In the thick of it – reflections from Papua New Guinea

Sam Farmer has been one of our key associates for a number of years. He hails from the United Kingdom and has a background in social work and psychology. Sam has worked in the sex offender area with adult and adolescents. Sam works as a trainer and materials developer. The following is a reflection from a recent trip to Papua New Guinea where Sam was supporting aid workers trying to stem the flow of family violence.

Sam writes:

I have been providing psychosocial support for overseas aid agencies on an adhoc basis for a number of years. Normally, this has taken the form of supporting aid workers’ transition and re-entry into New Zealand following an intensive period working in an emotionally high-impact environment. In October 2009, one of these agencies asked me to accompany their psychosocial and mental health care leader into the field in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Part of the purpose of the visit was to respond to the psychosocial support needs of both national and expat staff who were providing medical and counselling intervention to those, mainly, women and children experiencing domestic violence.

Our objective was to visit staff in two projects: one in a port town and one in a more remote rural setting.

Papua New Guinea has a mixed reputation overseas. On the one hand, visitors comment on the lack of social infrastructure and law and order. On the other hand, travellers report the splendour of the fauna and flora, both above and below water. Most people remark on the contrast of the friendliness of the people compared with the violence with which they visit upon each other. At the same time, most informed visitors are not blind to the impact of the rapid growth of mineral- and timber-hungry international companies upon the numerous small tribes that have been isolated in the forests until the mid-twentieth century. The partial consequence of this has been the increasing draw of men to the towns, looking for jobs. This has in turn led to the physical separation of the extended family (wantok) – whilst financial responsibilities toward them remain or have increased – and a greater divide between the haves and have-nots. Inevitably, this has impacted upon the stress and disruption experienced by most – not least the main childcarers: women.

Significantly, the concept of “bride-price” – wantok payment for a male family member’s bride – has not diminished, and men remain very much the head of the family. In turn, men are expected to provide for their own families. The consequent pressure by the wantok for husband and wife to remain together according to cultural tradition is considerable – and can be increased when men marry more than one wife. It is not infrequent that wives will physically fight each other to ensure that their own children have primary access to the limited resources within the family. Physical chastisement from men toward their wives is expected. Whilst severity is not condoned, it is common.

It is within this context that I visited the two projects led by the agency that employed me.

When I arrived in Area 1, the lack of any police or military presence was obvious. Whilst there was no palpable sense of violence or fear, even the locals talked about the frequency of knife or machete-assisted robberies. At the project here, as well as domestic violence, the provision of medical and counselling support to adolescent female victims of gang assault was not uncommon. Whilst coping extremely well, expat staff appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the impact of working in such circumstances.

A larger part of my role in this and the next project was to co-establish and facilitate small supportive peer groups for the national staff – a portion of whom were also experiencing domestic violence in their own homes. As we set about this task, it became obvious that many local staff – although very open to us as outsiders – were not familiar with the idea of expressing their thoughts and feelings to each other. Indeed, within individual sessions, it became clear that they often found themselves in explosive isolation before they noticed the extreme nature of depression or anger that had been stirred by some relational or financially-provoked difficulty within their wantok or with their family. Consequently, part of our work was to enable national staff to monitor and talk about their thoughts and feelings with each other. The use of mindfulness techniques and exercises was invaluable.

In both projects it was really important to remind ourselves to be open to the cultural circumstances of the staff with whom we were working rather than impose western values. Sometimes this meant acknowledging individuals’ violent circumstances and giving them the opportunity to talk about and perhaps develop some strategies to cope better with them, but without expecting or encouraging them to change the situation. We were often looking at the very basic level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Whilst happy, the sense of social disconnection experienced by the rural population of the second project was easy to perceive. Upon arrival, we were shown around the very basic environment of the hospital in which the project was based. The injuries reflected the lives of the people: children with burns from open fires; a young man with his hand chopped off from an inter-wantok feud; a woman covered in bandages as a result of her husband’s anger being expressed through the blade of a machete. Local staff described hour long walks to and from work, returning to look after young children – if they saw them at all during the week – and their own domestic violent situations and wantok financial commitments.

The support given to ex-pat staff included acknowledging the impact of long hours dealing with often gruelling wounds and disturbing assaults. Veterans of conflicts and brutality in African wars were bemused and disturbed by the extreme spontaneity of the intra-family and inter-tribal violence in this rural area. It was helpful to normalise and offer strategies to cope with the sense of moral dislocation and disconnection without pretending the likelihood of reprieve. Alcohol often assisted the release of the violence. Again, support to national staff was around the appropriate ventilation, expression and coping strategies in relation to the expression of difficult emotions. Natural metaphors were useful: volcanoes in relation to anger; waterfalls, clouds, rivers and the forest for coping strategies. In addition, the use of mindfulness techniques and education about strength-based approaches toward relationships were greatly appreciated and appeared effective.

There is no safe conclusion to this account – just as there wasn’t to my visit. Simply, that PNG is a beautiful and friendly place, punctuated by terrible spontaneous violence to which there is no easy answer. Supporting women and children in their experience is one thing. Perhaps working with men is another. But first, outsiders need to understand. For me, this is just the beginning.

Published on Tuesday, January 26th, 2010, under Practice tips and techniques

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