Archive for the month “August, 2015”

Humour in all things.

There is nothing funny about the El Nino Effect.  It is having serious consequences all over Papua New Guinea as I mentioned in my blog a few days ago.  Now apparently there have been fatalities associated with the unseasonable weather, so clearly a very serious situation.

So I did feel a bit ashamed when I laughed out loud at the report on the front of the Post Courier today.


The text underneath the dramatic photo read:-

“The National Disaster Office is preparing for its first Category 5 alert to date as five deaths attributed to the current drought and frost are reported in Chimbu Province. Seventeen districts, mostly in the Highlands, are currently on the non-life threatening Category 4 alert.

The Office announced in an update last Friday that more then two million people – one quarter of the Papua New Guinean population -in these districts are now affected by these natural disasters, including an elderly man and five children.”

Is it just me?


How could we not buy these?

Say it like it is.

001       Irresistible

002 and very big!

Sometimes you’ve just got to spend the money and hang the consequences!

And the beat goes on….

One of the interesting things about watching the various performances at the Rabaul Mask Festival was to see how embedded these dances are in the local culture.  When I have seen ‘traditional’ dances in my travels around Africa, they have usually been performed in the local hotel for the benefit and the entertainment of the tourists.  They often had the air of being something that was wheeled out for visitors but had long since lost its relevance for most of the participants. I often felt I was watching a group of people who would perform a few dances, then pack away their costumes and go back to their jobs in supermarkets or insurance company offices.

With the dancers, and even with the support groups, in Rabaul, I didn’t get that feeling at all.  There was a absolute commitment to the dances and to whatever story they were telling.  Participants were serious about what they were doing.

This was no synthetic demonstration of ‘local culture’ thrown together in order to earn a few dollars from tourists.  I had a real sense that what we were witnessing could have been performed just as well in a remote village, in the darkness, for the enjoyment of the inhabitants of that village and no-one else.

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And what impressed me most was that the younger generation was taking part with every bit as much enthusiasm and commitment as their elders.  It was clear that the older generation felt that it was important to pass on the traditions to the young people.

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Here come the boys!

And granddad clearly saw it as his duty to make sure that the momentum and the cultural identity is maintained down through the generations.

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If this isn’t the face of commitment, I don’t know what is.

And the dancing went on.

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Back to the mask festival, the dance groups just kept coming.  It seemed like every village in New Britain had its own dance group and its own story to tell.

I have no idea what the story behind this group was, but the masks were pretty special and the dancing, accompanied by the chanting and drumming of their supporters, was energetic to the point of being exhausting to watch.

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What part this gangster played in the story being enacted, I could only guess at.  He spent most of his time stalking around the dancers and threatening the audience with his gun.

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But much scarier than the gangster, were some of the members of the support band.  You really wouldn’t want to meet some of these guys on a dark night!

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And the next ones, right along here please!

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100 days and counting.

We have been in Papua New Guinea for sixteen months now, coincidentally the same amount of time that we managed to hold on in South Sudan, before being unceremoniously evacuated in a small plane, just before Christmas 2013.  As of today, we have 100 days to go.

Our contract with VSO/Divine Word University expires in December and we have set December 5th as our leaving date.  We will have been away from home for over three years, not counting the time we spent in the UK, in a state of frustrated, suspended animation, between South Sudan and PNG.

So what is our assessment of the two placements now that the VSO adventure is coming to an end?

Well, both countries have been absolutely fascinating and we wouldn’t have missed either of them for the world.  When we knew that we were being posted to South Sudan, we were very excited to be going to a brand new country, to be part of its first faltering steps towards development.

Over the sixteen months we were there, we learned a lot about the tortured history of the country and the tribal enmities that have held up progress for so many years.  Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised when those enmities re-surfaced, even before the country was three years old, and started to drag it back to the chaos from which it emerged.

Even today, the two major ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, have not been able to find a way to settle their ancient differences and much of the country had descended into an unending cycle of slaughter, rape, slavery and pillage.  As the Big Men beat their chests and rattle their weapons at each other, unleashing the dogs of war that they claim to control, ordinary people suffer, in huge numbers, and the country marches steadfastly backwards, away from any kind of human development.

Today the United Nations has finally said that it will consider sanctions against the leaders of the two sides in the conflict, if they don’t stop the fighting, but is difficult to get very excited about anything that the UN says.  There has been a whole list of peace agreements that have been concluded between the President, Salva Kiir and his former Deputy, Riak Machar, all of which have fallen apart within days of signing.

Although we have been out of the country for almost two years now, it is amazing how often our thoughts go back to what we saw and what we experienced in Rumbek.

Did our sixteen months there make any difference?  Difficult question.

Perhaps we should start with a different question.  Did we do any harm?  No, I don’t think we did.

Did we do any good?  Well, we ran a few seminars, we did a bit of teaching, we wrote a few policy documents, we talked to a lot of people about how life is organised outside the borders of South Sudan and we challenged a few stereotypes.  Did it change anything?  Probably not.

