Archive for the month “May, 2014”

Mi Hamamas Long Bungim Yu.

I’m supposed to be good at languages. After all, I ran a French-speaking OXFAM office in Senegal for five years and then earned a living teaching German for fifteen more.

What is, perhaps, less well known, (mainly because I have tried my best to keep it a secret), is the impressive list of languages that I have utterly failed to master.

It started with Arabic, when I first did VSO in The Sudan some 40 years ago. I knew enough to say “Salaam wa Alaikum. Ana ismi Robert”, to find my way around Khartoum and to buy tomatoes, but not much else.

Then came Swahili, when I got the job of Deputy Field Director for OXFAM in Kenya. My excuse for not being very good with Swahili was that whenever I travelled around Kenya visiting projects, they were never in the areas where Swahili was spoken. Well, that was my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

From Kenya we moved to Senegal, where I never even got started with Wolof, apart from ‘Nagadef’ (How are you?), to which the answer is ‘Mangafi’ (I’m fine.) My excuse this time? I was far too busy working on improving my schoolboy French so that I could actually answer the telephone in French and make myself understood, to worry about learning another language.

Ah, then came Chinese. Well, that was never a realistic proposition. Following a trip to China to visit No. 1 Daughter, I was responsible for introducing the language into my last school and organized the placement of three separate Chinese Assistants to come over and give students an introduction to Chinese Language and Culture. I did try to learn a few bits of Chinese, mainly just for showing-off purposes, but none of it would really stick in my brain, so I finally had to conclude that I was far too busy to sit in the classes and get my head around four tones and a fiendishly difficult script.

Spanish? Well, again, I did try. Honest! I starting trying to learn it because I had agreed to take a group of students on a World Challenge expedition to Peru and not one of them was learning Spanish in school. Indeed, most of them were my finest German A-level students, so no use at all for ordering coffee in Cusco.

For months I would get into my car at 7.20 every morning and drive the 20 miles from Northampton to Corby listening to the droning, monotone voice of Michel Thomas, (language Tutor to the Stars), taking me through the basics of Spanish, over and over and over again. “Como te llamas? Quantos anos tienes? Mi llamo Robert. Tengo treini anos. Donde estan los servicios? Como te llamas? Quantos anos tienes? Mi llamo Robert. Tengo treini anos. Donde estan los servicios?” (OK, so I lied about my age. Don’t you?)

Oh yes, and I nearly forgot Dinka, which is a bit like Chinese for tall people. In fact, I didn’t nearly forget Dinka, I have, in fact, totally forgotten Dinka. I’ve always maintained that there is no such thing as a difficult language – it just depends how much time you can spend learning it. With Dinka, I make an exception. It was just an impossible language. Couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Too many shifting vowel sounds for my liking.

And now we are in Papua New Guinea and last week we had two days of training in Tok Pisin, (literally ‘talk pidgin.’)

Tok Pisin is a wonderful language. It is based on English, but, over the years, has taken on a character of its own to the extent that when you first hear it, you think it is a completely different language. When you listen carefully, however, you start being able to work out, roughly, what is going on.

Observe the following conversation. A teacher meets a student, asks after her health, asks where she is going and says goodbye.

Tisa: Gutpla moning. Yu orait?

Sumatim: Mi orait.

Tisa: Yu go we?

Sumatim: Mi go maket. Mi go baim kukamba na planti tomato

Tisa: OK. Lukim yu.

Sumatim: Lukim yu, tisa.

How cool is that? The last bit reminds me of the famous Humphrey Bogart parting line to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” If they ever dub Casablanca into Pidgin, the line would have to be, “Lukim yu, pikinini.”   I can’t wait!

And in what other language would you get to say a sentence like “Mi hamamas long bungim yu?” “hamamas’ means ‘happy’ and ‘bungim’ means “to meet.’ And all you do is change the words to suit the situation. So, “Mi hamamas long lukim yu.” “I am happy to see you.’

