Tapini, in Papua New Guinea’s Central Province, is located 180km from Port Moresby and is accessible by small plane and a recently opened highway. As in many parts of PNG, Tapini’s isolation makes it difficult to develop adequate services and attract skilled professionals. The community in Tapini and the surrounding Goilala region are significantly disadvantaged by their isolation.
Sacred Heart School sees great potential in information technology to overcome the challenges of isolation and Bruce Farquharson has responded to their request through Palms Australia for a volunteer to assist develop their infrastructure and their IT skills.
The OLSH Health Centre serves as the primary health care provider for many nearby villages. The Health Centre has 36 inpatient beds, including Maternity, Childrens, TB, Pre-Natal and General Wards. It also provides general outpatient services and care, medication and education for people with HIV/AIDS. A number of young staff have recently been recruited and are showing a great enthusiasm for learning more about running an effective health centre. Rowena Farquharson has responded to the community request for an experienced nurse to help mentor the new Health Centre staff in primary health care provision.
When Tapini came into view in February, we felt a comfort that came from more than it being the end of a rough 6 hour 4WD trip. We had each visited separately five and seven years earlier. Our four children had all visited as part of mission experience trips from Monivae College, Hamilton, Victoria. Young Tapini men attending Monivae had become part of our family in recent years. I had provided support to the fledgling online community from the Goilala district that Tapini is part of. We were already part of this community before we arrived but we were very much guests in their culture.
Tapini is in a remote, beautiful valley in the Owen Stanley Ranges, northwest of Port Moresby. PNG is tropical but the Tapini climate is less humid than many areas due to being in the mountains. Clouds rise from the valley below each morning before the day warms up. An airstrip though the middle of town was the only access to the outside world, other than walking, until the road was opened in 2010. Landslides each wet season close the road. It closed for 2 weeks soon after we arrived. Being cut off like that does enhance a sense of remoteness. The generosity and friendliness of the locals towards visitors counters this well.
Rowena’s placement is in the Health Centre. She is a registered nurse normally working in a busy regional hospital in Hamilton, Victoria, but health service provision in a remote community in a developing nation is very different. There are no doctors, X-rays, scans or any of the specialist expertise that is relied upon in Australia. Nurses diagnose, make all of the treatment decisions and prescribe the medication. The patients present with a different range of problems. Missing are many of the western lifestyle related diseases but present are injuries and conditions reflecting that it is in a remote area dominated by subsistence farming – TB and HIV are commonplace . Unfortunately upon arrival here, Rowena was told by the staff that TB is now endemic rather than epidemic. The long period of treatment required to completely recover from TB is also a hindrance to its control as patients who feel well do not always understand the importance of total compliance with the treatment regime. HIV/AIDS suffers a similar problem. There is still a big stigma attached to both diseases but more so with HIV/AIDS. All new mothers who give birth at the Health Centre are screened for HIV/AIDS and those who test positive for the virus are counseled and their treatment managed by specially trained staff members. Husbands and partners of the women are also involved in the counseling sessions. But unfortunately acceptance of, and compliance with, the medications and treatment programs are not often followed by the male population. Those patients who do comply with the regular treatment regime are rewarded with quality of life and good health.
Due to Tapini’s remote location, all staff members are multi-skilled and extremely capable with trauma response. Team work is a critical must as there are no casual nurses available to cover illness or leave when upskilling courses are attended! Getting used to the local ways of doing things takes a while and developing relationships to enable mutual learning takes time.
I am teaching in Sacred Heart High School where all but eight of the 240 students are boarders. Most go home for the holidays but some stay for revision work or because it is too many days walk to get home and back again in a week. While normally providing leadership to volunteer fire brigades in Victoria, I am using my IT experience and science qualifications to teach maths and IT. I am lucky to have reasonably small classes of 25 to 33 but have filled in for an absent teacher in a class of 46. SHHS is rightly proud of its IT facilities which are the best in Central Province but from the perspective of a well-funded western country, they are aging and fragile but are currently being upgraded. Australian students and teachers take internet access for granted to provide a primary research tool for most subjects. Here the school IT system has no internet so Encarta replaces Google as the main research tool. PNG has a system where exams at the end of grades 8 and 10 are crucial to be selected to go onto the next grades so my IT lessons have the dual focus of preparing students for exams and providing skills that will be useful in their life ahead.
While the educational standards are a little behind Australia, you cannot help but admire the students who are learning in their third or fourth language. Each speak one or two of the 800+ indigenous languages as well as Tok-Pisin (pigeon) and sometimes Motu but the language for education is English. As a result, I keep insisting on the students using spell check and grammar check in their IT work.
We take a lot for granted in Australia so we are learning to live differently but there are things here that we don’t see at home. A supermarket is something that we get to each school term here but the fruit and vegetables at the local market are magnificent. All are fresh and organic and harvested at the optimum time so they taste great. The bananas here are the best in the world. We are learning to cook with kaukau (sweet potato), taro and greens from the forest. Internet coverage is slow and intermittent but we have plenty of face to face connection with people. Everyone greets you when you are walking anywhere. A walk out of the station often gets a dozen others tagging along, mostly children. Being new and two of the three white faces on the station, everything we do is noticed. The children refer to Rowena as “the white lady”.
Having been here before the road was open we noticed change both positive and negative. There is more wealth due to being able trade the high quality vegetables. The shop has a better range of stock and cheaper than when air freight was relied on. The people are better clothed and healthier. There is more betelnut which can not help the health. Visitors that stir up trouble are more frequent.
The language and accents take time to have our ears tune in, particularly when shy people speak quietly. The accents are strongly influenced by the Tok Pisin which is widely spoken. People at the schools, health centre and market mostly have good English but conversations are often a mixture of both of these. People that come in from the villages often have no English and sometimes only the local Tauade tongue. It is appreciated when we try to converse in Tok Pisin although it is usually associated with a shared laugh with the visitors. The Easter services were delivered in 3 languages, mixed within the service and sometimes within a sentence.
There is a thirst growing for some of what we offer. Having a wide educational background has me involved in a variety of things. A leadership development group has started and being enthusiastically welcomed. The lack of quality development for leaders is obvious and maybe this might be something that helps develop leaders with ethics and a heart. I enjoy chats with Arasu, the school headmaster, that help me to understand the place and people better and helps him with a different perspective that I provide as an observation, not a judgment.
I listened to past Palms volunteers who had taken resources and not used them but at times I wish that I had brought more although I would not have known what to bring. How could I have known that a teacher would like help in pre-tertiary maths? The main thing that helps me every day is my skills, knowledge and abilities. This is after all, what I came here to offer.
There is always something happening here. We had a small earthquake with landslides in March and the tail of a cyclone the following week. The wet season is finishing along with the transportation uncertainty that it brings. People come and go all of the time, there are some conflicts that bubble to the surface from time to time, a few of my students have left after being caught out not following the strict but clear rules of the school. It is an interesting place to be and gets more interesting as we start to see some of the more subtle things that go on.
With our work and everything else that is happening that changes every day, we are happy and comfortable in Tapini as we continue to learn ourselves while passing on our knowledge.