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750 languages but no word for maintenance

An unmaintained road in Lae  PNG's second largest city
An unmaintained road in Lae PNG's second largest city


YUNGABURRA - The Collins English dictionary defines the word ‘maintain’ as the ‘to keep in proper or good condition’.

And, of course, it is a standard procedure for a successful business to always allocate funds in its budget for repair and maintenance.

Potholes must be filled before they become enormous craters; engine oil must be changed according to the manufacturer’s schedule; tyres must be replaced when worn out. And so a very long list goes on.

But in my 30 years in Papua New Guinea, the effective maintenance of government assets almost disappeared.

What funds were made available were largely squandered through corruption and poor management of maintenance programs.

Eventually, lacking regular maintenance, a complete rebuild, or even replacement, of an asset is required at huge expense. A situation readily avoided with regular maintenance.

In 1980 I was posted to the Laloki Plant Quarantine and Horticultural Research Station located on the road to Goldie Barracks some 25 kilometres from Port Moresby.

At that time the Department of Works and Supply was responsible for construction and maintenance of all government infrastructure, and the department’s Plant and Transport Branch was responsible for the purchase and maintenance of the government fleet.

As part of my steep learning curve, I went to Boroko to meet with the key supervisors in the various sections responsible for maintaining Laloki’s fleet of tractors and vehicles as well as water supply, building construction and maintenance.

The roads at that time were usually well maintained, even though mostly unsealed, as a result of the annual budget allocations for routine patrol grading and re-gravelling.

The Department of Agriculture was allocated funding for road maintenance in all coffee, cocoa, rubber, and oil palm project areas, and funds were transferred to Works and Supply to carry this out.

In 1988 I could drive my Nissan Sunny from Lae to Goroka or to Madang in four hours. There was no need to have a four-wheel drive.

At Laloki we had a small team of handymen to do basic maintenance of tractors and equipment as well as housing and office maintenance.

The Central Province water supply supervisor inspected our water bore, pump and chlorinator every quarter and would bring a new drum of chlorine whenever required. All new construction was the responsibility of the Department of Works and Supply.

There were standard plans for classrooms, houses, hospital wards and other buildings so the cost of new construction was minimised.

The electricity commission was responsible for out-station power supplies and received budget allocations for the maintenance of power houses and water reticulation.

By 1980, the construction and maintenance of government physical assets was largely centralised in the Department of Works and Supply. Provinces had their own Works sections routinely maintaining assets.

Then in 1989, the Panguna copper and gold mine in Bougainville was closed after guerrilla attacks its infrastructure.

This failure of a major resource devastated government revenue.

The first items to be cut were often maintenance budgets.

By the early 1990s, all departments were told they had to find their own funds to purchase and maintain vehicles. The effects were widespread.

Roads went largely unmaintained and the heavy plant used for routine road maintenance was not replaced at the end of its life. Funding to the electricity commission was withdrawn and maintenance ceased.

The Plant and Transport Branch’s previously well attended auctions of used government vehicles found bidder numbers scarce.

Buyers previously knew the vehicles they were bidding for had been well maintained. That confidence had quickly evaporated.

The Department of Works (Supply was stripped out in 1988) still exists but now relies on budget allocations from aid donors, provincial governments and district administrations for any maintenance it wants to do.

As a result, most maintenance is now limited to emergencies triggered by floods or landslides.

Aid donors that had originally provided funding for the construction of roads, bridges, schools, water supplies, sewerage and hospitals are now asked to rebuild them when they have deteriorated to such an extent that repair and maintenance was not possible.

The relatively small number of maintenance contracts has also stirred controversy, such as the cases of Kerevat National High School and the main government office complex in Waigani.

Contractors managed to make a lot of money for themselves. They have benefits far more than the assets supposedly maintained.

About 10 years ago, I first heard the statement, “we have 750 languages but there is word for maintenance”.

In fact, down the years since I’ve asked many Papua New Guineans whether there is a word for maintenance in their traditional language.

Usually a term for building something again, like wokim niupela, is suggested in Tok Pisin.

But I’ve found not a single tok ples word for maintenance. The Tok Pisin words stretim or mekim gut gen are probably the best equivalents in that language.

