Cocoa, Coffee and Bougainville
My first introduction to the Autonomous Region of Bougainville
Bougainville had always been on my bucket list of destinations, so when CARE Australia contacted me asking whether I’d be interested in being commissioned to do some media production work there, I jumped at the opportunity.
It wasn’t only the destination itself that drew me, but the scope of work. My brief involved
travelling to rural areas in both north and central Bougainville to interview and gather feedback from women who had participated in a CARE training program aimed at developing technical and business skills. These skills were then to be applied to better management practices of their cocoa farms with the intention of empowering these women to take on leadership roles both within their families as well as their communities.
This kind of work was exactly what I wanted to be doing. As an emerging media maker, my dream was always to combine my creative skills with travel and adventure in partnership with meaningful endeavours. I hold a strong interest in particular with the economic empowerment of women in the South Pacific.
It was a win/win scenario for me, so in what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was on-boarded with the CARE team in Australia as well as here in Papua New Guinea via a zoom call. I had my first (compulsory) Covid19 test (it wasn’t that bad after all!) and then checked into my flight at Jackson’s airport, where I met up with my new CARE colleague from Goroka, Dougie.
In just under two hours our plane touched down onto Buka airport’s steamy hot tarmac in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (AROB), and we were collected by the Buka CARE team. We spent some time at the CARE office meeting the ground team and going over plans for our trip before retiring to our rooms, as it was already too late in the day to begin the lengthy journey ahead of us.
As the sun rose and the roosters crowed, I woke to the excitement of being able to hit the road and discover Bougainville for the first time and to meet with the women whose stories I would be collecting over the next four days. First stop was a short boat ride from Buka town (small island) to Kokopau, Bougainville (big island). After transferring our gear and supplies from the banana boat to the 10 seater Landcruiser, we started our journey along the long, bumpy road to our first destination near Tinputz. It was only after I began this trip that I learnt that my ancestors had lived on and run cocoa plantations in Tinputz! How cool?!
As we arrived at the home of Samantha Phrina in Kespohits village, the first thing I noticed was her beautifully kept garden. There were colourful flowers sprouting out of the ground, a little cookhouse sat at the back of the yard area and a small blue store to the left of the main house. Samantha walked out and greeted us with a shy but welcoming smile and we sat underneath her house to ‘stori’ about her involvement with CARE.
My method of work in PNG has been organic and evolves each time I go out into the field.
I have a relatively good (not perfect) understanding of the tok pisin language, but don’t quite have the ability to speak it confidently or fluently yet. This means that during an interview, I will ask questions in English and receive answers in Tok Pisin from the interviewee. In this case, I had a Buka based CARE PNG staff member, Tracey Kathoa, by my side, to assist with translation.
Samantha spoke in a soft tone, warming up as we dove deeper into our conversation. What I took from her story was how the CARE program empowered her with the knowledge and the confidence to achieve things that had previously seemed out of reach or to do things that were previously considered to be ‘mens work’. “Ol wok blo ol man, mi ken wokim tu” (all the men’s work, I can do it too) were the words that stuck with me, especially after she described life before her training where she said ‘mi stap tasol because mi no kisim sampla skul’ (I just stayed at home doing nothing because I didn’t have any training to know what to do).
At the beginning of the program, the women are asked to come up with a vision of what they’d like to achieve after completing their training. For Samantha, it was to build a house for her family using money made from improved cocoa farming practices. Once she achieved that goal, she went on to build a small goods store next to her home that services the people in her community. She credits the business training from the BECOMES program for providing her with the knowledge on how to save money, create budgets and spend wisely in order to achieve desired outcomes.
This was one of the things that really stuck with me throughout all my interactions with the women I visited. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to work, and quite often many were already earning money from various sources, whether it was from their cocoa blocks, selling garden produce at local markets or even having a regular job. The little piece of the jigsaw puzzle that made such a big impact on their lives however, was the information on how to manage the money they earned, how to budget, how to save, how best to re-invest to earn more. Once these women had this ‘save’ (‘savvy’ / understanding), they were off and running and almost all of the women I spoke with had achieved their initial goals or were in the process of turning their visions into a reality.
Bernice, a nursing officer from Teyop village, was another great example of a woman who had benefited greatly from the business training. What I really loved about her story was that as her market stall takings improved and the income generated from her cocoa blocks allowed her to build her house, the impact of her accomplishments trickled down into her community. People began to notice her successes, and they wanted to know how she was doing it. This prompted her and her husband to begin doing their own training, passing down what they had learnt through the CARE program to people in their community and watching as their neighbours in turn improved their own circumstances and built better homes. This really demonstrated the value of teaching as opposed to simply ‘gifting’, highlighting the legitimacy of the axiom that says, ‘Give a (wo)man a fish, and you feed her for a day. Teach a (wo)man to fish, and you feed her for a lifetime.’
In addition to being able to build better homes, invest in side businesses, pay school fees and inspire their community through the passing down of knowledge and skills, the other great outcome I learnt about was the impact the training had on personal relationships. When the women take part in these programs, the men also gain access to the information. What she learns, he learns. They learn together. This is empowering for them as a couple. A number of the women commented on how they really enjoyed being able to work together with their husbands, contribute to the household income and to be respected as a decision maker in family and business planning as well. There was no doubt that the male partners involved were also able to see the positive impact the training had on their families and I can confidently say that they were supportive and enthusiastic about their wives participation. And why wouldn’t they be? They now had better technical skills to work their cocoa blocks, they were earning more and saving more and for some, this would be the first house which allowed them to allocate separate rooms for their children to sleep in, instead of extended families having to share one big area in an open style village hut. When I asked each woman at the end of our interview what their dream for the future was, I pretty much got the same answer from all of them. Like any parent from any corner of the world, their labour was not for them but to create a better life for their children.
Thanks to the training provided by CARE in the BECOMES program, these women are currently manifesting their dreams; they are able to pay school fees, share information on how to save and budget, pass down technical skills on better cocoa farming practices and as a result, they are able to provide a happier and more stable home life where both parents work together and women and girls are valued just as much as the men and boys. The impact of the BECOMES program is not simply an economic one, but one of great social value as well.
As we wound up our visits, I could sense the excitement and confidence these women had for their future and for the future of their families. Each woman was at a different stage of their journey, so some had understandably achieved less than others, but what I could clearly see was the potential that each woman had to turn her vision into a reality. The other great buzz I got from this encounter was to witness that these women were not just working and achieving goals in a supportive role; they had become leaders both within their families and in their communities, in a way that was to the benefit of all.
Empowered women really do empower others and the longer term well-spring of having Power Meris in every village across Bougainville heralds a brighter future for all those from this small but determined autonomous region of Papua New Guinea.