Wednesday, 25 February 2015

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. 

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