Ambullua school does not give up

Focus, Normal

THERE is a community school set in a beautiful undulation at the confluence of two freezing, fast flowing and crystal clear rivers called the Kon and the Ambunum.
The Kon begins on the slopes of Mt Wilhelm itself while the Ambunum loses its name at the confluence and Kon moves on, bigger now where it meets the Buminz-Boman a short distance on which also sacrifices its name and on to the Kana, the Walna, the Manz, the Binz, the Mambol, the Sau and every other creek or stream or river until the engorged Kon leaves the Western Highlands and enters the Yuat and the mighty Sepik.
This is the Jimi River.
It is right at the head of the Jimi at the spot where the first two big rivers meet, a day’s walk to the foot of Mt Wilhelm, at the place called Ambullua where it is not unusual today to uncover human bones during diggings because the place is a traditional battleground and burial place, that our story begins.
Every school has its story. This is the story of Ambullua Community School.
Two weeks ago, the Ambullua Primary School celebrated its first Grade Eight graduation after four decades of operation as a school.
Sometime in 1957, a group of young men escorted a young priest across the foothills of Mt Whilhelm, crossing as they did from Simbu province into a remote part of the Western Highlands province, now Jiwaka.
 They came from Mingende in Simbu and crossed what the locals call Nimangir, a rough walking track that taxes the hardiest of walkers.
People still walk that track today.
In places, the young men had to half carry the priest, Fr Joe McDermott, SVD. Over the course of many months, these young men had to transport across that mountain all the cargo and even livestock including cattle and horses.
The young priest was given Ambullua, mostly because it was literally no man’s land, a traditional battle ground for the surrounding tribes of Diniga, Damba, Kondelka and Nond and their friends from further downstream.
It suited the young priest and Fr Joe and his band of men set up the a mission station at the confluence of the rivers Kon and Ambunum.
Fr Joe dedicated the parish to his name sake saint, the guardian parent of our Lord Jesus, Joseph.
Fr Joseph and his band of young men spread the word from Ambullua throughout the Jimi valley to as far west as Tsenga on the border of Waghi and Jimi and to the Bundi border with Madang.
Fr Joe has gone back to his native Boston now and from there we hear he has made his way back across the United States – perhaps to be close to and watch the waters of the Pacific lap the beaches of California, the same waters which also wash ashore in PNG.
His mission and his band of young man remain, now old man all of them minus one but they continue the work Fr Joe set them to do – Catechists, who is the Catholic church, are dedicated pastoral workers  who perform pretty much all the work of a priest without the power to give out the sacraments.
The leader of them, Leo Wamul, died several years ago back in his own place by the side of Koronigl at Waingar, Simbu, where his family reside today.
Besides building churches, Fr Joe and his band, built an air strip, health centre and the Ambullua Primary, now community school.
With a mini hydropower station and a back-up diesel generator, Ambullua parish had power at the health centre and the primary school where boarding students had one hour night study.
At its prime, the school was second to none in the province by the admission of both State and church inspection teams.
The SVD planes from Madang and Mt Hagen supplied the mission store with all the basic items.
Deep in the mountains where the nearest roads were in Kerowagi in Simbu, Banz in the Western Highlands and Madang town, the place was a wonder to behold in the days when most of the Western Highlands was yet to be opened to the conveniences of the modern world.
Over the years after Fr Joe left, the place fell into disuse with the buildings getting run down despite tremendous efforts put in by the various parish priests who visited there.
Ambullua is still isolated. The nearest road is at Kol, half a morning’s hard walk away or at Kerowagi. The airstrip operates still, now served by the Missionary Aviation Fellowship.
One thing – however has been a constant in this parish – its school.
The Ambullua Primary School started by Fr Joe, one of the oldest primary schools in the Western Highlands, strives on.
When schools in remote areas were closing, despite tribal conflicts raging around the school, when there has been periods when there has been no parish priests and when school teachers were reduced to two, Ambullua Community School maintained its full complement of classes.
The one or two teachers available would give assignments in one class and then move on to the next and the next and so on.
When MAF flights to Ambullua were stopped, when the road to Kol broke down and all schools material had to be carried over the same bush track Fr Joe and his Catechists walked – over Nimangir – when teachers’ pays were stolen in Mt Hagen and many had to go without pay for six months at a time because of the distance,  Ambullua Community School stayed open. 
When the level 5 school was reduced in status because student intake was low and lowering and when school fees were not paid and the Government’s subsidies arrived late or never, and when political conflicts in recent times actually touched the school premises, the school faltered and nearly closed its doors but it stayed open regardless.
It stayed open through the dedication of a few teachers and the school board.
A father and son team in Lapun and Jim Wik persevered the longest with headmaster Dennis Wirake.
Lapun Wik retired and moved on to Kerowagi where he remains today.
Jim stayed a little longer and then had to move too.
But it is credit to headmaster, Mr Wirake  and to the school’s board chairman Paul Omb that the school has stayed open all this time.
Mr Wirake, himself one of the pioneers of the school, has persevered through thick and thin.
Mr Omb climbs the Nimangir once and sometimes twice each month for schools supplies and reports.
Although untrained, he keeps an accounting system that is above reproach.
Without Mr Wirake and Mr Omb, the light that burns at Ambullua would have gone out many years ago.
Without them many students who have passed on through high school and who today hold down jobs or are in colleges would be languishing in their villages.
Without them, last week’s Grade Eight graduation, the first time ever to be performed in the time worn grounds of Ambullua would never have been performed.
To Mr Wirake, to Mr Omb, and to the very many others who have sacrificed their time and energy, goes the appreciation of all who hold Ambullua dear in their hearts, this writer, among them.
Without a road, without Government services, the lifeline of this place and its people has been the Catholic church and the Ambullua Community School.
A very merry Christmas and hearty congratulations to the first graduating Grade Eight class of Ambullua, to their dedicated teachers, to Mr Wirake and Mr Omb, the board and parents.
There are grand graduations held in fine halls and then there are those like this one held in bush settings around our country but, in my estimation, Ambullua’s is a milestone because it has proven, if not to the world, then most certainly to its own people and to me, the true meaning of the word perseverance or simply to NEVER GIVE UP.