“Alpha 899, Alpha 899,” David Feka calls into the HF radio he has spent the last two days installing in a remote mountain village in Papua New Guinea. “This is our first call out of Guasa education radio. Do you copy me? Over.”
The group gathered in the small schoolroom listens intently while a cluster of children presses their faces up against the glass louver windows to watch the ‘show’.
Lukas Schadegg’s voice comes through the speaker loud and clear from Goroka, 29 nautical miles to the northeast. “Yeah David, I copy you.”
With a delighted grin on his face, David responds, “I can hear you crystal clear, like I’m talking to you on a mobile phone!”
Still Relevant Radio
This is HF radio, a nearly hundred-year-old technology, still relevant for remote mountain communities in Papua New Guinea, connecting them to the outside. Despite the rise of mobile phones throughout PNG, cellular signals are hard to come by in the Highlands making phones unreliable or entirely useless for reaching someone on the other side of a mountain.
David passes the handset to Felix, a teacher, and explains how it works: push the button to talk; finish what you say with ‘over’; let go of the button to listen. Robert struggles with how to hold the handset and when to let go of the button.
“It’s really hard to teach them this new thing. Sometimes, after they talk, they think it’s a mobile phone and they put the handset to their ear,” David describes, fully aware of the dichotomy of a remote people more familiar with modern mobile phones than HF radios. “I feel like laughing, but it would be rude.”
Connecting Fly-in Schools
David Feka and Joey Redhead with MAF Technology Services (known in PNG as Christian Radio Missionary Fellowship – CRMF) flew on MAF’s Airvan to the community of Guasa in the Eastern Highlands, working for two days to install a HF radio system for the Guasa Primary School. The work involved many hours on a hot tin roof, blinded by the reflective glare, in order to set up a solar panel and position the tall radio antenna.
“I love doing this,” David says. “Once you finish an installation, you hear the first radio call that comes in and see the smiles on people’s faces. They know that they’re connected to the outside world. Once you do all the hard work, it’s the most satisfying thing that what you’re doing can change people’s lives.”
MAF Technology Services installs radios for mission and church work, health clinics, and educational facilities. This particular HF radio installation is part of a test project for the Department of Education to install a radio in eight remote “fly-in” schools in the Eastern Highlands region – schools with no road access. The radios will be used for basic communication with the district, but particularly to monitor the teachers, many of whom abandon their jobs to move back to a town and continue collecting automatic paycheck deposits. For remote schools such as Guasa, it’s difficult for the district office to confirm that each teacher is still in their classroom. At the time of the Guasa HF radio installation, six out of nine teachers had abandoned their posts.
With an HF radio positioned on the school grounds, each teacher will be required to respond to a daily radio role-call from the district. Why not use mobile phones? “Because the teacher can lie,” says Felix Mathew, Grade 3 teacher and one of the three remaining in Guasa. “If they call on the phone and ask, ‘Where are you? Are you in Guasa?’ I can say ‘Yes!’. Those people in the office don’t know. Is he in the school or not? So that’s why it’s good that they put in this radio.”
Teachers Felix Mathew and Robert Kimb have stayed in Guasa because they feel it’s their mission to serve people in remote places. “We’re here to give service to those people who miss out on things – basic services like schools. We came here to develop the community,” Felix explained.
But it hasn’t been easy, not only because the community often does not value and support the school, but because the workload doubles when other teachers abandon their jobs. “Robert is the teacher for Grade 5, but when those six teachers are gone he’s taking Grade 6 too. I’m teaching Grade 3, 4, and 2. Another teacher is taking Grade 7 and 8. It’s a lot of work.”
If the HF Radio project is a success in the Eastern Highlands, MAF Technology Services will continue the project throughout all PNG provinces.
For the MAF Technology Services team, combining technology and ministry is central to their mission, particularly in remote places such as Guasa where access to the closest town is a two-day walk crossing mountains and rivers, or a 20-minute flight with MAF.
“At the back of it, the important thing is that we get permission to show the ‘Jesus’ video,” says Bryan Matthew, Deputy General Manager of MAF Technology Services. “We try to make sure that on every remote installation of the radio or VSAT we tie in the ‘Jesus’ video so that we are doing work and then ministry afterward. That’s the good part.”
For a village in the mountains with no electricity and few forms of entertainment, watching a movie is a huge event that draws a crowd even in poor weather conditions. In Guasa, the heavens opened in an epic downpour prior to the scheduled outdoor showing on the school grounds, but when the rain stopped the people came to stand or sit on the wet dirt for the two-hour movie.
MAF flies in all the necessary equipment, including a generator that is used for both work and the evening movie. “People walk from villages far away to come and watch,” Bryan describes. “Sometimes they spend the night with their friends in the nearby village, and then go back. It’s exciting.”
Following the movie at Guasa, David challenged the audience to consider what Jesus Christ did for them, and whether they truly know Christ or are living a life worthy of Him.
The HF radio at MAF Technology Services’ office in Goroka is the link between remote places across the whole of PNG and crucial services needed such as ordering supplies, booking flights with MAF, or emergency medevacs. MAF Technology Services continues to receive an average of 200 HF radio calls per year requesting medevacs which MAF Operations responds to.
“When you’re out there, there’s no one who’s going to help you except Alpha 899, our call sign,” Bryan says. “HF radio is a lifeline for many, many people.”