How a Jiwaka woman started a journey of community transformation before her death

When someone sets out to make a difference in a society, most times one would think of all the pre-conditions that need to be in place before that person can begin to effect that change.

Some would like the change maker to be of a certain gender, come from a certain place, have a certain level of education, wealth and age. Then there are some people who by simply being who they are and doing what they believe is right, change a society.

Maria Koimb was one such person.
From Domil in Jiwaka Province, Maria was the only sister to five brothers. Right after completing her grade 10 education, she was abandoned by her boyfriend with a newborn child. For a sixteen-year-old girl in 1992, in a rural village in Papua New Guinea, Maria’s life could have gone a lot of different directions.
What she chose to do set the course for the rest of her life; one of determination, hard work and passion.

It was a passion that was not going to be found in marriage, as she feared another man may not treat her son well. Instead she dedicated her energy to ensure that she will make a difference in her life, her family and her community.

Armed with her grade 10 education and a lot of conviction, Maria joined a community health programme that was rolled out in Domil in 1992. For the next 26 years, she advocated healthy living in words and in action.
As she talked about making healthy food choices, she made sure her own food gardens produced a variety of food that were rich in nutrients ensuring a balanced diet for her family. This she promoted through the words “plant a balanced meal, eat a balanced meal.”
She promoted hygiene and

championed this by keeping a clean home, and in the cold mornings and cold waters of Domil, she bathed daily and groomed well, whether she was going to her gardens, the market, a village gathering or to the nearby town. When asked why she took so much trouble just to go to her gardens, she would reply, “I am going to my office to work”

Bernard Gunn, Director of the Domil Community Development says Maria had a unique way of looking at life, “She would encourage people to take pride in themselves, what they in the work that they do. She would always say we shouldn’t limit ourselves just because we don’t live in town and earn a formal income.”

This transformative way of thinking earned Maria respect and standing in her community and her unique brand of leadership flourished beyond her gardens and her community. As she matured into her role as a leader, her advice and guidance were sought by different sections of the community. She served as president for the Nondugl Catholic Women’s Association, Minister for Women and Youth in the Domil Community Government and as an executive on two different NGOs.

As a single parent living in a rural community where communal obligations are a significant part of life, Maria’s determination to be recognised as a valuable member of the community ensured that her family of two always contributed to customary obligations. This reinforced the respect and position she had.

Using this recognition in the community, Maria advocated for a cultural change for Domil. As is practiced in many parts of Papua New Guinea, polygamy was accepted and practiced in Domil. Maria saw this as a way through which gender-based violence is reinforced so she joined a campaign against domestic violence in Domil. Due to her level of influence and the support of her family and community, Domil took a stand to revoke the practice of polygamy and as a community stood against domestic violence with values of ‘One wife for life’ and ‘No wife beating’.
This significant cultural change came about through the support of other leaders of Domil, who made the important decision that women can enter a hausman and discuss communal matters.

Maria was one of the first women to enter that space and she used it to the benefit of the community.
As Chariman John Waim, explains when responding to why the community allowed women into the hausman, he said, “With two wings we can fly together.” Recognition that Maria, through her actions, and her representation, was bringing value to the whole community.

In 2009 Maria poured her passion into a class full of children when she was appointed as a teacher in the local Elementary School. Two years later she was promoted to Teacher in Charge of the school.

She had big dreams for the school. As an integral member of the school board they expanded the school and met the National Education criteria to upgrade to a primary school that now caters for elementary up to grade 6. For Maria this was just the beginning of the plans she had for the school. Part of her ambition was to incorporate the Christian Accelerated Learning curriculum after further teacher training; and, to build a library.

Sadly this was not to be.

In July 2017 Maria was confronted by a challenge that was beyond her and her community’s capacity; She was diagnosed with cancer.
Testament to her standing in the community, it was her family and community members who took care of her during this ordeal.
With no access to proper medical

treatment, Maria succumbed to cancer in late May 2018 at just 42. Maria’s achievements are a testament to the inclusivity and progressiveness of the people and leaders of Domil.

As a leader Maria was supported and encouraged to flourish, and as she progressed so did her community.
As an abandoned woman, she wasn’t ostracised. Being a woman, she wasn’t told she didn’t have a voice, but systems were changed to accommodate her voice. As a contributing member to the community she wasn’t cut down in jealousy, she was given recognition and opportunities.
It was these values of an open and progressive Domil that gained national recognition for Domil when they received the Prime Ministers award in September 2015 in the category: Tackling Poverty & Improving Education, Health and Wellbeing Leading to Strong and Sustainable Communities.

Following a successful community development initiative between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union, in 2016, the UNDP co-produced a documentary, ‘Driving the Change’, to highlight these values. Stephen Liston, from UNDP who met Maria during the filming says Maria was a dynamic person, “When you first meet Maria she is very humble and timid, but when it came to the real issues affecting her community such as hunger, malnutrition, education, women’s rights, cultural obligations and leadership, Maria commanded your full attention with the strength of her passion. She didn’t suggest that things should be changed, she demanded those changes, and worked hard to realise them.”

Through her battle with cancer, her community showed solidarity with her and in her death, they gave her the recognition and honour reserved for prominent leaders in the community.

The Domil community laid to rest one of their champions in front of the hausman as a constant reminder of the life and achievement of one woman’s passion to make a difference.

Maria’s life is a celebration of all passionate Papua New Guineans, past and present, who continue to make a difference in their sphere of influence. Maria’s story shows that when a family and a community support their champions, the society benefits.

Today, there are Papua New Guineas across the country who are working hard to improve their families lives, the lives of their community and the nation. The greatest thing a community can do to prosper, is support them to shine.

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Story by Serahphina Aupong

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