A year into his placement in Papua New Guinea, Eoin O’Maoileoin discusses his volunteer journey so far – why it has been so rewarding and what he misses most about Ireland.
Today I start my second year in St. Peter Chanel. Yesterday after finishing a mad day's work I went into Kokopo. I got back out at about 6pm, just as the light was fading and as I walked up the avenue towards the College I couldn't but reflect on a great feeling of contentment and happiness. It has been a great year. It's difficult to sum it up. I've found myself too busy living life to record life so mails and photos and memories are what I will bring forward into the next year. There have been highlights in different areas and there are things I miss. So on this significant day I will run through a few as they come to me.
Rewards and challenges
The work in Chanel has been very fulfilling, as well as being at times frustrating. The fulfilment will be obvious in two weeks when our year threes go out on four weeks of teaching practicum. In two one-day sessions last semester it was great to see them take the first tentative steps. In particular, it was great to see them have the courage to try out some Student Centred and Discovery classes. They go to a teaching system almost devoid of such and the next 18 months is as much about building their courage as their technique. Many of them will be the only teacher in a school trying a new way so the coming weeks are very important in that development. It is great to be part of it.
VSO has also been great. Two workshops with Primary Techer Training College Lectures were marvellous fun. And watching them, like the Chanel students, taking on new ideas was a joy. At the second workshop we had a visit from the Assistant Secretary of the Department of education. The workshop was on 'Pattern and Algebra' so to illustrate patter we performed the 'TESPA'. Last week I attended the VSO Papua New Guinea Volunteer Conference where 35 of us from all over the country came together in Madang. Listening to the stories of other volunteers from different teams (Health, Education, Gender, IT) and different areas in Papua New Guinea gave a sense of the overall contribution being made all over the country.
Adventures to other lands
The Australian holiday was a bonus. If I had not come here I’m not sure that I would have ever made it to Aus. From cities to small towns, from lush green country side to the outback, from stunning coastal views to lone peaks over vast flat land it is a country full of wonder. There are many Australians here in Kokopo, between volunteers (AVI) and expat workers. So I've had a great Aussie exposure. In particular in the last five months I've been in a totally unexpected but lovely relationship with Maree Schleibs, an AVI volunteer from Melbourne. Maree goes home to Melbourne next week but all going well will be back for a new placement in January. At her going away lunch in her workplace (The Local Council) there were fulsome comments in praise of her work. Every speaker also welcomed me and spoke of the volunteer role. It is at times like that that you get to appreciate the esteem in which you are held as a volunteer.
Incredible Papua New Guinea culture
What to say of Papua New Guinea itself? It's an amazing place. I've visited five provinces at this stage and while there are contrasts, a constant is the welcome, courtesy, friendliness and kindness that meet you at every turn. The people are the essence of kindness. In a full year I have yet to have a negative interaction. When traveling in a PMV you stop the bus by tippling hard on the roof. It took me a while to develop my technique but at every failure there would be a chorus of voices and tipples to make sure that the bus stopped at the right place. On one occasion as I got off at the college I found my fare had been paid by a student (Even on a volunteer allowance I have much more that he). When I protested he just said "It is the PNG way". After a year I can only agree. There are of course contrasts. There is corruption. There is violence in many areas. Gender based violence is a major problem. One can hope that the teachers that will go out from Chanel will be a part of the ongoing work that is being done to tackle the major issues. There was a vote of confidence in the parliament last week in an effort to remove a Prime Minister who is considered to be corrupt. It failed and so we will have a long run in to an election this time next year. I have a feeling that it will be different to Ireland.
The climate varies from hot, humid and dry to hot and wet. Today was sweltering but saying that, this time last year I'd just spent a lot of money to get weather like this so can't complain. You get used to it. Lecturing at 8.30 in the morning with sweat running down your back is just an everyday thing.
The culture of the country is fascinating. When in country most people would consider themselves to be first of the tribe and then of Papua New Guinea. We now have students from all but one province. The tribal nature is evident in skin shades, hair, beards, and dress. But it's when there is a festival that it all comes out. Each tribe will do its own cultural thing and the contrast in masks, dress and dance is wonderful. Of such things, the most significant was the day I attended the ceremony for the passing on of the spirit of the late wife Ben of one of my colleagues. It was a day full of Tolai tradition and ceremony. She was a Tolai. Ben, a Pomeo, also arranged a dance by some of his tribe. It was an amazing day.
The College is awaiting a formal letter to grant us official recognition as a degree awarding institution. Once that happens we will have an official opening. That will be cultural whirlwind. Some of my colleagues are planning to have me 'initiated' into a Tolai clan and then have partake in a 'Tolai whip dance. So very soon I may be Tolai.
In Madang last week I had dives number 10 and 11. The marine life and coral here is amazing. Australians who have dived here say the reef outdoes the Great Barrier. I can't comment on that but to me 20 to 30 meters under surrounded by all kinds of fish and coral is a wonder. The odd shark adds a bit of bite! Earthquakes still happen once or twice a month. All pretty slight but a 5 can give you a little sense of a shifting ground.
Of course I also miss home. I miss people. I miss going to Insomnia for a coffee. I miss CCC but it seems very far away. I miss the politics and the discussions and arguments. I particularly missed not being round for the election and its long aftermath. I would bet too much on being home before the next one. I miss the house but it’s great to know it's in such good hands. I miss football. I miss Mayo matches. As they head for Croke Park and hopefully beyond, I miss being there. Above all I miss the three girls. They are all doing well and even though they are in the UK I find them very far away. Weekend trips would be easy from Dublin.
Yet all of those things were obvious before I left. So it is just part of the deal. I am with great people, in a great College, in a wonderful country. As I reread this blog I find it heavy with positive superlatives. That's just the way it is.
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