Grass Roots Disaster Preparedness in Papua New Guinea

IOM Chief of Mission George Gigauri (right) with emergencies coordinator Wonasai Sithole (left) and Mathew Gabuba, Ward Councillor and Community Leader of Pongani village. © IOM/Joe Lowry 2014

By George Gigauri, Chief of Mission, IOM Papua New Guinea

We arrive in the town of Popondetta in the early morning. We are in the smallest province of Papua New Guinea, which is one of the poorest regions of the country where IOM is working with remote communities to build resilience to disasters. After a brief stop-off at the IOM Field Office, we are joined by local government officials and a convoy of five land cruisers heads towards the mountain. There’s a long way to drive to our final destination – Pongani village.

The village was one of the most severely affected areas during cyclone Guba in 2007, leading to displacement, destruction of houses, livestock and crops and continues to plague the local population to this day. But today is a big day. We will be launching a disaster management plan that will help the village to develop a fundamental empowering achievement for the community that is on a periphery of one of the least developed areas.

As we are bouncing along a gravel road that meanders through the jungle, I hear our emergencies coordinator Wonesai reminding me to call UN security officers and coordinate our location, I instinctively pick up my mobile but the call cuts off instantly – ‘of course’, it hits me, ‘there is no reception here’. As I turn to my Field Officer Miranda, I see a satellite phone being handed to me with a smile – ‘this is not Geneva, boss’.

Two hours into the journey, we hit the summit of the mountain and a picturesque panorama opens up before us – a dense forest on our right, pristine beaches on the left, and hawks circling above us. Even the local staff are admiring the view.  As we advance and begin to descend into the valley I start to see first signs of human habitation – settlements, domesticated animals, and then the people.     

A group of young men with machetes standing by the road curiously stare at our vehicles as we whoosh past them. Our driver, Daryl catches me focusing on the weapons and grins – ‘Don’t be alarmed boss, they are farmers, it’s safe here, we are very friendly in Oro’. While Papua New Guinea continues to witness much violence and tribal fighting, the vast majority of people here are innately warm and welcoming.

As we cross a makeshift bridge into the heart of the settlement more and more children are running out towards the motorcade smiling and waving with genuine excitement. ‘Why are they so happy?’ I ask.  ‘Nobody from outside comes here, this visit makes them feel special and part of something bigger than their neighborhood’, explains Miranda.

As we disembark, we are greeted by traditional dancers in stunning costumes, clothed in Oro colours and headpieces from Cassowary feathers and chanting a customary greeting song. One of the warriors takes a sudden run towards us aiming a spear at me, just as he approaches me he swings and pierces the ground just in front of me. This is part of the welcoming ritual.     

As we move slowly along the greeting path laid for us, I see a large sign constructed ahead of us that spells out – ‘Oro, Oro, IOM’ (welcome IOM) with letters made from flower petals. It’s impossible to hold back a smile.  When I look back down I realize that we are surrounded by what must be hundreds of people. I’m told that everyone has come here – all the neighbouring villages, local politicians, tribal leaders, local council staff, provincial authorities and the media. What a spectacle, today’s event must really mean something.

Making our way through this human corridor I see an array of highly diverse Melanesian faces: dancing, children, women with bilums (local bag), and men with red-stained lips and blackened teeth chewing the much-loved “buai” betel-nut. The crowd is overjoyed and actively gesticulates at us, chanting ‘Oro kaiva, oro kaiva IOM!’ (Welcome).    

Once the greeting ceremony is complete all the delegates are seated and the official speeches commence. In the midst of the speeches, I hear my name being called out even though it’s not yet my turn to speak – somewhat baffled I follow the lead of the local Councillor as I’m pulled out into the centre of the field to the cheers of the spectators.

The community has prepared a surprise for me – I am to be inaugurated as an honorary tribal chief. The dancers surround me warbling loudly and pointing their weapons at me; eventually the ritual culminates with the Paramount Chief bestowing a pono on me (a medallion of a pig’s tusk with sea shells) signifying my initiation. I am now a Ponganian!     

As the speeches conclude, the delegates proceed to inspect the fruits of IOM’s emergency preparedness programme, followed by hundreds of locals. We are being pulled in all directions as the villagers eagerly display their achievements – planted mangroves (for coastal protection), fortified shelters, garbage disposals, water storages, emergency food supplies, evacuation routes, early warning system activation, to name a few.

But the pride of the village are the key hole gardens, a conservation agriculture garden resilient to drought and floods. (The soil is placed in a raised circle and a slot cut in so the gardender can tend the plants from the centre). This simple life sustaining concept was taken on by the village and within weeks it was a district hit, spreading to other rural areas. ‘This one was made by a 10 year old orphan’, boasts a local leader as we walk past another garden. The boy’s father was the first casualty of cyclone Guba seven years ago.

‘This one belongs to a mentally disabled man’, I overhear a conversation behind me. ‘So much has changed in six months, it’s like a village is a different place now’. I listen with fascination to stories of how the project empowered the people and how the inclusive process of disaster planning, which included women, children and the disabled, brought the community together.

What started off as a disaster risk reduction project has now taken on a life of its own and rejuvenated the whole area, led by the inspired natives of Pongani.  

The project is funded by USAID/OFDA and implemented by IOM in close coordination with the National Disaster Centre of Papua New Guinea.