In the valleys of Papua New Guinea’s highlands, people live in isolated villages. Every day they take a long trip and walk down steep mountains, along wild rivers, and through dense forests to reach destinations such as the Tapini village, with a school and a hospital, both managed by the Catholic Church.
Modern civilization brings benefits but also several new problems. “Today we haven’t walked much,” a young woman says, pointing to the two mountains she has passed. Her house is just behind them.
She left home at dawn and is now in front of the clinic waiting for her turn to meet the doctor; she wants her son to be vaccinated. Walking for hours through mountains and valleys is absolutely normal for these people. The Tapini village is situated just before the insurmountable highland.
In fact, only the inhabitants of the capital Port Moresby, an eight-hour drive or several days walk away, refer to Tapini as a mountain village. People who were born and grew up in this area usually say, “I’m going down in the valley” as they live in villages at even higher altitudes.
Morris Oki and his wife Teresa Aida have just moved here from the Goilala district. They will stay for about ten years, “We want our children to study here” Mr. Oki says, then they will resume moving again as these people traditionally do.
The Tapini village was built by the “Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.” The village is home to a school and a clinic where, every morning, Sister Marina Magaiva takes care of the mothers arriving from the mountains with their children. “Our main problem now, is tuberculosis,” Sister Marina, who also works as a midwife, explains.
A discovery dating back 80 years
The discovery of human settlements in the highlands of Papua New Guinea is recent. Up to 1930, when some Australian gold searchers found several tribes living there with no contact with the rest of the world, everybody thought those areas were uninhabited.
The discovery surprised both the outside world and the tribes. The highland inhabitants thought they were at the centre of the world. The old ones still remember when they saw white skinned men for the first time. They thought they were the spirits of their ancestors. After the discovery, the highland became a destination for ethnologists, naturalists, and linguists.
The difficult-to-reach Tolukuma gold mine is also in the Tapini district. It is a job opportunity not only for miners, but also for merchants and farmers. The excavating, however, has had dramatic consequences for both men and nature. “I worked in the mine when I was young with eight schoolmates, I am the only one still alive,” a man says. The others got sick from exposure to mercury.
So-called civilization brings progress such as schools and hospitals, but also diseases and destruction. Modernity cannot be stopped, the door to the world has been opened, and it can’t be closed. Wulf Schiefenhövel, an anthropologist who has conducted research studies in Papua New Guinea for many years, says, “Human beings cannot be shut into reservations. They can’t be asked to stay the way they are. The history of mankind is the story of changes through the acquisition of new techniques and new religions.”
According to the anthropologist, “Isolated populations wish progress and want to get out of that ‘bubble’ on the borders of the world.”
Every morning at 9:30 in the Tapini village, a thirteen year old girl, Linda Oki, goes into the classroom and sits at the computer. Linda is the daughter of the couple that chose to live in the mountains. She and her family live in one room without electricity. In this room, they sleep, cook, and eat. Every morning Linda gets up at dawn, puts on her school uniform, and walks along the path leading down to the valley. At school she learns how to use a pc, “It’s not terribly amusing,” she admits, “but we learn a lot of important things at school.”
The technological revolution has reached this corner of the world too. Since at least two years, the mobile phone service has increased and most people have access to internet also through cell phones. When Linda and her friends have learnt enough, they will be part of this large number of people.
“A window on the world”
“Considering their background, the results achieved by the children of this area are amazing. For them, the school is a window on the world,” Sister Marina says. Papua New Guinea, however, had developed previously. It is amazing, in fact, how many old people can speak English perfectly, while it is difficult to find among the young, someone able to speak a foreign language. The education system seems to have worsened after independence in 1975. This is particularly evident in the highlands, and this is also the reason why education in Tapini is financed and supported, mostly by the Catholic Church.
The facilities built in the 1950s were given to the State in 1984. “By the mid 1990s, most were run-down,” says sister Marina, a member of the order of the “Handmaids of the Lord.” The Church was asked to work on facilities once again. The Australian missionary Brian Cahill did all the necessary restoration with help coming mainly from his country.
The Port Moresby government is also contributing by providing the 270 students living in the boarding school with support grants. Though the State also pays some of the clinical staff, according to many, it should do more.
Clinic staff include the paramedics that drive every day to nearby villages to vaccinate people.
The administration offices of the Goilala district are also in Tapini. It is difficult to find employees there. They prefer to spend their time in places along the coast, as the highland area is considered, by the inhabitants themselves, too dangerous because of its high rate of criminality and violence. The educated people of the capital feel superior compared to those living in the highland, considered boor. In fact, many unpleasant episodes take place in the area. A few weeks ago, Sister Marina was going back home after work, when some men, apparently drunk, sitting on the roadside, started insulting her. One threw a stone that hit her head, making her fall to the ground with her head bleeding. Now Sister Marina has recovered and plays down the accident. She is already busy again taking care of another mother that needs her help.