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Putting education first in Papua New Guinea


Gerard Gough


LIKE many countries in the continent of Oceania, Papua New Guinea is not immune to environmental crises both natural and man-made.


In 2018, an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale left 270,000 people—nearly half of them children—needing humanitarian assistance. Around 65 per cent of the country’s schools had to close for a prolonged period as a result of the damage caused.


Giorgio Bernadelli, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) has no hesitation in highlighting the exploitation of the land and the depletion of natural resources in the area which predated the earthquake.


“The environmental balance of the Pacific has suffered a serious degradation in the last decade due to pollution and poor governance of the territory," he said. “It is one of the places where our global economy most easily finds an abundance of the raw materials we need—gold, silver, copper, minerals in general. Papua New Guinea is a very rich land from this point of view, and it is a land where there are also new frontiers of exploitation.


“One of the most serious problems today is that of sand mining,” he explained. “There are entire areas of the Papua New Guinea coast that risk being eroded precisely because of the exploitation of this material for export. And there are also projects for seabed mining, for example for the exploitation of resources under the sea, on the seabed.”


When the environment comes under threat, human beings do too, something Pope Francis noted in his encyclical, Laudato Si, when he said: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” (Paragraph 139)


Environmental problems often lead to societal problems such as violence throughout the country and also an increase in poverty, especially in rural areas. Education is pivotal in combatting both, but it remains an ongoing challenge with Papua New Guinea registering an illiteracy rate of more than 35 per cent.


“Education is important to form good citizens and to achieve this, greater investment is needed in young people,” Dr Uke Kombre, the Education Secretary said. “We need to mobilise and consolidate all the departments supporting education to be able to strengthen future generations of the country. Whoever has children always wants the best for them, we do not just want them to survive, but to grow and make a proactive contribution to society.”

A saintly example

In terms of education, one of the shining lights that is specific to Papua New Guinea is Blessed Peter To Rot (above) who was martyred for his faith by the occupying Japanese forces during the Second World War for defending the sacrament of marriage. 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of his Beatification by Pope Saint John Paul II and the 75th anniversary of his martyrdom.


In a recent homily Archbishop Rochus Josef Tatamai of Rabaul spoke of Blessed Peter To Rot becoming a ‘second-generation Christian’ after his parents landed on the island of Matupit in 1882 and praised him as someone who was a ‘family man, a Catechist, teacher and martyr.’


“He left behind many great examples of obedience,” Archbishop Tatamai said. “He led an exemplary family life, was an excellent teacher, catechist, man of prayer, respect and faith. He was born in a period of lockdown during the Second World War, when even the restrictions on the activities of the Church persisted, but he persevered in his pastoral work of teaching and Catechesis.”

Sisters supporting schools

Following in the educational footsteps of Blessed Peter To Rot is 87-year-old Sister Mary Claude Gadd (above centre)—a Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (SSCJ)—who hails from San Antonio, Texas in the USA, but who has lived in Papua New Guinea for 36 years. During that time, she has been responsible for developing child protection programmes, as well as parenting programmes, but the programme most recently founded by the energetic sister is perhaps her most impressive to date and one that this year, Missio Scotland, is proud to give its support to.


“I developed a Universal Inclusive Early Childhood Programme (IECD), so that every child in rural and remote rural areas may have a chance to start out in life with the hope of a brighter future,” Sr Mary Claude said. “Private Early Childhood Education has always been available in the urban areas for children whose parents could afford it. We piloted the IECD programme with UNICEF Papua New Guinea and it has been an immense success for us.”


Currently, there are 258 IECD centres. Each is connected to one of the 31 parishes in the area, with many of those having as many as 58 satellite smaller churches/Christian communities. The IECD centres take in children at the age of three and boast some 300 teachers, who are given further training while in post.


“Thus far, the government doesn’t financially contribute in any way to this programme,” Sr Mary Claude said. “It is all community and parish sponsored. Our partnership agreement with UNICEF ended almost two years ago and now we are on our own completely.”


This year though, Missio Scotland, through its support for Sr Mary Claude and her fellow sisters in Papua New Guinea, aims to show that they are not on their own completely and that they can rely on their brothers and sisters in Scotland as part of the universal Church.


Sr Mary Claude explained exactly what the most pressing need and where Missio Scotland’s funds will be directed.


“What we need help with right now is suitable library material for little children. We encourage the children to learn English and they love it. It’s the first language of Papua New Guinea closely followed by Tok Pisin and Motu, but there are very little local publications that can speak to a child about their own culture and so on.


“A local author has recently published a set of books that would be most beneficial to this end and we would greatly appreciate if we could try and get a set of them for each of our centres. I am in touch with the author of these books and she tells me that they can enlarge them to A4 size so that the teacher can read to the children and show them the pictures at the same time. A package of 10 A4 sized books will cost £72 (which includes transport and tax) and as I said, we’re looking to try and get a set for each of our centres.


“We are most grateful for any way in which Missio Scotland might be able to help us purchase these books. May God continue to bless you, keep you well and safe.”


During the anniversary celebrations of Blessed Peter To Rot last year, Fidelis Aran, president of the parish committee of St Joseph’s in Boroko, said of him: “He was an apostle who responded to the call of Jesus, for the faithful of Papua New Guinea and the whole world as a lay missionary. To Rot was a seed and a sower of the Catholic Christian Faith in this land and is today an example of faith for the universal Church for the whole world.”


Let us also respond to the call of Jesus for the faith of Papua New Guinea in our own small, but nonetheless important, way by donating to Missio Scotland this month so as to support education in the country and show that we too are examples of faith for the universal Church.


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