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The fears & foes of an impoverished primary school student

Butibam Primary SchoolISO YAWI

MY time at Butibam Primary School just outside Lae was embarrassing. From the day I entered Grade 5 in 2003 until I completed my final year in 2006, I had trials in my life – and I looked upon these as my ‘foes’.

The first four years (1999-2002) at Butibam had been pleasant, but as the clock struck 2003 a cloud of doom descended on me like a giant shadow waiting for my little soul to pass through.

So I had trials, ‘foes’.

The main foe was poverty. For most of my friends poverty seemed as nothing but for me it was a cause of great embarrassment.

Both my parents were unemployed and we survived on whatever we could sell at the market each day. Our income was miniscule, about K6 a day - just enough for one meal, dinner. No breakfast or lunch.

I went to school and acted as if I had eaten breakfast but I was starving. Thank god for water. I drank plenty of it until I had a full stomach. Ha, I survived!

My school was near home so bus fares were not a problem. It took me only five minutes to walk to the school campus. However, getting through the gate was a constant problem for me alone.

Duty teachers stood at the gate and badly groomed students were sent home. This was my constant worry. I always combed my hair and brushed my teeth but the uniform was a headache.

I would hide from the assemblies on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays because these were uniform days and teachers were very strict about uniforms. Students without them were sent home.

I had just one school shirt, its gold colour faded by the years into a near white. Without black trousers I knew I would be sent home. Living in poverty was what I was used to. It was a norm and I didn’t care for all this uniform business. Just as long as I got educated!

I also hated class parties or any event requiring cash contributions. I had nothing to contribute. A single kina was significant money.

As a 12 year old, these were my fears and foes. I stayed away from class parties, seeing them as not part of me because I had nothing to contribute. I hung out for the ten weeks of term to pass and evolve into a welcome holiday.

When holidays were over, I felt sick and didn’t want to return to my prison camp. I did not hate education but I hated the rules and regulations and high standards. I constantly felt under threat of being kicked out.

Time passed and I waited impatiently for the next holidays. I told myself I would get a part time job and, as the Christmas holidays approached, I walked boldly into the headmaster’s office and told him I wanted a letter that might obtain me a part-time job.

“Son, what grade are you in?” he asked,

“Grade five,” I replied.

“We have letters for Grades seven and eight only. You are not eligible yet. Just go home and relax over the holiday.”

I walked from the office dismayed. I knew the holiday would be fun but also wanted to make some money to buy uniforms and books. I would be entering upper primaryin 2004.

Holidays came and I bought 50 little lollypops with two kina given to me by my aunt. I asked my mom to sell them for 20 toea each.

It was a good plan. When the holiday ended I had K80 in my hands and felt ready for Grade 6. I bought myself a uniform and exercise books, however school fees were problem. I don’t know how my parents paid them.

By this time I felt I had learnt the secret about money so I kept up the lollypop sales and had enough for contributions to class parties or anything that required some cash.  I bought myself clothes and always had enough for lunch.

During Grade 6 we studied self-reliance including a subject called Making A Living. Those words were new to me so I pulled out a dictionary which told me “to depend on oneself to achieve a goal”.

I fully appreciated that. I knew what it meant to be self-reliant.

I completed Grade 7, enjoying my education and my schoolmates and on graduation day had tears in my eyes. I had successfully completed a primary school education at Butibam. And graduation was the first time in my life I had worn brand new shoes, a skyblue shirt and long dark blue pants.

After eight years of school, I was not proud. I was worried.  I was not a bright student academically but an average one.

But when I opened the certificate I saw an offer to continue to high school to do Grade 9.

I felt I owed Butibam Primary School so much.

This story is dedicated to the ex Butibam Primary School students with thanks to all our teachers: Grade 1 (1999) - Miss Kalai (now Mrs N’draras) and the late Mrs Unduka; Grade 2 (2000) - Mr Tendele; Grade 3 (2001) - the late Mr Abonai; Grade 4 (2002) – Mrs Maliaki; Grade 5 (2003) – Mrs Maliaki; Grade 6 (2004) – Mr Baine; Grade 7 (2005) - Mrs Panda and Mr Moses; Grade 8 (2006) – Mr Moses


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Paul Manuambi

Touching stories. I used to walk a hard gravel road up to 10 kilometers to and from school 5 days a week for 3 years back in the 70's just to do my grades 4, 5 and 6.

Mum, who is still alive today, used to roast taro or plaintains in the open fire wrapped in banana leaves as early as 5 in the morning so I could take to school for my lunch.

When I visit home and travel this road by car these days, I used to think back to those days, and tell my kids who could not comprehend what I did those days. To me now, I am fortunate to have acquired a decent education.

Nice memory. Paul. It is terrific that you share your stories with the current generation whose experience, while difficult in its own way, is very different from yours - KJ

Jordan Dean

This story rings a bell. I dived for sea cucumber during my school holidays in Gr.11 and 12 (2001 & 2002) to assist my parents with my school fees. I also helped my uncle's saw rosewood and kwila timber to sell for my tuition fees at UPNG. We've come the hard way. Keep on going!


Thanks for sharing those experience of your it makes me feel that I am not alone, people have walked this path. I am aiming for high place ahead.

Thanks, Indeed I believe there will be open doors for greatness so that I continue the sequel.

Daniel Kumbon

Iso, I felt the same emotions when I did Form 3 at Lae Technical College in 1974.

You see, we students whose parents were villagers from far districts like Enga or Vanimo were a sorry sight to see. Students whose parents worked seemed to have everything. They had radios, shoes and spending money.

We sons of ‘kanakas’ used to collect bottles to make some money to buy soap. The hardest part was to sell the empty bottles, especially in front of girls.

I looked for term employment too. A kind expatriate man who managed Turner and Davy Electrical in Top Town offered me some work to clean his office. He paid me $60, after two weeks. I really appreciated his kindness. I still remember his face and wonder where he is now.

With the money, I opened my first bank account. I used to put pocket money given to me by wantoks in this account when I transferred to Port Moresby Technical College in 1975 – the year of our country’s independence.

I related all this in my first small book – ‘Climbing Mountains’ which was published by Oxford University Press.

I am sure some of our members of parliament are the sons of villagers, or like former Prime Minister Bill Skate who was raised in the settlements in Port Moresby.

Our new O’Neill – Abel government must be mindful of the problems people face daily. They must have the rural population in their mind always.

They are duty-bound to provide the best basic services for them.

Robin Lillicrapp

Great reflections on the formative years, Iso.
I think there's room for a sequel, don't you?

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