Monday, 30 July 2012


Alotau Harbour

Four months in PNG have passed quickly and gone well. Most of this time has been spent in Alotau, Milne Bay Province. I’ve often heard this called the peaceful province or the friendly province and  I have found it to be both. This peaceful reputation means we currently have a collection of newly elected members of parliament visiting to meet, discuss and hopefully form a stable government through a coalition.

Alotau is a regional centre built between mountains and sea. It is generally less than a kilometre before the land rises steeply, blanketed in jungle. The harbour is the heart of Alotau. It is where the traffic of the province comes and goes from. People come and go, market goods arrive and store goods leave. There are also two commercial wharves for oil tankers and container ships.
Dinghies take passengers to many places, work boats go further afield. PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) connect up land routes to East Cape, Awaiyama and other places. From there you can catch a dinghy onwards. There are always groups of people waiting with their things for a PMV or a dinghy.

There are also groups of people waiting…for I’m not sure what. Waiting for friends, waiting for family, waiting for something to happen, waiting to see what strange things the dimdims will do next. Town is rarely without a small crowd, which becomes a big crowd on pay fortnight.

The shopping strip in Alotau is maybe 200m long, with supermarkets, general stores, hardware, pharmacy, banks and post office on either side of the road. There is a second street of shops, but it is much quieter. The shops have most things, sometimes. Other times, the answer is ‘Sorry, no stock’. Apparently town ran out of sugar last week, but a new shipment has now arrived.

The fresh produce market varies daily for produce variety, quality and cost. Since I have been here pineapple have gone out of season, but guava and soursob have come in, fruits I’ve discovered I very much like. One end of the market is for fish; mostly smoked, some fresh. Behind the covered section of stalls is the market for betel nut, mustard and lime. It is also the largest section of the market. These three are chewed in combination as a mild stimulant. Although people joke about them as ‘PNG PK’ (chewing gum), they lead to gum disease and other problems.

We’ve been having patches of the town water or power supply being turned off. There are notices up in town that one of the pumps for the town water is broken and they are waiting for a new part to arrive. Other notices inform that power will be interrupted over the coming weeks. Mostly we have had reliable water and power, so these interruptions are not the norm, yet neither are they uncommon. Our centre is prepared for these intervals of interruptions with a supply of tank water and a generator to turn on and off as needed.

Milne Bay was part of the English colony of Papua and as such has continued to have English as its language of wider communication. Tok Pisin use is slowly increasing, as people migrate to here from other regions, but Milne Bay English remains much more common. This has made my life easier as I’ve not had to learn another language while learning another culture. I’ve been learning a lot about English dialects though, as Milne Bay has it’s variation, as do my colleagues from the USA or the variations of ESL from other colleagues.

On Friday (Aug 3) I move on from this region to attend POC (Pacific Orientation Course) near Madang. There I will be learning Tok Pisin as well as much more about the culture of this country. It will be interesting to see other areas of PNG and compare them to my experience here.

