Schooling in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, by Tom Maish


In Oct. 2009, our group of 5 traveled along the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea with Karl Kannstadter and Your Journey.

Not many tourists visit the remote villages of the Sepik region, maybe several hundred per season on the lower Sepik to as few as only twenty as you continue up some of the smaller tributaries.

We experienced various cultures along the way and found the people quite friendly and welcoming. From previous traveling we find that taking school supplies as gifts for the school teachers and small items for the villagers helps to open dialog with the locals. This was true in Papua New Guinea as well.

The school system is similar yet different from experiences we have had in other areas of the developing world. Many of their schools were privately run by the villagers, encompassing students from several villages. The children want to go to school, many of them walking 2+ hours each way to attend. They can only attend if the parents are able to pay. We observed many children who were not in school, playing or doing chores.

Some of the schools are funded by the Government. The Government recruits teachers from all over PNG to serve in the rural areas. One of the difficulties of recruiting and retaining rural teachers is that they sometimes need to travel a day or two at their own expense to receive their pay as well as obtain supplies.  It’s understandable that many of the teachers do not return to the rural school after their holiday. They want to locate in an urban area (they usually come from urban areas in the first place), where they can maximize the use of their skills and to have social stimulation.

When schools are abandoned by their teachers the schools or classes double up for students to continue their education. Or, the school closes until a new teacher is recruited.

One of the larger more established schools we visited was the Binan Primary School. This was a Government school serving several villages. It was explained to us that the students went to age 20, the reason being the lapse when the school was temporarily closed.

Hand hewn benches and tables were used in this two room school house. The teacher encouraged the students to ask questions about our Countries, U.S. and Canada. They were very polite yet reserved. While talking with the teacher and students we observed that the students used government supplied workbooks which seemed quite up to date and relevant to current society. One can only wonder what these kids thought about the photos of  large buildings and cars. Scenes they could only imagine. Most had probably  seen the small plane that was our transport or perhaps the Sepik Spirit our 9 cabin Riverboat. I would think they have never seen an airliner, cruise ship or even experienced a visit to a large city.

Most of the writing in PNG schools is done on a blackboard as paper is so scarce. English is being taught as their primary language. In PNG there are some 800 languages in use with  Pidgen (English) being used as the common language. Pidgen is the language most people use to communicate with strangers or other tribes.

The students at Binan were working on math problems. They had scraps of paper that were covered all over with figures as they worked out their problems in longhand. We asked the teacher if the school had a calculator as a teaching tool, he replied “Oh no, that would be too expensive!”  Fortunately we had a solar powered calculator,  English dictionary, paper and other supplies to leave.

Along the way we left supplies at other  schools. The students were surprised that we would bring gifts.

So easy for us and so much appreciated by them.

Please think to pack a few supplies when you have an opportunity such as this.

Tom Maish

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