Papua New Guinea – Who Cares?

In 1975, just before Papua New Guinea became an Independent Nation, I began teaching at a boy’s boarding school on Kairiru Island, just North of Wewak on the North coast. The boys at the school were drawn from 27 different tribes all over the East Sepik District, and were all traditional enemies that would have killed each other on sight only a few years before. It was an absolutely fascinating place to live and work, and taught me that there is plenty of hope for man’s efforts to overcome his past and improve the future.

I had come as a C.U.S.O.(Canadian University Service Overseas) volunteer, and as a prairie boy from Saskatchewan, I was unprepared for tropical island life, but I soon learned!

Kairiru is a small volcanic island, rising 760 meters above the ocean, some 20 km off the coast of Northern Papua New Guinea. Located only one degree South of the equator, it was dominated by Mt. Malangis, whose ancient volcanic caldera, held a small crystal clear lake. The volcanic activity that had lifted Kairiru and its neighboring island Muschu, still continued, evident in the hot springs occurring in Victoria Bay at the Western end of the Island. Many springs, fed by an underground aquifer from the mainland, poured out of the mountainside, and made innumerable shady pools as they wound their way down to the ocean around the island.

This whole area lies on the southern edge of the “Rim of Fire”, that circles the Pacific Ocean, and volcanic activity continues to be a major concern, along with regular earthquakes and the Tsunamis that accompany them. In fact, on July 17th/1998, an undersea earthquake occurred off the coast of Aitape, further west of Kairiru. The Tsunami that swept inland killed more than 1600 people who had no warning whatever that the wave was on its way.

Many people do not realize that the main Island of Papua New Guinea is the largest island in the world, if one considers Greenland to be a continent. The western half of the Island was annexed by the Indonesian government by the Indonesian Government in 1963, an action still under protest by many members of the UN today.

This huge tropical ecosystem, is home to over one quarter of all the worlds languages, many of which have never been recorded or transcribed in any way. These major differences in language made the tribal wars even more inevitable and constant. Often, tribes that were only one valley away from one another, spoke a language as different from each other, as English is different from Chinese.

During World War II, the Japanese thoroughly occupied the Island, especially in the area around Wewak and Madang. There is a large memorial on Wom Peninsula, just a few kilometers from Wewak, which commemorates the place where the Japanese surrendered at the end of the war. Nearly a quarter of a million Japanese soldiers died in New Guinea, and many of them had been incarcerated on Muschu Island, which was located between Kairiru and the mainland. Kairiru still bears some of the remnants of the war in Rusted Anti-aircraft guns at the eastern end of the island, and many caves excavated by the Japanese still being discovered.

St. Xavier’s High School was established by the Marist brothers after the war, and had grown into a fine example of what any school anywhere should be. When I arrived, the school was being masterfully led by a monk named Brother Patrick Howley, originally from Australia. He had recently completed a sabbatical leave to study further, and had returned to the school with a new vision of what was needed.

Up to that time, the school had been administered in the typically Australian manner, with very strict discipline and corporal punishments freely doled out for minor infractions. All that changed when Br. Pat established a school Parliament that mirrored that of the newly Independent Country. Each aspect of life in the school was put under the management of a student-managed department, with teachers acting only as observers at each meeting. In this way, a group of young men, who were the first generation of their people to attend school, took control of a boarding school with 450 students, and efficiently managed all their affairs. In the 3 years I worked there, there was never a time when the teacher representative on any committee had to use their veto to prevent the decisions of the committee from being carried out.

Space in Papua New Guinean schools is limited everywhere, and a rigorous selection process eliminated all but 10% of the students who were eligible. This meant that the boys who made it to high school, and then again through to Grade 9, were the best of the best! I have been a teacher for 33 years, and have never met better boys, nor worked with more diligent students. In fact, St. Xavier’s is rather renowned in PNG for having produced Michael Somare, twice elected Prime Minister of the country.

As this was a Catholic Mission school, the Government only paid the salary of the teachers, but did not contribute to the daily finances and operation of the school. This meant that we required every student to work for at least 10 hours a week for the benefit of the school, either in the gardens, maintenance, cooking, or a hundred other jobs that needed to be done in order to feed, care for, and educate 450 boys, ranging from 11 to 20 years old. Boys were also required to attend 2 hours of night study, 5 nights a week, which greatly benefited them, especially when we had been forced to take some class time in order to keep the place running.

This whole atmosphere combined to make one of idyllic motivation that would have appealed to any student. The character of the monks, missionaries, local teachers, as well as the other volunteers, was such that we all worked extremely well together, and with the boys.

Now, it is 30 years later, and all these young men have grown up and raised their own families. I’m sure that if you asked any of them now, what they remember about St. Xavier’s, they would say that it was the best time of their lives, and I would have to say the same. They learned mechanics, welding, wood working, sex-education, agriculture, first-aid, and commercial fishing, as well as Ferro-cement fabrication on top of their regular studies. They left the island as well rounded experienced young men, with a practical knowledge of many aspects of the modern world and technology.

