OKSAPMIN, SANDAUN PROVINCE - 2002: Election year. I arrived at a school in the Tekin Valley after a 6 hour trek through the jungle. The rain had just ended when I began an interview with a local teacher. I was asking him about maternal and infant mortality rates and he mentioned in passing that the nearest health centre was a days walk from where we were. Two days for villages I had passed. For those in very remote villages, it was just too difficult for them. This teacher told me they had no proper record of the number of mothers and babies who had died that year or previous years. He gave me an educated guess. He said between 15 and 30 babies died in a year. So when a baby died just after birth, the father would take the tiny body to the back of the hut and bury him or her there. No one mourned for them. They were just nameless children who had not even seen their first birthday.
|Oksapmin, Sandaun Province|
NUKU, SANDAUN PROVINCE- 2002: I met a health worker in a small aid post. Half the concrete floor had collapsed. It had sunk about 15 centimetres into the ground. The medicine cabinet had only anti malarial tablets and liniment used for body aches. He told me a child had died about 24 hours ago of dehydration. By the time the child had been brought to the aid post, the health worker couldn’t insert a needle because the child’s veins had already collapsed. The father arrived minutes later and the health worker told him: If you want your son to live take him now and run to the health centre. To walk would have taken him six hours. He did make it to the government station. He had the health centre in sight. But the child had already died.
PORT MORESBY, NCD - 2003: At the Airlines PNG hanger. I was taking pictures for a story on EMTV news. The story was about the aftermath of ethnic violence. In front of me were seven coffins bound for Goilala in the Central province. What caught my attention were two coffins - a large one in which lay a man and beside him was a smaller meter long coffin containing the body of his son. They had been hacked to death after being blamed for instigating trouble at a marketplace. Usually, I don’t try to think about these things. But when you’re doing the job, you find yourself thinking about it a lot. You try to understand the reasons behind why people kill others and in this case – an innocent child. I still have difficulty understanding the brutality and reasons behind that massacre.
PORT MORESBY, NCD 2009: I met a landowner from the Moran Area in the Southern Highlands province. He’s been fighting for about three years for the government to recognize the legitimacy of his landowner group in the LNG project. He’s a young man in his early thirties. He isn’t as well educated as many of you in this room but he knows where is land boundaries are and he knows his land rights. He represents a group of dissatisfied men and women.
So what does the murder of seven Goilalas in Port Moresby’s Tete settlement have to do with maternal and infant mortality in remote Sandaun Province?
How does the story of a southern highlands landowner tie in with a child dying in his fathers arms minutes before reaching a health centre Nuku?
In Journalism school, they tell you to keep the big picture in mind whilst giving your story a human face. The stories that I’ve told you shows you the human face of the challenges and difficulties that confront ordinary Papua New Guineans.
These stories are also the human face of the dissatisfaction felt through a cross section of society.
A few years ago, the Institute of National Affairs published a small article about the ethnic violence that happened in the Solomon Islands. It said ethnic violence…
“…was largely the result of imbalanced development …with portions of the population feeling alienated and aggrieved…”
“…they were missing out on opportunities… or had injustices done to them or had lost control over land and resources…”
‘…corruption and deals over natural resources contributed to that dissatisfaction…”
Somehow all this sounds very familiar. If I were a doctor, I’d say Papua New Guinea already has what appears to be the Solomon Islands Syndrome and we are in denial. We’ve taken the formula that created the disaster on Bougainville and we’re creating a more lethal recipe for nationwide self-destruction.
We as a nation have so many outstanding issues that we need to address. Yet we keep creating new problems for ourselves. We haven’t solved Ok Tedi’s environmental problems and yet we’ve allowed another foreign company to dump it’s waste into the Basamuk Bay. While dozens of teachers in Port Moresby and other major centres live in classrooms because of the lack of accommodation and high rentals, we give ourselves hefty increases in accommodation allowances and we say it’s justified.
Why does a father in remote Sandaun have to accept the death of his son when our leaders have access to the best doctors in a foreign country. Why do we buy a jet to be used by just a few when we don’t want to subsidize rural air transport for ordinary people?
We all have solutions to the ills of our society. For ethnic violence, we say send them back to where they came from. But send them back to what?
To a village that has no road access?
To schools that have no teachers?
To health centres that have no medicine?
It is sometimes difficult to understand why we choose to nurture dissatisfaction and anger amongst our people? In a sense, we are fortunate that the vast majority of Papua New Guineans do not draw the link between decision makers and poor service delivery. Maybe it’s because they’re too busy just trying to survive because of those bad decisions.
But I tell you this that void of ignorance is diminishing at a very rapid rate. Soon every Papua New Guinean with a mobile phone will know exactly what Waigani is doing though mobile internet access and they will have every right to be angry.
WHAT TO DO
Each of us has a responsibility. Every person has the job of fixing this great country of ours.
If a teacher taught for eight hours a day, five days a week. Wouldn’t we have better educated people?
And if that one person in authority made sure medicine got from point A to point B, wouldn’t we have less people dying?
At almost every workshop or meeting where the role of the media is discussed, people keep saying “the media has an important role to play in development.” It has been said so many times that its become a cliché.
If you buy a paper, you see headlines on a newspaper. Turn on the radio at midday and the NBC tells you what’s happening around the country.
We can write a hundred stories about illegal immigrants and human smuggling…
We can write about disappearing millions and investigations by the Public Accounts Committee… But the media is good only if ordinary people and those in authority take the information that is supplied and act on it. If the systems and authorities don’t take steps to address the problems we expose, then our attempts amount to very little.