RIDICULOUS PAYRISES, DEAD BABIES AND CHOLERA

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.   

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WHAT STORY SHOULD I TELL?

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?