Site Visit to Papua New Guinea, March 17 – April 10, 2005
By Sister Joyce Meyer, PBVM, Executive Director of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters
On Saturday, March 19, I arrived in Brisbane, Australia and stayed with sisters from my congregation for two days before flying to Papua New Guinea. The sisters I met had not heard about the Hilton Fund for Sisters. They were eager to share information about their women’s projects, prison ministries and work with Aboriginal peoples with me.
It was fortunate that I stayed in Australia during this time because Papua New Guinea had temporarily run out of fuel for planes. Traveling by air or sea is the only way to get around the small country because there are few roads outside of towns. Due to the limited fuel supply, passengers and their luggage must be weighed before boarding a plane. All goods and building materials must be brought from the capital, Port Moresby, by boat.
I was in Papua New Guinea during the time of year when the weather is extremely hot and humid. Everyday, rain clouds would roll in during the afternoon and it would rain during the day and throughout the night. At times, the rainstorms were torrential and there were severe electrical storms. Roads and bridges are frequently washed away each year due to the constant storms, leaving communities very isolated.
I left for Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on Tuesday, March 22. The capital city is located in the southern part of the country and is the closest major city to Australia, across the Coral Sea.
Upon arrival, I was taken to a skills development project for young women. The program was very successful until it was robbed of its equipment and materials. Unfortunately, armed robbery, rape and even attacks with spears, bows and arrows and knives happen very frequently in many parts of the country.
Papua New Guinea has over 800 tribes. The whole country is experiencing a shift in culture and population as more rural villagers are moving to the cities in search of work. When there is no work to be found, they have resorted to violence in order to survive. The newcomers live on the edges of town in settlements. Their homes are built of scavenged materials on stilts. Water is usually scarce and sanitation is non-existent. Most families cannot afford to send their children to school because they do not have money for supplies or other expenses.
Next, I visited a women’s sewing project and demonstration rice farm. Rice has become a popular food in Papua New Guinea, but it is expensive because it needs to be imported. There are 35 local families who are involved in the rice production project and 15 of these families manage the rice milling aspect. By using the rice farming techniques they learned from sister, the families are able to harvest two crops each year. This gives them enough rice for their daily consumption and a surplus to sell for income. Sister is hoping to modify the project by growing rice outside of paddies because there is no reliable water source near the farm. She is also introducing a new type of corn that can be hydrated and then re-hydrated for human consumption.
On Wednesday, March 23, I flew from Port Moresby to Aitape, which is in northern Papua New Guinea, on the coast. I was picked up at the Aitape airstrip (there is no airport) by a sister from my congregation. As we were heading to the convent, sister told me that the town was without electricity, phones or running water for several weeks. Missionary life in Papua New Guinea is very challenging. Living conditions are Spartan and isolated—people here are frequently without access to electricity or transportation.
Families in coastal villages live in homes built on stilts that are constructed of woven coconut or sago leaves. People cook outdoors over open fires, carry water from wells or streams and collect rainwater for drinking. Some families have pit toilets, but most use the jungle to take care of their personal needs. Electricity is rarely available in the villages.
The jungle/forest has always been a reliable source of food, so when families are hungry, they eat whatever is available. Sometimes, mothers will prepare meals, but families usually do not eat their meals together. Coconut prepared in different forms is a staple part of a Papua New Guinean’s diet.
In the morning, sister and I traveled to Malol and stopped at the local supply store to purchase building materials for a school in the jungle. It took an hour and a half to reach the school by crossing one mountain and two bridges that were recently rebuilt after being destroyed in a spirit of revenge by warring tribes in the area. The school was located on the other side of the Yalingi River and we had to wade through the currents in order to reach the other side because there was no bridge. Twenty young men were at the river to escort us and carry the building materials across. Sister’s truck was left on the other bank. We finally reached the school after walking half an hour through the jungle.
In 1998, a major Tsunami destroyed Malol and devastated the surrounding coastal villages on the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea. Over 3,000 people died—mostly children who could not outrun the 17-foot tidal waves. Descriptions of the event mirrored what happened to Southeast Asia in December 2004. The day the Tsunami struck, the people started running towards the shore when they saw a huge, black shape approaching the land, thinking it was a ship. Sister was with the crowd, but when she got closer something moved her to shout, "Tidal Wave!" This sent everyone running away from the beach. Some of the villagers were swept away and others managed to reach higher ground.
