Start of teaching career – West New Britain
After graduating from Balob Teachers College in 2003, I went back to my home province West New Britain and began my teaching career. My career was mainly centred around the remote schools in the Gloucester District.
My First teaching was at a school called Pureiling Primary School which was situated next to my home village, Atiatu. It is a remote place in W.N.B.P, about 6 hours boat trip and 2 hours by vehicle to the main centre, Kimbe Town.
In 2005 I got married to a girl from my village and continued teaching there until the end of 2006. Today my wife and I have 5 children: 3 girls and 2 boys.
Teaching in a remote area – challenging
In 2007, I transferred to Port Moresby and taught there for 4 years. My wife and 2 kids stayed back in the village. I returned to West New Britain in 2011 and joined my family. From there I continued serving in schools around the Gloucester area until today.
Being a public servant and serving in a remote area can be very challenging. Especially in places where there are no other government services like shops, roads, hospital, law and order (policing) or basic infrastructure such as buildings. I have encountered a lot of challenges during my career. And I believe many teachers in remote areas in PNG have similar stories like mine.
West New Britain education posting
I would like to share some of my experiences in this article. Especially the hardships I faced during my teaching years with my family in a faraway place. In 2018, the provincial education selections committee (P.E.B) posted me to the remote Aimo village in the far end of the West New Britain Island.
Teaching at St. Barnabas Primary School was the most challenging experience of my career. In this article, you will read about some of the challenges (and hardships) of travelling to and living with children in this difficult place.
On Monday the 2nd of February 2018, I left my village and travelled to Kimbe Town. My village is far away from town. It is a 6-hour trip by an outboard motor and another two hours by P.M.V truck. I purposely went there to check on my next posting.
The posting lists were put outside the education office for teachers to see, as usual. It was already week 1 of term 1. When I got to the office on Tuesday, I saw many teachers crowding in front of the education office.
They were mostly teachers who were posted to the remote schools in West New Britain Province – a norm every year in the province.
West New Britain school far away from home
The teachers scanned the posting lists and tried to locate their names, schools they were posted and their position numbers. I walked over and pushed my way through the crowded area. I was at the front skimming through the lists. It was quite difficult, but I managed to locate my name and the name of the school.
As mentioned, the name of the school was St. Barnabas Primary School. The school was in Gloucester District (West New Britain Province) which was at the far western end of the New Britain Island, near Morobe Province.
I also wrote down the headteacher’s name. His name was Mr Vincent Mauki and he is also from the Gloucester area. After a while, I was able to get Mr Mauki’s number from a teacher who was in the same school the previous year. I called Mr Mauki and arranged to meet with him in town.
Travel plans for Aumo (St. Barnabas Primary School)
The next day, on Wednesday, I met Mr Mauki and two other teachers – Mr Boku and Miss Misili who were a married couple. We discussed and made plans to travel to our new school.
As always, the education department (particularly the provincial government) does not make travel arrangements or meet travel expenses for teachers moving to remote schools. We had to meet all the expenses ourselves.
The headteacher told us that he will arrange for our transportations. But each of us must prepare to pay for our PMV and boat fares. Two days after our meeting the headteacher called and inform me about our trip. He also told me that he had already called the others and informed them of the arrangement.
Two days trip to the new school
On that following Wednesday, we all met at the PMV stop with our bags. We took a PMV to Garu and then got onto an outboard motor and we were on our way to Aumo.
On the way, we picked up my wife and 5 children at Atiatu. And continued onwards, along the coast and reached Gloucester Station (far western tip of the West New Britain island) at about 9 p.m. We had to stop and rest for the night since it was dangerous travelling on a dinghy at night.
We all went to a policeman’s house and took shelter there. The next morning, we woke up early and continue on our journey. It was a long trip along the coast of Gloucester.
Hour’s walk St. Barnabas Primary School
We arrived at Aumo around 2 p.m at the nearest boat stop to the school where we got off. Apparently, we realised that we were not there yet!
We unloaded our baggage and put them under a rain tree at the beach. In fact, we were not sure of the school’s location. In hindsight, the boat operator told us that it would take us an hour to walk up to the school. Then he left us and left for Gilnit which was a few kilometres away from Aumo, where he dropped us.
The headteacher told everyone to wait at the beach with our belongings while both of us went for help. And on our way, we met a man named Philip who knew of our arrival and came to meet us.
