By SERAPHINA AUPONG
ON a good clear day, you can take a short drive just 20 minutes south of Buin in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and find a tropical oasis; a place both verdant and lush, and with the sound of the ocean and the Solomon Sea just a few short steps away.
It is here that you will find the small beachside community of Patupatuai, and a centre that has for the past decade, found itself to be filling the void for those in need of mental health services in the oft-forgotten southern part of Bougainville.
Following the near-decade long civil war, counselling and trauma-related services were established through church groups in the north of the region, but the southern and central parts of the island were often left behind.
Through a partnership that began in 2016 between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Papua New Guinea and the Bougainville Catholic Diocese, the road for such vital services, to not only continue but be strengthened, is currently being paved.
With the construction of a new dining hall, sleeping quarters, and the provision of building materials, water tanks, solar lighting and items such as brick making moulds, UNDP’s short-term intervention as part of its social cohesion project is allowing for those at the centre to not only receive counselling services free-of-charge, but also see them leave with a new set of skills that will help them in re-integrating into their local communities.
Sister Dominica Lumis, who hails from Nissan Island and has been working at the centre for the past six months said the changes she has seen since her arrival earlier this year have been extraordinary.
“The assistance provided by UNDP has been instrumental, prior to this partnership we were without electricity and without the infrastructure required to adequately provide the services that we want to provide.
“But now, we have solar power for the first time which gives us electricity every day, and those here at the centre will benefit greatly from the new infrastructure and training materials,” she said.
The centre sees approximately 50-100 people come through its doors each week; some staying permanently in accommodation provided, others making the trek along the beach each day to make use of their services.
UNDP Peacebuilding Fund Coordinator, Lawrence Bassie, said that when his team first visited Patupatuai in late 2016, the centre was in a sad state of affairs.
“What we saw was disturbing, over 150 people at the centre in Patupatuai all hoping to receive help but with very few resources available,” Bassie said.
Through the UNDP in UN Peacebuilding Fund, the centre is being transformed to ensure that the services being offered in the north of the Autonomous Region are now being replicated elsewhere.
However, it’s not just those suffering from conflict-related issues who visit the centre. Patupatuai also doubles as a rehabilitation space for persons’ living with a disability.
One such resident at the centre is Augustine Karos, a 40-year-old from Buin, who is the embodiment of happy-go-lucky. For him, each day is a blessing following his involvement in a tragic accident on the outskirts of his home town in 2014.
Five people died in the head-on collision between a car and a truck, and while Karos was lucky enough to survive the accident, he lost the use of both of his legs, which made life very difficult in terms of mobility.
The accident left him in a wheelchair; with nowhere to go and only his wife and son sticking by him through those difficult times.
Karos is also lucky to have the ocean nearby where he swims as a form of recuperation and exercise, an opportunity that would not have been available had he been elsewhere within the south of Bougainville.
“The support I’m getting from the centre is tremendous, and I can definitely see positive changes. I now have some movement in my legs and I hope that continues to improve and one day I can walk again.
“Leaving the centre is my dream, and I pray every day that I’ll be able to replicate what they have here in my very own home.”
Sister Therese Konepiri, who helps run many of the services at the centre, said that Patupatuai provides a place of refuge for many people within southern Bougainville.
“Karos is a great example of what we can offer at Patupatuai. He would otherwise have had no access to these facilities if he was at home, but here he can live a comfortable life and also have his wife and son here for support,” Sister Therese said.
“With thanks to UNDP we have a number of new areas and facilities that make our visitors feel much more at home,” she added.
The project has also drawn the attention of the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), with officials recognising that Patupatuai and the work being done here is nothing short of a feel-good story, in a beautiful part of Bougainville.
Speaker for the ABG’s House of Representative Simon Pentanu, who visited the centre earlier this year, was reminded of the incredible nature of this part of the world.
“The visit was quite nostalgic for me as it brought back pleasant memories of Kangu and Patupatuai. We attended Sunday Mass at Patupatuai mission while students at Kangu Primary School in 1964.
“This is still a very scenically beautiful part of Bougainville with a lot of history from World War II. The coastline and the small islands along the imaginary border we share with Solomon Islands are quite an enduring attraction in themselves,” he said.
Julie Bukikun, UNDP Assistant Resident Representative said that through its support of the work at Patupatuai she hopes that more major players will look to jump on board.
“Patupatuai demonstrates the resilience of our people. Despite the very little they have they still remain positive and continue to serve the needy, the vulnerable, and those who cannot voice their issues.
“What we are doing, even if it is only in a small way, we’re trying to ensure they remain operational and the work that they are doing to assist in trauma healing can continue. It is part of UNDP’s global agenda in line with the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goal) mantra of Leaving No One Behind; this means reaching those furthest and those without access to basic services,” she said.
- Seraphina Aupong is Communications Officer at UNDP.