One of the mantras that VSO is keen to promote is the idea of ‘capacity building’.  VSO volunteers should use their expertise to build the capacity of local staff.  In many countries, this is a perfectly sound ambition, adding additional skills into a situation where local people are developing their country and wanting to take it forward.

In the case of South Sudan, we were dealing with a country that had just emerged from decades of war, where most people had more immediate priorities than helping to develop the country.  In a poor country like South Sudan, and particularly in times of war, the only thing you can rely on to keep you safe and keep you alive is your family. Consequently, it is with the family that your first loyalty lies.

Altruism, service to society or high-flown concepts of ‘nation building’ were a long way from the thoughts of most of the people with whom we worked.  It was probably just too soon to be thinking of development in the abstract and therefore probably too soon for an organisation like VSO to be there.

Papua New Guinea is a different kettle of fish.  It has been independent since 1975 and, with all its faults, has maintained a stable government all that time. During the forty years of its existence it has seen, and is still seeing, enormous changes.

Our good friend, Father Garry has spent many years in the Highlands of PNG and he tells the story of meeting a local tribesman at a cultural show.  The man was in full tribal costume and, because Father Garry speaks the local language, he engaged the man in conversation.  It turned out that, when the man was not attending cultural shows, honouring and celebrating his tribal heritage, he flew jumbo jets around the Pacific, working for a major freight-forwarding company.  Who would have thought it?

It is sometimes said that Papua New Guinea has gone from the stone-age to the space-age in three generations and when you consider that some parts of the country only made ‘first contact’ with the outside world in the 1930s, you get some idea of the road that the country has travelled.

So, have we changed anything in the sixteen months we have been here?  Difficult to say.  Again, we have done some teaching and have had many conversations that might have given some individuals an insight into different ways of doing things, but our main contribution has been to the writing of a new Bachelor of Education/Diploma in Teaching curriculum for Primary Teachers Colleges.   We were part of a team that was charged by the Government with re-designing the teacher training curriculum in order to, hopefully, make it better able to produce high quality teachers for the country’s primary schools.

Will it?  Who knows?  Even if the new curriculum is adopted all over the country, and that is, at this moment, not at all certain, no-one will be able to tell if the new curriculum will make a difference until the next generation of teachers goes out into the schools and starts to make its mark. Say, ten years from now?  All we can do is hope that our two-penneth will have made a contribution.  There are no guarantees in this business.

So what next…?

Well, we have concluded that it would be too much of a shock to the system to just get on a plane in December and suddenly find ourselves at Heathrow, so the plan is to come home slowly, via New Zealand and Australia.  It seems wrong not to take advantage of being this far around the world and not explore the Antipodes.  Who knows when we will pass this way again.

So, all being well, we plan to get back to the UK when the daffodils are in bloom and the clocks have gone forward.

And then?  Who knows?  We have a house in Brighton that we want to re-occupy  and spend some time renovating.  Then we’ll just have to learn how to be retired.  We’ve never done that before, so it’ll be an exciting new experience.

Meet El Niño.

Something strange is going on in Papua New Guinea.  For one thing, we are having to sleep under a blanket!  That didn’t happen last year.  It hasn’t rained at all for the past five or six weeks.  That didn’t happen last year.  Even during the dry season you would expect to see rain every now and again.  And, worst of all, supplies of broccoli, a staple of the Nicholls diet here in Madang, are being threatened.  That certainly didn’t happen last year!

In the Highlands, where most of our best vegetables come from, frost has damaged many of the crops, which is a serious blow for many farmers.  On top of that, the drought being experienced across PNG is having some dramatic consequences for thousands of people. And all because of a change in water temperature in the Pacific Ocean, the El Niño Effect.

Papua New Guinea is sitting on a gold mine, (and I don’t mean that entirely figuratively!)  There is actually ‘gold in them there hills’, and some of it is being mined.  Indeed mining is one of the biggest earners for the country, and people say that, in terms of natural resources, much of PNG is still waiting to be discovered. One of the advantages of being surrounded by volcanoes, is that some very interesting mineral deposits get thrown up to the surface.

If you look at the map of Papua New Guinea, you will see that it shares its massive island with part of Indonesia.  (Go on.  Get your atlas out and have a look.  I’ll wait.)  Done that?  Good.  Now, you will notice that the border between PNG and Indonesia is a straight line drawn with a ruler.   Except  that about two-thirds of the way down the country, the border-line has a little wobble.  See it?  Good, I’m glad you are paying attention.

OK, for those of you without access to an atlas, I’ll provide a map.  Yes, I know.  I’m spoiling you.  I really shouldn’t  spoon-feed you  like this but, hey, there’s no exam at the end of all this, so perhaps, just this once, I can stretch a point.


See the wobble?

This wobble represents the mighty Fly River, which flows for hundreds of miles from the interior of PNG before reaching the sea in the Gulf of Papua.  One of the early tributaries to the Fly River is the Ok Tedi River and on the Ok Tedi River is the Ok Tedi mine.

