The best way to stuff a chicken?
Rabaul District, Papua New Guinea
The best way to stuff a chicken?
It has to be said that VSO provides additional benefits. When one is half way round the world new places become a shortish hop away. So it was with grateful ease we took advantage of being evacuated from Kundiawa in the build up to the election and took off for Sydney and Brisbane. What a contrast, everything works, everywhere is clean, everything runs to time. Australia must be one of the easiest countries for a Brit to visit with only minor adaptions to learn. Large yellow street signs with pairs of black legs and feet confused us for a bit. Some things live up to or exceed expectations like Sydney Harbour and moving around on highly impressive ferries and of course the Opera House. Bondi Beach however I wouldn't swop for Woolacombe. Brisbane, further inland on a wide river, has a marvellous south bank ideal for relaxing with a pleasant mixture of culture and relaxation. We arrived in the middle of their biggest sporting derby, the State of Origin, a three match series of rugby league games where New South Wales and Queensland play for this year's boasting rights. It is enormous and dominated the media for our whole stay. Thankfully we were in Brisbane the night Queensland won for the seventh year running. Highlights of Sydney were going to Under Milk Wood in the Opera House; Manly Beach (named after the "manly" aborigines who were discovered there by the British invaders two years before they were all wiped out by smallpox, a gift of the settlers and Sydney Cathedral listening to Philip Jenson preach and finding a Cathedral which was a loving church community rather than a historical edifice. Mark you something built in the 70's equates to the middle ages in Australia.
We returned to Port Moresby and joined up with our girls before setting off to discover the large islands off mainland PNG, New Britain and New Ireland. They are similar to the Highlands in language and the way things work but also very different. They are gentler places, much hotter and humid and generally English is spoken more fluently by all the population. Rabaul and New Britain are dominated by volcanoes some still active. Old Rabaul was buried in ash in 1994 and this area is a flat wasteland with building forbidden. The port which is the main communication and supply route for the whole large island has reopened with the geography of the bay redrawn by the eruptions. Further round the bay away from the volcanoes Kokopo has developed as the main town and there we went to a cultural mask festival to watch singing and dancing. Most of the time though was spent swimming, snorkeling and relaxing against the backdrop of the tropical Pacific coast. The light gently and romantically creating hues in a tranquil landscape which transported one to world of a different pace and sense of concerns. Hours would be spent by men in small outrigger dugouts trailing a line or standing with a pronged spear to secure 2 or 3 fish for the evening meal or sale. The sea was virtually flat with shades of blue that subtly changed with the sky and times of day.
Having refreshed ourselves and introduced the girls to the delights of public transport in the back of a truck, everybody shuffling further and further up to let on more and more with each stop it was time to set off for the coral island haven, Lissenung Island. A small island 6 miles off the Kavieng jetty in New Ireland, we travelled out in a small open boat with our bags around our feet. The only way onto the island was to jump into the shallows and carry the bags to the beach. The place is set up for diving but we satisfied ourselves with snorkeling, swimming in wonderfully warm water, walking round the island and enjoying the superb cuisine. Local women and men arrived in dugout canoes to sell Pacific Trout or enormous Mud Crabs caught that day. All too soon we needed to catch two planes to arrive back in the Highlands, VSO having assured us that all was quiet and stable.
How wrong VSO have got it. They evacuated us when it was peaceful and returned us during the period of peak tension. Delays follow delays in highland PNG, the dates for voting were postponed and then the interminable period of counting has also been delayed repeatedly. PNG must be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Votes are bought with vast sums of money. One infamous local senior national politician with a warlike reputation has according to locals paid out approximately 14 million kina to people in his constituency. This is not campaigning costs as the UK understands it. It is arriving in villages and handing over cash for promises of votes. He lost last night. We await news of any repercussions. Bribery and intimidation happens at every conceivable point. People expect to be given money to vote for a candidate. Each voter gets 3 votes and as his/her first choice is eliminated through successive counts their vote goes to the second and then third choice. This provides every voter with the chance of being paid three times. However there may be up to 70 candidates for one constituency. So many are tempted to accept money, gifts of food, or other gifts even in one or two cases cars from more than 3 candidates. Then the main representative from their tribe expects tribal loyalty, tribal loyalty far outweighing any notion of competence.
