Life in the third world - - A Peace Corps experience

This article submitted by Tom Cherveny, West Central Tribune, on 3/2/99.

Mike It took the modern world until 1948 to introduce the wheel to the most remote province of Papua New Guinea. Only 50 years later, Michael Jacobson of Paynesville is introducing the way of life the wheel has forever changed there to the modern world of west central Minnesota.

He led that life for 30 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in the island nation of Papua New Guinea.

Today he speaks to school, church and service groups about his experiences. Occasionally, he uses his column as a reporter for his parentsí newspaper, the Paynesville Press, to tell them as well.

He realized what he left behind the instant he boarded the plane for his flight home. ďI was leaving a life behind,Ē he said. ďI got into the plane and it was all over.Ē

It all started in a jungle village near the town of Madang in 1996, where his host family first sought to acclimate the 25-year-old arrival from Minnesota to his new world.

The tropical rain forest held a village of thatched huts where most people lived a largely subsistence existence, relying on gardening, hunting, and gathering for their food. Evenings were spent outdoors visiting around lanterns and listening to children play in a place of perpetual summer, said Jacobson.

Yet his host father, Lahuten Kuma, was also connected to the modern world.

He would lead Jacobson the short ways from the jungle to a road and the town of Madang on the countryís north coast. There, Kuma could sell the dried coconut, tea, chocolate, and coffee beans he produced for hard currency.

Jacobson proved a quick learner in this new land. Only two months after his arrival, he freed himself of his watch and all its demands, and adopted the easy pace of those around him.

A little more time, and he too was speaking the Pidgin English that melds together the people of this island who once spoke some 800 languages of their own.

Quicker still, he adjusted to the reality that Madang was not the end of the world he knew. Its end came at his next stop. ďI thought Madang was really third world, really rough. Then we got to Lumi,Ē he said.

Carved out of the jungle and separated from the coast by low mountains, Lumi would be his home for two years. Lumi offered a few canteen-like stores and a weekly market for fresh vegetables and goods.

Sweet potatoes, rice, boiled tree leaves, pumpkin tips, garden beans, tomatoes, and corn comprised much of his diet.

Heíd also tried the calorie-rich, gelatin-like pulp the locals made from the heart of a certain jungle tree. ďI was not particularly fond of it,Ē he said.

Yet he was not roughing it. He actually lived a short distance away on the Lumi High School grounds, where his hosts fixed him up with a comfortable enough home. It offered conveniences, including a shower and three hours of electricity every day.

There was access to a phone that worked sometimes, and the school offered a television with everything from Australian Public Broadcasting to CNN. He rarely watched. ďIt seemed so unimportant,Ē he explained.

What was important?
Teaching math and English to his students, ages 11 to 21.

They came from a province where steep mountains jut far into the clouds, keeping the jungle-dwelling inhabitants below separated from one another.

Even today, roads are few. The best are often made impassable by mudslides triggered by the areaís 80 to 100 inches of rain each year.
Some students had to be flown to the school and boarded until the end of the term, said Jacobson. Others walked jungle trails and dirt roads for two to three days to reach the school, where they also stayed.

But then, itís a privilege to attend the Lumi High School. Of the estimated 2,400 sixth grade graduates in the province, only 800 will advance to the seventh grade at Lumi and other schools.

Itís not the steep jungle trails that keep them from classes. Itís the lack of schools and teachers, according to Jacobson.

Only the best students of each class are allowed to advance, and there are fewer and fewer seats available as a student progresses up the grades.

In 1998, 16 of the 40 tenth grade graduates of Lumi High School were able to advance to eleventh grade, an achievement that was termed ďfantastic.Ē

In 1997, only four of 42 graduates could advance.
Hardest of all is the prospect of reaching the seventh grade when you are a student in a remote jungle village, according to Jacobson.

Itís difficult for the government to find teachers who are willing to live in the remote villages, and give students the education they need to compete for seats against peers from larger towns.

So Jacobson was hardly surprised by the enthusiasm he met when he met three students on the first day of school last year.
They came from the same remote village. The smiles on the 12 parents, aunts, and uncles who had accompanied them told the whole story.

To go to school is to have the opportunity to someday have a job, and to bring home money, explained Jacobson.

His students competed and studied hard, but never lost their love for play. They wore his basketball to threads on the schoolís lone concrete court. His parents and residents in Paynesville got up a drive and sent basketballs and other sporting goods to the students.

The school wasnít always run the best, said Jacobson. For those who might think the local politics of Minnesota schools can be frustrating, well, just consider: Jacobson saw one of the schoolís most dedicated teachers almost leave. He hadnít been paid for six months straight, while he knew other of his colleagues were receiving their pay.

Last July, the school failed to get out word to its scattered students that classes were to resume after a vacation break. Jacobson had just arrived back, and woke up to the small rumble of an earthquake.

Miles to the north, the quake heaved up a portion of the ocean floor, and promptly dropped it. The upheaval sent a 30-foot tall wall of water slamming against a highly populated spit of land standing only nine feet above sea level.

When word reached Lumi of the tragic tsunami, the death toll was already estimated at somewhere over 2,500 people. Jacobson feared that one of his students, a young friend, really, was among those lost.

She arrived at school later with a story of being plucked from the waters by someone in a canoe.

There was joy at the reunion, but tears were to fall soon. In November, the modern world was to pluck the studentís popular American teacher away, and everyone knew it.

ďMy students and I were all crying for about a week before I left,Ē he said.

Just like that, Jacobson found himself back home looking at life with a new perspective.

ďOnce youíre back home, it is not exactly the same,Ē he said.

But he has his watch strapped back on his wrist, and he lives by it.

(Reprinted courtesy of the West Central Tribune.)

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