Papua New Guinea Field Trip

“It is sometimes difficult to imagine that much change can be made, but each Palms volunteer I visited was testament to the possibilities.”

My recent field trip to Papua New Guinea unsurprisingly called to mind my first visit, as a Palms volunteer in 2003 and 2004. Returning to the sights, sounds and smells which I knew so well, was an intensely personal experience for me as well as a necessary professional one. I was intrigued to see in what ways PNG had moved forwards, moved backwards, just moved or even stayed the same in the last two years. In such a short time as two years, it is sometimes difficult to imagine much change can be made, but each Palms volunteer I visited was testament to the possibilities.

The work in disabilities, predominantly in partnership with Callan Services for Disabled Persons, was inspiring to say the least. Fiona Cairns (Goroka), Tim Cahill (Wewak) and Yvonne Dunne (Buka) have each contributed to increasing services and opportunities for people with disabilities and transferring skills to local counterparts; however it struck me that the most significant long-term effects will come from the breaking down of negative stereotypes. One local man even described Fiona as “Meri Bena” or a woman from his tribe of Bena. Such acceptance after only six months is testament to her willingness to engage culturally, while maintaining her vision of a country in which no one is denied their basic rights of education or health.

Similarly, Barry Dunne’s (Buka) work with the HIV/AIDS team of the Diocese of Bougainville provides hope for reducing both the infection rate and the stigma associated with the disease. Through the development of administrative and accounting procedures, the team is becoming more efficient and effective in educating people about prevention and contraction of HIV, dispelling myths about “traditional” cures and in managing the new HIV/AIDS centre in Buka. As in many placements, a look beyond the “job description” is equally inspiring; the centre is providing asylum to a family seeking refuge from those who killed their husband and father.

Frances Scurfield’s (Mingende) commitment to Palms’ mission of localisation has had a strong effect with Maria, a local woman ready to take over Frances’ work for the Diocese of Kundiawa. Though currently in Australia, Frances will return briefly next year to follow-up with any training Maria may still need. These positions have traditionally been held by ex-pats and religious and Maria’s story is one of many which should be told to those agencies who choose a more paternalistic approach.

In education, Colin McDermott (Yarapos), Graham Andrews (Banz) and Kathy Teys (Vunapope) have each entered their communities humbly and effected positive change. Kathy’s conversion of her school’s “remedial” program into an inclusive, progressive and successful approach is to be lauded. As a result, again, attitudes are changing and Kathy’s counterparts now know it can be done. Colin, with his expertise in IT, is assisting Mercy Secondary College maintain its newly built systems. In his first two months, he has sourced solutions which are practical and sustainable in a community separated from Internet access.

It was extremely gratifying to be Palms’ representative on this trip and to receive the thanks of the communities for their new friends. Overwhelmingly, the message was the same – Palms’ volunteers come with an openness to our culture and a willingness to work cooperatively without which they would not be effective.

Though there are still many challenges for the people of PNG, these stories show that there is plenty of hope. It is important to note that these stories would not be possible if not for the commitment, wisdom and foresight of the local communities and organisations who requested them. Their gracious hospitality during my visit was only a sample of the welcome and love they extend to a participant over a two-year placement.

Tenkyu tru olgeta. Lukim yupela bihain