When I told people I was going to go work in Papua New Guinea (PNG), these are some of the responses/questions I got.
‘You are going where!?’
- ‘Where is that?’
- ‘Why would you go there?’
- ‘Is it safe there?’
- ‘What are you going to do there!?’
Truth be told, I also had to look at the map to certify where the country is located and confirmed it was located on the other side of the world – at least according to my American-perspective. Initially I was hesitant about going to PNG because many of the stories or reports I had heard mostly involved violence and poverty, and a quick internet search only furthered my hesitation when I found plenty of stories relating to these subjects. Digging a bit deeper, however, I found other stories that did not relate to violence or poverty but rather were stories of discovery. There were stories about explorers encountering new people, languages, animals, and species of plants that have never been encountered before. These are the stories I decided to focus on because as a Pakistani-American growing up in America, I learned to see the negative but focus on the positive.
I was born and raised in America and am proud of my Pakistani-background but sometimes that proudness was tested, especially when terrible news would come out of Pakistan (which unfortunately was the only time Pakistan would be in the Western news). It was then I decided not to ignore the terrible news from Pakistan, but I wanted to focus on the many great things that Pakistan holds in my heart: my relatives (khalas, chachus, cousins, etc.), the amazing Pakistani food (garam naan straight out of the tandoor with rich salans), the rich culture and heritage of Lahore, and general good nature I found while visiting Pakistan. It was these aspects of Pakistan I would try to focus on and illustrate when talking to people in America, so they could also appreciate the Pakistan I know and not focus on the Pakistan they heard or saw in the news. I wanted to find the balance and that is the same lesson I applied when I set off for Papua New Guinea.
When I first arrived into Papua New Guinea, it was a complete culture shock; the motto of Papua New Guinea is ‘land of the unexpected’ and everything I encountered on my first trip was COMPLETELY unexpected. Papua New Guinea is nothing like America – the food, the culture, the way of life, the way of working, the climate, and the intense security – and the country has no overlap with what I am accustomed to, but as I spent more time with the people I noticed more similarities with Pakistan. Yes I did notice the violence that plagues the country – there is communal violence, rampant domestic violence, as well as petty thefts – but I also noticed warm hearts and inviting people; people who would welcome and embrace you as if you were part of the family.
My job required me to travel to different parts of the country and in one city the hotel shuttle forgot to pick me up from the airport. This wouldn’t have been a big deal except that the airport was about an hour outside of the city and would only open when the plane landed and the shut when the plane took off (an hour after it landed). The shuttle driver only worked when there were passengers to be picked up so the shuttle was not available, so there I was stranded at the airport and I was the only foreigner there so I stuck out. It could’ve have been one of the scariest times I experienced, but I never felt unsafe or unprotected because the Papua New Guineans surrounded me with warmth and security. Person after person would stop and ask me if I was ok, if I needed a ride to town (some even willing to go the complete opposite way to drop me off thus adding another hour to their commute), or if I was ok standing there by myself. In the end, it was the airline ground staff who eventually stayed with me and dropped me off at the hotel but I never forgot the warmth and security the Papua New Guineans showed me while I was stranded there. This showed the Papua New Guineans capacity for warmth and protection, but they also showed great heart.
In another instance I had been working in one city for about 2 weeks doing intense training with a group, which provided enough time to get to know someone but not enough time to consider someone family or a part of their tribe (at least not in my mind); I found out later that I was completely wrong by PNG standards. My flight was in the morning from another city so we had to drive down, but due to traffic (and bad roads) I missed my morning flight and was rerouted to the afternoon flight. Instead of leaving me at the airport or dropping me off at a nearby hotel, I was invited, as part of the family, to witness a PNG tradition – the bride price ceremony. The bride price ceremony involves “an amount of money or property or wealth paid by the groom or his family to the parents of a woman upon the marriage of their daughter to the groom.”[i] It is very similar to a dowry in Pakistan, but in PNG they have an elaborate ceremony in which all family members are invited and this is what I got to witness as a member of the family. The leader of the group I had been training had recently gotten married and was now conducting his bride price ceremony and invited me to be a part of the celebration as part of his tribe. As soon as I stepped in I was immediately welcomed as part of the groom’s side and got to witness an AMAZING tradition which has a lot of heart, but also has elements of community and oneness and of coming together as one. Witnessing a bride price ceremony was an incredible opportunity but when it was over it wasn’t the ceremony or the customs that I took with me, rather it was the feeling of a community or tribe coming together and welcoming everyone that remained with me. I felt a part of the tribe, a part of the family and that is something which I could not read about in the news; I had to experience it.
These two stories are just some of my experiences travelling and working around Papua New Guinea and it taught me that no matter what is being reported or told or heard, every country has heart and good people. The goodness and warmth of people is what I experienced in both Pakistan and Papua New Guinea, and my experiences in supposedly two countries that are considered ‘dangerous and high-risk’ showed that while there is some negativity, the people of these countries are filled with heart and joy and welcome everyone. That is the message that needs to be delivered.