From the back of a truck heading North along Bougainville’s “highway” road, one observes a strange trick of perspective. As the coconut trees on either side recede towards the horizon, the distant mountain appears to grow ever larger, looming menacingly and capturing your focus. This Hitchcockian “push-pull” effect can cause a feeling of vertigo and the seemingly increasing enormity of the mountain inhibits your ability to notice the significance of the smaller features being passed. For while the mountain brings rain, it is the way the rain is used locally: to provide an ecosystem for subsistence agriculture, hunting, fishing and cash crops; for cooking and cleaning and occasionally powering small improvised hydroelectricity generators; which matters in the lives of the people of Bougainville island.
Annette Pocock will soon complete two years of educating nurses at St Mary’s School of Nursing Vunapope. About 120 young women have attended St Mary’s while Annette has been there, teaching anatomy, physiology, mental health and other subjects. They will work in hospitals and clinics across Papua New Guinea, often bringing primary health care to communities still solely reliant on traditional medicines. This will help more communities achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of increased maternal health, reduced child mortality, gender equity and combating HIV, malaria and other diseases. Annette has built friendships which empower local staff, rather than taking initiative from them. Her presence has freed them up to continue their own studies, gaining Masters qualifications so that St Mary’s can upgrade its program from Diploma to Bachelor level.
Peter and Elaine Smyth have only just arrived at Divine Word University but have already begun building relationships through which their placement will be more meaningful, more effective and more sustainable. DWU is now a major education provider in PNG, not just at its Madang campus but also through accrediting smaller institutions like St Mary’s School of Nursing. Fr Jan Czuba svd understands the challenges of DWU’s growth and sees Peter and Elaine providing important legal and human resource skills to ensure it can maintain its focus on quality education as it increases its quantity of students. It is early days for this placement, but it is already evident that Peter and Elaine are committed to Palms’ approach of achieving development by building mutual, respectful relationships of exchange.
There are still more Palms Volunteers in Papua New Guinea whom I was unable to visit, but evaluations received so far from partners and participants indicate that Tony Bozicevic, Graham Andrews, Pauline Randall, John Gartner, Paul Tan and Esther Sim provide greater evidence that Palms Volunteers are highly valued because of their humble approach. With a recent bilateral review concluding Australia should reduce the number of highly paid advisors to PNG, we are proud to briefly divert the public gaze from the monolithic optical illusion to realise that one of these consultant’s salaries could fund all ten of the volunteers mentioned above with change to spare.