In PNG traditional society, building materials had a relatively short life and a new house had to be built every few years.

Could the reason why there is almost no maintenance of PNG government assets be that there is no word for ‘maintenance’ in that diverse nation’s traditional tongues?

But perhaps I’m wrong, maybe there is a tok ples word for maintenance.

If so, I would love to hear it.


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Lindsay F Bond

Fifty years ago, this contributor to the then TP&NG work effort, cottoned on* to a usefulness in leading: that the person leading should also be demonstrably doing, and more than most.

To cut to the chase,** the person seen doing, is more likely to be followed.

Some folk may interpret this as a photo opportunity*** where quite often it's politicians on show, not on tools.

* cotton on - begin to realise or adapt

** cut the chase - get to the point

*** photo opportunity - trying to create news without much effort

Harry Topham

I guess the root of the problems lies within the culture itself.
Traditionally getting someone to help you construct something, whether it be a canoe or a house, required input from the whole community.

It would take a lot of effort to cajole and conscript the labour needed to get the job done. Such negotiations would then attract reciprocal obligations which could be drawn upon a later date when someone else needed a hand.

The responsibility for conducting ongoing maintenance of one’s assets fell to the owner himself.

Nowadays where money has entered the equation things as mentioned become even harder to achieve.

These issues coupled with the forces of nature which in the eyes of the inhabitants are always bent on destruction it is no wonder that the issue of maintenance is easily overlooked.

I remember on a visit to my wife’s home village one of my elderly brother in laws was finding it difficult to get a replacement canoe made for him as he did not have the necessary cash to pay for same.

To get around he then found it necessary to a garnishee a discarded child-sized canoe which was no longer needed.
Although alright for one adult, the canoe also leaked badly requiring continual patching.

Because a shortage of suitable natural caulking material innovation was needed. Someone had discovered that if you dissolved polyurethane in petrol the resulting bitumen sludge made a good alternative caulking material.

So that’s the issue, unless forced by circumstances to carry out maintenance if things get too hard then 'Maski, larim i stap'.

Arthur Williams

Maybe the legacy of the oft heard, "She'll be right mate!"

Bernard Corden

A compliance and enforcement world view is typically underpinned by Kantian ethics with a militaristic concept of culture as......"The way we do things around here".

It embraces a mechanistic and binary paradigm that disregards the dynamic power of the collective unconscious, personhood and embodiment, which extirpates critical thinking, learning and discernment.

A short stroll through any inner city shopping mall provides ample evidence with cohorts of indoctrinated zombies wandering aimlessly into a totalitarian dystopia wondering what colour face mask Megan Markle is wearing today.

"Imagination is far more important than knowledge" - Albert Einstein

“A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” ~ Harold Laski.

Paul Oates

Culture is one of the hardest things to change. PNG is no different from anywhere else except the traditional culture is as described, lacking the concept of maintaining construction projects since this wasn't part of the village traditions.

When the Romans pulled out of Britain for example, people quickly went back to where they were before 300-400 years of foreign concepts being introduced by the Romans.

It then took another 1,400 years for there to be any real concept of maintaining roads etc.

What's the answer? Lower expectations or go back to when outsiders forced a new concept on traditional PNG people.

Perhaps the PNG prime minister might be onto something but it requires administrative power to be continually enforced before there will be any change at the coal face. Law enforcement must be total, from top down to bottom up. The chain is only as strong as its weakness link.

If there is no consistent enforcement, any reviews and reports will just end up as usual being 'pepa nating'.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Graham - Semantics aside it's interesting that you date the downturn in maintenance to the shutdown of the Panguna mine.

The Australian government (or those in Canberra at least) put a lot of faith in the mine keeping PNG afloat after independence and lowering the cost to Australia.

Maybe there's a lesson there somewhere.

Lindsay F Bond

Spot on topic, Graham. It's time has come. New election is perhaps the closest.

William Dunlop

Well-spoken Graham King. The Works and Supply Department I worked for up to 1982, and prior to that with Plant and Transport, had a buzzword 'preventive maintenance'.

It was emasculated and dismantled by the PNG body politic.
That's where the buck stops.

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