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Culture is important but collective humanity is moreso

Farewell PNG: Reflections on a country of contradictions

Eric Tlozek with Ikundi villagers
Eric Tlozek with Ikundi villagers - the land and its people captured Eric like it captures most of us

ERIC TLOZEK | Australian Broadcasting Corporation

PORT MORESBY - I learnt about Papua New Guinea through the struggles of my staff and of strangers.

One staff member had a premature baby, which died at just six days old. Sitting with the grieving family around the body of that tiny girl I witnessed a deep and terrible sadness.

Another staff member nearly died from tuberculosis, then a subsequent bout of pneumonia.

One's brother was shot and killed, another endured horrible domestic violence.

I treated others for infections and took them to hospital when they had been beaten and robbed.

I did the same for a woman I found bleeding on the street, who'd been hit in the head with a rock.

Early in my posting, I stopped to help my neighbour, who subsequently died from a heart attack as I drove him to hospital.

I stopped a man who was bashing his girlfriend's head into the footpath.

I was greatly affected by this violence, and it's something PNG is known for, but it is actually the country's greatest contradiction.

People are absurdly helpful to each other and to outsiders — particularly Australians, but they can show great cruelty to their fellow Papua New Guineans.

That saddened and shamed me most of all.

I would be welcomed in villages where women had been gang raped, or people tortured after being accused of sorcery.

The same officials who would seek bribes from poor people who needed their help would fast-track my documents.

Men who were killing their neighbours in brutal tribal conflicts would hug me like a brother.

It's my great hope that Papua New Guineans — who are so kind to everyone else — will stop accepting such levels of violence and cruelty to each other.

After I became the PNG Correspondent in 2015, I encountered two prevailing Australian viewpoints of the country.

One view is of a corrupt, violent and failing state, the other is of a place of fond memories, warm, friendly people and potential.

The first view implies a kind of arrogant disgust at PNG's failings, and the second parental affection for Australia's colonial offspring.

It was Australia that gave PNG its independence and an underfunded push into the modern world.

Both views contain some truth, and both are incomplete.

You can't look at PNG without seeing its flaws, and you can't live in PNG without being touched by its warmth.

I still don't fully understand the place or its people — in fact, my time in PNG taught me a lot about the corruption and lack of accountability in Australia.

Of course there are grave problems in PNG and much of the violence I mentioned is caused or aggravated by failures of government.

The absence of the state — its failure to provide essential services — is stark in rural areas where the bulk of the population live.

The most awful violence — the worst tribal fighting for which PNG is known — occurs around the country's biggest resources project.

It's where the army and police guard a gas plant, while some women and children are raped in surrounding villages, then ransomed back to their families by the men of warring clans.

Eric Tlozek
Eric Tlozek filming solo in Chimbu - the days of travelling with a crew of three or four are long gone

Corruption and mismanagement of medical supply contracts left PNG dangerously short of HIV medication recently.

A visit to those rural health centres which are still open will show you crumbling buildings without medicine.

These failures contribute to the mutation and spread of dangerous communicable diseases — "superbugs" on Australia's doorstep.

Maternal and child mortality rates are the worst in the region.

Government relief efforts for the recent highlands earthquake were slow, expensive and inadequate.

Profiteering was rife and dysfunction at local levels painfully evident.

Tens of thousands of people were excluded from voting in last year's elections — the results of which were highly questionable, and in which not one woman was elected.

Corruption stops people from getting essential identity documents or even the most basic help from their government.

Almost half the nation's children are undernourished and will be stunted, with problems in their cognitive development.

That's a litany of failures to write about, judge and wring one's hands over.

Documenting those is a critical task of the sole foreign correspondent in Papua New Guinea — but it's only part of the story of PNG.

The other part of the story is one of resilience, pride, joy and incredible warmth.

I've cursed Papua New Guinea many times; for its dysfunction, the short-sightedness of its leaders, for Port Moresby's drivers or infuriating roadworks, for the difficulty of doing even simple things sometimes.

But never for its people, who were busy blessing me with experiences, with learning, with growth and with love.

I've never felt more welcome than in parts of PNG, particularly the highlands.

I was hugged by crowds of strangers and had my messy hair fixed by tough, burly men for an election rally piece to camera.

Kids — and their parents — were so keen to touch me they overloaded the back of the coffee truck I was hitching a lift around western highlands in.

Papua New Guineans live hard lives, but their uncomplicated capacity for happiness and generosity is impossible to forget.

Their self-reliance is incredible, and their willingness to share their ancient culture is a huge gift to visitors.

But PNG showed me how sheltered Australians are from death and from hardship, and how our affluence wraps us in a soft cocoon of sanctimony.

Papua New Guineans have simple desires.

They want education and opportunity. Like anyone, they want a society that's fair and just.

They profess to hate corruption, yet for reasons of culture and poverty, all too frequently engage in conduct that perpetuates it.

Being the Papua New Guinea correspondent is a wonderful and ridiculous job.

Not only are you a journalist, cameraman and video editor — you are a bureau manager, book-keeper, home and office repairman, satellite technician, visa agent, part-time doctor, marriage counsellor, gardener, dog handler and pest exterminator.

I've bandaged wounds, treated infections, fixed pumps, toilets and hot water services, provided counselling, re-trained a homicidal German shepherd dog and killed many, many rats.

I didn't do all the stories I wanted to, and I didn't do all the stories that needed doing.

PNG is an important country to Australia — we helped create it, now we're fighting China for influence over its future.

I hope that future will be just and free from violence, and that Australians develop a new view of PNG, seeing more than Kokoda and more than Manus Island.

When people look north I hope they will see a prosperous nation of happy people, a place more of them will visit and learn about.

I will miss it terribly.

Comments

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Sandy Patton

So well said, after many trips & feeling for them, I have the same attitude.

They are so warm & welcoming to visitors; it's a long history of violence towards their fellow man.

I hope the areas I am working in will see a change, even if it's slight for the better.

I can't help but feel the mining companies don't do enough.
I witnessed someone being shot because they were scratching for a few grams of gold to feed their families.
They were Barrick security, how does that work?

If they honour their word to the people they would be happy.

John Byrne

A brilliant synopsis of an amazing country where l have lived with my Papua New Guinean wife (from the Highlands) for the past five years and the ples l call home.

The dichotomy and polarity you have described so succinctly is prevalent and as you say, the people are amazingly resilient, intelligent and have a thirst for betterment.

PNG, the Land of the (Unexpected) Opportunity. If we can get right.

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