Thursday, 23 May 2013

“Traditionally women have a low status in society”

When I first began researching Papua New Guinea whilst back in the UK I read a document that stated, “Traditionally women have a low status in society”. It was hard to conceive whilst back in the UK what that actually meant. Just a quick 'look away now' warning about this blog as I have had to make some mention of recent traumatic events.

The world, and PNG has been shocked in recent months by a series of internationally condemned attacks on women - including the burning alive of a young mother, the beheading of a former teacher and the gang rape of an American academic in Madang province.  Violence towards women affects every part of life and work here. My own life is no exception The longest walk I am able to do is the 10 minute walk to church on a Sunday morning. I do not go to markets alone and it is very rare that I leave the house after dark. Relatively speaking I am safe and to some extent responsible for my own safety but for local women life is much more difficult. Women are often seen as the possession of a man and I have witnessed men beating their wives in the street with no one helping the woman. Only yesterday in the news was the case of a man who had beaten his wife for four days but she couldn't afford for him to go to prison, because without him there would be no family income. 

When ‘Women Arise’ announced that there would be a National Haus Crai (or day of Mourning) for women then women from all over PNG, including foreigners like myself, pledged their support. I wanted to stand alongside the women of PNG because it is now my home and because violence against woman is an international issue. In the UK on average 100 women are murdered by their partners each year. It’s not just a PNG problem and PNG isn’t all bad. 
On the Sunday before the Haus Crai took place it was Mother’s day here in PNG.  It was clear from the celebrations that most people here really look up to their mothers, and their wives. I talked to taxi drivers who were excitedly planning to cook for their wives, and attended a Mother’s day party at the local church where the oldest women in the church (Bubu Meri) were celebrated and clearly loved. The children asked me if I was a mother and with a little emotion I said how my boy was all grown up now and in another country. I was immediately led to a chair and then waited on by the children and men of the church. I even had an ice cream and a beautiful chocolate cake was presented to the women. The churches are full of men who care about their wives and worry about their daughters and nieces and many of these same men were part of the performances and presentation at the Haus Crai. 

The Haus Crai took place on the 14th and 15th May at the national stadium and across the country as women and men kept watch overnight and prayed for a new dawn for PNG. Women demonstrated, gave speeches and joined together in song and prayer for the country of PNG. We attended the night vigil and I confess that when the list of names of women killed and raped in the last six months was read out I could not hold back the tears. We held hands and stood in silence alongside women for the Highlands, Islands and other provinces as well as those from across the world. We heard that at the same time vigils were being held in Fiji, Australia, the UK and America and we began to believe that change may just be possible. But I also thought of all the women that could not be there because it isn’t safe to travel after dark. Public transport is dangerous and stops running at 6pm and unlike me the local women don’t have access to the G4S convoy to go out after dark. 

The following day we attended the presentation of a petition to the Prime Minister and we were in the press section to hear his response. "I want to express our sympathy for all the victims of this despicable violence in our communities throughout the country." 

I know that I am only here for 12 months, and it is unlikely that by next April I will take an evening stroll through Port Moresby, but perhaps the Women Arise movement will one day make that happen. 

I shall leave the final words here to Esther Igo, who organised the Haus Crai:  

"We have been beaten. We have been beheaded. We have been beaten to a pulp, I stand here shaking, Prime Minister because this is historical for PNG women to come together and talk to you from our heart. From the bottom of our hearts, enough is enough."

In memory of Kepari Leniata

Monday, 13 May 2013

Barbed Wire Paradise

“Welcome to the Jungle Baby”

Google Port Moresby and you might see a few palm trees and some beaches, but you are more likely to get crime statistics and you tube videos on the security risks. Security is a big deal here and that has a huge impact on personal freedom, particularly for women.
I live in a compound. The house is painted breeze block and we have bars on our windows and doors. With the addition of the mesh to keep out insects, it can be a little claustrophobic. I refer to my housemates as inmates and I’ve bought a tin mug to rattle on the bars. We have a garden with a banana tree, mango tree and some very beautiful flowers. We also have a ten foot high gate and a fence right round the compound with razor wire covering all of it. It’s a common sight to see stunning orchids growing up to hide barbed wire and unsightly security fences.

So far I’ve not had any trouble, apart from a preacher man in one market shouting at me for wearing ‘men’s trousers’. Apparently that’s what has caused so much trouble in the world! Last week I was at Koki market getting some shopping. The supermarkets are so expensive so it really is the best way to shop. I can get fresh fish, cooking bananas and coconut for a few kina.

 Everyone was very friendly and the atmosphere was pleasant and laid back. It’s fascinating, however, to see how quickly it erupts here. Only an hour or so later the same place was the scene of violent disturbances, stalls set on fire and betal nut sellers being chased with sticks. In PNG you don’t know what on earth is going to happen next. This can be wonderful because the surprise might be your colleagues suddenly rushing you into the car park to see an eclipse, 100 bats coming in to roost or someone just handing you a foot long fish. Sometimes however it can be scary, so I lock my doors, drive with the windows up and generally remember that what might just be an argument in some places becomes a bit more serious when the arguing factions have bush knives.
It’s hard not to get paranoid. Security services are big business here. POM is full of white Toyotas proudly bearing their ‘Baby Glock on board’ stickers, or moving in convey with Semi Automatic rifles on display. 

