Letters From Papua New Guinea

Gary & Helen Wolhuter are working as a Physiotherapist and Logistics Officer for Callan Services for Disabled Persons, Wewak:

Greetings from the East Sepik Province of PNG,

Well, Helen & I have been here 6 months now and the time has really flown. No wonder volunteers are asked to come for 2 years; time just goes and everything takes time. Before we came away I would have to say that PNG was not high on my list of places to go to but it has been a pleasant surprise – it is wonderful here and her potential is unlimited.

All the stories we heard about before we came away have proved to be false – our experience has been one of meeting very friendly and helpful people. Complete strangers will offer advice or help or they will just want to ask questions about you. At first, some can look fairly intimidating – particularly those with bright red mouths due to betel nut chewing – but even the toughest looking man has a soft and gentle voice which can seem bizarre. Luckily the violence and lawlessness we heard about has avoided us – sure, you hear and read stories but we equally hear about violence in Australia and other places.

There certainly has been a change to our lifestyle – it’s hard to know where to start! We were used to being entertained either at home or by going out, but here there is one TV station only ( that sometimes does not work for up to 3 months at a time); there are no bookshops or libraries; no picture theatres or video rental shops; and the shopping centre consists of one street about 200m long with shops that all sell the same things with very limited variety. Getting around is hard as fuel is expensive, roads rough and limited, and cars are a luxury item.

On the bright side it is normally very quiet, and if you get books from home or other volunteers it is great to just unwind. PNG is not well known for its surf, but to my great pleasure there are some good surfing spots close by, so in the season November to March surfing in pristine locations with no one else in sight is magic. There are also good snorkelling and safe swimming beaches close by. Our work is extremely interesting and rewarding. The people we deal with are conscientious, inspiring and grateful for any assistance. We both work with Callan Services which provides help to people with disabilities – unfortunately PNG has a high proportion of people with disabilities and most of these are disabilities which do not occur in Australia.

Helen’s role is to establish physiotherapy services in isolated rural areas. My role varies from helping Helen with logistical matters to assisting in management with the Principal of a Resource Centre which provides assistance to teachers, parents, volunteers and people with disabilities, so that disabled people can have an improved quality of life. Like most people who volunteer we have hopes of trying to achieve something during our stay. Very early on we realised that big changes are just not going to happen in our time so we set ourselves an easy one and a less obvious one. The easy one was to re-establish the Disabled Sports Association and teach a group how to swim, and the less tangible one is to try to empower the locals to take more control of their services.