From the back of a truck heading North along Bougainville’s “highway” road, one observes a strange trick of perspective. As the coconut trees on either side recede towards the horizon, the distant mountain appears to grow ever larger, looming menacingly and capturing your focus. This Hitchcockian “push-pull” effect can cause a feeling of vertigo and the seemingly increasing enormity of the mountain inhibits your ability to notice the significance of the smaller features being passed. For while the mountain brings rain, it is the way the rain is used locally: to provide an ecosystem for subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing and cash crops; for cooking and cleaning and occasionally powering small improvised hydroelectricity generators; which matters in the lives of the people of Bougainville island.
Sometimes development programs seem to provide a similar illusion. While large-scale projects – roads, mobile phone towers, mines, etc. – prided by governments and corporations, capture our attention from a distance; the small, local activities are most meaningful to people’s lives. A copra farmer might benefit from being able to phone ahead to check out the purchase price in different towns, but he will report that the literacy and numeracy he gained from his village primary school makes a bigger difference. The mother will be grateful for the smoother and faster ride to the hospital when her child is sick, but the village-based “life skills” program helps her increase her child’s hygiene and nutrition, making such trips less necessary.
Annette Pocock will soon complete two years of educating nurses at St Mary’s School of Nursing Vunapope. About 120 young women have attended St Mary’s while Annette has been there, teaching anatomy, physiology, mental health and other subjects. They will work in hospitals and clinics across Papua New Guinea, often bringing primary health care to communities still solely reliant on traditional medicines. This will help more communities achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of increased maternal health, reduced child mortality, gender equity and combating HIV, malaria and other diseases. Annette has built friendships which empower local staff, rather than taking initiative from them. Her presence has freed them up to continue their own studies, gaining Masters qualifications so that St Mary’s can upgrade its program from Diploma to Bachelor level.
Kevin Wilson has taken Palms’ values to heart. At Tunaniya Open Learning Centre, he lives justly, loves tenderly and walks humbly. Josie Sirivi, Tunaniya’s director, and teachers from the community school at Domakoo village, which is resourced and supported by Tunaniya, repeatedly expressed how impressed they were by Kevin’s humility, his willingness to live as locals do. They have come to consider him like family and the feeling is mutual. Kevin’s simple life has given him an insight into Bougainvillean life rarely achieved by expatriates, even volunteers. Kevin has been vital in ensuring the delivery of Tunaniya’s ongoing literacy programs as well as providing support and occasional teaching for courses in life skills, democratic governance, leadership and minimising drug and alcohol abuse. In a place like Bougainville, where many had their education interrupted by conflict, the opportunities provided by Tunaniya, including Kevin, are essential community development. In a place like Bougainville, with a history of major projects neglecting the needs of the community, it is through placements like Kevin’s that Australia can best contribute.
Peter and Elaine Smyth have only just arrived at Divine Word University but have already begun building relationships through which their placement will be more meaningful, more effective and more sustainable. DWU is now a major education provider in PNG, not just at its Madang campus but also through accrediting smaller institutions like St Mary’s School of Nursing. Fr Jan Czuba svd understands the challenges of DWU’s growth and sees Peter and Elaine providing important legal and human resource skills to ensure it can maintain its focus on quality education as it increases its quantity of students. It is early days for this placement, but it is already evident that Peter and Elaine are committed to Palms’ approach of achieving development by building mutual, respectful relationships of exchange.
There are still more Palms Volunteers in Papua New Guinea whom I was unable to visit, but evaluations received so far from partners and participants indicate that Tony Bozicevic, Graham Andrews, Pauline Randall, John Gartner, Paul Tan and Esther Sim provide greater evidence that Palms Volunteers are highly valued because of their humble approach. With a recent bilateral review concluding Australia should reduce the number of highly paid advisors to PNG, we are proud to briefly divert the public gaze from the monolithic optical illusion to realise that one of these consultant’s salaries could fund all ten of the volunteers mentioned above with change to spare.