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Telefomin district & the hard lessons it taught me about the lives of rural teachers

2017-03-22-Telefomin-Encounters.MGlass.DSC06174small-1140x470 (1)
Picture from MAF

Several years ago, I found myself  in  Telefomin  District in the Sandaun Province.  It was a few months before the 2002  elections and  politicians  and their teams were on the campaign trail.

I thought I had a fair understanding about my own country. But Telefomin taught me otherwise.  We arrived on a MAF flight in Telefomin airstrip and spent the night a small  semi-abandoned guest house.

At 5am the next morning, we headed off  West to Urapmin, a small village on the neighboring ridge. It appeared deceptively close on the maps.  I carried a  backpack with nearly 8 kilograms supplies  enough for three days with some camera gear.

The first part of the journey looked ok.   The track  was on relatively even ground until we got to a place called Atemkiakmin.  Then the decent began.

I had little help and the backpack was killing me going downhill.  Rain began falling in a drizzle. Blessings from heaven,  they said. The road became slippery and in some places, the mud was knee deep. Our initial  destination was the bank of the headwaters of the Sepik River.

It took us seven  hours  before we reached the Sepik headwaters. After stopping for a water break, the guide told us we had another longer journey ahead and that we had to move quickly.

By midday we were climbing up a shadeless,  grassy  mountain side. The heat was murderous while nature compensated us with spectacular views of the cliffs and the Telefomin Valley.

By 5.30pm, the track  became easier and some of the first houses of the  Urapmin community began appearing in the distance.  We picked up pace.  My body had been pushed beyond its limits and every step hurt like hell.

When we got to Urapmin Primary School at 6pm we were hosted by the kind head teacher who was also our guide.

What’s the point in telling you this story?

The teachers and students   make this journey every month when supplies are brought in to Telefomin.  Every month, when a teacher travels into Vanimo  to get school supplies,  another  gets the troops ready to carry the cargo back to Urapmin.

The ‘troops’ are not all adults.  Most are children,  fast and nimble on their feet able to maneuver playfully through the jungles and mountainsides quicker than adults.

Over the years, the teachers found that it was much easier taking a class of 30 kids and spreading the load amongst everyone.  So if there are several cartons of food and exercise books, one kid would probably end up carrying anything between 500 grams and 2 kilograms of cargo back to Urapmin.

Many of the kids  who make the journey are between  10 and 13. Sometimes, the younger ones disobey their parents and make the journey as well.  Nobody complains.

Over the course of the night, the head teacher told of how,  kids  desperate for  an  education,  would travel long distances from the border areas of the  Hela and  Western Provinces to find a functioning school that had teachers.  Stories like this sound so farfetched and exaggerated  that many people  living in Port Moresby would find it difficult to comprehend.

In our cities, we have kids who don’t want to go to school on time.  We see kids  who have the luxury of public transport, uniforms and shoes dragging their feet to school.   In districts like Telefomin, education itself is a precious luxury.  Kids would give anything to sit in a classroom and learn.

If you are a  teacher in places like Urapmin, you need to have a spirit made of  iron.  You have to deal with girls who are forced to marry because a school has been closed for years.  You  are by default, the resident medical officer when there are emergencies.  You deliver babies and  treat  wounds.  You are there when  one of your students die because of the lack of primary health care.

The role of the rural teacher extends beyond just the classroom.  It is for those  reasons that I get so pissed off when rural  teachers  are mistreated by people sitting in air-conditioned offices in Port Moresby.

4 comments on “Telefomin district & the hard lessons it taught me about the lives of rural teachers

  1. Also remember Scott that not only do they sit in AC. Officers in POM or some Provincial Capital, but MOST of them have never been to a Remote Rural Area. And in fact have no idea of the realities.

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  2. Tessie Tahiti Soi. OBE. MASWJCU

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Yes, alot of money is spent on the urban wants and the rural needs are not addressed.
    I also did a social work practical in the Bainings in 1979 and had to walk a whole day as the only DPI vehicle that came to pick us up, broke down, shaft broke in the middle. the next vehicle, we were told would come in a weeks time. We were already 50 minutes away from the mountains that cardomon was being planted. We walked from 9am and arrived in Vudal at 6pm. Quite an experience but living with the people for two weeks in the remoteness of ENB did not make me appreciate their coping mechanism untill I walked the road. We have a gold mine in our valleys and vegetation and our people cope but basic entitlements that are their right is ignored. Education, Health and Welfare are really being overlooked as some get richer building lodges, motels, re-building roads, planting flower gardens and ripping them up after 6 months and replanting a new lot of flowers, etc in Port Moresby instead of diverting funds for a better road, airstrip, helipad, what not… Come on PNG, we really are complacent and that is why we still lose our people to illnesses that can be healed and our literacy levels are very low. How long more do we have to see our people suffer!!!

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  3. Soon the life will never be the same for the Urapmins and the Telefomins.

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