Sunday, 13 October 2013

Half Way There: A Six Month Progress report

I’ve just done a six month report for VSO on the work I’ve done so far. I thought for this blog I’d do something similar but with slightly different headings.


Six months ago I left behind the snow in the UK and made my journey via Singapore to Papua New Guinea. It has been a life changing experience in so many ways. I have never seen a more beautiful country with such amazing heritage. I’ve flown in a tiny plane over the mountains and landed on an airstrip the size of a garden. I’ve seen the lush Highlands of Goroka, and the tropical paradise of Alotau. I’ve seen bats in Madang, Tree Kangaroos in Loloata and Orchids in my garden in Port Moresby. (
I’ve been to cultural shows and been privileged to dance with my friends from Koki. I’ve snorkelled at Lion Island and met a sea krait near Fisherman’s Island. I’ve also chewed too much Betal nut, got ‘spark’ and had to lie on a beach at Hula to recover.  I’ve learned to sing in Hiri Motu, to swear in Australian and to say I love you in Tok Pisin: “Mi laikim yu tumas”. I’ve been allowed to visit the Sanguma (sorcery) collection at the Museum, joined the French friendship society and drunk cocktails with the Prime Minister. I’ve learned to rally drive in a minibus on the Port Moresby roads, stood up in the back of a ‘ute’ and fallen in a swimming pool fully clothed. I’ve seen dead bodies, I’ve watched people attack one another with bush knives and I’ve seen parents cradle dying children in hospital.  I’ve shot a hole in a wall with my Bow and Arrow and really know how to use a stone axe. I feel cold when the temperature drops below 26 degrees and I’ve got sunburned in a very interesting pattern. I’ve eaten food cooked with hot stones, in a pit (muumuu) and I’ve learned that I don’t like sago.

Physical Status

I am a slightly different colour and there is now less of Lisa. One of my biggest fears when I left home was that I’d catch some interesting tropical disease and fall ill. Well I did.  I contracted Typhoid whilst working in Goroka. I won’t go into graphic details about the symptoms but I was glad to have my own bathroom! A good friend also contracted something equally as horrible and we found we were texting one another from the toilet comparing our symptoms. I was 72 kg when I left home and I’m now 64kg. I’m still very tired and have little appetite. At this point I am going to say something very aid worker, and a bit clichéd, but that’s because it is true. I was very lucky. Once I realised how sick I was, I went into a private Medical Centre and was immediately put onto a drip and given very powerful drugs through an IV. I was able to come home and keep taking my very expensive medication and was able to afford hand sanitiser and disinfectant for my house.  I have a bit of a credit card bill to pay but it was worth it.  Local people here are not as fortunate. They often avoid seeking medical help early because of the cost and the hospitals are grim. The sheets are dirty and torn, families are camped under beds because food is not provided for anyone who is sick. There are piles of rubbish in corners. One father explained that his teenage daughter, who also had typhoid, would not be safe in the hospital on her own so he needed to stay with her. As part of my job includes reading to sick children in the hospital I’ve seen enough to make me really value the NHS when I get home. I’ve seen some disturbing sights and had heartbreaking moments with parents whose children were dying, often from illnesses that we vaccinate against, or are able to treat in the UK.  I’m not here as a health worker so there is nothing I can do about the hospitals, I just try my best to help our librarians develop activities, games and book corners to make the time children do spend in hospital a bit more bearable.

Dress Sense

PNG has a lot of second hand clothes shops and clothes are very cheap. In particular black clothes (my favourite) are sold cheaply because they are not really wanted by the locals. I have been able to find new tops and shorts to accommodate my new shape for as little as 50 toya (about 16 pence). I’ve also been able to indulge in my fascination for wacky clothes because Australians donate the weirdest things to PNG. Finds include a lime green, pleated, satin ball gown and a union jack top with safety pins. I do find however that black clothes are a bit brutal in the heat so I have had to invest in more white and paler clothes. Most of the time I spend in my Buk bilong Pikinini uniform mainly because local people react really well to it and I am able to walk around more freely in the settlement areas because they know why I am there.  The biggest issue is underwear! It is impossible to buy good cotton underwear here and the evil twin tubs destroy anything lacy or delicate. Six months in I have a lot of very grey, slightly torn, knickers and bras. Goodness knows what they will look like in another six months. I have made myself quite popular by giving away all the clothes that I brought with me because they are all too big.


I’ve lived in five different places since I arrived and will shortly be moving to number six. I’ve also stayed in some lovely places as I’ve travelled around PNG.  Madang is beautiful. I stayed in the budget accommodation in the Madang Lodge for two weeks and would happily have spent all my time here in such simple accommodation. Each morning I drank coffee on the sea front and watched the giant bats fly over. Moving to Port Moresby was a culture shock. The first house there was like a prison, bare breeze block walls, no sun and metal bars on everything. I did get quite depressed living there, particularly as I didn’t know anyone and I felt very trapped. I’m also not a big fan of cockroaches and there were a lot of them. Since then I’ve been really lucky to have been able to dog sit and house sit in some much nicer places and I currently live in a nice apartment with a view over Ela Beach.  In Alotau I stayed with a friend in a lovely little place about 10 yards from the sea which was heaven, children jumping into the sea from the jetty, parties at the weekend and the opportunity to walk and swim in rivers. In Goroka I stayed with the best cook VSO has to offer and although I did put on a little weight I lost it all when I got ill. I’d love to see more of the villages, and perhaps live in one for a week teaching local children to read and getting to know PNG better.


So what have I actually done since I got here? My day to day role can involve anything from helping organise events, such as a visit from the Governor General, a Cultural Show or Book Week activities.  I’ve helped organise a Cocktail party, Raffle and a Teddy Bears Picnic. Met the Prime Minister and become friends with his lovely wife. I spend some time each week in the libraries, observing the sessions or reading with the children. I also deliver ‘show’ lessons where other librarians come and watch me teach so they can observe and reflect on ways to develop their own library sessions.  I have researched and developed a model for teaching literacy in BbP libraries. This combines international research on what works in literacy, with an understanding of the particular issues of language in PNG and takes a child focussed approach to creating sessions that focus on encouraging children to love books. It’s the best things I think I’ve done so far in my career. I’ve presented a paper on the model at the National Education Conference and will be presenting another one later this month.  I’ve also worked with my lovely colleagues to develop a training programme and I’m sharing some of my training skills with them, and learning new ways of training that work better in PNG. I feel that I have become a better trainer as a result of my work here.  It has also been a great experience in terms of developing my creativity and resourcefulness. I’ve had to learn to deliver training without flip charts, in a power cut with no chairs. It will be hard to return to the UK and start wearing shoes for training again. I’ve also discovered that I have a great talent for public speaking when the PA system has failed due to a power cut. The voice that can span the Thames can also do crowd control in PNG. I’ve designed a syllabus for a Family Literacy programme and I am currently piloting that, although I think it still needs a lot of work.

 I’ve been able to introduce some practical systems into the organisation, a more streamlined approach to book sorting, a monthly handbook to guide librarians, and regular monthly meetings to look at the progress of each library. It has been hard to leave behind my role as ‘boss’ and come into an organisation as a fairly unimportant volunteer, however that has given me the chance to build good relationships with the team I work with and get to understand more about PNG culture. I hope that by working with people to help solve problems we can put things in place that really work.

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