Goroka-based Australian volunteer ROBERT SCHILT reflects on five years in PNG and says why he will be back for good
After five years of living and working in Papua New Guinea as a volunteer I have decided to call it quits.
As a young man a dream was born within, that one day I would have the opportunity to live and work amongst tribal people.
The last five years have been a dream come true.
Papua New Guinea as a country and especially its urban centres are going through rapid change.
The short time I have lived in the land of the unexpected I have witnessed a gradual breakdown of law and order and the inevitable collapse of a social fabric.
City or town living in PNG is hard, and for me the village will always hold that special something that makes this country unique.
The walk to the “hut” from the highway at Mangiro Junction can take anywhere between one and six hours.
The time it takes depends on who and how many locals we bump into on the way in.
To meet, chat and hug clan members as we etch our way towards our home in the heart of Kaubasis, helps me to get into the village mood and start to unwind from the hussle and bustle of town living.
I have been accepted into the village like a son and the bond that has formed over the past four years is beyond of words.
On Oct 23, 2008 a formal ceremony took place during which I was anointed chief of eight clans.
I was presented with a spear that had not been held in public for three generations.
The old men gave me the name of “papa” in Tok Ples and I now participate in tribal and clan gatherings as a leader.
In addition to the sense of privilege and honour I feel at being adopted by the clan, I am reminded of that dream I had as a young man.
The opportunity to come to PNG as a volunteer has allowed me to fulfill the vision that was born within all those years ago at Hyde Park in Sydney.
After going “steady” for over four years with Eli, on Jan 10 this year we became formally engaged in the eye of the Bolku clan.
The weekend unfolded in true Simbu village style and culminated in a tribal ceremony during which Eli and myself openly committed to each other in front of her family, clan and other members of the Keto-Tapasi community.
Magnificence, belonging, privilege, love, family, bridge, home, exchange, surrender and joy are some of the words I would use to describe the experience of last weekend.
Although I do intend to return to the Highlands after a short break and some job searching Downunder – I hope you are able to appreciate the delicate nature of the situation in relation to the village folks.
Some of the old folks have even told me that they will cut off a finger after I depart (a traditional Highlands ritual when grieving a loved one).
So during a recent visit I called a formal gathering of the Bolku clan and shared my situation and intentions with them openly.
Many of us cried and words of love, nurturing and re-assurance were exchanged.
As hard and frustrating as I have found life to be in the land of the unexpected there is enough pull and attraction for me to want to come back for a round 2?
I will never forget that moment at around the six month mark, waiting for a return PMV to Lae after my first weekend in Goroka, when it hit me that I was beginning to fall in love with a land and the people.
So what is it exactly about this place, a land that many deem to be the epitome of violence and chaos that would motivate me enough to even think about returning?
Perhaps if I share with you 10 reasons that come to mind:
1. The number one reason without a doubt is to be reunited with the love of my life: Eli. According to tribal custom we are now formally engaged with a full Simbu traditional ceremony scheduled for around Christmas 2010. This is the first time I have felt strongly enough about one person to want to commit at this level.
2. The “hut”. Many couples spend their entire working lives slaving away and paying of a home somewhere in the suburbs, driven by and chasing a dream, only to find that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a myth and a false prophet. As the West continues to career towards slow extinction we will take haven in our clean and fresh water supply, fresh garden crops and almost unlimited supply of firewood.
3. The potential to market, sell and establish a services industry around open source solutions remains untapped. Considering the green field nature of IT in this country, I firmly believe in the opportunity for open solutions to deliver solid, reliable and cost effective solutions to a wide range of sectors in Papua New Guinea.
4. Belonging. If there is one thing and one thing only that I have found in PNG – it would have to be a sense of “belonging”. The loneliness and isolation that I had grown so accustomed to in my home town of Sydney is now all but broken. Having said that and as connected as I feel with people here – I have also developed a deep appreciation and love towards my own blood (family) back home.
5. Markets. There is something about PNG markets that hits the spot. To take an afternoon or weekend stroll down to the local market for some good old fashioned human interaction is one aspect of Melanesian culture guranteed to knock the wind out of the most powerful of “blues”.
6. Speaking of markets – the local fresh vegetables and fruits is something that I have grown to really appreciate and enjoy. Back in so called modern civilisation, supermarkets sell fresh produce that looks exceptional but once you cut it open and taste it – you just know that there’s something missing. Here, the fruit and veggies necessarily look the best but once you give them the taste test you just know that you are eating something full of life. In the Highlands – organics are the norm by the way.
7. Buai (betenut) chewing. Although a filthy and unhygienic habit – there is a social aspect to standing around a little buai market that can only be understood if you have ever stood around a little buai market and had a chew. Besides, the little green acacia palm nut has been my most effective security and protection over the past five years. If there is one thing and one thing only that will ensure your personal safety in this place, in my books it would definitely have to be buai (more effective than a weapon!). In a strange sort of a way – buai has given me the privilege of “free passage” – to come and go in the most dangerous and violent of town settlements.
8. On the subject of buai… how can I forget the street boys, sellers, pick-pockets and half sense population of Lae and Goroka? On my return and if my “plan” (yes, I have a plan) is realised – I will fund a BBQ just for the street people of Goroka town. I empathise, interact, occasionally give away a few coins, share a story and a laugh. The street lads will always hold a special place in my heart.
9. The humanity. There is more humanity in PNG than what you will ever find in the collective of the developed world. I remember on one of my return trips to Sydney, my second day back in town at a local shopping center a man had fallen over and hurt himself badly. I stood back as I watched people just walking past and avoiding eye contact at all cost. The westerner within also wanted to just wander off and pretend that nothing had happened. But the newly found Papua New Guinean within walked over and reached out to another human in need. Later that day as I shared the story with Mum – I shed a tear for my people and felt a deep shame that this is what my culture has become.
10. The list could go on and on… village life, the clan, highlands public speaking and oratory, Eli’s cooking, strawberry thick shake down at the Bird of Paradise, the local coffee , meeting the rare expat that shares a similar connection with PNG, our dog “Gelo”, daily crosswords and comics in the two local newspapers, flour balls and “karuka” nuts, etc…
With less than three weeks to go before I hop on that plane to return to Sydney I am inspired and encouraged by the catch phrase made famous by Arnie: “I’ll be back”.
Trupela Tok (http://www.trupela.com/)