Minute with Mike...
Hope against crime in Papua New Guinea

This column submitted by Michael Jacobson on 6/16/99.

Papua New Guinea doesn't get a lot of media coverage here in the states, except for the tsunami that struck its north coast last July. Besides that, articles that I've seen dealt either with crime or environmental exploitation and devastation in the country.

This week, I want to talk about crime, and a bit of hope.

Hope was largely absent from a New York Times article, reprinted in the Star Tribune, and forwarded to me in Lumi by at least three friends. The attention-grabbing piece was filled with car jackings, stabbings, limb decapitations, and gang rapes.

All that is true; there's a dark side to my former paradise home. I'd like to say that crime isn't as bad as the article suggests. Certainly it wasn't where I lived in Lumi. "Young criminals plague residents of Papua New Guinea," the headline read in the Star Tribune. They didn't plague me in Lumi. The only things I had stolen in two years were a backpack, rain jacket, and frisbee, all within my last two weeks at my site.

I was lucky in Lumi, though. I had male friends who had their window screens cut and items stolen from their house. They couldn't leave their house without having someone come and live in it while they were gone. One friend was held up with a female volunteer and threatened with a knife while she was raped. Two other Peace Corps volunteers were the victims of an attempted rape on New Britain, an island province.

For the most part, statistics aren't just guesses in PNG, but I will share this one: I heard that 40 percent of the women in PNG can expect to be raped in their lifetimes.

A lot of the crime in PNG occurs in the cities. The Times article dealt predominantly with the capital city of Port Moresby, where crime is definitely a problem. When I dream of returning to live in PNG, I'm thinking about Lumi, not Moresby.

There's a lot of wealth in PNG, but much of it is being exploited by foreign companies. Those companies have to reward executives and workers who come to PNG with better salaries to cover the increased cost of living and for being away from home. So you have whites and Asians driving new cars, buying fancy food, and living in air-conditioned high rise apartments with swimming pools.

Then you have a city of 300,000 people, with massive unemployment. Young men are frequently without jobs, as many as 90 percent, according to an estimate in the Times. It's a ripe setting for crime: poor men, with violent tendencies, seeing rich foreigners and feeling that their country's wealth is being used to make other people rich.

Peace Corps volunteers played it safe. We didn't go out after dark. Female volunteers normally travelled in pairs or groups. But we weren't really prime targets for crime. We walked, carried bilums, generally looked and dressed scraggly, and rode the local buses. The section of Port Moresby with the Peace Corps office was relatively quiet, and the people knew that whites walking around that area were volunteer teachers.

I felt nervous once in Port Moresby, and not for my physical safety. Returning from shopping, carrying supplies and cash for months at site, some young men passed my group and asked for money, but nothing came of it.

All this crime talk has just been a prelude to Madi. He's one of my little brothers in the village where I lived with a host family for two months. Actually, Madi didn't live in the village when I was there for two months, but I met him when I visited last July.

Madi was probably six then, a tall, skinny boy with frizzy black hair. He was a nephew to my host father, Lahuten, his sister's son. Madi's father was from the Papuan coast, I think from Milne Bay, the southern tip. He had lighter skin than most people in Madang.

Both of Madi's parents worked in Port Moresby. His father was a police officer, I believe. His mother worked outside the home as well, making their family rather prosperous. Double income, nuclear families are rare in PNG. Since he had gotten old enough to run around and get in trouble on the streets, his parents had decided to send him to live with his uncle in the village, where an extra pair of six-year-old hands could be put to meaningful work, keeping Madi out of trouble. The school in Madang might have been better, too.

Coconuts When I saw him last July, Madi (holding his younger cousin) was busy as a bee. My host father (far right) had the young boys organized every morning to make copra, or dried coconut. Our village had lots of land, and lots of coconut trees because part of the land had once been a coconut plantation. Madi and three cousins would rush off into the jungle--or bush, as they call it--with two wheelbarrows, two drivers, and two riders. They would fill their wheelbarrow with coconuts they found that had fallen onto the ground. The coconuts were brought back to the village green and dumped on the ground.

Papa would usually help the boys split them with an ax. Papa, mama, and the older sisters would remove the coconut from the shell, and then the boys would carry the coconut to a special drying shed. The boys would have to stock the shed with firewood, tend the fire, and remove the coconut when it was dry. There was something to do at different times throughout the day.

Last July, I would compare the efficiency of papa's copra factory favorably with my high school's administration, quite a feat for a family in a tiny village.

More encouraging, though, was seeing a natural resource being used in a renewable way to earn a needed cash income. And Madi was part of that productivity, rather than becoming part of the problem on the streets of Port Moresby.

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