Esther and Paul: Paul and Esther’s CommUNITY News no. 1

Welcome to Kiunga!

Esther on the track into Niogambam village
Bolts of lightning splintered the skyline non-stop, and wave after thunderous wave was sent rolling across the countryside. Windows rattled and floors shook as successive waves crashed onto our house – a little zinc-roofed affair on stilts nestled against a little hillock. The rain intensified into a deluge and, as the metallic drumming on our roof reached a crescendo, we were plunged into darkness…

The storm blew out two of the three generators powering the town, leaving us without power and running water – electricity is needed for pumping bore water into the holding tanks – for ten days. Our only reprieve from the regular trips to the rainwater tanks those ten days was when it rained in the evenings; we were able to take a bath, and do laundry, as water gushed down from the open roof gutter of our house.

“Welcome to Kiunga!” joked Bishop Gilles, who seemed unfazed by all this. He and the other priest of the mission quickly went about setting up a rainwater tank to harvest the rain and, just as swiftly, secured portable generators to power the food freezers. Somehow I get the feeling they are old hands at this…

Bishop Gilles with Confirmation conferees at Matkomnai
Kiunga is situated in the North Fly region of Papua New Guinea’s Western Province. And there are no roads in or out of Kiunga; one either gets in by plane, or by boat via the Fly River, the waterway that links the entire province to the rest of the world. The Western Province has over 99,000 square kilometers of untapped natural resources – timber, minerals, oil and gas. The North Fly is particularly well endowed. The interest in the region’s unexploited wealth was evident the moment we stepped off the plane at Kiunga Airport. On the tarmac were two helicopters gleaming under a late afternoon sun, charters for the oil and gas companies operating in and around Kiunga. The exploration for oil and gas deposits in the region is drawing people here in droves. Too fast, too much and too imposing some feel; fenced and guarded compounds for personnel and equipment have been erected, and a stranglehold exerted on the container ships that ply the Fly River – all available cargo space on the ships have been leased out so far in advance by the oil conglomerates’ contractors that supplies for Kiunga’s residents and businesses have suffered lengthy delays. Some businesses even had to shut down temporarily as a result.

“Welcome to Kiunga!” shouted a guard from behind locked gates. He saw us peering into the very large and privileged compound, fenced and razor-wired. This exclusion zone has become emblematic of PNG’s sad human condition – the excluded ones; the ones who can only afford to look in…

Kiunga is also where the headquarters of the Diocese of Daru-Kiunga is situated. In a cul-de-sac the locals call ‘mission corner’, and barely 5 minutes from the airport, Bishop Gilles Cote smm, administers the Catholic mission of the entire Western Province. We are here to assist the Bishop in the financial and human resource management of the diocese, which consists of 13 parishes that stretches across the length of the Western Province, and 15 service organisations that covers a gamut of dire needs – health, education, social justice, HIV/AIDS, refugees etc.

Treatment room at Niogamban Aid Post
How do we fit into the grand scheme of things? The Catholic Church in PNG is in the process of introducing modern management practices in every Diocese of the country. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of PNG established a set of very comprehensive recommendations to establish systems and procedures that ensure proper governance, transparency and financial accountability within the church. The plan was for Esther to look into the financial needs, as well as to ensure the robustness of the systems and procedures. While I am to look into the HR development needs of the diocese, and to adapt a very comprehensive HR document – over 150 pages covering recruitment; employment contracts; staff appraisals; manpower management – so that it can be adopted by the diocese.

But, I got sidetracked. Computers within the diocese are wreaked with some of the most virulent viruses I have ever encountered. Many PCs within the mission literally froze after a few keystrokes; all computing processes came to a standstill, it needed a reboot to get it to work, and refreeze, again. In many cases, removing the bugs means removing part of the operating software, which means a reinstallation of Windows and other programs. There were also casualties; a few computers had their hard drives fried and the really unlucky ones had to be consigned to the scrapheap altogether. Blame it on the dial-up. Trying to access the Internet through a dial-up here is unreliable at best; it has a habit of dying on us days at a time, the worst was for 8 days during our last blackout. Even with a reliable dial-up connection, virus definitions updates are long, slow and tedious. Many just don’t bother with updates as a result and, after a while, there is an epidemic. I needed a broadband connection to secure the vaccine; to download anti-virus software and virus definitions. But my search proved futile, the best I got was a relatively fast connection (a whopping 25 kb/sec!) via satellite at the office of a NGO.

“Welcome to Kiunga!” quipped Ariel, a fellow lay missionary from Philippines, when I voiced my disbelief about the absence of broadband in the township.

The infection has also spread to the town, according to my conversations with an IT staff in the Provincial Government office. I was inundated with emergency calls for PC resuscitation during my first week at the mission. The worst computer I dealt with had over 11,000 infected files! No problem for and the miracle vaccine I downloaded. Then the blackout hit…

Esther on the verandah of our house in the mission compound
And I got a reprieve from PC maintenance. It gave us the chance to join Sister Maureen when she made a excursion to Niugamban, a refugee village on the border of PNG and West Papua. The village is a one-and-a-half hour boat ride up the Fly River. We went just after the rain and the ground oozed mud wherever we planted our feet; with every step we were battling the mud for our slippers. After a while we just gave up and went barefooted. Sister Maureen was there to look into the construction of a water tower and aid post; accessing needs and working out the logistics for the project. We took the opportunity to look at the facilities – saying it was basic is an understatement – and talk with a few of the villagers.

Another little excursion was done the following Sunday; the power was back but only for a few hours a day. We drove an hour and a half on graveled road to the village of Matkomnai for Mass. Bishop Gilles was celebrating mass in the village and giving the sacrament of confirmation to a group of ready parishioners. After which we joined the entire village to celebrate the event.

We want to find the time to do more of these little jaunts. It gives us the chance to see what the diocesan parishes and services are doing and, more importantly, it puts very human faces to the administrative support we were providing to the people working in the parishes and services. Lest we forget that the focus of our work must be the humanity that we serve.

And it is the throng of humanity that epitomizes Kiunga, a small township with one short main street that seems hard put to contain a population of 10,000. At any time of day, scattered groups of people seem to be milling about.

By Kiunga standards, we are staying in the lap of luxury! Except for the food. There are hardly any fresh fruits or food here. The shops are similarly pathetic in their meager offerings to the residents of the township. Frozen meats, a very limited selection of canned foodstuff – most expired or near expiry – and consumer goods of dubious quality (stuff even Australian reject stores won’t sell), all with a hefty price tag slapped on them. The cost of living corresponds with neither the standard of living nor the mean local salaries. The residents within the mission compound compared notes and concluded: the cost of living here is higher than in Canada, Australia, Philippines and Singapore. ‘I have no idea how they survive on their pay?’ mused Sister Pierette, who has been here for 44 years.

This is the most resource rich region in PNG, and poverty is a mainstay of its human landscape. One has to ask: “WHY?” Well, conjectures there are many, and they will be chronicled in due course… till then…

“Welcome to Kiunga!”

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The future of every community lies in capturing the passion, the imagination and the resources of its people. - Ernesto Sirolli