The problem is, so many of these intelligent, well educated men, have been to forced to return to the village with no prospects of participating in the modern world that they have learned so much about. To most people, returning to one’s home town to live isn’t such a bad future, but in PNG, the opportunities for employment or starting a business is almost non-existent in any village you might pick.

A perfect example is one of the fellows I have kept in touch with over the years. His name is Nick Artekain, and he is from Tarawai Island, which lies just west of Kairiru Island. He was raised in a village which had no permanent or modern structures, no power, or running water, and yet he was one of the school’s top academic achievers. He excelled at Algebra, Geo-Trig, Calculus, and spoke very good English, which gave him the advantage in all the other subjects as well.

His father was a master seaman, who had sailed his outrigger to all the islands up and down the coast, and well-remembered the Japanese occupation. After the war, Tarawai became part of the East Sepik Province(later- District), under the jurisdiction of the Australians. That ended on September 16th 1975, an occasion I was present for. The people of Tarawai put on a magnificent Sing-sing to celebrate, and I have many colorful photographs of the event. Although there was some misunderstanding about what Independence really meant, they were all very happy to have their own country, led by their own people.

My faith in human kind kicks in, when I realize that, out of this most diverse group of cultures imaginable, a working democratic government has been forged, that benefits them all. When countries all around the world are in turmoil over minor cultural or religious differences, Papua New Guinea continues to amaze me, even now, from afar. Certainly, they have had their struggles to maintain their confederation, and will likely continue to do so in the future, but I have a lot of faith that they will remain together and strong. As one of the last groups of people on Earth to face the onslaught of the modern world, they have gained the advantage of the wisdom of our forefathers. This has saved them from the merciless exploitation experienced elsewhere, but in the end they may end up even worse, without help.

Nick is still back in Wewak, but lack of opportunity couldn’t keep a mind like that still, and he has taken leadership in several groups trying to negotiate fair terms with the various foreign groups trying to exploit Papua New Guinea’s natural resources.

Men like Nick need the financial initiative to develop their best natural resources, their people and their environment. Eco-tourism is a wonderful opportunity in many of the world’s less traveled places, but it requires that facilities are established to handle the tourist trade. In many parts of New Guinea, that would necessitate a large investment, as conditions are quite rough, and often isolated from the regular flow of tourist traffic. I have wanted to help him for years, but on a teacher’s meager salary, even here in Canada, I haven’t been able to think of anything.

A few weeks ago, I finally got through to him on the intermittent phone service. I was talking to him using Skype Internet calling service, and he was on the beach in Wewak, watching the waves roll in, while on his cell phone. It struck me, that in this modern wireless world, that if we could communicate in such a way, there must be a way for us to use the Internet to help him and his group as well.

A little research has shown me that there are many people around the world who are willing to loan small amounts of money to third world entrepreneurs like Nick, so that they might start a business, and no longer have to bow down to the foreign companies who come in an harvest their fish and lumber and then sell it back to them at prices they cannot afford.

What I want to do is to set up an arrangement between entrepreneurs like Nick in New Guinea, and private individuals who are willing to loan a small amounts of money directly to him at low interest rates. I know that other groups are getting financial aid this way, and now I just need some more information and some help getting it going.

There is already a small guest house on Kairiru, where travelers can stay while they explore the many natural beauties of the Island. The coral reefs are swarming with breath-taking beauty, as they are all over the area, and the tropical jungle was so lush and varied, that one never tired of walking through it, wondering what the next bend in the path might reveal. Brother William Borell, who lived on Kairiru for many years, is credited with identifying a number of new species of both plants and animals. He often got our classes of students to spend whole days roaming the island collecting unusual plants and animals, that they brought back to him to examine.

Days spent on the reefs around the island were the most interesting to me, as a flatlander who had never seen the ocean until I took the boat out to Kairiru in August of 1975! I have a picture of Nick when he was 16, holding a huge Brown Spotted Moray eel that he had speared one of those afternoons. He had been spearing small reef fish with me, and they were tied to a string around his waist, when the eel lunged out of its hole in the reef to snatch one of the fish off his string.

As an islander, it was a supreme insult that one’s prey should be stolen by another predator, and Nick immediately cocked his home made spear-gun, and shot the eel as it came out for another easy meal. We had to struggle with it for quite a while before we could free him from his lair, but Nick’s proud face tells more than the picture reveals. The eel’s second attack nearly got him by the leg as he tread water above it. Its razor-sharp teeth had grazed his knee as he turned to shoot it through the head. The picture doesn’t show his bleeding leg, which he brushed off as not only too slight to mention, but a bit embarrassing, as well. He was from Tarawai Island after all.

I wish I could send along the picture of Nick, so that your readers would know I am talking about a real person, with amazing talents and intelligence. It is the last picture that I have of him, and as a result, I can only visualize him at 16, even though he now has several children and even some Grand children! When I called him last he said, that his hair is now white, but his skin was still black!

Who care about PNG? ME!



Source by Robert Kenneth Henderson

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