This is not the sort of mine that you used to find in South Wales, where I was brought up, –  a blackened pit-head with a winding wheel, some looming slag heaps and miles of tunnels, honeycombing out in all directions, deep underground.  The Ok Tedi mine is open-cast and huge.  It produces ‘copper concentrate’, (whatever that is), and some gold.  It is a major contributor to the entire country’s national income.

A mine where a mountain used to be.

A mine where a mountain used to be.

Just north of the wobble in the border, you might notice the town of Kiunga.  This is where the copper concentrate is loaded onto big ships and transported from the interior of the country, down the Fly River, out into the Gulf of Papua, across the Coral Sea and away – mostly to China.


Kiunga is also the port through which all the supplies for the mine are brought in.  That means every tin of beans or loaf of bread , every litre of diesel, every scalpel or bandage for the hospital and every stick of chalk for the school.  I told you the mine was big!

Just keeping the equipment  running at the mine takes hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel.  If you see the size of the trucks that cart away the concentrate, you will appreciate that they don’t measure fuel consumption in miles per gallon, more like metres per litre.

images[8]     trucks


So what has this to do with El Niño?  Good question!

El Niño has brought drought to a country that is used to having a lot of rain, especially in the Highlands.  The drought has caused the water level in the Fly River to fall to an unprecedented extent, and the mining company just cannot get its big ships up the river to Kiunga, to keep the mine supplied.  It also cannot get the ‘concentrate’ out and therefore the mine cannot earn any money.

So it has closed!  Mothballed for the next six months, at least, until the next rainy season arrives and hopefully, the river level will rise again.

In the meantime, most of the expatriate personnel at the mine have been sent home and many of the local staff have been made redundant.  The International School, that was pretty much sustained by the school fees of expatriate children, has closed. The teachers have been laid off and have moved away.  The local hospital has been severely scaled back.

I shudder to think of the effect that the closure of the mine has had on the local economy and the livelihoods of all the people living around it.  I had often heard about the ‘El Niño effect’ and how it can adversely influence the climate in far-away places.  This is the first time I have witnessed it at first hand.

There’s a lot of hard times coming for a lot of people.

Some masks were more elaborate than others!

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Apart from the Bird of Paradise, the cassowary has to be the Nation’s Favourite Bird!  Its image appears on most of the coins.

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The trouble is with cassowaries…  if you turn your back for five minutes, they start fighting!

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Follow that!

After the spectacular sea-borne invasion and dramatic dancing of the Duk-duks, the Mask Festival really got into its stride with group after group turning up to show off their masks and entertain the crowds. Rabaul 211 Rabaul 217  Rabaul 209

No-one in this group would have won a beauty contest, but, boy, did they take their dances seriously!

Paying the choir.

The official currency of Papua New Guinea is the ‘Kina’.  It was introduced at Independence in 1975 to replace the Australian dollar.  One kina is worth about 25 pence sterling or 40 cents US.

A ‘kina’ is actually a type of sea-shell, and adopting the name for the national currency harks back to the days when shells were used as a medium of exchange for trading, particularly along the coasts of PNG.

Today, shell money is still used, although only ceremoniously.  In the picture below, the ‘choir’, i.e. the singers and drummers, are being paid for their efforts, by the Big Man, in strings of shell money, which they could still exchange for certain low value goods.  From the look of the gentlemen in the second picture, my guess is that most of the shell money was exchanged for betel nuts as soon as the show was over!

Bigpla man, lik-lik money

Bigpla man, lik-lik money

Every man was given half a string of shells and everyone seemed happy with their wages for the morning.

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It wasn’t difficult to see how the shell-money was spent!

The Duk-duks take Centre Stage.

Having landed on the beach and been officially welcomed, the Duk-duks were escorted to the Festival ground, where the real dancing began.  The boatmen/welcoming committee became the Duk-duks’ chorus and kept up a constant and rhythmic accompaniment to encourage the dancers.

Dancers and Chorus

Dancers and Chorus

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What the chorus lacked in musicality, they more than made up for in sheer gusto.  There was some evidence that betel-nut made have played a part in keeping the energy levels high.  (Note the red mouth.)

What they lacked in finesse, they made up for in enthusiasm.

Not the best Male Voice Choir I’ve ever heard, but top marks for enthusiasm.

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At one point, it looked as if the Duk-duks were going to attack the chorus, but no-one seemed perturbed.

In fact, close-up, they looked like quite cheerful and smiley spirits.

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(Remember, if you click on the picture, you get the full benefit of the photo!)

The Duk-duk dancing went on for most of the day.  Fortunately for the poor creature inside the costume, there were several different tubuan societies represented and each one would perform their dances for about half an hour per group. So, as one exhausted Duk-duk made his weary way back to the enclosure to take off his mighty mask and free himself from his foliage…

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… a whole new village arrived to cheer on their own Duk-duks and carry on with the festivities.

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And that was just day 1.

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