Monday, 19 May 2014

Discovering Papua: a field diary

Rafael Klavert - Digital Communication Officer

Last month, I was assigned to a small group that would travel to Papua and West Papua in order to write stories about the impact of UNICEF's programs there.

"Finally!", I thought to myself.

I have always been strangely fascinated by Papua. Located in Indonesia's easternmost region, it's a land of largely unspoiled natural beauty, inhabited by several indigenous tribes who still choose to live the "old" ways.

But it also comes with its own share of problems. Papuans live in one of the hardest-to-reach areas in the world, so it's of little surprise that their health and educations standards are often much worse compared to other provinces.

What better place is there to observe UNICEF's work and impacts in Indonesia?

Arriving in Papua

Our first destination was Jayawijaya, the gate to the Papua Highlands. Getting there from Jakarta requires about six hours total flight time via Jayapura - not taking into account the inevitable delays (only two hours this time!).

My first thought upon landing was: "Can this really be called an airport?".

There is only one runway, at the end of which you'll find a small, doorless, tin-roofed building that passes for a terminal. Passengers and locals were leisurely strolling around, next to and even across the runway. There didn't seem to be any security measure or even fences in place. People basically buy their ticket, walk to the end of the runway and wait there for their plane.

Most fascinating to me however, was the sight of an indigenous tribe dressed in their traditional outfits, holding wooden spears while performing ritualistic songs and dances on the runway next to our plane.

We later found out that it was a welcome performance for a parliamentary candidate who happened to share the same flight as us. Nonetheless, that was the moment it struck me that I'd really landed in Papua.

Traditional welcome ceremony upon landing in Jayawijaya, Papua. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Klavert

Meeting Nira

After arriving, our first project visit was looking at preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS. With prevalence rates 15 times greater than the rest of the country, Papua has the highest rate of HIV infection in Indonesia.

Working with World Relief, UNICEF has trained volunteers from the hardest-to-reach communities in Jayawijaya to conduct life skills training for young girls and women in their communities. HIV awareness and prevention is one of the key subjects.

Our mission was to attend one such session in Tagime village, and interview some of the young people attending.

We were already behind schedule due to the flight delay, so we set off straight away for the two and a half hour drive to Tagime.

Although the roads were mostly paved, we had to endure quite a bumpy ride due to pot holes and stretches without tarmac. About one hour in, we were stopped at an unofficial security checkpoint. It was a bit worrying at first, but luckily our driver knew how to negotiate with them and we were waved through with only IDR 20,000 (US$ 1.5) less in our pockets.

Some of us attempted to eat nasi kotak (a lunch box of rice and chicken, to be eaten by hand), but soon gave up as most of the rice went in our laps instead of our mouths.

But our hunger was forgotten as soon as we reached Tagime village. It was surrounded by emerald hills, lush with grass and trees as far as your eyes can see. It also boasts the freshest air I've ever breathed in Indonesia.

We were greeted by Nira Tabuni, who regularly holds life skills training for teenage girls and women in her village. The 29-year old volunteer wore a constant smile on her face, and the way she interacted with us made her instantly likeable.

Nira with her niece, just before the life skills training session. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown

There were about a dozen girls attending this session. Some of them walked for as much as one hour to get there. They seemed a bit shy at first, probably due to our presence. But under Nira's lead, all of them were soon laughing and having fun as if we weren't there.

As it turns out, life skills sessions are not only about sharing knowledge. It also needs to be engaging for participants to come back, so Nira has introduced various games as part of the session. She also runs craft-making classes which gives the young people an extra income, thereby empowering them at the same time.

I asked why these sessions are only for girls and women. "They feel more comfortable talking about things like sex, HIV, and domestic violence when there are no men around," Nira replied.

"It's not just about giving information and hoping that they follow it. It's about building a community with the right mindset, knowledge and attitude. This has to be done from the inside." she added.

Keeping it fun is an important element of Nira's life skills training sessions. © UNICEF Indonesia / 2014

Yumelina's house

Sixteen-year-old Yumelina regularly attends Nira's sessions. "It's fun, and I get to learn about a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise," she said. You can read her full story here.

Although shy at times, Yumelina was happy to take us to her house and introduce us to her mother.

Her house was up a hill, fifteen minutes away from where the life skills training was held. One of the very few houses with a tin roof instead of thatch, it was not what the locals would call a honai (traditional house).

Well, roof aside, it looked pretty darn traditional to me.

It literally consisted of four walls and a layer of straw on the floor. A small fireplace was dug out in the center, enveloping everyone inside the windowless house with thick firewood smoke. The house faced away from the cliff, and from the back door we could hear constant oinking from her family's treasured pigs. There was no electricity, naturally.

Visiting Yumelina and her mother at their house. © UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Klavert

It was fascinating talking to Yumelina and her mother, but within ten minutes I had to step outside as my eyes were watering uncontrollably from all the smoke. I couldn't imagine what it would be like inside a real honai, which are generally smaller than Yumelina's house (I did find out the next day).

As we had to drive through remote areas, we were advised to head back before sunset for security reasons. We made time to take group photos with Yumelina's family and the rather large group of onlookers that had gathered outside.

As we said our goodbyes, Nira ran towards us with some handcrafted necklaces and a plastic bag of sweet potatoes. It was a small gesture, but it reassured me that Tagime village is in good hands.

I hope that other villages in Papua are as lucky.

The always-cheerful Nira posing with Yumelina on the way to her house. © UNICEF Indonesia /2014/Andy Brown