A diary entry

The chilly afternoon breeze hung still in the air, but the bamboo plants continued to swing and sway on, as if enchanted by the rhythmic thumping of the Kundu drums that seeped down the slopes of Dea village – muffled. This seemed to add a special, yet fitting blend to the homely cacophony, typical of most Papua New Guinean villages at dusk as they prepare to roost for the night.

It had been a full day’s walk from Afore station, that its romantic charm was lost on me as I reached down for the last vestige of my strength to heave myself and my rucksack up the last 300 metres of a muddy, cratered road to reach my destination in a state of almost utter wreck.

I silently swore never to touch another Big Rooster ‘Lunch-box’ as I lay gasping in a reckless heap, catching my breath in grateful gulps and slowly relishing the cool air brought about by this respite.

That was Sunday June 5 of this year – the official World Environment Day, as I arrived at Dea Primary School, rounding off my World Environment Day visit to schools on the Managalas Plateau; high up in the volcanic rich south-eastern highlands of Oro Province.

As a community oriented environmental organisation, the commemoration of World Environment Day is a major event on the activity calendar of Partners with Melanesians (PWM).This patrol was an activity that was planned, not only to engage the children and the community in environmental awareness, but to gauge their understanding of the key issues that we continuously try to broach in our education-awareness and consensus building activities.

Students from the remote Gora Primary School were the only ones who showed up in full uniform and had this banner hand printed. Impressive, uh!

Beginning six days earlier on the lower flood plains near the coast, I made my first port of call at Emo Primary School which is about 2 hours drive off the main highway at Oro Bay. There I met some very generous people who put me up for the night.

The next day was spent going through their program and mingling with children and the locals before I hit the road again in the afternoon to find St Dunstan Primary School on the banks of the Pongani River a day later. We had a similar session at Pongani.

With these two schools located far outside of PWM’s project site, I wanted to use this opportunity to see how well these communities knew about sound environmental practises and their grasp on the idea of the conservation of natural resources. It was quite confronting to note that such information was greatly lacking, not only in the schools but in the surrounding communities. This was a challenge that I made sure to note down for my future education and awareness endeavours.

To make matters worse, both these schools like most low-lying areas of Oro, had felt the full brunt of Cyclone Guba not more than four years ago. With the service delivery mechanism of that province in a constant state of limbo, the infrastructure of these schools, among other basic services still had not seen even a hint of the much-hyped restoration funds.

Teacher shortage was another major issue they had to contend with. This problem, I discovered to my dismay in my conversations with the teachers, was more widespread throughout Oro Province.

After Pongani the plan was to make a quick sidetrack into Bareji High School. However, the weather thought otherwise as the rush of a flooded Pongani River put an end to that part of my plan. I was sadly left with the only option of forgoing that school altogether and instead head straight for Afore. Here I was fortunate enough to hitch a ride with a coffee-buyer, saving me another day of walking. Phew…

Friday was business as usual as I paid a visit to Afore Primary School who had scheduled their WED celebrations on the 3rd of June along with their feeder elementary schools.

The entire population of students, like the two previous schools I had visited, were buzzing with excitement to make their mark on World Environment Day. One could not miss the enthusiasm in the eyes of the children as they went through the day presenting their songs, dances, poems and essays, as well as exhibitions of samples of flora and fauna found in their area.

All activities culminated with a MR & Miss Environment pageant where the entrants came dressed in their traditional gear. After all was said and done everyone gathered for a combined lunch, topping off a very satisfying day.

A day later I again took to the road for Dea. That was where the biggest party was happening. Three primary schools – Dea, Koruwo and Gora along with all their feeder elementary schools had all scheduled for a combined event the next day on the 6th day of June 2011.

After the turnout from schools and their local community in previous days, I had no doubt Dea would come out even bigger and better, being a combined event. Slated for that day were even more singsings, tree-planting, debates, theatre plays and singing followed by the complementary pig-killing ceremony afterwards.

I was still catching my breath from the climb when my attention was suddenly arrested by the shrill voice of the young female dancers, as the tapa cloth clad dance troupe entered the clearing, their voices riding high over the synchronised beats of the lizard-skin drums. The men, with their arching bodies and feathered headdresses, in an almost regal poise, nodded in tandem to the beat as they lay their baritone timbre to their songs.

The singsong chants reverberated into the surrounding hills of Dea, summoning the late afternoon mist to slowly descend into the village. With it came the chattered chorus of cicadas as if in reprisal to the dancers’ songs, signalling the end to another day.

That was magic enough for a city slicker as all the weariness and pain were allowed to dissipate into the cool of an Oro night as previews of the morrow quickly faded in my mind as I wound down for the day.

Ese!!

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It has been well over a year now for me at this job and I have found it to be nothing short of an eye opener for me, working in the conservation NGO circle. One interesting aspect of this job is the occasional travel to our project sites. Seeing new places and just getting away from the hectic 8-5 raucous affair that is life in the city.  Breaking this monotony is refreshing and enriching.

It’s then that every so often I get to meet some genuine people out there who are keeping it real, putting in the hard yards to help out their communities. Be it either in education or in administering health care to the sick and needy, at often times sacrificing their own comfort for others, impassive to the pressing demands of fast money, televangelists,  bubblegum music and the pursuit of opulence evident in urban centres. To them the bare essentials are what really matters.

Chris and the syllabus chart he had drawn up himself which is comprised of 19 characters out of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

One such person I recently bumped into is Christopher Asiurina of Ogana village near Afore in the Managalas Plateau of Oro Province. Chris happens to be a Sunday school teacher, a community youth leader, a community basic constable (CBC), a peer educator and an adult literacy teacher – all volunteer work.

Going as far as Grade 8, he happens to be the only person from his clan and village to reach such a level of education. In his incessant quest to help out his community and church activities he went out of his way to buy 2 guitars for his village church congregation out of what little money he could find.

His drive was given a boost when he was taken up by Anglicare StopAIDS to undergo literacy training to translate HIV/AIDS information material into his local dialect. Using this knowledge he was able to draw up a syllabus chart for his dialect which he uses to conduct adult literacy classes in Ogana and Afore village where he’s already had a classroom built. He has 19 students, all of whom are within the 30 to 40 years age group and his initiative has enabled them to go on to read their local language bible.

His adult literacy program has had such a profound impact on the villagers, he said “Fest taim ol ridim tok ples blo ol yet na ol karai” (they cried when they were able to read in their own language for the first time).

More people from surrounding communities have since expressed their interest for him to conduct similar classes in their villages but he is hampered by need for stationary supplies and training for his 4 volunteer assistants.

This I believe is my cue. I have been looking for such opportunities to tap into to reach directly to the locals on our project site with our message of conservation and environmental awareness.  I have been fortunate enough to meet this young men and I am looking to collaborate with him in getting these vital information to a level where our village people can understand at their level.