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In 2004 I visited the community of Paigatasa (usually just shortened to Paiga) in the South Fore Ward of Okapa District, Eastern Highland Province (EHP) of Papua New Guinea (PNG). I travelled there as the guest of Josca Ariva and his wantoks (family). Josca was at that time one of the drivers with UNICEF for whom I was doing consultancy work on child protection. I went there with two friends, Bruce Grant, who was the Juvenile Justice Program Officer with UNICEF and a friend of ours Gary Cox.

One of Josca’s wantoks, Denmark, is the Aid Post Worker for South Fore. Aid Posts are the most basic level of health care in PNG, a system set up while PNG was a Protectorate of Australia, but now in virtually total collapse. What I saw of Denmark’s aid post shocked me. It was just two small rooms of wooden floor, thatched walls, and a recently erected tin roof that the village had to save for out of the pittance they get for the coffee that is their only cash crop. There was a desk, a chair, half a wall to create a ‘treatment’ room in which there was a roughly made bench that served as a bed and examination table. There was no electricity – kerosene lanterns had to do. There was no water – it had to be carried from the creek behind the village. There was no two-way radio – this was a decade and more before mobile phone connectivity had reached the community. On the walls Denmark had drawn simple diagrams from some medical textbook of the male and female reproductive organs. He got – still gets – a pittance to spend on health care so he cannot afford to buy the glossy health posters produced in town.

His few shelves were barely adequate to hold his supplies of simple drugs like paracetamol and a range of dressings and ointments, so boxes of medication were piled anyhow on the floor or on his desk. When he traveled – still travels – to his patients for follow-up on the basic primary care he is trained and equipped to provide, or as part of national immunisation programs, he must carry everything he thinks he will need in an esky and a backpack.  He is paid a small wage by the PNG government. He gets in-service training when a new pharmaceutical or technique is introduced. The rest was then and still is up to him.

During my visit Denmark and elders in the community asked us to see if we could do something to help them build a better clinic. I agreed to return to Australia and raise what funds we could. Over the next 3 years, I held some fundraisers, and we were able to raise funds to get Paiga started on building the new clinic. 

The land the clinic stands on was donated by one of the families in the village. It’s a cleared area that once had a small mission building on it. The timber for the frame and floor was also donated by the same family. Apparently, in the early years of PNG Independence, the Government had a scheme where it gave eucalypt seedlings away to people who wanted to grow them for timber. Three trees had been planted in Paiga and remained untouched for over 20 years. Two of these were donated to the clinic.

The community drew up its own plan for the clinic and called in wantoks from around PNG to help with the construction. The new Paigatasa Health Clinic thus built was extraordinary, something like a vernacular Australian outback station homestead for a large family. We’ve bought water tanks and plumbing and that has been installed. We worked with ATProjects in Goroka to build two outside drop toilets with solid concrete floors to reduce the likelihood of foot infections. We have over the years bought equipment to help Denmark provide basic care to pregnant women and basic postnatal care to the majority of community women who give birth at home.