Telefomin district & the hard lessons it taught me about the lives of rural teachers

2017-03-22-Telefomin-Encounters.MGlass.DSC06174small-1140x470 (1)
Picture from MAF

Several years ago, I found myself  in  Telefomin  District in the Sandaun Province.  It was a few months before the 2002  elections and  politicians  and their teams were on the campaign trail.

I thought I had a fair understanding about my own country. But Telefomin taught me otherwise.  We arrived on a MAF flight in Telefomin airstrip and spent the night a small  semi-abandoned guest house.

At 5am the next morning, we headed off  West to Urapmin, a small village on the neighboring ridge. It appeared deceptively close on the maps.  I carried a  backpack with nearly 8 kilograms supplies  enough for three days with some camera gear.

The first part of the journey looked ok.   The track  was on relatively even ground until we got to a place called Atemkiakmin.  Then the decent began.

I had little help and the backpack was killing me going downhill.  Rain began falling in a drizzle. Blessings from heaven,  they said. The road became slippery and in some places, the mud was knee deep. Our initial  destination was the bank of the headwaters of the Sepik River.

It took us seven  hours  before we reached the Sepik headwaters. After stopping for a water break, the guide told us we had another longer journey ahead and that we had to move quickly.

By midday we were climbing up a shadeless,  grassy  mountain side. The heat was murderous while nature compensated us with spectacular views of the cliffs and the Telefomin Valley.

By 5.30pm, the track  became easier and some of the first houses of the  Urapmin community began appearing in the distance.  We picked up pace.  My body had been pushed beyond its limits and every step hurt like hell.

When we got to Urapmin Primary School at 6pm we were hosted by the kind head teacher who was also our guide.

What’s the point in telling you this story?

The teachers and students   make this journey every month when supplies are brought in to Telefomin.  Every month, when a teacher travels into Vanimo  to get school supplies,  another  gets the troops ready to carry the cargo back to Urapmin.

The ‘troops’ are not all adults.  Most are children,  fast and nimble on their feet able to maneuver playfully through the jungles and mountainsides quicker than adults.

Over the years, the teachers found that it was much easier taking a class of 30 kids and spreading the load amongst everyone.  So if there are several cartons of food and exercise books, one kid would probably end up carrying anything between 500 grams and 2 kilograms of cargo back to Urapmin.

Many of the kids  who make the journey are between  10 and 13. Sometimes, the younger ones disobey their parents and make the journey as well.  Nobody complains.

Over the course of the night, the head teacher told of how,  kids  desperate for  an  education,  would travel long distances from the border areas of the  Hela and  Western Provinces to find a functioning school that had teachers.  Stories like this sound so farfetched and exaggerated  that many people  living in Port Moresby would find it difficult to comprehend.

In our cities, we have kids who don’t want to go to school on time.  We see kids  who have the luxury of public transport, uniforms and shoes dragging their feet to school.   In districts like Telefomin, education itself is a precious luxury.  Kids would give anything to sit in a classroom and learn.

If you are a  teacher in places like Urapmin, you need to have a spirit made of  iron.  You have to deal with girls who are forced to marry because a school has been closed for years.  You  are by default, the resident medical officer when there are emergencies.  You deliver babies and  treat  wounds.  You are there when  one of your students die because of the lack of primary health care.

The role of the rural teacher extends beyond just the classroom.  It is for those  reasons that I get so pissed off when rural  teachers  are mistreated by people sitting in air-conditioned offices in Port Moresby.


Did the pay cut issue need PM’s direction for action to be taken? What happened to public servants?

teachersThe alarm bells should have been ringing in the corridors  of the National Department of Education in Port Moresby when teachers began reporting that their pays had been cut.

At the national level,  a proper detailed response should have been prepared to put the teacher’s minds at ease and an immediate investigation  initiated.

Instead  the department’s  response was delayed. The arrogance of  those in charge of provincial education   divisions around the country came to the fore.

Many teachers were told that  they would have to  pay for their own pay slips.  Teachers  told of how they – the men and women  at the frontline of the war against illiteracy and ignorance – were treated badly by pen pushers who sat behind desks in government officers.

Many in education offices who deal with teachers queries have a false sense of importance.  Teachers have complained that  they are  not accorded the respect they deserve.

The mistreatment of teachers  ranged from plain rudeness to verbal abuse and extortion.  There are hundreds of cases.  Rural teachers are perhaps treated the worst.  Teachers know how to do their jobs well in a school.  But they don’t know how to weave through a system complicated by people to tell them to “come back  tomorrow” because the officer in charge isn’t at work.

No clear explanation was given as to why the pay cuts happened or how the “3% increment” was calculated  and paid.  They only got to know about an apparent fault in the payroll system when the Education Minister, Nick Kuman mentioned it.

