Returning to Bougainville and PNG for the first time since my placement there means a new form of culture shock. I expected some déjà vu but the country is now rather strange in its familiarity: Home again, while the intervening years – a placement in Timor Leste, joining Palms’ staff, Sydney- seem like another life altogether. But this is no trip down memory lane; It’s the first time I’ve been on this side of a Field Visit to Palms volunteers and partners.
John Dorton has been in placement with the Diocese of Daru-Kiunga for 18 months and when he and Bishop Giles meet me at Kiunga Airport I see he hasn’t changed. Holding a sign to direct me shows remote isolation hasn’t dented John’s humour. Kiunga, on the Fly River in Western Province, is smack in the middle of what I refer to as the “sponge” of PNG: a region of low-lying swampy waterways which drain the rest of the mainland.
John’s work with the diocese has been very diverse and fruitful. Several staff have benefitted through exchange with John and now “need no guidance” as he remarks. John’s current project is assisting the development of a new community health centre at even remoter Bosset, 8 hours down-river from Kiunga. John is refreshingly dry in his manner, but his enthusiasm for this exciting project (and all his work in the community) is obvious. Apart from improved health benefits the new centre will bring when complete, its development is providing local employment and opportunities to one of the most isolated and disadvantaged communities in PNG. John and the diocese team, as project managers, are ensuring equal participation from all stakeholders. John’s ability to accept the harsh living conditions at Bosset no doubt endears him to the community. John admits he is no linguist, but the relationships he has formed with the local -and distant- people on the Fly River overcome language barriers to reveal our shared humanity. “We are the same” John reflects on his experience of life and work in the diocese.
From lowlands to the highlands, with a visit to the Archdiocese of Mount Hagen and volunteer Brain McDonald. Electrician Brian, or Macker as he prefers, has been mentoring the archdiocese’s electrical team for six months and things are well on track. With local counterpart Tep and two students of the local tech college, the crew is providing/upgrading power installations in remote villages of the region. This is improving life and reducing isolation for these communities while also addressing safety issues caused by aging infrastructure. Importantly, the practical skill transfer of this work is already sowing seeds of future opportunity for the team – a textbook example of the Palms’ approach. There have of course been frustrating setbacks and challenges, but Macker views these with a peaceful philosophy as opportunities to learn.
Exchange and opportunity work both ways: Macker has immersed himself deeply into the culture and community life of Mt Hagen. On meeting him again I’m happily envious that his Tok Pisin is much better than my own rusty version. He jokes and converses confidently with the locals in more ways than one, quietly challenging the existing social barriers. Many times during my visit, Brian opens up about the great spiritual gains of his placement, feeling he’s received “much more” than he has given, a sentiment all our volunteers share (but I didn’t prompt him on that).
You can support the community in Mt Hagen by contributing to Brian’s (or Macker’s) project. If his story has inspired you to volunteer your skills in a community organisation abroad, check out Palms current opportunities.