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.