What happened to the managers responsible for the salaries section and the payroll? Why did an explanation have to come from the minister? What happened to  internal communications  that could have been  passed on to teachers with clarity?

From the outside, the bureaucracy  is out of touch with reality.  It is so comfortable with the status quo that its sluggishness was exposed.

The PM  responded to the concerns and directed the Education Minister to respond appropriately   because the public servant paid by the government  didn’t do his or her job.

They neglected it and thought it would go away. But it didn’t and  the PM got involved. It got to the PM’s office because somebody didn’t do his job.

I hope to see those incompetent faceless  people get sacked. Their incompetence caused hundreds of families to suffer over three fortnights.

Allan Bird: Foreigners should not threaten Papua New Guineans in their own country


East Sepik Governor, Allan Bird, has expressed disgust at the manner in which a foreign national threatened  a Papua New Guinean who posted pictures of 40 Maserati sports cars brought into Port Moresby.

Emmanuel Narakobi, was told by  a David Johnson by text to remove the post because  it breached security. He went further by threatening to “enact the APEC  security laws.”

Governor Bird has demanded an apology saying Papua New Guineans have a right to know how public money is being spent and that freedom of speech should not be interfered with.

“Foreigners who live in this country have to respect our people. If they don’t like it, they should leave.”

Madang MP, Bryan Kramer, also put his phone number online telling Johnson to call him.

Emmanuel Narakobi is the nephew of one of the authors of the PNG constitution, the late Bernard Narakobi.

PM directs Education Minister to have report on pay cuts on his table by Monday


Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill, has tasked the Education Minister and the Teaching Service Commission  to  have a report about the unexplained teacher pay cuts on  his table by Monday.

The Prime Minister was in Lae for the swearing in of the Lae City Authority Board  when I asked him what actions would be taken to get to the bottom of the  affecting teachers all over the country.

The PM said he was not sure what the  root of the problem was but he gave assurances that he would  personally act on it when he got back to Port Moresby.

“There are pay cuts and we are disappointed. I don’t know why that is happening. I have directed the  Minister for Education and the  Chief Secretary to look into it  today (Thursday)  and I want a report on my desk my Friday.

“I will get a full understanding of it by tomorrow and if there is something that needs  correcting, it will be done by Monday,” the PM said.

Yesterday, Officers from the Education Minister’s office and the department reached out for assistance.  We  supplied  a list of names as a sample for the initial report for the PM to be prepared.

So far, there has not been a  satisfactory explanation from the Education department. However,  both the Deputy Prime Minister, Charles Abel,  and the Education Minister, Nick Kuman,  have both agreed  the payroll system has had “some problems.”

On Wednesday, Teachers in Lae met with officers from the Morobe Salaries  section. The meeting left many teachers dissatisfied with the answers   after the  teachers were told many of their deductions were due to loan deductions.

The PNG Teachers Association  in Port Moresby has since called for an investigation into the pay cuts.  Last week they issued a statement with which included the following demands:

  • For all salary deductions from teachers be refunded by pay 21
  • For the Department to investigate possible fraudulent activity in payroll
  • For the payroll system be managed by a competent  company

47-year-old NBC Morobe building condemned by PNG Power

The building housing National Broadcasting Corporation’s Provincial Studios in Lae was condemned today by PNG Power after it was deemed unsafe for staff.
The 47-year-old building has seen little maintenance over the past decade.
The roof and the ceiling are damaged. Water has been leaking into the main studio over the past week.
This morning an electrical fault nearly started fire. Staff said they are moving to a temporary location.
Many people in rural Morobe still depend heavily on the services of Radio Morobe.

Why PNG’s only psychiatric hospital can’t get help | By Bethanie Harriman (ABC)

One of the heavy metal doors is opened by a grim face ward attendee to show where violent patients were kept locked up, a claustrophobic room like a prison cell where more than one acute patient slept, fights were common inside.

The cell has been abandoned, but on the white walls are the vivid graffiti patients left behind, you get the feeling they were trying to describe the torture they felt- the place still smells like urine and faeces, despite the effort to clean it up.

The nurse in charge of the acute ward, Dianne Rambe, has brought me into an imposing building; she tells me violent patients couldn’t be kept here anymore.

“We have two acute wards, we are using one right now, this one has been closed, because it’s not right for people to live in,” she said.

The staff at the acute wards tell me there is an on-going water problem, that hasn’t been solved and conditions get very bad in the cells, where up to sixty people use about three showers and three toilets.

Ms Rambe set down with me later in her office, to tell me about her staff missing work, because they were stressed.

I could see too, that there were only three people working at the time, they were all sitting in a small office just before the wards entrance.

When patients came to the hospital, Ms Rambe and her team said they had no other option, but to turn them away after they closed one of the acute wards, despite seeing an increased number of patients.

