Read about the work and travel of VSA's staff.
Published on 28th August 2014
VSA's Media Officer Sarah Barnett and Graphic Designer Chris Mitchell are in Papua New Guinea meeting volunteers, staff and partners in the field. Sarah has written a blog about her first impressions of PNG.
It’s 6am in Kokopo, East New Britain. Chris and I are halfway through a field trip to visit our Papua New Guinea volunteers with Country Programme Manager Howard Iseli and his brand-new Programme Officer Rela Mesulam. Last night, having travelled to see our volunteers in New Ireland and then rural Kabaira in East New Britain, Howard dropped us at our accommodation and left us to our own devices to start processing what we’ve seen and who we’ve met on this trip.
During our debrief last night (local lamb and seafood), Chris and I decided we’d probably never actually get our heads around it all. There were a couple of moments yesterday where I was pretty sure that if Chris didn’t have family back home, he’d chuck his passport and stay in PNG!
For now, here are a few of my first impressions.
The New Guinea Islands are beautiful. I’m sitting with a plunger of Goroka coffee looking out over the reef across the bay towards Rabaul, where the volcano (very much active) is gently belching. A group of locals are laying out brightly coloured bilums on the lawn for sale. On the reef, where we snorkelled earlier this week, there are colonies of clown fish (I found Nemo!) among all the other gorgeous sea life. There are spots like this all round the coast – in Kavieng, New Ireland, an evening swim or snorkel is an almost daily occurrence. And it’s not just to unwind, it’s also when volunteers catch up with fellow expats and volunteers to network, swap tips and gossip.
Volunteers are quick to get involved in the community. In Kavieng, an Australian volunteer revived the local branch of Rotary, and all VSA’s volunteers there are now involved – most of them hold executive positions in the branch. They hold sausage sizzles every fortnight along with other big fundraising events – there’s a talent show in a couple of weeks and several volunteers took part in the Trukai fun run last month. The Rotary is raising money for books for the schools and the local prison, and to bring a group of volunteer dentists over from Germany to set up clinics. Dental care is hard to get here, and the incidence of oral cancers is high, due to betel nut use. (Betel nut is the seed of the fruit of the areca palm tree, which turns red when chewed, giving users a distinctive orange-red smile.)
Sport is a big part of life here, and several of our volunteers have joined community teams, or started their own recreational groups. As we left Kavieng, Anne Bradbury was preparing to play netball in the New Ireland Provincial Games – a huge event on the sporting calendar, which feeds into the national games to be held in Lae next year. Graham Hadlee golfs, Liv Loftus started an aqua-aerobics class, and Lorena De la Torre leads a yoga class every morning at the Vocational College.
Our volunteers work really closely together. While they’re all on different assignments with different partner organisations, they’ll often turn to a fellow volunteer who has complementary skills or other useful connections for special projects. We always knew this happened, but to see them plan for it treading water over a coral reef is different altogether.
A staff meeting is a different affair here. In Kavieng, fuel shortages cause rolling blackouts, which means no air-conditioning. At that point, everyone heads outside to catch up in whatever shade they can find. In Kabaira, Lorena and her counterpart Fatima (who is away on leave, so we met her acting counterparts Beverly and Marcela) take a walking meeting every morning. They walk out of the Kabaira Girls' Vocational Centre where they work, turn right outside the gates and walking against the tide of kids heading to school, banana-leaf-wrapped lunches in hand. Lorena says it’s when they get their best chance to talk about the school, go through issues and make plans.
Kiwi culture spreads far and wide. We joined Lorena and Marcela for their walk yesterday morning, to be greeted at every house we passed by with “monin!” (Tok Pisin) or “Malana!” (Kuanua ). After about 10 minutes’ walk, we called “Malan!” to a gentleman on his way to collect spring water for his morning shower. He called back, “Kia ora!”
Check back soon for more updates from Sarah and Chris.