Since Malol is so isolated, it took several days before contact was made by short wave radio to elicit help. In the meantime, Sister and the village leaders did what they could to help find food, water, clothing, medicine and shelter for the injured and displaced. Helicopters came to the area and dropped supplies, but because the jungle is so dense, much of it was unrecoverable.
Families affected by the Tsunami moved to their properties in the mountains (everyone in Papua New Guinea inherits land). Unfortunately, the transition destroyed their familiar way of life in the coastal villages and the people experience great isolation. The sisters also moved inland to teach at the new primary schools built by the government and provide simple medical care. There are no health care facilities available. The sisters must walk 12 to 15 hours at times to reach the outlying settlements.
After surviving the Tsunami with the villagers, the sisters became very close to them and returned to Malol at the request of young men who were left without families. The sisters were asked by the orphans to open a school so that they could continue their education. The village school was destroyed and the government only wanted to build schools in the newly settled communities. Since then, enrollment at the school has increased and there is a hostel for girl students.
A few days later, Monday, March 28, I flew south to another coastal town called Wewak. A sister I met in Taiwan was waiting for me at the airstrip. The first place we visited was a home-craft-training center for girls that recently received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. The center had 20 students; the sisters were excited to show me the fabric they purchased and the new oven for their outdoor bakery. They also told me about their plans to expand the school to help girls from remote villages learn income-generating skills.
The next day, Tuesday, March 29, I visited the CORE school. CORE is a distance learning program established by the government where students can upgrade their education in order to be eligible for exams. There are many CORE schools throughout the country. The one I visited was a small resource center where students can use computer programs for their studies. Unfortunately, there is only one computer for 30 students. The sisters would like to hire a CORE supervisor/teacher to manage the program while the sister currently in that position studies for her grade 12 certificate. Sister also wants to add more computers and expand the center.
Afterwards, we visited a clinic that was extremely overcrowded—there was no privacy available for doctors’ consultations, no place for educational sessions or space for medicines and equipment. The three sisters working there are very frustrated with the situation because they do not feel they can give adequate care to the hundreds of patients who come each day. It is the only clinic available for miles around.
The sisters have also opened an educational/respite care center for HIV/AIDS patients. They carry out an extensive outreach program in Wewak and the surrounding villages to educate people about transmission and treatment.
On Wednesday, March 30, we visited a rural clinic about a two hour from Wewak. The road to the clinic was very bad and it is the only health center between Wewak and Aitape. There is no doctor, only a sister-nurse. The clinic had solar electricity until robbers stole the panels. Now, sister must use kerosene lanterns, candles or vehicle headlights to care for nighttime deliveries and other emergencies. She also showed me her storeroom bereft of medicines. Sister lived at a convent about a half-mile away with four other sisters. Their only modern convenience was their small, solar panel-operated refrigerator that was used to store medicine.
Many of the sisters I met had trouble with burglaries at their projects. The sisters have learned to befriend the people by going to the settlements and offering classes for the children, or inviting them to participate in activities at the convent. They also take food or produce to the mothers to sell. As the sisters have become friends with the people in their community, the burglaries have diminished.
I flew inland to Mount Hagen, in the Western Highlands, on Saturday, April 2 (this was the same day Pope John Paul II passed away, but I did not find out until two days later). The highlands are very different from the coastal villages. In this region, the soil is rich and productive—it is the breadbasket of the country. The people living here are very skilled in farming and have large, cultivated farms of fruits and vegetables. Most of the produce must be transported by plane to Lae and then by boat to Port Moresby. The highlands are beautiful and less humid; they are without the threat of malaria mosquitoes.
After I landed, I was taken an hour and a half to a beautiful high school where 530 students are enrolled. Of those students, 500 are boarders. The following day, the school’s sister-principal held an assembly to thank the Hilton Fund for Sisters for the grant they used to purchase a tractor. The students do the majority of the food production for the school and having the tractor will be a great help to those who had to till the soil by hand.
Later that morning, a sister took me to Banz, about a two-hour journey from the school. On the way, we were held up by a group of men with painted faces. They said they were a road crew, and would not let us pass until we paid them. Such occurrences are common in Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately, some robbers will resort to using their machetes to convince travelers to comply with their demands. Nearly everyone carries a machete when they travel from place to place, for protection and to clear their way through the forests.