This creates a hot bed of uncertainty and fear. The driving force is how can I get the most for myself out of the whole process. Politicians are largely highly partisan and vindictive. Polling Boxes are attempted to be interfered with in transit. At the point of voting candidates have wantoks observing who is voting for who, in a semi literate society many have their papers completed for them or maybe the first vote is pre-completed for the tribal candidate. In other cases people try to vote in more than one place, there is an indelible ink finger system to try to overcome this but that relies on honest people administering the procedure who cannot be intimidated.
The count is subject to tremendous pressure as huge numbers of male supporters gather in Kundiawa for all the counts for the whole province. The threat of violent confrontation peaking at the declaration of the results. Large numbers of security forces and police patrol in Toyota 10 seaters, spitting their beetle nut through the window. A road block is set up before the count and everybody passing through is checked for weapons and large amounts of money as attempted bribery of the counters and scrutineers is common place. Hence the stuffed chicken, as one candidate stuffed a cooked chicken with 32,000 kina this week to bribe those counting. Unfortunately for the recipient he was not aware of the ruse to smuggle money into the counting tent and tore the chicken open to share with his colleagues for lunch and out fell the money in front of the defence forces. That poor man was immediately arrested however the candidate who sent it was left untouched as how do you prove who stuffed a chicken. We were contemplating if the next day both the defence forces and counters might receive a stuffed pig.
One of the very few women candidates won in the port of Lae. Like many of the candidates she was independent. She ran as they all do on a fairness and transparency ticket however she possibly meant it. Within a couple of days she went to the national media with the statement that every major party had arrived in her office with suitcases of money for her if she was prepared to join their party.
The candidate's own scrutineers carefully check how many from each box vote for their candidate. Each box is known to come from a set area. In this way they track how many voted for them and they know how many took money from their candidate. The followers then set about finding out who did not keep their promises. Retaliation is then liable to follow swiftly and savagely. The most common phrase we have heard this week is, 'We are living in fear.' Gumine district declared early last week and the sitting MP retained his seat. However the area around the secondary school did not support the MP in significant numbers. It is reported that the school will not receive any development for the next five years. It is the only secondary school for the district. Talking to the Principal yesterday he has had attacks on his school from rival supporters with people climbing the school fence and hacking at students with bush knives. One girl was raped as part of reprisals on her way home from school with the Principal having to take her to the hospital for immediate treatment. The school was guarded by just two policemen who were totally outnumbered. Underlying this are claims that a few teachers received large sums of cash from rival candidates in the area for distribution amongst their wantoks, which they took and then they did not vote for them. In the same district the Principal drove through a village, whose school we have worked with last term, the whole village had been burnt to the ground the previous night and the place was deserted. The school was left standing.
Very few buses are on the road as in rural areas road blocks are set up by rival groups. In the first area I mentioned 400 people had fled their villages even before the count as they knew they would be identified as having taken money and then not voted for the candidate. There seems so little thought as to the consequences for actions. This week there is very little food in the market. Talking to a local doctor the hospital has raised the charges for treating injuries related to fighting, in some cases doubling it, to be in part a disincentive for violence. He was already talking about treating gunshot wounds.
We cancelled yesterday's workshop for school inspectors as when we met they said they were too worried to concentrate and the journey back to their houses needed to be completed before the day's declarations. We postponed it to 'next week Wednesday' as the earliest possible date. So far schools have been either seriously disrupted or completely shut for 9 weeks. There is not certainty when life will return to PNG normal. This has of course markedly impacted on our own work. We are keeping under review what we can do day by day. However there was a lot of encouragement even in our brief meeting with inspectors yesterday as one inspector explained how our inputs had totally changed the approach in his district to concentrating on the standard of education achieved in the schools and they had set up new structures to address this. He said how we had introduced things, which we may consider core to schooling, but they had never thought of in those terms. So it would be good to see if we can continue this work for a little while longer and try to help colleagues to secure these improvements.
For those who may wonder how safe we are. We do not take unnecessary risks. We are not very PNG, we walk carefully away from trouble instead of running at full pace towards it. We are not the target, we cannot vote, we are just friendly to everybody. In the meantime I get loads of time to write rambling e mails and blogs.
If you are inclined to pray, pray for justice and good governance in this society. Pray that Christians will be the example as to how people should live their lives and be like Zacchaeus and give back what they have taken and provide for the poor. Luke 19.
Love to all family and friends and thank you for the interest and many messages we have received. It is just the best thing to get little or big messages in return.
Heather and Geoff