It was election year in 2002 when campaign efforts were at their peak. I arrived at a school in the Tekin Valley in remote Oksapin in the Sandaun province after a 6 hour trek though the jungle.
The rain had just ended when I began an interview with a local teacher. He was one of the few government representatives in this very isolated part of Papua New Guinea. The only government aid post in his village had closed down a few years ago. The orderly left for the provincial capital of Vanimo and never returned. I wanted to know about infant and maternal mortality rates. At the time the teacher was the only person available who could give me a fair analysis of the situation.
|Funeral gathering – Tekin Valley, 2002
Having come from Port Moresby where one relies on easily accessible and “reliable” statistics, I got straight into asking a series of questions trying to establish the number of mothers and children who had died in the last 1 months.
“We really don’t know.” He said. “We only know of those who died in this village and the next.”
He counted three infants and one mother who died in his village in that election month alone. They all died of complications that could have been solved if they had easy
access to a sub-health center or even a medical orderly. The nearest health center was a day’s walk from where we were. It would take two days to get there from the villages I passed. But for pockets of small hamlets in the far of distance, getting to that health center when a mother experiencing birth complications is an impossible dream. The teacher couldn’t give me an exact number of children who died in the last 12 months or in the previous year. But he gave me an educated guess. He said between 15 and 30 babies die every year in this mountainous region.
|Woman and granddaughter – Tekin, 2002
“Too many,” he said shaking his head. “Too many.”
He went on to tell me that people had come to accept the deaths of babies as part of their lives. In the nearby villages, many families would gather for the death of a respected elder. For a baby who died at birth, only the father and the mother would be at the burial. The teacher said in the small mountaintop villages, this was the scenario that was played out every month when a baby died: The father would take the tiny body to the back of the hut and bury him or her there. No one mourned for them. They were “just” nameless babies who would not even be recorded as statistics because nobody knew.
In the same year, I found myself in another part of the Sandaun province at a small government run aid post. Half the concrete floor had collapsed into the ground. The medicine cabinet had only malarial tablets and liniment for body aches. The medical orderly told me that a child had died about 24 hours ago from dehydration. By the time he had been brought to the aid post, the orderly could not administer treatment. The child’s father came at the aid post a few minutes later and was told by the orderly: “If you want your son to live, take him and run to the health center.” The orderly said he got word in the afternoon that the father did make it to health center but the child had already died in his arms.
|Broken bridge near Telifomin
The situation may have already improved in those areas but in other places, it remains a reality that ordinary Papua New Guineans have to contend with. What matters most to the ordinary person in the village are roads, bridges schools, good health services and most importantly, the ability to make money for himself. But it seems we keep getting it wrong every year!
In 2008, the Treasury department released figures in the Final Budget Outcome (FBO) which showed how much money was being wasted. The 68-page report outlined how the government more than doubled spending from K202.3 million to K478.5 million in deficit. The expenses included car purchases, a 12 million kina Canberra residence, 100 thousand kina for pipes and drums for the Correctional Service band and 65 thousand kina for the Institute of Medical Research’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
In 2009, Members of Parliament paid themselves K10 million in accommodation and motor vehicle allowances. One government backbencher said immediately after the decision that he would “give all the allowances back to parliament.” In contrast, the Public Service Minister, Peter O’Neill said allowances which MPs were getting were “far below what was needed to meet the amounts charged by real estate companies.”
The increases gladly received by MPs came at a time when the Port Moresby General Hospital and other hospitals around the country were experiencing a dire shortage of drugs and medical supplies. It was also a year when several hundred settlers were made homeless in Port Moresby after a police raid. Also in that year, working class Papua New Guineans in towns and cities struggled with accommodation problems and high food costs.
As if all that wasn’t enough, members of Parliament have yet again voted this year to give themselves a 52 percent pay rise. On average each MP will get about 77 thousand kina a annually.
All this is set against a gloomy backdrop of high infant mortality rates and new outbreaks of cholera in several parts of the country.
Tucked away behind the Nobnob mountain on Madang’s North Coast is a small school – the Nobnob primary school. Its students are the liveliest bunch of youngsters I’ve met this year. Keen to learn and well behaved even when the teacher is not there.
But like many schools through out Papua New Guinea the fibro classrooms show the wear and tear of the generations of kids who came through this school.
Like many others, I was just passing through to get to a vintage point where I could get a few take still photographs of Madang town in the far off distance. Walking into a classroom, a met a teacher. I asked If it was alright if I took a few pictures of the school and the children. Nobnob primary doesn’t have luxury of brand new classrooms but it does have a well maintained playing field and a tiny library . I guess, that’s what’s really important to kids – being able to play and enjoy growing up and being able to learn. Then again you think to yourself: How many of our political leaders would choose to send their children to schools like the Nobnob primary school? I can’t answer that for you. Some of the children, wide eyed and curious clutching worn copies of oxford dictionaries stared as I shot off a few stills on the camera I took with me.
I wanted to tell a story. But what story? I’d seen this story repeated a hundred times before. What new story was I going to tell? A sob story about children not achieving their dreams because government subsidies weren’t always paid on time? About demoralized teachers struggling with pay and living conditions as the cost of goods continued to rise everyday? About the teacher trying to decide whether he should have his salary deposited into his bank account only to have ridiculous bank fees charged on his earnings? Lecturers in university would have said give the story a human face, Scott. Make people see that it’s not just about the lovely statistics on flashy Power Point presentations. The kind that aid donors and government officials love to talk about in air conditioned conference rooms in Port Moresby.
Yes. But what story? The two other teachers I spoke to said Nobnob Primary is supposed to get 20 thousand kina every quarter as school subsidies. But it’s not news any more that the money doesn’t arrive on time or that many times it does not arrive at all. It’s not surprising. Not shocking anymore that our kids aren’t getting the support they need to achieve their dreams.
It doesn’t bother us anymore that maybe the kid in the picture I took won’t become a doctor because next year he’ll have to stay home all because daddy’s busy raising money to send his older brother to high school.
What story should I tell? For all this has become a monotonous repetition of stories with human faces we all recognize and live with everyday and yet choose to ignore. But then again, Nobnob is fortunate to have teachers and classrooms and a road leading to Madang town.
What about that school in Fiak? I bet you never heard of tiny primary school in some “insignificant” corner of the Sandaun province represented only by a mere statistic in the air conditioned conference rooms in Port Moresby. It’s a school that has had chronic teacher shortages for the last decade. Teachers just don’t want to go there anymore because the planes don’t fly there anymore because it’s unprofitable.
So what story should I tell?