World Hope International (WHI) travelled to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in January 2020 to visit the opening of The Nomad Mougulu High School, which WHI is partnering with Stirckland Bosavi Foundation to establish and resource.
The team visited with and heard from the community about their hopes, dreams, and challenges. One member of the visiting team, Tim Weatherall, was invited by the community to take pictures and learn and share stories that were told during their visit.
This blog is Tim’s experience listening, learning, and trying to capture the richness of culture and the challenges and dreams of the people in Mogulu, PNG.
I’m in Mougulu, in the lowlands of western Papua New Guinea.
It has taken a remarkable and unpredictable 3 days to get here, traveling thousands of miles to capture this very moment.
A plane arrives with passengers and supplies
It’s an extremely remote place that is tropically hot, yet green and full of life. We are untouched to some extent. One of the few places left almost untarnished by the modern world until very recently. Apart from an airstrip that only works when the weather is just right, we are 5 days travel by foot from any major settlement, shop or advanced healthcare.
So, it is with this backdrop I first sat perched on one knee, leaning in, straining to listen to softly spoken broken English, camera in hand, held at my chest, trying my hardest to look as much like a floorboard as I can. I was hoping to disappear, to be an invisible fly in the wall, to listen, to hear unfettered truth, frustration, anger, hurt and joy. I’m here to try and understand what these people are living through.
The community meeting about the new school
In this rough and dimly lit community hall sit teachers, parents, community leaders, and young people. Some have travelled up to two days walk to be here, all eager to hear what Sally Lloyd, CEO and Director of Strickland Bosavi Foundation and a Volunteer Community Development Worker for WHI had to tell them about the new high school. The word had gone out to meet in the hall and by 8:30 pm about 200 people were sitting under the glow of a solitary fluorescent light and overflowing into the night, looking through windows, heads poking around doors.
People young and old came from all over to hear about the school
As I look around, I was amazed at the diversity of the group sitting here, people from 6 to 86 sit huddled together. Sally addressed the crowd and we raised hands when asked what grade we are moving into. The high school will start this year as a day school without boarding facilities for grades 9 & 10, that’s stage two. A number of the students look older, they are young adults, not the teenagers I expected.
Some of the male high school students tell their stories and struggles
Until now there has been no real indication of how many students to expect and what grades they planned to move into. We are supposed to be 2 weeks out from school starting but this is apparently how it is in Papua New Guinea. Unpredictable flexibility and adaptability are essential management styles here.
Why do you want to come to the high school?
During our trip, a group of students moved to huddle around Sally as she asked them to tell their stories.
Sally chats with the young people
“Why do you want to come to the high school in Mogulu? What do you think will be better about a school here?” The answers that followed broke my heart.
One girl quietly introduced herself as Anne. “I have finished grade 8 but I had to stop. I did not have the money for school fees.”
“How much are the fees?” Sally asked.
“1200 Kina,” — the equivalent of $369 USD. That is all it costs to educate and house Anne for the whole academic year.
Between Hope & Opportunity: The Challenges in Getting Access to Education
On top of the challenging cost, we learned that Anne’s school, which lies a full week’s walk away, was rendered unusable by the 7.2 magnitude scale earthquake of 2018.
Some young people gather at a local swimming hole and waterfall
The epicentre of the disaster lies at the foot of distant mountains but its destruction will impact generations to come as the government and NGOs struggle to repair decimated infrastructure.
The view to the north and the difficult mountainous terrain
Sally asked, “Where are your parents? What do they do?” She calmly replies, ”My father he died… My mother left”.
We all sit in silence as we hear how Anne now lives with her older brothers who have no means to support or provide for her daily needs, let alone find $369 USD a year to continue her education.
One of the local homes on the mission grounds
A local school will allow her to live in free accommodation with the support of her wider family.
Addressing Conflict & Abuse
We move around the group until we reach some young men. They look to be in their late 20’s. They tell story after story of a school life filled with conflict, fear, and abuse.
By traveling almost 186 miles to school, these young men become totally removed from family and a heritage that not only protects them but provides important cultural structures for discipline, respect and life together.
Tribal pride is strong and presents in amazing ceremonial dancing displays
When men from this area have to travel the 5 days by foot they will inherently move through land that is not of their people.
This poses many issues for the young men with payback violence and extreme tribalism still an ever-present undertone of life here. Unfortunately, the schools are not in the lands of friendly tribes and physical altercations are a constant reminder of this tension.
The men tell of having to leave the library as they study at night, driven out by violent members of other groups.
“There is fighting, always fighting. It is very hard for us to study”.
Multiple times they have had to close their books and flee to relative safety, locking themselves in dormitories or hiding where they can.
Young children join in the cultural dancing
Unable to study or even participate in social life for fear of retaliation and violence, they live an untenable existence in these local yet foreign places without community, loved ones, security or safety.
Access to Education Provides Opportunity and Hope
This high school project is vital to the future of these young people. Without this, young people will continue to be subject to horrors that no young person should face.
The new teacher accommodation buildings are almost finished for the school opening.
The ability for them to attend a local high school will not only impact them individually, removing the most obvious obstacles from their education and development, but change the community for generations to come.
Children watch other dancers and in their traditional dress
Education leads to better health outcomes, economic development and a lasting legacy of meaningful impact.
The lead dancer wears an elaborate head dress.
Addressing Gender-Based Violence
What was soon obvious is that this awful reality also applies to young girls and women who travel so far for school. They are even more vulnerable to violence and abuse and the stories told by the young people here truly sickened me.
Young women often travel by foot for long distances
I am deeply saddened by the sheer number of young female students who will not, or are not allowed to, travel to school for fear of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Young girls return from school pregnant, bruised and broken. Preyed on by men in opportunistic crimes taking advantage of young women without the security and protection of family and community.
A troupe of dancers from a neighbouring village prepare for their display
One day while we are at Mogulu a girl returns to the mission station by plane, delivered back to her home on medical evacuation.
This plane lives on the compound and is a lifeline to health and other essential services 62 miles away.
Her face bears a bandage covering the cuts she received at the hands of men who had ambushed her, along with her father and brother, on the road as they trekked to start the new school year some 186 miles away. The men beat her family members before attempting to sexually assault her. Amazingly they each escaped, battered but alive and able to seek help nearby. Even more sobering is the realization that this is not a unique occurrence.
This continues to happen whenever these young people are forced to travel outside their community, displaced hundreds of miles, to hostile environments, just to continue their education.
The Nomad Mougulu High School
Providing access to life-long learning and vocational opportunities for students