Story Mandy Glass. Photos Mathias Glass (MSG), Mandy Glass (MG) and Tony and Lynn Fry (TLF)
Flourishing Trade Stores
The airstrip at Simbai serves more than 25.000 people and marks the centre of the Simbai station. You might want to call it CBD, the central business district. However, most of the people live a long way out and have to walk many hours to the station.
Along the wide footpath, some people sit in the shade of the trees selling kaukau (sweet potato), betel nut and dried tobacco leaves. Betel nut and tobacco don’t grow in Simbai. People walk for hours over the mountains to bring it in from the lowlands.
Along the walkway parallel to the airstrip are about ten trade stores, each more or less selling the same. They are open when the owner is around. The shelves are full. All goods are flown in and are correspondingly expensive. A few examples: 1 kg rice sells in Mt Hagen for about K4, in Simbai it sells for K10.00; 1 kg flour in Mt Hagen is K5, in Simbai it costs K18.00; a 425 g can of tinned fish in Mt Hagen is K5.60, in Simbai, K8.50; a 200 ml can of various soft drinks in Mt Hagen is K2, in Simbai, K5. For your comparison, 1 Kina is worth around USD 0.30.
It’s mainly the money earned through coffee farming which gets spent in these trade stores.
Michael Gena, MAF PNG’s IT Officer, who grew up next to the Highland’s Highway at Minj, shares some of his observations from his Simbai visit: “They had food supplies in there. That was okay. And I think they were okay. But they need some kind of education like in terms of their diet. The people need to include more protein so they can stay healthy. I’ve heard from the locals that they mainly bring in rice and noodles; that is no protein at all. I think they need education to do that. Even though they have schools they need more education.“
Walking through the station past the trade stores, we spotted a little bush house offering provision of loans up to 10.000 Kina. 25% interest though! Michael, an entrepreneur himself and with his forward thinking and business ideas instantly sees room for doing it better. He would encourage the community to set up BSP Rural Banking. After the weekend at Simbai, he even went to BSP Mt Hagen inquiring what needs to be done to have this service set up at Simbai. “I am keen to bring the information to Simbai, to Vincent or one of the local business owners, who could set up the BSP Rural Banking. I think this is something they really need to do for the community.“
One patient only at the local Health Centre
Support for people in the remote areas is very limited, and people generally get by with little government help. Eighteen months ago, the Health Centre received their last medicine supplies. By the beginning of this year, the Health Centre run out of most medicine. Handwritten notes at the doors of the outpatient clinic and administration office announce the misery, both in Tok Pisin and English. Six months later, the medical staff are still waiting for new supplies. Apparently, medicine supply boxes are sitting at Madang, one of the nurses said. They don’t know why it can’t be flown into Simbai.
“I think services of the government have not reached them or has reached them before. But now, like with the health supplies… “ reflects Michael. “We went to the haus sik (hospital). They run out of supplies and the only thing to do was to wait and to look after the health of the people with what little they had. I was sad to see that. For us, for like where I come from, from the Hagen side, we go out and have access to health care and we have money and we can help ourselves. We have connections to get around. But for this people, it was very sad for them.“
At the time of our visit, only one patient was admitted to the local hospital ward. A 16-year old boy fractured his lower leg playing in a soccer tournament. The accident happened the day before. We were hearing the noise from the sports field after we arrived the day before and when we were on our way to the Anglican church ground. Without x-raying, the leg was restored to shape and splinted. At least, the hospital had some painkillers to give the young boy. He is a 6th-grade dropout, but keen to get back into soccer when his leg has healed.
Mandy, knowing about space on MAF’s flight out of Simbai the very next morning, inquired with the nurse on duty about a medical evacuation flight to take the boy to a better-equipped hospital. However, the nursing officer who authorises medical transfers had a few days off and went to his village, a several hour hike away. No one can blame him. But there was no way of reaching him to get things organised for the boy straight away.
The High School’s Performance
Overflying Simbai station on our arrival, the high school was easy to recognise. Standing out however, were the six huge water tanks in the middle of the school ground. The school has been waiting for weeks for the plumbing to arrive so that the water tanks can be installed at the class rooms and finally fulfil their purpose.
Graduates from 18 primary schools (up to Grade 8) can continue their education in Grades 9 and 10 at Simbai High School. In 2017, 5 out of 56 students from the local primary school made the leap to high school. Of the 200 tenth graders, only 18 students have passed the exam. Some of this bad reputation is explained by the lack of teachers being present to prepare the students for their final exam because of the 2017 General Elections.
Road Access for Simbai – A good or a bad thing?
Currently, the government is trying to connect the central highlands of Papua New Guinea through the Baiyer Valley via Simbai with the coastal town Madang. Michael Gena talked about this with one local: “I asked an elder about the road project from Simbai to Madang which hasn’t made it to Simbai yet. “What about building a road and trying to help yourself?“ They already have a road link, at least a section from decades past, which they could improve and reconnect to bring cars in and all that. But they are scared, they don’t like any road link he said. Because it brings trouble and raskols (criminals) to the village; they don’t like to have accidents or wide access to alcohol. They are good with the plane going in and going out. It’s more controllable. They are good with walking. But I thought, you take a risk, build a road and you can have access to other services. I was trying to talk him through but he said ‘We are good with what we have right now.’“
Being under one roof
Michael made another observation: “One of the other good things that I saw there was that they stay together in community, they respected the leaders. They participated well in community and church organised activities and they were always under one roof. They work together and that is a good thing. Unlike us here [in town], we only come together when there is a compensation or when there is trouble. But we are not always together in one. We do our own business, we do our own things. They stay together and that was a very good thing.“
Our hosts for the weekend were Reverend Lynn and Tony Fry from the UK, now teaching at the Anglican Vocational School. They opened their little village house for us to squeeze in, took us around the village and introduced us to several people.
They live a very basic life, do their cooking like their local neighbours in a haus kuk (kitchen), over the fire. This takes time. Time to talk, reflect on every day life, experiences and relationships. It was delicious! Banana pancakes for a late evening snack or crunchy bread for breakfast. Lynn shares, “Life is slow here, and slow is often where we find contentment. We learn to live with ourselves and be happy. I have the time to experiment with local foods, make bread and read as much as I like. Currently, we are loving pumpkin and sweet potato crisps.“
Michael was impressed to observe Lynn and Tony’s life style. “One of the things that was interesting and what fascinated me was Tony and his wife. They had that village haus kuk and they cooked on the fire. They tried to do some gardening and lived close with the people and that was really amazing. Because in town, we are in our own compound. We go out to the people but our life style is different because we have access to supermarkets and vegetables. But for Lynn and Tony living in the village and having a fire place and a river close by to do fishing was very different to living their life back in the UK. I think this is good and they learned it from the people. I think it won’t be difficult for them to propose on any development or what they want to do. They’ll be respected.“
We as MAF love to see isolated people physically and spiritually transformed in Christ’s name. We are pleased to observe that the life of communities like Simbai improve thanks to the dedication of missionaries living within the community. But also seeing the blessings of MAF’s flights in and out of communities like Simbai really making a difference for the rural communities, no matter if we are flying passengers, building materials, trade store goods or their cash crops to market.