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The testing times of Papa Joe

| My Land, My Country

LAE - It has been two months now since I had the privilege of meeting an elderly gentleman from Salamaua who works as a painter and carpenter.

I’ll call him Papa Joe in this blog post.

Papa Joe spent more than 20 years working on various construction sites in Port Moresby including the Hilton Hotel.

He is a typical old school tradesman: a vocational school-trained, perfectionist who lost a thumb in a sawmilling accident years back.

It’s his personal story of struggling as a father and provider that humbled me and made me cry inside.

When he told me his story, I had no means of helping him apart from a small job I could give him through a family friend who contracted him.

Papa Joe married late. I think he is in his late sixties. I didn’t ask.

His children are relatively young. His two daughters are in secondary school. Another is in Grade 6.

After years of living in Port Moresby, he chose to resign from his job and return to Salamaua. But life has been difficult for the old fella.

After more than two decades living in Port Moresby, the transition to his wife’s village on the Salamua coast has not been easy.

He tried to adjust, he told me. But it takes time for food to grow. It takes time for an elderly tambu (in-law) to settle into a place where he can’t easily fit.

Towards the end of 2019, he made a decision to leave his family behind and travel to Lae to look for work.

He spent more than a year doing this but he was unsuccessful. Times had changed. A lot more people have the same skills. A lot more young people are doing the same work.

Who would want to employ someone with no references who is well into his sixties?

It’s a personal battle he is fighting well past his prime.

His was a generation that had jobs and education spaces waiting to be filled.

In the 1960s, straight after Grade 6, he got an offer to train at a vocational school where he learned carpentry, sawmilling and painting skills. He got a job immediately after graduating. No problems.

But his was generation received no training on how to manage money or build businesses. They were a generation of workers trained for the former administrative machinery.

As my youngest daughter made him tea, he told me, “Son, these days people will give jobs to their family members and wantoks. If I had a small contract, I would be able to support my family.”

A week before Papa Joe told me his story, his two daughters travelled by boat to Lae.

They had been told they could not continue their education at Salamaua High School because their fees had not been paid.

They didn’t know their father was still jobless after a year searching for work.

Papa Joe shut his eyes hard and shook his head.

“I hugged them tight and cried for them,” he said.

Papa i no painim wok yet. Papa i no gat moni. Plis, yutupla mas go bek lo mama nau yet.” [Papa hasn’t found a job yet. Papa has no money. Please, you both have to go back to your mother.]

He begged the boat operator to take them back without a fee. After a year of missing his children, he got to see them only for a fleeting few minutes and sent them back to their mum.

I sat silent. Many years ago, I was faced with the option of leaving my kids and going off to Port Moresby to ‘look for a job’.

I didn’t. It was hard. I chose to stay and battle it out. Difference was that we were young and had a lots of opportunities ahead of us.

Papa Joe has found some work.

It’s a tiny job that we’ve given to him through a family friend. I wish I could pay him more and my inability to do so, at present, kills me inside.

We will try to help him when we are able and hopefully before the school year starts so he can pay for his daughters school fees with dignity.

Hopefully, 2021 will be a better year for him.


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Eve Denu

Tearing up reading this. I am from Salamaua too. And yes life is hard in Salamaua, though it's a picture perfect paradise, it is also filled with challenges. Not enough opportunities for cash income, only 1 functional health centre at the station servicing the entire LLG.. I feel for Papa Joe, having young children at that age.. anyway I won't promise anything but this is my email address.

Philip Fitzpatrick

The Gogodala of Western Province are renowned carvers with their very own distinctive style. In the 1970s they were producing imitations of Sepik artworks but when Tony Crawford arrived with an old book full of illustrations of their traditional art they reverted back to their original designs.

At the time there was a vocational college at Balimo which trained carpenters. The students learnt woodwork and carved in their spare time.

Around 2012 I spent time on the Aramia River with a company servicing a mining exploration program. We had need of carpenters and sent out word.

Literally dozens of men turned up, all sporting their own lovingly maintained hand tools.

There had been virtually no work for them in the local area but a few of them had been at Tabubil near the Ok Tedi mine during the construction phase. The skills that they had learnt at the vocational college were quite remarkable.

I imagine they are all now back in their villages twiddling their thumbs but still maintaining their hand tools.

There is a very large cadre of 60s plus tradesmen in PNG without work, just like Papa Joe.

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