Driving schools have banners that say ‘drive to survive’. Going anywhere is a mission. I’m not supposed to walk anywhere but taxis are unreliable, they don’t turn up and occasionally the drivers are ‘Spark’ (drunk). At night we have a security guard on the gate to check comings and goings but to be honest I don’t do a lot of going anywhere at night.
This Sunday morning I got a bit too stir crazy and went to find a church. Working on the principle that it was too early for drunks or Rascals - I took only my mobile phone, personal alarm and two kina for collection. It was hot, and the road is a dust track but it was a joy to be outside walking. Everyone I met said hello and were impressed with my hunt for a church “me lukim long Baptis Church bilong Jesus”. The neighbours were lovely and I ended up having a lovely afternoon tea with people from the church. It reminded me that the problems in POM are caused by a few people, who have very tough lives, with very little hope. I hope that my contribution to improving literacy for the street boys might just be one small part of the solution. I’m thankful that I am safe and just a bit bored on ‘Prison Sundays’. I do however spend a lot of time sitting on my balcony listening to Guns and Roses, reading the Count of Monte Cristo and planning my escape. 

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Governor General’s Pineapple

“Imap me kissim wanpela, gutpela pineapple me givim long Governor General

Imagine a country where the roads out of the capital city don’t really connect with anywhere else in the country. It makes transporting people and food rather tricky. When I contacted my new team in Port Moresby and asked if I could bring anything with me when I travelled from Madang they requested a pineapple for the Governors General’s visit (affectionately referred to as GG here in PNG). The story of the procurement and transport of said fruit is a wonderful example of the challenges of daily life here. Firstly I am not supposed to go to the market unaccompanied so I had to find someone to come with me and no one was available, a lovely local offered to go on my behalf but she reported back from the market that due to the rain, the roads were difficult and there were no pineapples at the market fit for the important lady! Fortunately in my discussions with the staff at the Lodge it was discovered that there was a fine example of a pineapple in the fridge and as it was for the GG then it would be possible to sell this to me for 10 Kina.

So the following day I left beautiful Madang for the airport (one room, one runway, security was a trestle table) with a pineapple wrapped like a baby in my arms. Security wondered why my fruit wasn’t travelling in the hold with all the other produce “Pineapple bilong Governor General” obviously worked but the pineapple and I were not upgraded, mostly because on a Fokker there is nothing but cattle class. “If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going” won’t work here in PNG. All the passengers were transporting food and the valuable Betal nut to the city (Bwui). This is an immensely fertile country yet the transport systems limits the effectiveness of food transport. The shops in Port Moresby have food- imported from New Zealand and Australia.

On the plane I sat next to a gentleman from the Sepic area of PNG who spent the entire flight sharing the stories of his tribe with me in a mix of Tok Ples, Tok Pisin and some English. Be warned – if someone starts a conversation with 'before, before, before', it’s going to take up the whole flight! This is where I learned my favourite phrase so far, maus warer- translated it means mouth water (you talk a lot) from the lady sat the other side of me. My two companions treated the pineapple with a great deal of respect as did the customs officers on landing, in the scrum that is baggage handling. They have a brilliant system here. To leave the airport you have to present your luggage receipt with corresponding luggage – to prove you haven’t stolen anyone’s baggage! So the pineapple and I made it to Port Moresby and I was glad to be met by my Wantok – Luke (He does not speak my language – he is a Scouser!)

The following day was rehearsal for the GG visit and it was joyful to be straight into working with the children on my first day in the job. Working with one of the librarians we devised a little ‘phonics’ play. The children were so well behaved, lined up nicely for drinks and an apple and worked really hard at their performances.

The actual visit was a joy. We were there early setting up the stage with displays of plants and fruit, a red carpet and the children all in their national costume. I chatted to them about the fact that each costume was from a specific region and one family were so proud to be meeting the GG they had sent grandmother (Bubu Meri) on the plane with an awesome costume for the children. This would have been funded by a major collection from all the tribe back home to afford this. I made my first public announcement in Tok Pisin “Meri belong Prime Minister em come long , all sindaun”. Not quite right but the parents laughed and came to sit. I met the Prime Minister a week earlier, whilst in my swimming clothes and I now met his wife whilst making a fool of myself. I cannot imagine the Camerons being that approachable. As the VIPs began to arrive I made an interesting observation. On the VIP side of the red carpet everyone was white, apart from the Prime Minister’s wife. On the other side the librarians, families and children were all locals and I was the only white person, like yin and yang. I may return to this in later blogs – It’s too early for me to comment.

The GG was lovely with the children and was visibly moved by their performances and their reading. When she came to sit right in the middle of the group of children it made everyone’s day. A visit like this is a great boost for the charity but also special for the children and their families. I felt really honoured to stand along the carpet to say goodbye with the children and librarians, already feeling welcomed into the team. It was a great first week in the job, but I never found out if she liked the pineapple J