WE'VE been back in New Zealand ("civilisation" some people have said to me) for two weeks now. During my last few weeks in Bougainville I was thinking a lot about my stay there. Or in particular, my impact. What have I changed? What have I left behind?
I'll start with the conclusion: It’s really hard to find a balance between the very great things and the very harsh things I've experienced.
For starters, no one in Bougainville goes hungry. The bucket loads of rain and sun are a winner for photosynthesis and things grow just about everywhere. Every family has land and as well as a house they keep gardens. Many also have a share of a plantation, growing either cocoa or coconuts to sell overseas.
Gardens are full of banana, papaya, taro, sweet potato, different greens, nuts, tomatoes, corn etc. And anything you can't grow you can probably swap with a neighbour. Every person has their own bit of land through birth and sharing it a strong part of the culture. So there are certainly no starving people.
Instead, there are a lot of malnourished people as there isn't much nutrition in a whole plate of starchy vegetables and unless you live on the coast, you don't have much access to fish. Pigs are owned by many families but are a status symbol and saved for big feasts.
Most 'jobs' are centred around public services or agriculture and the majority of people are farmers - usually both subsistence and commercial. There is no strong desire to earn money. When you can produce almost anything you 'need' from the land, there isn't a huge demand for earning a salary. And in fact there isn't really that much to spend money on anyway.
The supply ship arrives every two weeks but you never know what is coming. One week it might be eggs and the shelves will be full of them. But there won’t be any flour and that shelf remains empty till the next time someone remembers to order flour. Meat only comes in the frozen variety and isn't hugely appealing - lamb flaps or sheep's tongue for dinner?
Nevertheless, as with most places, it’s the people who make the country. Bougainvilleans are wonderfully generous people. Essah, Vik's colleague at the hospital was like a mother to us. Each time I would go round to see Vik, Essah would appear and demand I sit down, rest and eat something. One day she noted that we ate different foods from her so stuffed some money in our hands and told us to buy some lunch for ourselves rather than her supply too many cooked bananas. When we left she gave us six locally-made baskets from the market to give as presents to our parents.
It seems you only need to meet someone once and you are friends forever. And if I helped someone out with their computer, no matter how trivial, they would thank me every time I saw them and want to take us to their village. Each time we went into the highlands to see Viks old friend Pedro we would leave with bags of fruit and veg that his family grows up in the cooler hills
But at times Bougainvilleans make you despair. The concept of planning is almost alien. Most tasks are carried out at the last possible second - from booking flights for business trips, to signing agreements between government departments or buying fuel for the backup generator. If you suggest spending money now to prevent the need for spending more in the future it’s likely to be ignored.
This is all part of the renowned "island time" lifestyle that nothing is important enough that it can't be done "tomorrow". Working in that environment can be frustrating and my only saving grace is that I have a ton of patience. Locals wait for years for public offices to do their jobs, courts and the police included. It’s not just slow by New Zealand standards, it’s ridiculous that someone should wait years for forms to be approved or offenders to be imprisoned.
Information is also pretty hard to come by. Accurate information that is. Everyone likes to spread stories they've heard but actual facts are difficult to uncover. In the workplace it's worse. Public servants I met all worked in isolation from one another. It seems to be a status thing, and maybe there's shame in needing to ask for help.
Different government divisions often work on the same project but without talking to each other or even acknowledging the other division. Even within the same office, two people can be doing the same thing without even being aware of it. My boss didn't know there was a job advert in the newspaper, advertising for his replacement.
Finally, there is one big area of life that I won’t go into much detail about. Violence and relationships. I won’t write anything at all actually but there is a very dark side to family life in Bougainville and PNG as a whole.
Worse still, there is little being done to accept the truth of the extent and prevalence of violence, and almost nothing to prevent it.
Back in Wellington I've actually been quite overwhelmed by the things we want to do here, the things we can do here and going back to work. I actually felt very stressed out last week and long for the simplicity of life in Bougainville.