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PNG Celebrates 36 Years of “Independence”

On September 16, 2011, Papua New Guinea celebrated its 36 years of independence and freedom.  All throughout the week, the excitement of this coming holiday was visibly noticeable as local folks prepared traditional costumes and attires and erected makeshift vending stands at open grasslands where various cultural shows and dances were held.  Many were on the streets selling items with PNG emblems and vibrant colors of red, black, yellow, and orange, from sunglasses, flower hairpins, and flags, to shirts, shorts, and hats.  The day before the actual holiday celebration, I wore a collared shirt with PNG emblems and colors to show my full pledged support and respect to the host nation’s culture, values, and traditions.  Seeing my attire for the day, which was substantially different from the “business attire” that I always wear, folks at the two local health clinics I visited reciprocated by greeting me with infectious excitement, exhilarating happiness, and tremendous warmth because I wore one of their shirts. 

Truly, many folks told me Independence Day trumps any other holiday in PNG in terms of preparation and excitement.  This excitement manifested today as I felt the energy and power of this holiday while I celebrated with Papua New Guineans at the University of PNG.  The colorful and vibrant festivities included traditional shows complete with different cultural costumes/attires, dances, and vocal chants.  The different provincial costumes are all decorated with leaves, flowers, shells, feathers, and furs of exotic flora and fauna found only in PNG.  The facial paints though might seem uniform and similar from one province to another, is actually very different form each other.  Folks often tell me that the lines, figures, and colors, all tell a story from where the local folks came from.   

With 36 years of independence, PNG is still in its infancy as a developing nation that exerts its state of independence after many years of colonial rule.  After all, it was just in the 1930’s when the Australian Leahy brothers led by Mick accidentally discovered the millions of people living in the island nation.  In an era of airplanes, radio communications, and international telecommunications, the discovery was stunning since the inhabitants of PNG then lived off of the land through subsistence farming, bow and arrow hunting, and spear fishing.  It was Australia that introduced the modern ways of living to PNG, from bringing coffee, using currency, building roads, to having airplanes, and learning the English language.  In essence, “Stone Age” PNG with bows and arrows, axes, and shells, was moved in a fast-forward direction towards the “Modern Age” of supersonic sound waves and technological advances without having to go through the “middle-ages” of exploration, acquiescence, and eventual transition.  In addition, the colonial rule brought forth organized and controlled systems of justice, education, healthcare, law enforcement, and politics.  After exhibiting the ability to self-govern, and with backing from the United Nations, PNG was granted full independence from Australian colonial rule on September 16, 1975. 

However, neocolonialism is alive and evident today even though PNG is considered free and independent.  Almost all of the Ministries in the government have foreign advisers with direct and strong influence on policy and decision making.  For instance, in the development operations, many isolated communities in the National Capital District as well as the provinces are suddenly being confronted with huge developments and projects such as mining and logging operations.  The influx of these modernization bring forth new roads and facilities, which ultimately opens the remote areas to Western influences, some of which are welcome, while some are not.  Neocolonialism is also evident in healthcare.  NGOs are mostly of foreign origin (Clinton Foundation, World Vision, FHI360, etc.).  Aid and assistance are also obtained mostly from overseas sources (Global Fund, USAID, AusAID, etc.).  Treatment guidelines are mostly based from Western medicine (WHO and CDC, etc.).  Pharmaceutical products are all obtained overseas.  But, unlike the other service sectors, changes and development in healthcare are mostly welcomed as evidenced by the sincerity, warmth, and openness of the patients we take care of at the local community health centers.  There are still many hurdles and obstacles to overcome and the National Department of Health just takes it one day at a time.  As Pfizer Global Health Fellow, I am deeply honored to be a part of PNG’s small and continuing strides in establishing new frontiers in healthcare and “independence”.

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