Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Life and Death in Papua New Guinea

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Large and beautiful butterflies and moths are such a feature of Papua New Guinea that there is a collection on show in the lobby of that architectural jewel, Parliament House, here in the capital, Port Moresby.

So it was no surprise when on returning home from work the other evening, a moth nearly as big as my hand alighted on my bag.

Examination showed its wings were a bit tatty, particularly one. It crept on to my extended finger, then flew off -- in circles, obviously a result of the wing damage. This was a moth nearing the end of its cycle.

As I watched, a willy wagtail burst into sight over the edge of the roof.


With a flick of its wings, the bird disappeared back to the roof.

The action was so swift and so totally terminal that I was momentarily shocked. I found myself staring uncomprehendingly at a vacant space which a moment before had been filled by the moth.

This tiny “nature red in tooth and claw” incident and news I had heard earlier in the day of the death of a former colleague and friend, combined to make me reflect on the nature of life and death in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

We really are terribly fortunate in Australia.

Just before I left Australia for Papua New Guinea, the passage of half a century and a chance meeting resulted in a 50th anniversary reunion of my Matriculation (Year 12) class. In fact, because initially none of us could clearly remember who had made that class at Eltham High School on the arty north-eastern edge of Melbourne in 1959, those attending were actually the 1958 Leaving (Year 11) class.

Despite starting with only a handful of maintained contacts, we amazed ourselves by contacting every single member of that class within a couple of weeks, and had the good fortune to have nearly all attend. Google and spec phone calls can do wonders.

The evening reunion was fun and instructive. There we were, aged in the 67-68 years bracket and nearly all of us still working one way or another. Whatever happened to retirement at 65? Clearly we don’t know how to stop. Most seemed to be in full scale employment still, and those who had “retired” had reinvented themselves with new careers, perhaps refocussing what they had been doing, perhaps branching out in a new direction, perhaps picking up or expanding some voluntary or community activities.

But the really outstanding fact was that we were all still alive. Every single one of us had made it through the 50 years, generally in pretty reasonable shape. One, a dentist, releases the tension of meddling with people’s mouths all week by cycling vast distances are the weekend. Just recreational cycling, you understand, nothing serious. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

(An aside: quite a few of the fittest now were those who did *not* have much interest in sport at school. Looking around among my friends generally, those hobbling on arthritic knees and worse are mostly the ones who played sports hard in their teens and twenties.)

Now, clearly we have had some luck -- accidental death has not touched us despite the horrendous road toll of the 1960s-70s (about 10 times the current rate) and the fact that many of us continue to live and work in rural areas. Worse, those areas are mostly on Melbourne’s north-eastern fringe, site of many of Australia’s worst bushfires, including the Black Saturday fires in February 2009.

Contrast our survival rate with a group of people -- many of them a decade or more younger than me and my classmates -- in Papua New Guinea.

Returning to PNG after 33 years, I have been overwhelmed by the welcome I have received from former colleagues and particularly from the bunch of spirited young journalists I worked with as training officer for the NBC’s (National Broadcasting Corporation) News and Current Affairs Division in the mid-1970s just before I left.

It was a great time running up to independence, then independence itself in 1975, and the period afterwards. It was certainly a high point in my life, and clearly, it was a high point for them too. We were breaking new ground and building the foundations for a lively, robust media sector in Papua New Guinea, and we all knew it.

Many of those young journalists and broadcasters are still in the media -- now at or near the top of it. Others can be found in leading positions in politics, government, business, and community and non-government organizations.

It is such a pleasure to run into them and congratulate them on their success.

But with that happiness is tinged with sadness.

In contrast to my classmates, there are now yawning gaps in the ranks of colleagues and friends in Papua New Guinea. Every few minutes of happy reminiscence leads to news of yet another passing.

My impression is that perhaps a quarter of those I knew and worked with in the 1960s-70s are now dead. It might be even higher.

One or two have died in car accidents. Another was murdered in a home robbery in his village in Bougainville after surviving under threat for years through the insurrection there. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, malaria, dengue fever, and any one of the thousands tropical diseases have accounted for the others.

I can’t help thinking that at least some of the deaths could have been avoided if the health services here were better. They have fallen away tragically in the past 30 years. I pass the Port Moresby General Hospital each morning on the way to work -- a once proud institution which is now a shabby shadow of its former self.

One of my new colleagues pointed out what is across the road -- a private hospital. Do the minority at the top of the socio-economic heap queue at the decrepit Port Moresby General or do they go private? he asked.

A few years ago, one of my former classmates came close to being the only one of us missing the reunion because of death. He could have died here in Papua New Guinea during a visit, but was fortunate to have what most Papua New Guineans don’t have -- travel insurance, and the means to buy first rate help and be whisked away to Australia.

How many more of my colleagues would have been around now to join me for a beer if they could have afforded the same level of care as that ... or had simply been able to access public health care as it was the day I flew out in 1977?

I grieve for my friends.


This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.

Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.

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