Friday, 20 July 2012


    Even though we live in an age of ever increasing access to communication, human nature stops it always being instant or easy. Even in PNG access to mobile phones is increasing, but that does not always mean communication has improved.
    On our recent trip to Ghayavi we sent a letter a month ahead of us with the dates of our trip. It arrived a few weeks before we did, but sat unopened on a desk. The owner of the desk were certain they had told the recipient the letter was there. The recipient was certain that they’d asked if there was any letter and been told no. Communication breakdown! Regardless, the community was very flexible in making time for us and the work we came to do, even though it was the end of campaign season and other work was underway.
    A mobile tower has recently been established near Ghayavi. For months it was being turned on ’tomorrow’ and actually had been turned on the week before our visit. We collected mobile numbers for making contact in the future, but communication is still fragile. A phone needs to be charged. Some people have little solar panel chargers, others rely on someone else’s generator. This in turn requires them having the generator functioning and enough fuel to run it. Neither of these is a given. If people are to call us, they need credit, which requires money and someone to sell them credit. Once again, things which are not always available.
    Here in the big smoke of Alotau, we have internet but it is slow and expensive. 3G is being turned on ‘tomorrow’ but we are not holding our breath. Slow internet, plus having the pictures turned off to save expense and time, takes the fun out of facebook, so I find myself using it less and less. Sorry if I’ve missed anyone’s important announcements, you’ll need to contact me personally.
    I am a person with a foot in both e-mail and snail mail camps, seeking to balance the two. My thoughts do not flow as well at a computer, yet the instant communication is convenient. If anyone reading this blog thinks some things are very like a letter they received, that may well be the case. Often I’ve thought of things in letter writing that are then reshaped into a blog. The letter may take weeks to reach you, in which time you’ve already read the blog, but I said it personally first.
    Balancing a postal budget has lead to my rediscovery of aerogrammes. These quaint pieces of paper which fold to become the envelope are much cheaper than sending a letter, but long enough to say a decent hello. You can send them from Australia too…
    This blog is a good example of the balancing act I try to do, with not only fast and slow communication, but with personal and bulk communication. This blog is probably mostly read by friends and family, so I would like it to be a true reflection of who I am and how I am doing. At the same time it could be read by anyone, so I seek to protect my privacy somewhat. Sending out newsletters each quarter and prayer updates each month require similar balancing acts, although in each case the audience is smaller and more personal.
    My favourite communication available to me at the moment is the occasional phone calls home. Hearing the voice of people you love makes them seem so much closer. The poor internet connection means video skype in not an option as much as I would love to see the faces of my family, especially as I have a brand new nephew.
    Regardless of the method of communication, it can still get messy. What one person thinks they are expressing and what the other reads or hears can so easily be a mismatch. All of my correspondence (both incoming and outgoing) is best read with a patience filter. I try to read things in the best possible light and not respond immediately to things that upset me. Maybe on a second reading I can see them in a better light.
    While I receive international sms about my nephew’s birth and wait impatiently for a parcel of photos I know is on the way, the other communication I enjoy is thousands of years old, yet still personal and relevant today; the Bible. People have not changed much in thousands of years. We still need to hear that we are loved. We still need someone to encourage and correct us. We still cry out in anger, grief and frustration as well as in wonder and joy. Like with other correspondence, we need to apply filters of culture and time and read critically, not taking texts out of context. There are fancy words for the complexities of these filters such hermeneutics and exegesis, but it is still a letter of love that speaks to us today. Of course, if we leave that letter just sitting on the desk unopened, there is a communication breakdown once again.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Spelling Test

Kipling leading a community discussion on spelling choices
Writing practice
The community outhouse
Our outhouse
Goodenough Island

During spelling tests in school did you ever want to object to the correct spelling with an alternative that made more sense? English spelling is inconsistent and frustrating and our chances of ever streamlining it, when there are so many dialect variations, are slim.

Not so in Anuki. This people group is small enough for the community to gather and review their alphabet and spelling choices. The corpus of literature is small enough that changes can still easily be applied. It is possible to walk the length of the people group and back in a day. In fact, many school students do almost that to get to school and home each day.

A few weeks ago a colleague and I visited the Anuki to lead an alphabet review workshop. In 2000 they had their initial alphabet and writers workshop, where they made orthographic choices. Our job this time was to help the community test their spelling by reflecting on their choices and discussing any problem areas they had with their alphabet. Maybe a four day spelling test sounds like a chore to some, but we had a lot of fun.
Each day Tuula lead a number of literacy games. These were designed to help get people thinking about words, sounds and syllables. Each day we also had spelling tests. After each word was read out, we collected all the alternatives for spelling, wrote them on the board and the community decided which one best represented their language. Some decisions were made and then remade as more words with the same sound came up or a better understanding of syllables developed. Another feature of the workshop was practicing writing and reading stories. Although we could not understand the stories, there were clearly some good writers, based on the responses of the listeners.

Trips like this are tiring as we are in the public eye the whole time. In such strongly communal cultures to leave us alone would be very unhospitable. We often went to bed early, and then read by torchlight, as our only quiet in the day. Although workshops ran all day and the trip was tiring, there were also many beautiful and relaxing moments. We ran the workshop in view and hearing of the beach. Across the bay we could see Goodenough Is appearing from the clouds on occasions. The hospitality of the community meant a new wash house and a new out house had been built just for us.  The Anuki proved themselves very good hunters and we feasted with the community. When we had a free day at the end of our stay we walked to a neighbouring village, coming home via mangroves and beach. All in all a very fun way to hold a spelling test!