Serving in Papua New Guinea
Tim and Joan Carmical
New Tribes Mission
The Island of New Ireland
Papua New Guinea
March 28, 2011
Some of my favorite stories involve characters who for some reason find themselves stranded on a tropical island. Robinson Crusoe, Mutiny on the Bounty, Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies, LOST, Gilligan's Island, but my favorite will always be Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. For a while when they were much younger, I would put my boys to bed with a few pages from the story of young Jim Hawkins and the menacing Long John Silver, growling in my best pirate voice. I've since read that later in life Stevenson took his family sailing through the Pacific looking for that idyllic island paradise. Eventually he settled down on a 400 acre estate in Samoa, mostly because the shipping routes made it the only south Pacific island where he could get mail. Living in PNG, I now have a much deeper appreciation for cards, letters and all things Postal. I have also had the good fortune of seeing Robert Louis Stevenson's boyhood home in Edinburgh, Scotland. Stevenson spent the remainder of his days in Samoa, dying at the age of 44. I wonder how often he thought of his life back in Europe, and ifhe still thought a life spent stranded on a tropical island would be paradise. Because I can tell you from experience, it's not.
We've been "stranded" on our little island for over a year now. Not that we couldn't go anywhere, we just can't afford to. We're supposed to take regular breaks every few months to recharge and stay sane, but we just haven't been able to afford it. So instead we take other missionaries to the airport to see them off on their breaks and little trips. We have a bit of 'cabin fever' from time to time, staying in such a small place, but we've always known that we could leave if we had to. Unfortunately, that's changed.
The concept of land ownership in this country is different from anything you might be familiar with. Land is owned by traditional land owners (clans and family lines) who have laid claim over certain areas for generations. Land can be bought and sold, but the traditional land owners can always demand it back, or as is most often the case, they can demand more money for the use of land that they have already sold! Imagine buying a piece of cheap, undeveloped land, and building a store or a hotel on it only to have the folks who sold you the land come back and demand more money because now the land is worth more. That's what has happened with the ground that our only airport sits on. The traditional land owners have hung a Gorgor on the doors to the airport demanding 1.7 million US dollars, or they will shut it down forever. A Gorgor is a cornstalk-like plant traditionally used to keep a place off limits to everyone. Email me if you'd like to see a picture of the one hanging at our airport .. It is commonly used in our province of New Ireland to resolve disputes, and is legally binding. Once you tie one of these things on someone's door, NO ONE can go in.
So, for a few weeks now there have been no flights in or out of our island. This is big. For the most part the only way to travel in PNG is by plane. There are more airstrips than roads. I've read that for many people, the first time they saw a wheel was on the bottom of a plane. Air traffic is what keeps this country operating. We have some missionary kids here on school break, a visiting grandmother, and a pregnant missionary who needs to leave in 2 weeks, all stranded. Mail and medicine isn't getting in, not to mention that fact that an emergency medical flight couldn't happen if we needed one. Sick people aren't able to leave to get care, and some international tourists are trapped here as well. Some ferries have started making the overnight trip from Kavieng down to Rabaul and the airport there, but they no longer sell tickets to foreigners because "they complain about the boat being filthy and unsafe."
What's more, these land owners also own the ground that our town is built on. They have said that if their demands are not met, they will close down the wharf this week since everything we eat comes in by boat or plane. Their next step will be to shut off power. There are 120,000 people living here and all of them come to our town to shop. How long can stores keep shelves stocked without more coming in? We've bought a few things in larger amounts than we normally would, just in case, like rice, flour, diesel, and such. First on our list of things to buy? Toilet paper!
Pray that the situation will be quickly resolved, that the wharf would remain open and that the electricity not be turned off.
In the mean time, you know where to find us. We're not going anywhere.
Tim and Joan and Connor and Jonas