Interview: Naomi Sosa, community development worker

07 November 2014

'We learn a huge amount from the people we live alongside'

My aunt was a nurse and midwife in Papua for over 30 years, and so I grew up hearing stories about Papua New Guinea. I also had a pen-pal called Watnilong, who was an orphan who lived with her. When I left school, I stayed with my aunt in the remote highlands for eight months.

I read tropical environmental science at Aberdeen, followed by a Masters in Agroforestry at Bangor.

I organised a student expedition, when local people here formed an NGO to help people in Papua adapt to change from outside, and they asked me to help. They were moving from Stone Age culture to digital technology within one generation. People now have TV and the internet on their phones. A lady will walk from her village for two hours to get a signal to call her child at university in Indonesia, and then walk back. People have a tablet in my daughter's school, with satellite access to the internet.

I visited several times, and we chatted about changes - money, development, politics - with church leaders and tribal leaders who felt they didn't understand. They'd seen World Vision's work, and wanted something like that, which would let them be in charge of these changes themselves. I worked for the Department for International Development for two years, and now work there for Tearfund.

I married an Argentinian, Javier, whom I met in Bolivia. We have three children, who are seven, four, and one. He's a forester, but now looks at land rights in rural communities here: how they manage natural resources. And he's very involved in the work I do. We're a trilingual family, and like to keep an open house.

My son's Down syndrome is a challenge. He has some incredible benefits, exposed to all sorts of experiences he wouldn't get in the UK, but there's no professional support. We've been learning all we can - we're mini-experts - but we can't do what experts can do.

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We live now with several hundred people in a small town called Bokondini. It's in the central highlands of Papua, about three hours by rough track from the main highland town of Wamena, which can only be reached by air. It's surrounded by forested mountains and rivers. There's a police post, an army post, a clinic, which isn't functioning, and some schools. The market happens twice a week.

The people are from the Lani tribe, one of the largest tribe in the central highlands. They have their own unique language. People in villages live mainly in round, grass-roofed huts, called honai. Villages have no electricity, and people still mainly survive from subsistence agriculture.

It's quite an ordeal to get anywhere from where we are, so, to have a change, we like to travel to other villages, and camp and go walking in the hills. We also like to go to the coast and visit the stunning deserted beaches. My favourite sound is the sound of a river.

I help with finance, computers, setting up organisations and businesses, being a catalyst for change. They have the agricultural knowledge; it's what they do about health, education, and money that they want help with. We work with NGOs, churches, and communities to help them achieve better services and greater social justice. We're currently setting up an integral mission training centre in Bokondini, which will provide leadership training for social entrepreneurs and NGO leaders, enabling them to be more effective.

Culturally it's very difficult to keep money, especially for women. They're always expected to lend, for instance, and needed a safe place to put their money. Savings groups at a village level would make them vulnerable; so they wanted to have a bank. Village women felt uncomfortable to go to town banks when they don't have shoes and can't speak the language; so they wanted to start their own bank.

There's now a community bank in Bokondini. It now has over 300 savers saving £48,000, and most of the savers are women.

There are now 38 schools in remote villages in Yahukimo area, clinics built by communities, and HIV/AIDS initiatives.

There's huge dependency on government and aid agencies. Money poured in, but it ended up in hands of elites, and women's conditions are often worse. Men get the money, mostly; so they're not active on their farms, collecting firewood, and so on, but chasing money and political positions, while the women are left to do all the work and care for the kids.

The Church in Papua is very varied. There are lots of denominations, some indigenous, some linked to global denominations. Where we live, the main church is the Evangelical Church of Indonesia. It's one of the biggest Churches in Papua, with over a million members and around 1000 congregations.

Sunday service times are never fixed. They start somewhere between ten and 11, and can go on for hours. Everyone sits on the floor, with women on the right and men on the left. Singing is done in a mixture of traditional singing in local language, and hymns sung in the Indonesian language - Bahasa Indonesia - which are mainly translated from English.

The Church is definitely in a position of crisis. There were mass conversions to various types of Christianity in the 1960s, but they weren't facing HIV/AIDS, family breakdown, children migrating to cities. They have a huge challenge to decide how to respond, and not very many are, so far. They don't have the knowledge or practical teaching. That's one of the areas we work on: helping them to engage better, generating dialogue on theological issues.

More and more Papuans feel that the Church isn't relevant to the problems they face. It's a very young Church, and sometimes it's caught up in the political and financial corruption. Poverty is complex everywhere, but especially here, because of the history, and everything happening in one generation.

At home we've got solar power, and we do have internet access at the local school: they use a satellite system. This is a model Christian school which aims to provide good education to the village. Phones are a very powerful tool there. We don't have a normal phone system, but we're linked to a satellite so we can text, and I think we'll have an internet mast in two years' time. Huge communities still do not have phone access. That increases the feeling of being left behind.

We use a wood stove to cook. Local food is mainly sweet potatoes and vegetables. When people can afford it, they buy rice. We eat a lot of rice and vegetables. Pineapples and cucumbers are plentiful where we live; so we eat them every day. Meat's a luxury for local people. Pigs are killed only for ceremonies.

We learn a huge amount from the people we live alongside. Our children understand several languages, learn to treat everyone the same, and live life in community. We do lose time with our family in the UK, which is hard. But we spend more time with our children than if we lived in the UK. If I work in another village, I sometimes take the children with me.

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When I'm not working, I love climbing mountains, reading, playing, and dancing with my children.

I came from a mixed religious background in Ireland. My mother was a nationalist Catholic and my father the son of a Church of Ireland canon. He eventually converted to [Roman] Catholicism, and my parents married in the Vatican, as no one would marry them in Ireland. When I was born, they moved to the Republic of Ireland, where I was brought up.

My father was an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. When I was around ten, he stopped drinking and gambling. When I was 12, both my parents had a dramatic conversion experience, and left the [Roman] Catholic Church. They began to run a rehab centre out of our home, where we had addicts live with us.

My first understanding of God was only as a scary figure that would watch everything that I did and any mistake I made. My understanding of God has changed through my experience over many years. He's shown me that I don't need to do anything to gain his love: he loves me anyway. I see God everywhere now, in people, in families and in communities.

The last time I was very angry was earlier this year, when there were local elections held throughout Indonesia. Local elites were trying to manipulate the elections, and the booths were just by our house. There was fighting, and the men were trying to force the women to agree. The police panicked and started shooting right outside our house, putting lots of women and children in danger. I was so angry that I didn't think, and went and shouted at the police officer to stop shooting and calm down.

I'm happiest when my children are excited about something, and we're all together as a family.

My aunt Sue, who was originally in Papua, really influenced my life; and my primary-school headmaster, Mr O'Malley, who used to read us stories from people around the world every morning at assembly.

Many books influenced me, but one that stands out is Heroes by John Pilger, which tells the stories of ordinary people from around the world dealing with their difficult environment and circumstances in extraordinary ways.

I do pray a lot - constantly - as I move around every day. I pray for every relationship, every encounter, that it might be positive and transforming. I pray for my children, and that we would remain safe and healthy. I also pray for bigger things which seem to be impossible to resolve, like the situation in Iraq, Syria, and Gaza. And every day I pray for wisdom.

Locked in a church? Difficult one! I can't choose between Martin Luther King and my granddad.

Naomi Sosa was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.inspiredindividuals.org; www.papuapartners.org

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