Philip told us that the school’s board Chairman had left for Kimbe. But he would ask the Vice-chairman to arrange for some parents and students to help us carry our belongings to the school.
After some minutes, some local women and girls arrived at the school with Philip and the Vice-chairman with our belongings.
All in all, we arrived at the St. Barnabus Primary School after two days. Apart from the headteacher’s house, we chose our houses and settled down for the night. We were very tired, so we slept very early that evening in our new homes.
The next day was Friday. We had a brief meeting with the Vice-chairman and some parents from the village. And decided to start classes on Monday week 2 of term 1, 2018.
Low enrolment in remote school
We started well in our first week. However, we had to temporarily halt classes at noon due to the low enrollment of students. Most of the students did not turn up for school. That stoppage gave us time to complete the term 1 timetable and teaching programs.
In week 3 one of our female staff, Ms Tab, joined us. She is from Madang Province and was married to a man from the area. Her husband is also a teacher but left for the University of Goroka (U.o.G) to do further studies.
Headteacher left us
At the end of the week, the headteacher told us that he will travel back to Kimbe Town to submit our Duty Resumption Forms. St Barnabas Primary School is a Zone 5 school (a remote school) so late submission of the resumption forms are allowed at the education office.
In week 4, our headteacher Mr Mauki left for Kimbe. That was the last time we saw him. He did not return to school. Fortunately, a senior teacher, Mr Isidore Tata, arrived in week 6. Bringing our staff number from 4 to 5 again.
There were supposed to be 6 teachers teaching at Aumo St Barnabas Primary School. We were lucky enough that Ms Misili was teaching a multi-grade class, combining grades 3 and 4 classes.
So, there were enough staff members to cover all the grades at the primary school in term 1.
Remote school teacher off teachers’ payroll
In week 9, Ms Tab found out that she was off the teachers’ payroll. She only found out when she went to make a call at Aisega.
Aisega is about 10 km from Aumo where we were. It usually took us about 5 hours to walk there to make a phone call or do SMS banking and send money to our families.
In week 10, Ms Tab went to Kimbe to follow up on her salary problem.
Another teacher left St Barnabas Primary School
Week 11 was the last week of term 1. Mr Tata also left us and went away to Rabaul. Despite the distance and only a week break, I decided to stay back with my family.
Mr Boku and Ms Misili also stayed back with their two children: son Tele 3 years old and infant daughter, Abby. Our diet there was mainly sweet potatoes and greens.
My 1-year-old daughter, Akisa, often wish for food like rice, noodles or biscuits. But it was hard to get these items when the govt services, transport infrastructure and trade stores were nearly non-existent.
3 teachers remain at school – term 2
For the whole of term 2, there was only 3 us teaching at the school: Mr Boku, Ms Misili and myself. I was teaching Grades 7 and 8, Mr Boku was teaching Grades 5 and 6 and Ms Misili continued with her Grades 3 and 4 classes.
We never heard of the other 3 teachers nor did anyone bother to check on us.
At the end of term 2, Mr Boku and Ms Misili decided to spend their 2 weeks holiday at Hoskins, their home village. Hoskins is some hundreds of kilometres away from Aumo’s St Barnabas Primary School.
45 km walk: 3 remote school teachers and 7 kids
I told my wife that we should walk with the Boku’s family to Gloucester Station to get some necessities like soap, salt, rice and flour to supplement our local diet. From the station, they could catch a passenger boat to Kimbe while we return to the school.
The shortest way to travel from our remote school to Kimbe Town is 2 days on a dinghy. But there was hardly any dinghy in the isolated Aumo. So, the only option was to walk 45 km along an old logging road to Gloucester Station. And then look for a boat to travel half a day by sea to the central hub of West New Britain Province, Kimbe Town.
Crossing West New Britain Island on Foot
Walking from Aumo to Gloucester is like crossing the New Britain island from the south coast to the north coast. The 45 km walk started so early at 5:00 a.m on a Saturday.
I carried my youngest daughter Akisa over my shoulder. My 4 children had to walk. My eldest daughter Benedicta, 14, carried a backpack with our change of clothes in it.
Ms Misili carried her infant baby in a strapper flanked by her husband, Mr Boku. Their son Tele ran ahead with my other 3 children Francis 12, Alois 9, and Ida 5 years old.
They were excited that morning. Leaving here means going to a place where there are drinks, snacks, lollipops or even ice cream. The excitement drove the children to walk the first 10 km. They were running ahead of us.
