Going Local

Going Local

John Dorton has been in placement at Kiunga, Western Province PNG, for four months now. Yes, it does seem longer, as he’s becoming very much a local. Still no photos (understandable given the technical hitches) but John paints a vivid picture all the same. 

Kiunga is a sort of false urban setting. It hasn’t existed for long, and its current ‘growth spurt’ is largely due to the discovery and subsequent operation of the Ok Tedi Mine. However, my reading and the “talk” suggests that the mine is actually well past its peak. So the economic future of the region is cloudy, to say the least.

The land is good and productive, but the Western Province is not well connected to the more populated areas of the country. Roads would help, but my impression is that the central government hasn’t the resources to really pull the country together with a good road network. For example, from here, we could, with a high degree of difficulty, probably manage to get to the north coast on roads of some sort. But we can’t go much further south on a road.

A trip, or patrol, to Tarakbits involved driving for 1.5 hours to a point where the vehicle was parked, going a 3 to 4 hour journey in a ‘public’ dingy (I’m still recovering from the sunburn on my legs) which arrived at a point on the bank of the Fly River distinguished by nothing that I could see. Exiting the boat with bags and goodies for the mission, climbing up a muddy river bank to the level of “land”, walking briefly through the riverside thicket, and finding ourselves on the playing fields associated with the school run by the resident Sisters. There is no road to this place. It is a village, but it has no internal road either – just a dirt path. Motor vehicles would be very difficult to get here, and would be of little or no use if one got one there. The mission and the village are completely unconnected to any sort of ‘grid’ for power, water, sewerage or any other kind of public utility or service. The village doesn’t even have a store. The mission does have generators and its own water and sewer system, but these do not really extend beyond the church that is located in the village. As far as I could tell, the houses of the village have no electricity, no sewer system, no communication systems (telephones and the like), and no running water. It appears that the river is the water source, and that’s where bathing is done and household water is collected. Yet the people were clean, healthy looking, and engaged. The children particularly found the big white guy a source of fascination. The people grow their food, and that’s about it.

The trip back was much quicker, but we were going downstream then. The Fly River, at least in the northern bit, seems to flow pretty strongly.

It’s worth noting that at the time the mission moved its headquarters from Daru to Kiunga, the average life expectancy was mid-30’s. It’s now up to 50, but people still die relatively young here – hence the fact that they find a white-haired 70 year old quite a novelty. The Bishop and I are virtually the same age, but he hasn’t become white or gray-haired yet.

The Sisters are mostly Melanesian. Fr Masjon Kenedy, the priest on patrol, is actually the Finance and Administration Manager for the Diocese, and is of Indonesian nationality. We had a bit of a system breakdown re. electricity and running water while we were there, but one “patches things up” and/or does without when that happens.

Actually it might be more accurate to say that Kiunga developed from the presence of the Mission Station. The current population of a very loosely defined Kiunga is in the vicinity of 43,000, but it’s hard even to see Kiunga as a proper town. The settlement pattern is very diffuse. It’s very much a ‘company town’, so if you work for the Diocese, you also live in a house owned by the Diocese. Yes… there are other Churches operating in the area, and yes, there are businesses that are officially separate, but the Church is a big player in the local economy and especially in education. It is sometimes difficult to figure out where the Church ends and the secular society begins.

The Bishop is looking for more people to work at the Mission Station in Kiunga, including a person to take over management of the Eaglewood Plantation. The Brother who has been running that has been given a new obedience by his Order. I’m not sure where he’s going, but he is going. With the number of Religious personnel declining, the problem of staffing missions will become more difficult, but most of the jobs here are already in the hands of local lay people.

One can have a reasonable social life here if they want to be part of the Melanesian community. There have been enough expatriates here that a social life can be had amongst them as well. I have found the local people to be very friendly. I think they keep their homes pretty much for their own families, but they seem to me to be an open and welcoming people, and there are local social events that we expatriates can be a part of. I will say, though there is probably no need to, that it is a ‘small town’. So people will always know who you are.


Well not quite. John raises a few key points in passing:

  1. He mentions government services and infrastructure being under-resourced. Does this have a bearing on how/why various church organisations and NGOs often take the development lead in PNG?
  2. There is the familiar pattern of decline in Religious personnel at Kiunga. This is often viewed sadly, but here we see a transfer of responsibility and authority to local lay people.Â
  3. Remote villages always appear to lack the conveniences we take for granted, yet the communities have their own methods to keep hygienic, healthy and happy -with little impact on the environment. If our more ‘sophisticated’ practices are actually less sustainable, do they represent a ‘higher’ standard?