PNG and Me: A Love Story

July 21, 2015

Have you ever had a passionate relationship with a place? As if that place is a person? Sometimes you want to be with them all the time; other times you hate them and want nothing to do with them; then, you get back together for a make-up hug and everything is OK again. For me, that relationship is with Papua New Guinea. Like a tumultuous love affair with someone just a little bit dangerous, but all the more attractive because of the danger. I love it, I loathe it, it frustrates me, and it draws me back again and again and again.

I first went to PNG when I was 19 years old. As I wrote about here, I was doing an Arts degree and feeling a little bit directionless. When the opportunity came up to do a volunteer program in Papua New Guinea, I saw it as a chance for adventure. How had I never thought about this country, so close to Australia yet completely foreign? A few people thought I was mad (“Don’t they still have cannibals in PNG?”), but I couldn’t wait.

I joined a group of 12 other young Australians, and we went to live in remote villages for 3 months. The purpose of the program, organised by Australian Volunteers International, was ‘cultural exchange’ – yes, we did some health workshops, we built a chicken coop, but the real reason we were there was to learn about each other. The boys (because PNG is pretty gender segregated) went hunting in the jungle for wild pigs. The girls learnt how to wrap rice with bamboo leaves, how to weave mats. We played netball in bare feet. We went to the gardens and dug for yams and sweet potato. We washed our clothes in the river. We washed ourselves in the river. We learnt how to cook on a fire, dance in a grass skirt, and how to speak Tok Pisin.

It was, in short, amazing. The people were incredibly kind, and tough as yak meat (which I’ve recently discovered is very tough). Life in those villages was not easy. Growing a garden to provide food for a family is incredibly hard work, especially when you have five children under the age of ten. Not to mention washing clothes, cleaning, collecting firewood, and trying to earn a bit of money on the side to buy things like soap, oil, rice, kerosene for the lamp. We had to do all those things too, and it was the best way to appreciate your Australian privileges. Yes, I wanted my laptop and a hospital around the corner and chocolate to eat whenever I felt like it. But no, I would never again take those things for granted.

When I eventually returned to Australia after some European adventures, I quit my Arts degree and enrolled in International Studies with a new sense of purpose. I didn’t know exactly how, but I wanted to work in and with PNG in some way. The more I learnt, the more shocked and angry I became. How could it be true that in PNG, up to 500 women die during childbirth per 100,000 live births, when in Australia it is 6 per 100,000? For me, it was personal. I was a 21 year old Australian girl, born just a short flight south of a 21 year old Papua New Guinean girl. I had met many girls my age up there, and we were not so different. And yet our life circumstances were. While I was going to uni, she would likely be a mother of several children, whether or not that’s what she wanted. While I was working my casual job at a cinema, she would be at the garden digging yams, or at the river washing clothes, or worrying about her sick toddler and how would she get him to the clinic and pay the fees. I don’t mean to say that life in a PNG village is all doom and gloom – there are positives, such as a strong sense of community, living in a natural environment, the role of extended family – but if I once romanticised it, I certainly don’t now.

In the last year of my degree, we were required to do an internship. The international development sector is competitive, and I wanted to do something that a) looked good on my resume, b) would give me some serious experience and c) was in PNG. A family friend who had done work in PNG sent my resume around to a group of colleagues, and lo and behold, one of them responded, saying that if I could cover my own travel insurance, I could work for a church in the highland town of Mount Hagen for four months. I could not have been more thrilled. PNG was calling once more.

My ‘position’, such as it was for an intern, was in the HIV/AIDS department of the church. I would primarily be working with three groups. The first was a group of HIV-positive people, the True Warriors, who were advocating for their rights and speaking publicly about the virus (which was a big deal – people were understandably afraid of being ‘outed’ as HIV positive). The second was the Mount Hagen Handicrafts Group, a group of women who made bilums to sell both in PNG and overseas. The third group was the True Friends. The True Friends were a smaller group of HIV positive women who came together once a fortnight, to eat a meal, and to support one another.

I went to Mount Hagen expecting it to be like my first time in PNG – friendly people, a beautiful environment, lots of opportunities to make new friends. But it wasn’t quite like that. Hagen, as the locals call it, is a big town and big towns are not like small villages where everyone is friendly. There was an edginess to this town. You had to be careful going to the bank or supermarket. My Australian friend was held up at knife point on her way to work at an NGO. I did make friends at the church, but just as often, people (mostly foreign missionaries) put a Bible in my hand and told me that I really needed to read it and change my ways. Hmm. Living in a compound surrounded by barbed wire is not great fun, either. But I persisted, watching lots of West Wing at nights to keep myself entertained, and tried to start each day with a smile.     

As anyone who has worked in international development will know, ‘progress’ is a fickle thing. You expect big things but the reality is that change is slow, tenuous and often unpredictable. In four months, I couldn’t expect to achieve too much.

Towards the end of my time in Mt Hagen, I was feeling frustrated. What had I achieved? A new reporting template? A monitoring and evaluation framework? Once I left, would anyone actually use these? What I could do, I decided, was to interview the women from the True Friends, and tell their story on camera.

Have you interviewed someone before? Either for work, or just for fun? Since that first time in PNG, I’ve done it a bit, and every time I find it humbling. The fact that another human being who you don’t know very well will open up  and trust you with their story is a true privilege.

Here is the short film I made back in 2008, The True Friends Club. The video quality is terrible – of course, there are so many things I’d have done differently if I had my time again – but c’est la vie. Watch it if you like!

The internship in Mount Hagen came to an end, and I was not unhappy to leave. Living in a compound surrounded by barbed wire can take its toll. But sometimes I think back to those women and wonder how they are.    

My love story with PNG didn’t end there, though. It’s not the kind of place you just leave and don’t go back, at least not for me. PNG calls her siren song to me over and over, and mostly, like a lovesick fool, I answer it. But I’ll tell you about those times another day.   

How about you: are you in a love/hate relationship with a place? Where?

More about isabelrobinson

Isabel is a writer from Melbourne. She loves long train journeys, Vegemite toast and cryptic crosswords, preferably all at once.