Posts Tagged Papua New Guinea
I saw an astonishing program the other day. Apparently witch hunts still occur in New Guinea. When something bad and unexplained happens it is not uncommon to blame it on some poor woman and accuse her of witchcraft, after which she is beaten, tortured and often killed. While her family will sometimes support and protect her more often than not they go along with her accusers and denounce her as well.
Some of these accusers were interviewed in the program. All of them were men. Hopefully this means the women are too intelligent to believe in this sort of nonsense. The interviewed men seemed to genuinely believe in what they were doing despite the absurdity and cruelty of it.
Unfortunately it seems far too easy to accuse someone of witchcraft. Presumably if you held a grudge against them you could come up with something farfetched like, my chicken just died, point the finger and shout, “She did it!” And that is all that is needed. The accuser is not required to come up with any kind of proof, making it impossible for the accused to defend herself. If she survives the beating and torture she is often ostracised by her community and may as well have been killed.
It is truly shocking how ingrained this sort of nonsense still is and how horrible the consequences are. Still, cultures that support the notion of rising from the dead, water turning into wine and thousands of people being fed with a few loaves and fishes need to be careful about throwing stones. They should be setting an example by renouncing their own superstitions.
Dr. F. Bunny
How good would this be? According to a recent TED talk by Mark Kendall it could soon become reality (http://www.ted.com/talks/mark_kendall_demo_a_needle_free_vaccine_patch_that_s_safer_and_way_cheaper.html).
Instead of using a needle and syringe the vaccine is applied via a patch that is placed on the skin. The patch contains thousands of projections that release the vaccine into the top layers of the skin. As well as being pain free the administration of the vaccine into the skin, rather than the muscle, also generates a more powerful immune response. This means that much less vaccine is required (up to one hundredth of the traditional dose) lowering the cost and decreasing the possibility of undesirable side effects.
The vaccine that coats the patch is in a dry form. Therefore, it does not need to be refrigerated, unlike traditional vaccines, and will retain its potency at 23 C for up to a year. This makes it much more feasible to use in countries where electricity and refrigeration are difficult to guarantee, such as Papua New Guinea which has only 800 refrigerators. Patch trials are due to start there soon.
Dr. F. Bunny
Apologies to Pink Floyd and their “Obscured by Clouds” album.
When I was at school learning Indonesian I was introduced to the concept of “jam karet” or rubber time. This is loosely defined as the idea that when an Indonesian says he will turn up at 10 o’clock he may well turn up at 10.15 or 10.30 or a week from Tuesday. Time does not constrain him nearly as tightly as it does us, well me anyway.
This concept can also be applied to our New Guinea guides on the Kokoda Track who, when asked how much longer we would be walking, might reply with, “Two and a half hours”. We would then be pleasantly surprised when we turned up at our destination after only two or maybe even one and a half hours. As they had all walked the Track many, many times (158 times for our cook, or so he told us) we assumed they knew pretty precisely how long it took to walk from one village to the next. We thought they were probably factoring in our slower pace and tendency to get tired or maybe they were exaggerating in order to spur us on. The mind is a funny thing and, when told it will be driving the body for another two and a half hours, it knuckles down and gets on with the job. If the time happens to be shorter than expected this is a very welcome surprise. Watch out if the opposite occurs, however.
One memorable afternoon we asked for an estimate of remaining walking time and were told, “45 minutes to an hour, depending on how fast you walk.” It actually ended up being three hours, the final 30 minutes of which was down an almost vertical ravine! This was agony because the mind had prepared the body for a brisk 60 minute walk, which it expected to finish shortly thereafter. Because of this expectation the walk became a much greater slog than if we had been told from the outset that we would be hiking for three more hours.
None of the New Guinea guides wore watches and I suspect their concept of time was a rubber one indeed. But then none of them had to catch trains, attend meetings or be anywhere at any specific moment. You walked when it was light and stopped when you arrived or it got dark. What else was there to know and why did these pesky tourists keep asking these stupid, irrelevant questions?
Dr. F. Bunny
There I was sitting back and relaxing on my Air Niugini flight from Port Moresby back to Australia enjoying the kind of inflight service even other airlines talk about (sorry that’s Singapore Airlines), when one of the flight attendants paused in his meandering. He looked down, noticed my stylish Kokoda shirt and asked if I had indeed walked the famous Track. Smiling shyly I acknowledged that I had. He beamed and said that his home village of Alola was one of the ones on the Track.
Then he leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially that he was unable to return to Alola because his fellow villagers were jealous of his success and would kill him if he so much as set foot in the place. But they would not do it by machete, popular though they were. They would do it by magic!
Concerned, I asked about the welfare of his family. He smiled and told me not to worry as they were protected by magical guardians. Leaning still closer he then told me that, if things got really bad, he would turn invisible and kill his family’s enemies. Apparently this was something he had done in the past and could do again if the occasion demanded.
