Diary of a Researcher in Papua New Guinea (1). The Island with the Sky of a Thousand Colours

Diary of a Researcher in Papua New Guinea (1). The Island with the Sky of a Thousand Colours

08.2.2019
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Photo by the author. Namanatai, Papua New Guinea

 

[This article has been published in Spanish in El País-Planeta Futuro]

In this series of articles, researcher Camila González describes the daily routine of an ISGlobal team working to eliminate yaws in the island district of Namatanai in Papua New Guinea

 

16 January, 2019, Namatanai  

 

It’s 6.58 in the morning—too hot to sleep and too hot to get out of bed. For almost an hour, I’ve been considering my options, since the generator stopped working and with it the small wall fan. I usually take advantage of the hour after I wake to connect with home, send a couple of WhatsApps and answer a few emails. But the 3G signal has been down since yesterday afternoon, although at least telephone coverage is back and we can talk to each other by phone.

I take a quick shower. Since the generator is down, there is no pressure and gravity alone ensures that the unheated water trickles down from the rainwater tank. It is literally impossible to wash one’s hair with that amount of water; it’s almost like a mist. For that purpose, we use water buckets from the laundry, which the woman who owns the "hotel" is happy to lend us.

I walk out into the central courtyard. The sun is up and the sky is lit by a thousand colours. With not a single cloud in sight, it’s going to be one of those days. We are staying at Namatanai Lodge. People call it “the Namatanai hotel” because it is the only place here offering basic amenities: clean rooms with mosquito nets on the windows and bathrooms with showers. We are lodged in small individual bungalows, made of wood and surrounded by nature. It is a veritable paradise... although it was a good deal more idyllic when there was electricity. Namatanai has been without electricity for the last six months; not because they don’t have the infrastructure or the money to provide power, but because of a political battle between two local leaders, who will not even consider restoring the power supply until they agree on the Lord only knows what. Needless to say, the politicians themselves can afford the petrol they need to keep a generator running 24 hours a day in their villas.

 

 

Petrol is very expensive here and is brought in from New Britain province in tanker vessels. Our hotel can only afford a couple of drums to power a small generator and each room has just one plug socket—enough to charge the phone or to use the wall fan. Usually, we have enough with this to work, but sometimes the generator fails (or runs out of petrol) and these difficulties can be further complicated by the frequent outages affecting the telephone network. Those are the days when you suddenly become more conscious of just how far from home you are.

On days like that, there is no way to escape from the oppressive heat or take a decent shower ... or charge a mobile phone. You feel very disconnected from the outside world. The nearest place is Lihir Island, a two-hour journey on the Shooting Star, the small passenger vessel belonging to the Lihir mining company that is used to transport workers and supplies from Namatanai to Lihir; or five hours in a banana boat—the motorboats that everyone around here uses to travel between the islands. These motorboats are extremely dangerous because they can be overturned by a big wave or a bit of bad weather, and their engines are just as unreliable as the purity of the fuel that powers them. It is not unusual to see rescue parties setting out to search for lost boats. What’s more, there are no hospitals, only local health centres, which have neither electricity nor medicines—little more than penicillin and paracetamol. The point is that you are pretty “isolated” here and Papua New Guinea can be a dangerous place. A car accident or an infectious disease can quickly become serious when access to medical care is so difficult.

The point is that you are pretty “isolated” here and Papua New Guinea can be a dangerous place. A car accident or an infectious disease can quickly become serious when access to medical care is so difficult

I cross the wooden bridge and pass Jannet’s door. “I’m going for water” I shout in Spanish (Jannet is Colombian). “Rise and shine and I’ll see you at breakfast!” In the centre of the village there is a supermarket run by Namatanai’s Chinese community, where a functional generator powers a fridge full of bottles of Coca-Cola... and cold water! Chilled water is one of the greatest pleasures one can find in a climate like this and it is a commodity that is hard to obtain when there is no electricity.

I walk past the door of Martí, our senior researcher. I can hear him talking on the phone. With any luck, we will have news today about the project. Once I leave the hotel complex by the main door, everyone I meet on my way to the supermarket greets me: —“Morning Miss!”, “Morning tupla!”, “Morning Doc!”, “Morning Sir!” and so on until I get to the supermarket.

Papuans are very friendly people and they smile a lot. Moreover, they don’t often see white people (Papuans use the terms “black” and “white” to differentiate between locals and westerners) and it is even more rare to see a white woman. This means that you will always meet someone who wants to strike up a conversation. People generally ask three basic questions: “Are you married?”, “Do you have children?”, and “What church do you belong to?” The second of these usually ends up with the advice: “Miss, you must hurry up. You are getting old”.  

 

 

I return from the supermarket with a bag of cold bottles of water.  Martí and Jannet are sitting in the dining room, waiting for me before starting breakfast. Perpetua, the woman who runs the hotel, brings in plastic trays of fried eggs, papaya, pineapple and some bright pink sausages that we always end up giving to the dogs. Everything else is delicious. The instant coffee is Nescafé. Even though Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s biggest exporters of high-quality coffee, nobody here drinks that; they all like powdered coffee with powdered milk and a lot—and I mean a lot—of sugar.

Over breakfast, Martí brings us up to speed on the latest news. Our work has been held up for a couple of days because of delays affecting the filariasis team. We have to wait for them because our project to undertake mass administration of antibiotics to treat yaws is linked to a subproject that includes a combination of treatment for lymphatic filariasis (also known as elephantiasis because in some patients severe inflammation leads to swollen legs that resemble an elephant’s foot) and treatment for yaws (the ulcerative infectious disease that we investigate and treat). According to the latest studies, combining the treatments for these two diseases not only cures both conditions but actually cures a total of five diseases that are endemic in this area.

Our project to undertake mass administration of antibiotics to treat yaws is linked to a subproject that includes a combination of treatment for lymphatic filariasis

Our team leader is Oriol Mitjà, a doctor who came to Papua New Guinea eight years ago and whose work has been focused on yaws. Yaws is a neglected disease that today only affects poor and remote populations; the study carried out by Oriol eight years ago was the first research done on yaws since the 1950s.

The project we are now implementing in the province of New Ireland has been supported by the donation by Kern Pharma of 500,000 doses of azithromycin. It is also being sponsored by ”la Caixa”, Nautilus Minerals, Newcrest Mining, ISDIN, the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation (ACCD), the Fundació Barberà Solidària and the Hospital Clínic de Barcelona. Donations have also been received from Dauss Abogados, Club Rotary Mataró, Voluntaris per Arenys de Munt and many private individuals.

Related contents

Diary of a Researcher in Papua New Guinea (2). An Army of 200 People Working to Eliminate Yaws

Diary of a Researcher in Papua New Guinea (3). In the Shade of a Tree