In Banz, I visited an HIV/AIDS project that was started by a sister in the 1980s. When she first heard about the disease, she started teaching students about prevention measures. Everyone around her said that her lessons were unnecessary and that HIV/AIDS would never come to Papua New Guinea. However, she was a visionary whose prophecy came true. Today, HIV/AIDS is very prevalent in the country, even though there is much denial about it.
Two years ago, sister also established a small, respite center. The building has two bedrooms, a kitchen/sitting room and a bathroom. Here, people living with HIV/AIDS (primarily women), come to rest, relax and learn how to care for themselves.
Afterwards, I went to a vocational school the sisters are transforming into a women’s shelter and learning center. The women learn literacy, cooking, sewing and agriculture; men have also become interested in the agriculture courses. The sisters have responded to the demand by renovating an old dorm for adult groups. They showed me their rabbits, pigs, poultry, ducks and fishponds. To help pay for operating costs, the sisters purchased a rice-milling machine—people come from miles around to pay a small fee to have their rice milled.
Later that day, I drove to another village in the forest where the village leaders built a respite center for women with HIV/AIDS; it was similar to the one I visited in Banz. This center was constructed from bush materials—sago and palm leaves. A small prayer house was built next to the center where women come to pray each night. The village leader was motivated to help people learn compassion towards the women suffering from the disease.
On Sunday, April 4, I flew to Kiunga—another inland town near the Indonesian border. It was an awesome trip over miles of jungles, forests, mountains, canyons, waterfalls, plains and rivers. Kiunga is located on a swampy plain that is hot and humid; it is also infested with mosquitoes. The barren area is unable to produce much food—few fresh vegetables and fruits are available. Most people are employed in the town’s copper mines, rubber tree plantations and rubber production. Thanks to the copper mining company, electricity and telephone service is regularly available.
The next day, I was taken on a tour of local congregations to share information about the Sisters’ Fund. I met many native sisters who had no experience with applying for grants. The sisters are involved in women’s groups, education and training of teachers. There were also sisters who worked with refugees along the Indonesian border.
From the sisters, I learned more about the people from the area. Only ten years ago, malnutrition was so serious that few babies lived. Instead, women would breastfeed their piglets because they are prized animals.
I traveled to Port Moresby on Wednesday, April 5. After I landed, I gave a presentation on the Hilton Fund for Sisters to sisters from mainland Papua New Guinea, Bougainville (an island in the country’s archipelago) and the Solomon Islands. None of the sisters had any grant writing experience, so I gave them a sample copy of our application for practice.
The following morning, Thursday, I attended the National Conference for Religious for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. I found listening to the reports helpful in understanding some of the issues faced by religious congregations in the country such as: education, alcohol and drug addictions, chewing of Beetle Nut, lack of resources for counseling and violence in the culture.
The people of Papua New Guinea have many long-standing disputes over land ownership or rape of clan members. There are some rival clans that have been fighting and killing each other for generations. Sisters have been trying to work on solutions to end the mutual violence. Yet, the tribal conflicts and acts of violence stem from cultural practices of revenge and retribution, which are difficult to set aside. Native sisters play an important role in bringing peace because of their closeness to village life and their involvement in education and pastoral activities. Congregations are focused on integrating positive aspects of tribal cultures into their formation programs as much as possible. Sisters are teaching their students about the destructive consequences of revenge and the traditional insistence of retribution.
On Friday, April 7, I spoke about the Sisters’ Fund at the Conference and discussed future projects. Everyone expressed gratitude for the grant the Conference received for computers and E-mail access to congregational administration centers. Conference members are now connected to the Executive Director on a regular basis—when the electricity and telephones are working.
Next, I visited a project for young women who are learning sewing, literacy and cooking. They received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund to purchase equipment and they were so excited to show me their new mixers, stove, storage cabinets, sewing machines and supplies. The demand for the program is so great, that the sisters are already expanding their building.
After the Conference ended on Saturday, I visited a home for working girls that also received a grant from the Sisters’ Fund. When the project began, it was constantly being vandalized and robbed by local thieves. To deter further break-ins, the sisters initiated an agriculture project to rehabilitate the young men. They teach them rice and vegetable production and literacy. The sisters have not had any trouble since their new project began.
My experiences in Papua New Guinea were extremely valuable because I was able to see first-hand how sisters manage daily uncertainties about electricity, water, transportation and resources. Yet, their courage, commitment and sense of humor amazed me.