He then proceeded to tell me of one of his relatives who broke a leg. It was too far to get them to the city and too expensive to have the leg fixed, so the village shaman took care of it. Another villager was cursed by a rival shaman. This curse fractured their spine in two places. They were given four days to live. Fortunately the local shaman came to the rescue with a counter spell that restored their spine and all but brought them back from the dead.
There are several disturbing plaques on the Kokoda Track dedicated to people who have died trying to walk it. All are dated between 2006 and 2009. I was told that these deaths were not the result of heart attacks or dehydration, as was the official claim. That was just a cover up. They were all killed by magic. While walking the Track it is important never to be the last in the group. Always make sure there is at least one indigenous person behind you or you could also be magically murdered. I told him I was always up near the front of the group, which seemed to reassure him.
At this point one of the other flight attendants dropped by and suggested, in no uncertain terms, that he get back to work. I did see him again as we filed out of the plane. He smiled and assured me that I would be safe. I felt relieved but was that because he appeared to have cast a good spell on me or because the plane was back on the ground?
Dr. F. Bunny
As a footnote, when we approached Port Moresby a week earlier a definite smell of burning electrical circuitry could be detected wafting through the cabin. The pilot then proceeded to not so much land the plane as drop it like a rock onto the runway. That was when I could really have used a benevolent spell.
Having lost the battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 the Japanese attempted to capture New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, by landing on the north coast at Gona and then marching over the Owen Stanley Ranges along a steep, narrow and muddy mail route through the jungle: the Kokoda Track.
However, the Australian army, fearing what would happen should Port Moresby fall to the Japanese, wandered up the track from the south to discuss this with them. Despite being heavily outnumbered the Australians were able to slow the Japanese advance for long enough to force them to reconsider the wisdom of dragging men and heavy artillery through the New Guinea mud. They ended up fleeing the island altogether, with the Australians in hot pursuit.
These days it is possible to follow in the footsteps of these soldiers and walk the Kokoda Track from its origin at the village of the same name to its finish, some 96 km away at Ower’s Corner. This trip took my son and I (along with four more Australians and a host of indigenous carriers who lead the way, cooked for us and carried our tents) eight days to complete and was certainly the most physically challenging thing I have ever done.
Being New Guinea the weather was tropical: warm and humid, but we were fortunate that rain fell only at night. The vegetation was incredibly lush and looked like it would have been at home in the Cretaceous Period. I would have been only mildly surprised if a velociraptor had bounded past.
We were woken each morning at 5.30 and started trekking around 7.00. Distances covered ranged from 7 to 18 km per day, depending on the ruggedness of the terrain and the enthusiasm of the trekkers. We were all tucked up tightly in our sleeping bags, exhausted but content by 8.00 each night.
The track itself consisted of incredibly steep hill climbs and descents over mud soaked ground covered in tangles of tree roots and rocks. I actually preferred the ascents as they were extremely taxing from a cardiovascular perspective, but not nearly as treacherous as the descents. The large amounts of mud made the slopes extremely slippery with one misstep potentially catapulting the victim off the edge of the track or, as one of our party discovered, causing them to roll an ankle. The indigenous carriers were truly astonishing the way they cavorted up and down the slopes, 15+ kg packs on their backs, work boots or running shoes on their feet (except for one fellow who covered the entire 96 km barefoot!).
Streams were forded via some rather rudimentary and highly dubious bridges.
The low hanging cloud formed a truly eerie backdrop to some of our walks through the villages en route.
Day 2 found us at the Isurava war memorial, a site almost as iconic to Australians as Gallipoli. The four pillars are carved with the words “Courage”, “Endurance”, “Mateship”, “Sacrifice” and were a moving testament to the men who fought and died here, set against an astonishingly beautiful mountain backdrop.
Amazingly the jungle is still full of unexploded mortars and hand grenades, this cache being unearthed in February by a group of locals looking for brush turkey eggs.
It was a magnificent and emotional experience. After all nothing worthwhile is ever achieved without effort. Still, tough as it was for us, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like to live for weeks in this environment suffering malnutrition, disease and the constant threat of being shot at or having a mortar land in your lunch. Much as I detest war the courage of the men involved is truly inspirational.
There are a bewildering number of companies offering to help you drag your carcase over the Kokoda Track. We selected Adventure Kokoda (http://www.kokodatreks.com/). While their off track organisation left a bit to be desired they looked after us extremely well on the track, although my son did complain of being perpetually hungry. However, it is quite difficult to fill the bottomless stomach of an active 19 year old at the best of times and even I managed to drop 2.5 kg.
Dr. F. Bunny
Adventure Kokoda, Australian, Courage, Endurance, Isurava, Japanese, Kokoda, Kokoda Track, Kokoda Trail, Mateship, Owen Stanley Range, Ower's Corner, Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby, Sacrifice, Trekking, War Memorial
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