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Sago, Women and Worth

By Maryann Uechtritz & Kalo Fainu

I am revisiting this sago story which I shared last year as I have done a new video edit (above) which includes some interviews I did with the women working at the new mill at Poroi 2 as well as an interview we did with a young girl scraping sago in the bush the traditional way.

I will also include a story written by my. mother, Maryann Uechtritz, who helped put the story together after I handed over the notes from my trip to the Gulf last year. I hope to be able to provide some updates on the progress of the mill soon.

- Kalo


Sago, Women and Worth

Unless you have access to a helicopter, getting to Poroi 2 from Port Moresby involves a long journey in PMV's, a treacherous boat ride across the Papuan Gulf, and then another boat trip up the muddy Purari river. The impenetrable jungle overruns the edges of both banks and a sense of timelessness permeates the air.

The village is a short but slippery walk up a bank that varies in height depending on the level of the river water, which has been known to rise more than 5 metres in an hour if there is heavy rainfall upstream.

The lands of the Pawaian are abundant with sago but their gardens lack nutritional variety, their literacy rates are extremely low, particularly amongst girls and women, there are no modern communication networks, and access to townships is virtually impossible due to the dangers associated with travel by dinghy or canoe.

Like 64 percent of the population, the Pawaian are dependent on sago as a staple food source. In the Gulf Province there is an estimated 400,000 hectares of wild sago and 5,000 hectares of semi-cultivated sago, making the mechanisation of sago production on an SME scale transformational.

As the Sago Project is set into motion in Poroi 2, the women are overjoyed to receive their new PPE, reluctant to take it off even after finishing their rostered shift on the mill floor. Women’s Elk & Antelope Association chairlady, Eliza Jomu says that when Project Coordinator Anthony Uechtritz first told them they were going to get PPE, “our ears stood up, we were so happy to hear this. Women here, we never get PPE, it's only the men, this is the first time; We thought, this is history!”

It has always been women and girls in this region who have had to clear the jungle to cut, scrape, pound, wash, squeeze and otherwise extract the sago into its edible form. Jomu outlines a typical work day for village women.

“Mothers that have babies have no choice but to take their babies with them; they hang them in bilums while they work. The babies are bitten by all types of insects, sometimes they get sick. She gets an axe, removes the bark, then splits the log. She gets ready a sheet of plastic or a bag then starts to scrape the sago the way our ancestors have taught us, then she takes the scrapings to the river to wash. She will work one whole day with no food. If they get very hungry they’ll eat the dry pith of the sago. Once they are done with the processing, they have to find bamboo, cut the bamboo for cooking the sago, and carry everything back home.”

Mumu Mairi is one of the women participating in the sago project and says that the mill has made life much easier for the women and everyone is very happy. “Before we had to go into the bush, in the rain, sometimes the rivers would be flooding, which made our work very hard.”

It’s a thankless, labour intensive task, which leaves women little time to attend to their other responsibilities, and pulls their daughters from their schooling. Young girls start to learn how to make sago around the age of 5 or 6 and by the time they’re 8 or 9, they know how to make it independently, Mairi says.

“The girls that go to school will join their mothers after school and make sago until late in the afternoon. Sometimes girls don’t go to school because they have to make sago. If there is no sago there is no food, so sago is their priority.”

Jomu says that at the beginning of the sago project, Uechtritz showed them some pictures and asked them to choose a place for the sago house and clear it. She confirmed they happily did this and that when Anthony returned to the village and wanted to check the location, they all got in a big canoe and took him to the site. “He then told us to prepare the ground for the building, so we did, we were excited about the idea that a machine will make the sago, make our lives easier.”

Under Jomu’s direction, and with Uechtritz’s guidance, the men and women of Poroi 2 Village worked side by side to assemble the mill in just 3 weeks, the culmination of many challenging years of planning.

What makes this even more remarkable is that Pawaian women have traditionally led a very prohibitive existence, bound by social rules that disallowed eye contact or even conversing with non-relative males. In a first equally as empowering as the germinal beginnings of a new era in the production of sago for smallholder farming, is the extraordinary transformation of gender equality in this village.

“Before the men would not help us make sago,” Mairi declared.“They said it is the responsibility of the woman. Now that the machine has come the men want to help us. We are very happy to have them help us. The machine makes it easier and with the help of the man it makes it even more easier.” She adds that she is amazed at the amount of sago the mill can produce. “Before we would work hard all day to make 1 bag of sago. Now it is easy work, we spend less time and make 5 bags from the same amount of the tree.”

Another Elk & Antelope member, Anna Simon, describes her first taste of sago from the machine. “It was so sweet; it tastes much better than before. We told others in the village about this and they say they will buy our sago so they can taste it too”.

This is not simply a prototype that can be replicated, with the potential to create job and income opportunities for farmers throughout the region, it sets a benchmark for the evolution of gender relationships in a land where violence against women remains alarming and unacceptably high.

Preliminary key objectives set out by the team tasked with the research and development of the mechanised sago mill specify that 50% of participating farmers will be female, allowing them a strong voice in the development of the business group and access to existing and newly created markets. The promotion of women’s participation in key positions along the entire value chain, including in non-traditional roles, aims to develop a cohort of women leaders and role models for the community.

All of the women interviewed speak of how hard life is for women in the village and how the mechanisation process will benefit them. They agree that education is important and envision the day their children will be able to attend good schools.

A deep-seated and openly expressed desire for self-determination is now a foreseeable reality. It has brought an immeasurable sense of worth to the women of Poroi 2 and a corresponding desire by its men to be involved in and work alongside their women. The allocation of work in its future development stages will be determined by merit, education and ability, not by gender. As agricultural advisor to the sago project, Peter Uechtritz, says, “This has changed the landscape forever.”

“If I was a dog my tail would turn,” Jomu says. “The happiness is in my stomach, all day and night I feel this happiness. When we walk around our feet do not touch the ground, we are walking around on air.”

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Jan 12, 2021

Absolutely loved this. Comforting, and moving, and inspiring. The social impact no small thing. Very, very proud of you all. Nice to see your by-line MaryAnn Uechtritz.

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