But as the scorching sun was getting hotter, it took a toll on the kids. They were now exhausted from walking.
Use leaves as sun shades
Tele was now starting to bother his father to carry him because his small legs were hurting. He cannot walk any further. I prayed and begged the clouds to cover the Sun. Heavy sweat ran down our foreheads. We told Ms Misili to cover her baby from the sun’s heat.
Her husband tore a big leaf on the roadside and used it as an umbrella. The kids begged us to rest but I told them if we rested, darkness may fell upon us in the middle of the road. So, I tore some more leaves and gave them to my wife and 4 children to use as umbrellas.
“We must continue,” I said.
At 2 pm we arrived at a village called Rilmen. This village has one of the most unique bamboo flute players and dancers in PNG. We rested for 10 minutes. While resting, people from the village told us that the bridge had collapsed.
We had to use small canoes put there by the villagers to cross the river. They also told us to be cautious of crocodiles.
So, after resting, we continued for another 3 hours until we reached the big river (Hitne). The river was not flowing fast and crystal clear.
Crossing the crocodile-infested river in West New Britain
All the canoes we are on the other side of the river. We tried to look for some other options but to no avail. Going back to Rilmen village means walking back 3 hours.
Cross this river was the best option because it would take an hour’s walk to the next village, Airagelpua.
Seeing how much my children had suffered having walked the long distance in the hot sun, I did not hesitate but decide to swim across the river. And, get one of the canoes all of us to cross the river safely.
Hitne river was 60 metres wide. I told my wife and the other two teachers that if I am eaten by a crocodile, they should go back to Rilmen and get help.
Then, I took off my heavy clothes and walked down to the riverbank. Though I was aware of the dangers posed by the crocodiles, I jumped into the river and started swimming. My only thought was to reach the other side as quickly as I could. I swam as fast, head down and kept going.
My wife, kids and the other 2 teachers watched helplessly as I cross the still crocodile-infested waters, hoping that nothing bad happened to me. I reached the other side safely.
At last sunlight
I reached for a canoe and paddled back to the other side of the river with my hands since there was no peddles left behind by the previous river crossers. I told Mr Boku, Ms Misili and their 2 kids to be the first to go to the other side. They got onto the canoe and I took them across the river.
We reached the sandbank safely. I told them to move quickly to the higher ground to get away from any danger lurking near the river. Then, I returned to get my family.
The canoe was not too big for 7 people – 2 adults and 5 kids. In did not matter in this situation when night falls in a few hours. We just had to get to the other side, fast.
Aided by our life experiences growing up in the coastal rivers, we knew how to balance ourselves on small and overloaded canoes, and reached the other side of Hitne River.
We made it safely across. I told my family to move up the hill quickly. When we reached the hilltop, it was already 5:30 p.m.
We walked in the last sunlight to the next village, Airagelpua. We arrived at 7:00 p.m and went to Airagelpua Primary School and spent the night there.
The next day, their school truck took the 11 of us to Gloucester Station. At the station, Mr Boku, Ms Misili and their kids found a passenger boat and travelled to Kimbe that same day.
My family and I stayed at Gloucester Station and enjoyed our term 2 holiday. Our return to remote Aumo’s St. Barnabas Primary School is another part of our family’s adventure in the remote Goucester area.
A heartening story of courage to serve, indeed.
Ben’s story resonates with many public servants (especially primary school teachers) working in the remote parts of our beautiful country. They move to the schools with families and serve faithfully, surviving on what they can find weeks on hand.
Contact with the outside world is limited. Others find it tough and move back to towns and cities.
It leaves me with a dry throat, red eyes and a heavy heart having read about Ben and his young family who walked 45 km to get to the nearest government station. All the while, surviving on bare minimal; crossing crocodile-infested waters of West New Britain Province; and facing many life-threatening obstacles with young children
The PNG Writers’ Corner is an initiative for writers of stories like Ben’s. We hope readers can reflect on his story, and not take schooling for granted.
If you are a public servant, serving in the remote areas, and have a story to tell, please reach out to us. We would be delighted to hear from you. Read about what we expect from writers.
Share Mr Ben Moela’s story or reach out to him on his Facebook page.
About the Writer
My name is Ben Maela, I am 37 years old and from West New Britain Province (W.N.B.P.) in the Gloucester District. I am from a village called Atiatu. I graduated from Balob Teachers College in 2003.
I have been a Primary school teacher since 2004.