Papua New Guinea – still the land of the unexpected

Papua New Guinea – still the land of the unexpected

By Ray Wallbank. Feature image: Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Mt Hagen, PNG.

As a new volunteer for Palms but not a new volunteer to Papua New Guinea, I understood the lay of the land, so to speak. Papua New Guinea, known as the land of the unexpected, is aptly named.

I had previously worked as a Project Manager for the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Mt Hagen. I have returned as a Palms program participant to help with the completion of the project, and to set up maintenance programmes. The Cathedral has the capacity to seat 2,000 people and when completed will accommodate the Catholic Radio station, Trinity FM. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle opened the Cathedral on October 4th, 2022. Since then, the Cathedral has been functional but not completed.

On my return to Rebiamul Catholic Mission, in late August this year my work was disrupted by two local tribes fighting. The consequences were that even those outside the tribal fighting were affected, and the local schools and the mission closed for safety reasons. The Catholic Cathedral Sunday Mass was reduced to one Mass on Sunday and a strong police presence in front of the Cathedral grounds maintained some security assurance.

Whilst tribal fighting in Enga Province, Southern Highlands, and Hela province has been frequent, it is more spasmodic elsewhere in the country. Around election time there may be violence amongst different political supporters, mainly showing tribal support. Normally in Western Highlands Province, where Mt Hagen and Rebiamul are located, tribal fighting is less common. Part of the PNG culture is compensation, Bel kol, initial compensation for an aggrieved party or person. Bride price, (paying compensation for a bride to her extended family) Haus Krai, funeral expenses paid by friends and family.

So, it seems that an extended family may enjoy the benefits of bride price, as well as paying their share of any compensation for a murder, or some serious grievance, by one of their tribesmen. It seems to be the collective in this custom, in who benefits and pays. The compensation system bypasses in some cases the judicial system, that is at odds with conservative western thinking.

The connection to family is very strong, and from a western perspective can be disruptive, when it comes to a family bereavement, taking individuals out of the workplace because of their extended family obligations. Sometimes this mentality may hold back an individual, in that if a family member is working, they have an obligation to their extended family for a contribution to school fees, medical fees etc. With no welfare assistance, such as unemployment benefit or superannuation there is a strong reliance on family. In the rural areas there are gardens that help sustain families, but in urban locations there is more pressure on extended families without the help of traditional gardens, and high unemployment. A sad reflection on this, is that one of the biggest employers in Papua New Guinea is the security industry.

The official updated population numbers in Papua New Guinea is close to 10,500,000 with 26% Catholic and 851 language groups. A UN study using satellite modelling estimated the population of Papua New Guinea, close to 17 million people. If this is true it would indicate that there would be a need for more infrastructure to sustain the populations needs.

The Catholic church, via the Catholic Bishops conference has helped in the way of education and health services for the people of Papua New Guinea.  Whereas originally the Religious were very prominent in education, in the recent years this is mainly entrusted to educated locals with the necessary qualifications.

There is still a need for more Program Participants with various skills to help in Papua New Guinea. Inevitably the participants gains a lot in sharing their life skills.  Things may not always go according to script, but in my experience, there are mainly positive outcomes. The important thing to remember is that not everything happens in the timeline of our western expectations, but in Melanesian time. One of the main challenges is patience, and acceptance that even though Papua New Guinea is a close neighbour, we are worlds apart as far as culture and development are concerned.