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Getting back to basics in Bougainville

Carterton’s Bronwen Markham at Buin Health Centre with volunteer health worker Maggie Kongkori. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Hayley Gastmeier

Crocodile infested waters, no television or radio, no doctors, and temperatures nearing 40 degrees Celsius – there was no doubt that Bronwen Markham was not in Carterton anymore.

In fact, she was 5000km away from her Waiohine Gorge paradise, in a town called Buin on Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea.

This is where she lived for a year, volunteering with Volunteer Service Abroad.

It was Bron’s second time in PNG, one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world.

“It was a phenomenal experience, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.”

Buin District Health Centre in Bougainville.

A registered nurse with a master’s degree in business, Bron spent her year aboard working in the Buin Health Centre, mentoring the executive director of the clinic.

“It’s probably the most professionally rewarding thing I’ve ever done, personally challenging, and professionally rewarding.”

Bron said the health centre director was an incredible woman named Celia Naguo, a registered nurse who was 50.

“She could walk into a unit in Wellington Hospital and run it – she’s got that innate sense.

“She understands everything that’s happening in her facility, she’s got her finger on the clinical side, the operational side, the logistics side.

“She’s an amazing woman – highly skilled and highly intelligent and, you know, she’s got five children and a dependent husband, and no electricity or running water in the house.”

Bron, who returned to Wairarapa last month, has a long association with Red Cross and has previously volunteered with Victim Support.

She first visited Bougainville with VSA in 2008.

She already understood the culture and knew the language well, so decided to return.

The residents were “tremendously welcoming”.

“The intelligence and the motivation of the people was overwhelming – I was overwhelmed by their enthusiasm of life and their inquisitive nature of what was happening around the world.”

She said they had amazingly positive attitudes, despite living with next to nothing.

PNG is one of the most rural countries in the world, with Wikipedia stating that just 18 per cent of its people live in urban centres.

Bron said the living conditions were varied in Bougainville, a region also known as the North Solomons, and its people were “quite different culturally” to the people on mainland PNG.

“There’s a full spectrum of living styles.

“In Buka, the capital, you can stay in a 3.5-star hotel and sit in an air-conditioned cafe, then it stems all the way down the island to the south where the majority of the people live in remote, very basic villages with minimal healthcare, difficult access to education, and isolation from communications.

“In Buin where I was there was no newspaper, no radio, no television, but there was intermittent internet.”

Bron said many of the people she mingled with didn’t have much more than what they stood in.

“Most huts were grass, they may have owned a cooking pot, they would have had a fire and they fished.

“They did their washing in the river.”

She saw many hungry children and said while hearing of rapes and murders was not uncommon, Bron felt safe all the time.

She said the residents of Bougainville were still recovering from their violent past. Tensions over the Panguna mine led to the Bougainville Civil War in the 1980s and 1990s that left up to an estimated 20,000 Bougainvilleans dead.

“People still talk about it, there’s lots of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and depression, lots of uneducated adults because they couldn’t go to school during those years, so it’s full of challenges.”

The northern and central regions of Bougainville are matriarchal, whereas down south it’s patriarchal and land is inherited down through the lineage of men. Bron said this posed challenges.

Bronwen Markham with Buin Health Centre director Celia Naguo in Papua New Guinea.

Celia had been the first woman to be promoted into the top position at the Buin Medical Centre.

“The level of social resistance of her appointment was high, to the point that she was side-lined two weeks before I arrived.”

Bron said she treaded water gently so as not to “alienate and offend” anyone, and within a month she had helped Celia reclaim her position at the top.

“Women were certainly at the bottom of the pile,” she said.

“But they are trying to address that because they are realising that, to have a functional society, there has to be an equal holding of power, but it might take a generation to make the change.”

There’s no dental service in Buin. There isn’t even a doctor.

“Anyone who comes into the Buin Health Centre who is seriously unwell or who we have got concerns for, they are referred out to the next town, Arawa, which is three hours north.

“Sometimes they make it, and sometimes they don’t.”

She said in most places, vaccination levels were low; diseases almost now forgotten in New Zealand were common or making a comeback in PNG.

Two years ago, there was an outbreak of polio, and there are high levels of tuberculosis (TB) – “but not just TB, drug-resistant TB”.

She said this was down to people not finishing their course of antibiotics, instead sharing the dose with family members, or there being no drugs available for a second course of treatment.

Bron said earthquakes were frequent, and she was dealing with heats of “32C-38C with 90-100 per cent humidity”.

“I got sunburnt through my umbrella and through all my clothes, that’s how hot it was.”

She said there were “crystal-clear water white beaches” with amazing snorkelling opportunities, but also crocodile infested waters.

Bron witnessed one woman’s “extensive” wounds after being attacked by a croc.

The woman had held on to a mangrove while her friends beat the crocodile off with a stick.

“About two weeks after that, a 16-year-old boy got taken.”

During her stint away, it was her grandchildren and her garden that Bron missed most. When she left PNG, it had rained continually for three months, and as a result, many of the garden crops had failed.

Bron said the experience was like being in another world and gave perspective to her life in New Zealand.

“I was acutely aware of what a privileged life we live here.”

VSA paid for Bron’s flights, vaccinations, and accommodation in PNG. The organisation also gave her a weekly allowance equivalent of PNG’s average wage.

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