“When we had that ward open we usually had eighty plus patients everyday, but because we shut the place down, we can only receive enough patients, like thirty,” said Ms Rambe.

She said when families bring their loved ones to get help here the nurses take them in despite the lack of resources to look after them.

“We look after the very acutely ill people, this is the only psychiatric hospital in the country, we receive patients from all over the country, with the very little manpower we have we try to settle this very ill people,” said Ms Rambe.

And it’s not like the hospital’s management didn’t want to look for help, before I went to the acute wards, I met the head of medical services, Dr Ludwig Nanawar in his office, we later walked out to the institutes gazebo, where he told me the facility needs urgent help, but cant ask for it from the Australian government or other donor country’s.

Dr Nanawar said the hospital tried to write to the Australian government and others for assistance, but they simply don’t have the legal status to do so.

“What’s stopping us from accessing this donor funding is having a board in place and a strong management team.”

“At the moment, we cannot have a board, because of the legal status of having a board, unfortunately Laloki hasn’t been given a level, there are seven levels, the lowest being level one, which are the aid posts and the highest level seven are like the General hospitals,” he said.

“We don’t know ours, that’s why we can’t have a governing structure, donor agencies look for that to see how we can handle funding.”

Dr Nanawar said the management of the institution has drawn up a restructure for the PNG Health department to consider.

But, PNG’s Health Secretary Pascoe Kase has responded in local media saying it doesn’t comply with set standards and did not meet the requirements of the law.

For now, the hospital staffs are doing what they can to help patients with what they have. Those who are discharged are released back into the community – continuing to live with their family, if they’re lucky – others are disowned, commit serious crimes or end up on the streets of Port Moresby.

In my time, I’ve travelled many places around Papua New Guinea, but the Laloki Psychiatric facility outside of the capital, Port Moresby is probably one of the most depressing.

I was drawn to do a story on Laloki hospital in January 2014 after reading an article written by PNG veteran journalist Scott Waide about a University graduate suffering from some form of mental disorder and now living on the streets of Port Moresby with his son.

Chris was his name and often he would be discriminated, humiliated and even beaten by his own family members including people on his street.

After all the maltreatment, he was eventually casted out onto the streets of Port Moresby and disowned by his family.

Last year, I finally moved to Port Moresby and this month, I visited Laloki to see for myself, what it was like up there.

I am glad I did, because now I fully understand that the government of Papua New Guinea, my country doesn’t care about the mental health of it’s people, it’s easy to keep objective about this issue, but, so many other Papua New Guineans pay tax to a government that’s supposed to look after its people.

I recognised that the reason PNG has people like Chris living on the streets, is because successive governments of Papua New Guinea have failed to improve social support systems to look after people, when traditional family values vanish, as the country develops and tries to catch up with the rest of the world.

Caption: Outside the condemned acute ward

Mrs. Sharmella Pisep, the teacher who was paid K7 last fortnight | By Lucy Kopana

I am the daughter of a retired teacher.

My mother spent 30 years teaching until she retired in 2007. Day in and day out, my siblings and I watched her being both a mother and a teacher to us, and her students.

She would sit up late working on her lesson plans and would still be the first to wake up the next day to go to school.

I’m sure the children of committed teachers can say the same. We’ve always had to share our parent(s) with a hundred other kids through the years, and we got used to it.

This week, my team and I covered the stories of teachers who’ve been having their pays cut. Some for three consecutive fortnights, and others getting as low as K7.00.

Listening to their stories about how this affected their families, was frustrating for me, because I know for a fact how much effort teachers put into delivering lessons to their classes.

Today, I spoke to Mrs. Sharmilla Pisep. A teacher who has been serving for 31 years. She is a mother of five and now a single parent. Any student who has been taught by her, or has come across her would know how much of an active and committed teacher she is.

Sadly, she’s one of those many teachers who’ve been affected by the teachers pay cut problem. In the last fornight, she was paid only K7.00.

She told me how much of a burden it’s been for her, being a single parent, and how this has greatly affected her family.

I thought of my mom. Teachers are not paid overtime for the late night planning, and test marking, but they still show for work the next day. They go home with aching feet, and back aches from a day spent standing all day teaching in class. They spend weekends putting up educational material in their classrooms just so their students learning environment can be more conducive. This was what I saw my mom do.

When I spoke to Mrs. Pisep’s youngest daughter, she said it was unfair that her mom should get such an amount especially when she (Mrs. Pisep) chooses to go to school, even when her children are sick. I could relate.

I asked Mrs. Pisep what she would do if she got another pay cut, this was her response.

“If there is another pay cut, I don’t know what to do….whether to go to the classroom or stay in the house…but then on the other hand innocent children will be suffering because its not their doing.”

If our committed teachers are passionate about teaching other people’s children, they shouldn’t be treated the way they are being treated now.