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