‘Civilisation ends at Ke’Efu, said Pake Asivapu when we travelled with him to his community in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). We were standing at the top of the beginning of the steep narrow track that winds its way from the PMV (public motor vehicle) stop to his remote community of Paigatasa (6° 32′ 0″ South, 145° 29’ 0″ East, and 54kms from Goroka, the Provincial capital).
You can’t drive in to Paiga – few people up here call it Paigatasa . There was a dirt road but like so many other roads in PNG it fell into disrepair decades ago under continual washouts, mud avalanches, and the lack of any interest by successive governments to spend money on road building to remote communities.
So, the visitor to Paiga gets there by walking along precipitous ridges, following narrow tracks through forest, tracks that turn to bogs with the smallest fall of rain carried by clouds which drift like cooking smoke except they clear, not sting, the eyes. It’s challenging but revivifying, though it can be deflating to huff and puff and call for frequent rests as the people of the communities along the track briskly walk past frequently carrying loads of goods (yes, everything has to be carried in) and smilingly urge you to keep going and offer a hand up and a shoulder to steady your wobbly steps.
And the hamlets along the way with the riot of jungle up to the very edges of the meticulously maintained home vegetable gardens and small plots of coffee trees – the main source of income for most families – are balm for eyes used to concrete and steel of urban landscapes. No satellite dishes bloom off the thatch roofs of the round houses that dot the countryside or are grouped together in family compounds. In their place are orchids and flowering vines. You get seduced by all this beauty and fertility.
But those same picturesque winding tracks and the lack of road maintenance also tell another side of the Paiga story. The term ‘civilisation’ is derogatorily used to distinguish between Western urbanised cultures and cultures, like that of Paiga and Gimi, that retain traditional practices of food production, housing, social and cultural life. But Pake used it to mean that the services we expect in our Western cities and towns, particularly health and education, stopped at Ke’Efu. And in this he was right During the colonial era, when Papua New Guinea was a protectorate of Australia, a system of Aid Posts was rolled out across the country to provide first line medical services and health education into the 80+ percent of the country that is still classified as remote, including Paiga and Gimi. Each Aid post had a worker trained to carry out immunisation, dispense some medicines, provide first aid, do health education, and carry out follow ups on treatment progress. The Aid Post system was supported by annual or more frequent outreach visits from trained nurses and doctors. That system collapsed and has remained so despite the promises of the national and provincial governments to rebuild it.
That was the situation the we found when we first visited Paiga 15 years ago, the first ‘white people’, as they called us, who had come to the village in over two decades. So appalled were we by what we saw that we set up Peoples of Australasia for Innovation and Growth Abroad back home in Australia to work with the communities, to do what we could to build better local level health facilities, and to assist them to purchase equipment to replace what had fallen into disrepair or had been superceded by better products. We are now raising funds for a Maternity Waiting Home in Goroka, the Provincial capital, to reduce the risk of harm to mothers and infants from remote home births.
As we worked with the communities it became clear that the local level school system had also broken down. We have worked with the communities to build E – 3 school facilities, and to support them in getting these schools accredited within the government education system, so they can have community members trained and paid as teachers and get teaching materials.
The Paiga and Gimi communities have the right to health and education services that are accessible and resourced. You can support our fundraising with a donation or buying a bilum (shoulder bag) made by women in the communities.