Learning the value of relationships in Papua New Guinea

Taking on a volunteer community development role with the Red Cross in Kavieng has led Maureen Bolawaqataba to accept the concept of time is different in PNG from what she had been used to.

“Using technology isn’t always a straightforward task in PNG. Getting a document printed can sometimes take a whole morning, but you learn to be flexible,” says Maureen.

Maureen says managing one’s expectations, and taking time to build solid relationships with colleagues and neighbours, goes a long way to achieving positive results on an international volunteer placement.  

Office chit-chat essential for relationship-building

“The culture in PNG is communal and very much relationship focussed,” explains Maureen.

“In a work scenario in Australia you may not have long social chit chats because you are busy, but here these conversations are very valuable for building relationships.”

On her assignment, Maureen helped establish the Niu Ailan Persons with Disabilities Organisation (NAPDO) and continues to raise awareness about the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

“I work with the whole community, but my focus is women and young people with disabilities. We travel to nearby communities often, but access to the island communities is limited due to a lack of financial resources,” explains Maureen.

“We often have to conduct disability training sessions on the spur of the moment when stakeholders may be visiting for reasons not related to disability or other social justice issues.”

Colleagues in Papua New Guinea enjoy chatting over coffee and snacks
(Left to right) Mathew Wuat, Australian volunteer Nancy Cugliari, Konrad Tui and Dellie Minding work at the Rabaul Hotel serving coffee in East New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

A “rewarding and inspiring” experience

In the 18 months of her assignment, Maureen noticed a shift in the way NAPDO advocated for disability rights and inclusivity.

The organisation used funding from the Australian Volunteers International Community Grants Scheme to build an accessible ramp at the Red Cross building.

There is also a lot more understanding about the concept of advocacy and promoting the rights of people with disabilities and women’s empowerment.

— Maureen Bolawaqataba

My favourite experience was one of the local volunteers giving a presentation about the rights of people with disabilities,” says Maureen.

“We developed the presentation together and she presented while I sat close by for support. It was rewarding and inspiring to see my colleague present and have the audience respond positively.”

“I’ve built lasting friendships”

Maureen says there is a lot more to be done to improve all areas within NAPDO, but this cannot be rushed. For changes to be sustainable, ideas need to be brought to the table by other members of the organisation.

Staff at Niu Ailan Persons with Disabilities Organisation
Staff from Niu Ailan Persons with Disabilities Organisation celebrate National Disability Day at the Red Cross in Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Maureen Bolawaqataba

While there are times Maureen has been challenged, she says volunteering has been a wonderful opportunity for professional and personal growth.

“In Kavieng, we are able to cycle, swim, dive, surf and paddle regularly. There are a number of other volunteers from different countries who are based here, so socially it’s great to have this network.

“I am also fortunate to have built lasting friendships with local women here.”

I’ve learnt a lot from taking the time to listen to stories and from improvising along with my colleagues.

— Maureen Bolawaqataba

“I am better at negotiating, listening, cross-cultural communication and my ability to handle changing situations has definitely improved.

“PNG is certainly the land of the unexpected, but hopefully I’ve come out better for it.”

Maureen Bolawaqataba was volunteer Project Manager – Community Development Disability Services - with the Red Cross Office, Kavieng Town, PNG from January 2014 to January 2016.