| Mim’s Diary
POPONDETTA - Teachers are the backbone of a nation. They are the foundation of every other profession - tough people who raise their hands to educate a nation.
In Papua New Guinea, we have heard news over the years about teachers going on strike for not being paid or not being paid well. But not all teachers raise their concerns openly.
There are some, especially those teaching in schools outside the cities, who stand in the classroom day in and day out without complaining about not being on the government’s payroll.
These are the teachers who truly have the heart to serve. One of them is Norm Ukuma, known by his students and everyone in his community as Mr Ukuma.
Mr Ukuma is 56 and comes from the Koira village of Musa in Oro Province. He’s been teaching at East Ambogo Elementary School since 2009.
East Ambogo is a 10-minute bus ride from Popondetta and educates children from Ijivitari and Sohe districts.
Before picking up the chalk, Mr Ukuma was a mechanic.
“I worked with Ambogo Sawmill here in Popondetta as a general duty mechanic,” he told me, “and then I was in charge of small engines repairs. I retired after 20 years there and joined the education department.”
Mr Ukuma volunteered to be a teacher because the school in his own community and he wanted to educate the generations that were coming up.
“I started teaching in 2009 and I’ve been teaching multiple grades, Prep, Grade 1 and Grade 2.
“Some volunteer teachers stepped in to help but left because they were not paid. The head teacher also left too so I took over that role.”
Mr Ukuma obtained a teaching qualification, a Certificate in Elementary Teaching, from Sonoma Adventist College in 2010.
But despite that qualification and having taught at East Ambogo for 12 years, Mr Ukuma has not been registered by the education department as a teacher.
That means he has not been paid a single kina by the government for standing in the classroom for 12 years.
“Myself and other teachers who are in the same boat have submitted all the necessary documents that the education department told us to submit to be registered, but we are still waiting for them to get back to us.
“We were told we would be registered and put on the payroll, so we are still waiting for that to happen.”
Mr Ukuma has faced many challenges, especially financial, in the last 12 years. He has been unable to meet many of his needs, nor those of his wife and eight children.
He was sometimes not even able to meet his children’s school fees or put food on the table. His wife Nancy took the role of family breadwinner by tilling the soil to make gardens to feed her family and selling doughnuts and garden produce at the market.
“All eight children were attending school and I had difficulty paying the school fees because my husband was not on payroll,” said Nancy.
“My children and I have suffered a lot. I sometimes have tears seeing my family struggling financially. My oldest daughter who worked for a Chinese shop stepped in and helped.
“As for food, my children grew up eating food from our gardens. They had garden food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The garden is still my family’s main source of survival.”
From time to time, Nancy would ask Mr Ukuma, ‘You are standing in the classroom without being paid; who is going to feed us?’
“Sometimes, I just want to pull him out of the classroom and make him spend more time at the gardens.
“But what stops me doing that is the reason why he chose to be in the classroom, and that is not for fame or to be rich but to serve the country. I respect that.”
Nancy believes she is not alone.
“I believe there are women whose husbands are teachers and in the same boat as my husband.
“They are going through the same struggles and challenges as we are.
“That is why I call on the government to put all teachers on the payroll so they are able to support their wives and children while serving the nation.”
Mr Ukuma confirmed his situation had put his family through hardships.
“My family sometimes discouraged me and sometimes supported me.
“But despite the challenges, I continued teaching and I continue to teach because my desire is to serve my community, my province and my country.”
Registered or not, paid or not, Mr Ukuma had pledged to serve and not put down the chalk, at least not yet.
That is what it means to serve with your heart. That is what it means to be committed.
And that is what it means to be a teacher.