Don's Diary: Posting in paradise

February 8, 2002

Week one

Madang, Papua New Guinea, is often described as the prettiest town in the Pacific. I am here for two years to teach journalism at Divine Word University.

At the end of the drive is a lagoon where schools of dolphins play in the bright sunshine. I am shown to my house, nestling among the palm trees on the 99-acre campus. There are five banana trees in the garden. Welcome to Paradise.

Week two

New staff induction. The university handbook tells me that it is prohibited to gossip about other staff members.

I try to get an identity card. This takes me five whole weeks. It is a good introduction to the concept of Papua New Guinea time: "If something can be put off until tomorrow, how much better it will be if it can be put off until the day after."

At a staff meeting, the head of finance calls for greater competition among students: the best should be given ice cream as a reward.

Week three

All teaching staff are urged to organise community activity. This means heading work parties of students clearing litter and cutting grass around the campus.

The muscular Christians among us say it is a wonderful way to show we care about our students and that it will bring us closer to them. Community activity is compulsory, and we are told that students should be fined if they do not turn up for duty.

I escape for an afternoon to send emails to academic colleagues in the United Kingdom with whom I am co-editing a book that is due out at the end of 2002. Even on the other side of the world, you have to keep one eye on the next research assessment exercise.

Week four

The university is running on empty. The most recent cheque from the education department bounced and, as with all other education institutions, we do not know when the next will come.

The academic board says we must cut back on the stationery we hand out to students. One brown manila folder and an exercise book per subject are the limit. Some staff want a man with a wheelbarrow to visit classrooms to dish out the largesse.

A block on photocopying is announced: one staff member claims that last year 1,444 sheets of photocopying were made for each student in the university. I make a mental note not to volunteer to teach the class on copyright law this year.

I begin making contacts with the community that will be useful to my journalism students. At the local hospital, staff have used up the backs of their cornflake packets, and now there is nothing left for them to write on. Patients are not being admitted, no matter how sick they are, unless they can bring a sheet of writing paper with them.

All is quiet at the police station. Cops are refusing to chase after robbers because they have no bullets for their guns. If they get a call-out that is more than 2km from the station, they don't go: there is no fuel for the squad cars. The Papua New Guinea annual budget is announced and newspapers report that 47 per cent of the budget goes on debt repayment.

Week five

I visit a community school to deliver copies of a book that our students produced after interviewing children about what it is like to grow up in Papua New Guinea.

The survey found that all but one reported being beaten at home, more than half had witnessed their father beating their mother, most came to school with no shoes and more than half had only one set of clothes. The headteacher, however, complains to me that students are inattentive at school and blames it on the growing use of marijuana in the villages.

My horoscope says: "One of your greatest strengths is your ability to work together with others to come up with solutions for even the most challenging situations." Fortunate, I think.

Dick Rooney teaches journalism at Divine Word University, Papua New Guinea, as part of a Voluntary Services Overseas initiative. Until recently he was the founding head of the journalism department at Liverpool John Moores University.

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