this.
On the plus side, the New Ireland provincial government has implemented free education policy for all students up to Year 8, which eventually will be extended to Year 10.
From the twin’s perspective, the trip was a positive and stimulating experience. They were fortunate that most of their time was in the company of Papua New Guineans in the relatively safe New Ireland province, which gave them an opportunity to re-establish personal and emotional bonds with PNG.
There are very good teachers in PNG, who do their best teaching in poor conditions with few resources, coping with introduced programs and initiatives from systems outside PNG which may not be the most appropriate.
The schools, particularly secondary schools, need administrators with budgeting skills capable of implementing school maintenance programs and dealing with the government officials responsible for ensuring that funds are available and arrive on time at the school to be used for the purpose intended.
This would allow the senior teachers and principals to use their expertise to plan, implement teaching programs, and mentor their staff.