Wednesday, 25 February 2015

When bad things happen

OK - occasionally here in PNG bad things happen.

Two of my good friends have been car jacked at gunpoint, someone was robbed at gunpoint outside my church and I am sad to say I know of too many woman who have been gang raped.

Now I know I am usually very positive about PNG so people may be a little surprised by a post about bad things but it’s because I have something on my mind.  It’s to do with who we blame for the bad things.

I’ll give you an example. A woman was carjacked, at gunpoint early in the morning.  When people talked about it I heard them say “well she should not have been out that early”.

A friend was mugged while walking though the centre of Town in PNG and the reaction was ‘how silly of you to walk alone through town”.

Now I’m not saying we should disregard our personal safety but I’m trying to make a point about how when bad things happen to other people we desperately try to work out how it was their fault.  I think the reason we do this is to help us maintain the pretence to ourselves that it could never happen to us.  

The problem is that here in PNG we really don’t have all the answers to how to be safe. Driving home on a Friday afternoon in broad daylight the biggest risk to my safety is hitting one of the pedestrians that are playing the national sport of ‘run across the highway’. If I did that it’s likely I’d be dragged from my vehicle and killed. It’s how they deal with road safety here.

Yet my neighbourhood at 3am in the morning is peaceful and silent. If, while driving home from a party at 2am I was to be hijacked in my street it would be very unusual and a serious bit of bad timing and bad luck. I am sure however that other expats would be very keen to point out “what was she thinking of - out without an escort at that time”.

Now I am all for respecting the local culture and I wear clothes that cover my thighs and don’t show too much Lisa when I’m wandering around and I have often advised other young women that their shorts are too short or tops too revealing but that’s about respecting local culture. But I overheard two people discussing a local woman who had been raped and they talked about her clothing as if that was to blame. Now that isn’t right.

This is where we need to be careful, if we always react to the bad things by blaming the actions for the victim then we let the actual perpetrators get away with what they do, and we ignore the social factors that led to their actions. We don’t prevent carjacking by having an armed escort, we just prevent them happening to us. The raskols who live in poverty will just go and carjack a different vehicle. A rapist will rape a women regardless of what she is wearing and you never actually really know where and when is the wrong place at the wrong time.

So a plea to those living in PNG: when bad things happen doesn't blame the victim. Give them support and understand their trauma because the last thing they need is to be told they are stupid on top of all the other things they have been through.    

Why are you in Papua New Guinea?

When I get asked, “what brought you to PNG?” I often say “a clerical error.” I am certain I actually applied for a post in Ghana. When I was first told the placement would be in PNG I remember asking “what bit of Africa is that?”  Not long after I arrived in PNG I heard a saying that explains why people come to PNG: They are either mercenaries, missionaries or just plain mental (or misfit for the politically correct). It’s difficult to say which of those categories I fit into. The people in my church think I’m a missionary, but I might be more of a mercenary than people think.

It’s a long story: I began my career in the early 1990’s working as an Archaeologist and Museum Educator. I was privileged to work for the British School at Rome based in rural Italy working on the interpretation of a Post Roman excavation. Literacy levels amongst the village population were low. Working in the local community on the exhibition design I learned a great deal about education, poverty and communication. I also learned how to explain difficult things such as why we were digging up the graves of their ancestors.  Since then my career has been shaped by three things: a fascination with dead people, a desire to communicate heritage and a need to have people pay attention to me.  This is how I got into education.  

I learned how to develop primary school resources when I was the curator of a small Egyptian collection. I became something of an expert on reminiscence and oral history is when I curated a collection of artefacts from the World War II.  I learned to be a story teller and even dressed up as a Tudor housewife to show children how life was lived in Tudor Southampton. I accidently became a literacy tutor whilst researching more effective ways to write museum texts.  When I went to work in the Royal Naval Museum I told people that my mission was to broaden access to the population that lived on the doorstep of the dockyard, and whose family heritage lay in with those ships. In reality I liked working with the Enigma machine and I was fascinated by the dead people from the Mary Rose.    There is a lot more of a career in education I could mention but that’s all boring and doesn’t help with the point.

What is important is why after five years of successfully working in education policy and research and another four years leading a successful learning provider I suddenly gave it all up and went to the other side of the world to earn very little money.

I’d grown tired of the attention and there was no opportunity to do the things I loved. When I got the chance to live in a country with over 800 tribes, some of which had not had contact with the modern world until 1938, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been lucky enough to go out to sea in an outrigger canoe and a dug out. I’ve watched how stone axes are made and been taught to fire a bow and arrow made in the same tradition of a thousand years ago. I’ve been privileged to witness a cane swallowing ceremony and attended a fire dance. I have seen archaeology first hand and filled my home with weapons, masks and paintings from all over this amazing country.  This year I haven’t even started to explore the rest of this land but as soon as I have some money I will be on my travels. I need to see the Sepik river and I long to hear the oral histories and traditions of the different provinces.  This country has awesome and diverse funerary traditions and I’d like to find out more about them.

So that’s why I’m in Papua New Guinea.  I’m an aid worker so my job definitely fits the missionary category; my motivations are personal so I’m a bit of a mercenary. Why do I live in Port Moresby? Because I’m mental.