And, as always, Dear Reader, “Mi hamamas long raitim yu blog.”


In-County Training

In-County Training

Actually, we did the first part of our ICT just after we arrived in April. That’s when we learned all about the social and cultural context of VSO’s work in PNG. We learned about how we should behave and what we can and can’t talk about in polite society. Women can hold hands with women in the street, and men can hold hands with men but a man and a woman holding hands? Sharp intake of breath. No no, no, no.

We were given a lot of advice about staying safe and not being in the wrong place at the wrong time and we had a briefing from the formidable Dr Makerell, who basically told us to take malaria seriously, very seriously.

Our Tok Pisin lessons were delayed until last week when another group of volunteers arrived.
We only had a day and a half of training, but it was enough to appreciate what a fun language this is.

Unlike South Sudan, people don’t communicate here through the medium of T-shirts, so there is no scope for my usual “T-Shirt of the Week” feature.

Worry not, though, dear Reader, I shall replace the T-Shirts with “Tok Pisin Word of the Week!”

Watch this space. I am sure they will make you smile.

A Reflection on South Sudan.

The news from South Sudan is uniformly awful at the moment.  There have been, and there continue to be, huge human rights violations on both sides of the conflict.

The present crisis started on December 15th last year when an angry political meeting of the ruling SPLM party in the capital, Juba, spilled over into fighting between rival sections of the army, the SPLA.  The old enmity between the Nuer and the Dinka flared up and it seems that Dinka soldiers went on a rampage throughout the town, killing hundreds of Nuer.

Within hours, reprisals were taking place in three states where the Nuer are in the majority and uncounted numbers of Dinka were killed.  And so it went on.  Killing, looting, burning, raping on the part of one side against members of the opposite tribe.  And, as always, in the middle were the ordinary people of South Sudan.

So far, two ceasefires have been negotiated at talks in Addis Ababa.  Neither of them has lasted for more than a day.

This week I saw a programme on the BBC World Service where one of their senior journalists, Stephen Sackur, interviewed both the leader of the rebel, Nuer forces, Riak Machar and the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, a Dinka.  It was a depressing interview as it was quite clear that neither leader accepted any responsibility for what had happened, nor did they show any interest, or perhaps, in reality, any ability, to bring the fighting to an end.  It was a dialogue of the deliberately deaf, with neither leader showing any sign of having the intellectual capacity or the willingness to see a way out of the crisis.

Sackur had also spoken to the Head of the World Food Program who said that it was no longer a question of whether people would die of starvation in South Sudan this year.  The only question is how many will it be.

On a personal level, we are very sad to see the country where we spent sixteen months and got to know a lot of good people, tearing itself apart in an uncontrollable orgy of inter-ethnic killing.

VSO has suspended its work in South Sudan indefinitely.  It is not a disaster relief organization and the situation in the country makes the kind of development that VSO tries to support pretty well impossible.

My old employer, OXFAM, is, as you can imagine, very busy trying to help as many people as possible to get through the current crisis and start to rebuild their lives.

Apart from the normal food and shelter emergency work that they always do, OXFAM has also produced a short booklet that tries to add a small glimmer of light into the unremitting darkness of the news from that country.

If you have half an hour, and you want to have your faith in human beings reaffirmed amid all the devastation and hatred of war, I can only recommend that you follow the link below and read the stories.

Go to

Scroll down the page until you get to “Above and Beyond:  Voices of Hope from South Sudan.

The booklet  is described as “a testament to the extraordinary power of compassion and the will to survive.”  Sometimes, we just need to remind ourselves. 

Top of the Tank.

Top of the Tank.

This photo was taken from our kitchen window, through the mosquito netting. It shows the guttering that collects the rainwater off our roof and channels it to our tank. 9000 litres when it is full, which, with the rain we have had recently, it is!

A Twelve Month Rainy Season.

A Twelve Month Rainy Season.

It Rained Last Night.

Boy, did it rain last night!

