Colin McDermott: Colin McDermott’s CommUNITY News no. 1

Colin teachers his year 12 Maths class
G’day Aussies.

I cannot describe PNG or Wewak easily. You won’t know it ’til you have lived it. Even I still don’t know what it is truly like. But to be helpful I’ll tell what I can.

Environmentally Wewak is just like a hot summer in Sydney. It isn’t too powerful but you will sweat like anything. An umbrella gives me decent protection from the sun and I haven’t been burnt often. Air conditioners in the computer lab keep my sanity. The vegetation immediately around Yarapos is quite dry, but you can still be impressed with living next to a forest.

Any cities in PNG have fairly broken foot paths and broken roads. Things get built, destroyed and rebuilt. Maintenance is generally avoided at all costs and when it is performed, only a little less then the absolutely minimal amount is done, if at all. So you can have brand new buildings contrasted with decrepit offices all in the one street.

For whatever reason, I am treated as a very important person in PNG culture…

The place and the people are very different. I know that the Aboriginals feel a deep connection with their land. Yet with PNG it isn’t so apparent. Land claims are quite a profitable industry in PNG, little work, lots of money – a fantastic occupation. I honestly think that some waitpela* are paying the locals to harass them more with land claims.

However you do meet a lot of very good people, both ex-pat and local. For whatever reason, I am treated as a very important person in PNG culture. People will move me to the front of the queue; I’ll be protected; I will be in the front seat of the car (not riding on the back of the ute in other words). I’m seen as important like an big official or someone of a class above. I struggle to understand class structures and I’m on top of them.

Colin and Mrs Keko diagnose an IT problem
At work I’ve been concentrating on implementing the School’s library system using community (open source*) software. This saved the school K30,000 or equivalent to my (or another teacher’s) wage for three years. Programming and refining the Koha* library software takes up a fair part of my free time. But it keeps me occupied. I am usually running around trying to repair various computers and teach a few subjects. Computer repairs usually are easy unless they need spare parts.

I have been spreading open source software when I can, and it has had a bit of success. Downloading is sadly a little hard to do without an internet connection so I haven’t been able to do great leaps. There seems a culture of paying for computer software firmly established, piracy is not that wide spread at all! So people will spend K700 on Microsoft Office when they can get OpenOffice freely. The average wage is K10 a day (about $4 Australian). Interesting how a software licence can be valued more than people’s lives.

Speaking of lives, you get a different sense of poverty here. I haven’t found too many poor people (oh, there are some whose social status is next to a slave, but not many starving or without the very bare essentials). Most people have some land. They can farm it to sustain themselves and can survive on next to nothing. Land ownership seems to make a huge difference to their quality of living. There are some who are settlers who have left their land to go to the cities and they are having a really hard time. Usually the settlers will make up the blue collar thieves and thugs. In spite of all this, most people have enough food to eat even if it isn’t much food or without variety.

If someone is very rich they’re seen as important. If they are poor, they’re next to nothing. I don’t know if people even consider the question of why some are rich and some are poor. Though there is the wantok* system – a system of sharing everything through your community – there still is a grossly unequal sharing of power within that community. I am thinking there isn’t anything I can really do to overtly influence people. Even if I could, I doubt that I could necessarily affect them positively. All I can do is lead my life and see if they can assimilate how my ideals contrast their own, perhaps refining their views. I will, however, insist that the computer staff be overtly influenced in their choice of computer software with equal opportunity for (extreme bias to) open source software.

This [software] saved the school K30,000 or equivalent to my wage for two years.

A few funny moments (aka humiliation of our missionary).

Three Fijian-Indian women travelled to Wewak to demonstrate physiotherapy. Alex (deputy principal) and I thought that we would invite them over to the school to give a talk on their profession to the girls. After the talk one of our students asked me sir, could you please go up to the girls and get their phone numbers?.

Later that same day we were driving the physios back to their lodgings. They asked me why was I wearing such a big beard (I have decided to follow Brendan and the missionary traditions by absconding from shaving). I told them my reasons. They said we have a name for people with big beards in India they’re called ‘drapsue’ What does that mean? I asked. It means that the man has been unlucky in life. Oh I said and dropped the subject for a few minutes. Then asked again about the ‘drapsue’ and being unlucky in life. Oh no it doesn’t mean unlucky in life which I thought they said, it means unlucky in LOVE. So the second group of young women I have met in Wewak have categorised my grooming style as Unlucky in Love.

On travelling to Goroka, I was in a car with three local teachers. I pointed to a car in front which was identical to the one I drove in Sydney, just more beaten up and missing it’s back windscreen. I said See that car there, I know it doesn’t look so good… A local teacher interrupted Yes, ha ha ha, it really doesn’t look good, ha ha ha. I kept my mouth quiet.

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Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have. - Emile Chartier