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Warmth and Affection of Local Papua New Guinean Folks Towards Foreign Visitors

I remember back in May, FHI 360’s first order of business with me was to discuss in great length the high importance of safety and security at work, home, during transit, and everywhere I go.  The strong warnings and precautions in terms of personal security was impressed even further through personal stories, anecdotes, and experiences of FHI 360 staff—expatriates and local folks alike.  In addition, the Deputy Chief of Mission at US Embassy in Port Moresby and I spent two hours discussing security briefing and “How Not to be a Target”.  Imagine the intense sensory overload that I had on my first full day at PNG!  I felt anxious instantly, almost at the point of being paranoid, and I had many questions.  Why is PNG rated among countries that are most notorious in terms of safety and security?  Is it really that bad here?  How will I do my job traveling in between clinics if raskols (rascals) are potentially out there, ready to pounce, and wreak havoc at any time?  Am I going to be able to jog/run, shop, or go to the store down the street?  What if I wanted to visit points of interests—beach, library, mall?  Where do the expatriates go and congregate to meet and greet each other?  Did they felt the same way as I did?  How did they overcome this feeling?

According to media sources, PNG is one of the many developing countries in Asia that is considered dangerous and violent.  The nation’s capital, Port Moresby, as well as large provincial cities, is ringed with urban settlement squatters, many of whom came from the rural provinces, are unemployed, and seeking greener pastures.  Settling into the illegal squatter area is the only choice since housing and accommodation (buying or renting) is often ridiculously overpriced.  Arguably, PNG’s big problem is neither the security nor safety of its citizens and foreigners, but a dysfunctional political system.  Politicians, in the background setting of the wantok system, are known to be corrupt—rich people are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer.  PNG citizens only want to have a sliver and small share of the proverbial fruit pie, and they are willing to work hard for it.  Unfortunately, it is easier said than done.  It seems that the PNG government is ill-equipped with providing aid infrastructure and assistance to its citizens.  Paradoxically, numerous jobs are available, but employing companies, both from public and private sectors, will only hire educated individuals.  This presents as a huge problem in PNG.  Most parents cannot afford to send their children to school because the school fees are expensive resulting in fewer than 60% of children completing 6th grade and only about 10% enrolling in secondary school.  It seems that PNG government is doing very little to answer the education crisis in the country.  More importantly, many of the best and brightest of the professional class leave for better-paid employment overseas.  The problem is viciously cyclical because each year, more folks migrate to the National Capital District looking for the evasive “change of fortune”, squeezing the already crowded and illegal settlements, and thus creating more problems in addition to the existing ones.  The ubiquitous migrants from the villages that settle into the city looking for work and lifestyle change are often unsuccessful.  Since there are no social security or unemployment benefits in PNG, folks usually resolve to commit petty crimes for source of income to buy food and other necessities.  Worse, some actually fall into organized groups and gangs of raskols that strategically plan petty crimes to survive.  Hold-ups, carjacking, and pick-pocketing are almost a normal and daily part of PNG life.  It is a perfect example of the Darwinian concept “survival of the fittest”—creatures doing whatever it is that’s necessary, even stepping and harming each other, not to get ahead, but plainly just to survive.  Many folks told me throughout my stay not to judge and paint a picture of Papua New Guinea as a whole based on what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced in Port Moresby alone, because there is a bigger, better, and different PNG outside of the capital.  This is true!  Even if I was just able to visit one other major city (Madang) outside of the capital, I can say that the warmth and affection of Papua New Guineans towards foreigners are evident.  Since May, I see and feel it every day from the house staff where I am staying, the PNG work colleagues at FHI 360, the healthcare staff at the clinics, the community outreach volunteers and field support officers, the patients, and the general population I meet at the store, supermarket, and cultural shows that I’ve been to.  I might not be able to jog, run, or even walk just down the street to go the store, but, as an expatriate, I feel privileged because most of the local folks that I know are actually very protective of me.  They see to it that I am always accompanied and guarded wherever I go, even if it’s just going to the store across the street so that I can buy eggs, bread, and bananas.  In a place that is considered dangerously and notoriously violent, I came to realize that I can still have safety and security, mostly in the hands of the PNG folks whom I’ve worked with and grown to like.

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