Annual average rainfall for Madang is 3440mm, (just over 337inches).  In Britain the comparative figures are 885mm, (just under 35 inches.)

We think most of our 3440 mm fell last night!  Several times during the night we were woken by prolonged lightning that lit up the room for several seconds.  Then, almost immediately, came the thunder, directly overhead, that literally shook the house!  The first time we got up to look out of the window to watch the sheeting rain.  The next time we just buried our heads in our pillows and hoped that the roof would stay on.

It’s a beautiful morning this morning.  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the bell of the church next door summoned us to Mass a little while ago and now we can hear the joyful singing floating across the campus, the humidity is up, the ground is soggy and the mosquitoes are merrily breeding in all the newly created stagnant water everywhere.

Happy Sunday, everyone.


O-oh! I spoke too soon. Guess what! It’s just started pouring with rain again!

Welcome to Divine Word University’s Open Day


We had only been at the Divine Word University for just over a week when it was Open Day, DWU’s opportunity to show itself off to the local community and prospective students and their parents.

There are five faculties at Divine Word.  They are:

  • The Faculty of Arts
  • The Faculty of Business and Informatics
  • The Faculty of Education
  • The Faculty of Health Sciences
  • The Faculty of Theology

We are part of the Faculty of Education and have our desks in the department that deals with “Flexible Learning”, i.e. a distance learning model designed to enable existing teachers to upgrade their skills and qualifications to Masters level and beyond.  (Linda and I have been asked to teach a Curriculum Studies module to a group of MA students in a couple of weeks’ time.  Linda clearly understands what all this means, so I will have to employ all of my Advanced Level Blagging skills to keep up!)

The week before Open Day there was a lot of activity around the campus.  The University President offers cash prizes for the top three Faculties, as decided by a panel of judges, who wander around the site with clipboards on the big day making judgements about the quality of the displays and presentations that the different Faculties have produced.

For some reason the Faculty of Theology did not compete.  Perhaps they thought that, if they won, they might have been accused of using influence in higher places to influence the judges’ decisions.

But we did.  Not with any realistic prospect of winning the first or second prize, but with an eye beating Business and Informatics for the coveted third place.  (Anyone who has the word ‘Informatics’ in their title doesn’t deserve to win anything!)

There was no way we were going to beat Arts or Health Sciences, both of which have countless numbers of students who can be relied upon to turn out and produce wonderful displays and performances guaranteed to wow the judges.  There are about a dozen of us in the Faculty of Education.

The Faculty of Arts set up a radio station and a TV studio as well as performing a series of live dramas during the day.  Health Sciences staged a full-scale re-enactment of the aftermath of a car accident, complete with an ambulance, a makeshift operating theatre and a veritable army of young medics all sporting spotless white coats with stethoscopes around their necks.

They even has a laboratory set up with microscopes, where you could find out what various unspeakable diseases look like close-up.

Our display was much more modest.  We don’t have any students on campus, so anything we produced, we had to do ourselves.  As a result, our small corner concentrated on what courses the Faculty can offer and where we currently run our courses.  See map for details.  Not the most spectacular display in the university, but, boy, did we have a lot of balloons.

The overall winner this year, as I am sure you are dying to know, was Health Sciences.  Frankly I think they used underhand tactics, which will be revealed in one, or possibly two, of the following photos.  The Physiotherapy Department definitely clinched it for them!  We must learn from them for next year!  Where can I buy a grass skirt?

But, guess what!  We came third! We beat Business and Informatics!  Yay! 

Proudest day of my life since I got my Elementary Swimming Certificate in Swansea Baths in 1959.


Everything Spick and Span and Freshly-painted.

Everything Spick and Span and Freshly-painted.

Madang, the Centre of the Universe.

Madang, the Centre of the Universe.

Everyone Had a Job To Do,

Everyone Had a Job To Do,

The Dean put the finishing touches to the map showing the different centres where Divine Word runs courses.

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