Friends, I came across this dated 'note home' from way back in 2006, when I was managing a large HIV prevention project in Papua New Guinea. I had no idea it was hanging out in my laptop documents. It's an interesting snapshot of the life of a health project manager in a challenging developing country. Thought you might it an interesting read. I've removed names of project implementing organization and colleagues.
Sunday 2 July 2006
4:30 am. Have gone back to that initial schedule, up at 4:30 am, ready for bed by 8:30 pm.
Had visit from project managers in Melbourne. They start in June to do the wrap up and final report for this 6 year project. The NHASP project has been conducting surveillance, STI treatment, voluntary counseling and testing, development of information and education materials, design and delivery of HIV related trainings, and through my project urgent intervention at high risk settings in PNG for the past 5.5 years. While the High Risk Setting project will be tendered out for private management to keep it going strong, all of the other activities are being turned over to the National AIDS Council and the Department of Health (which barely functions). So there is high intensity transition planning underway. AusAID overall is not happy with the NHASP project, but recognizes what’s been accomplished. NHASP staff, my challenging team mates who are burnt out, cynical and territorial, are nonetheless deeply worried that the good work they’ve accomplished may dwindle away. We are trying to house all of the trainings in a training institute that hopefully will have the capacity to keep them going. About 65 trainings are conducted monthly, including basic HIV/AIDS, care and counseling, voluntary testing and counseling, behavior change communication, and theatre and drama. So the project wrap up is going on around this ‘working against the clock’ transition planning.
The Melbourne person here to assist wrap up seems to think it fine to make insulting remarks about Americans in my presence. I’m glad that I’ve met other Australians who aren’t as rude as the ones on this project! The ACIL person, who has done her best to manage the troubled project in a fair and supportive manner to everyone, has thrown up her hands and taken another job. Wise move, I think. I gave her a heads up about problems with how national staff were being treated by expat staff. She met with the national staff and learned several things that were serious and needed to be addressed. Some attitude and operational shifts have occurred as a result, and I’m hoping they will last through the end of the year, when NHASP is formally done.
While they were here, I negotiated a change whereby L, my esteemed and altogether splendid colleague, will assume leadership of this national program (we talk about capacity building, but there is a lot of skepticism that Papua New Guineans can actually handle leadership roles) in August. The project has grown tremendously in the past few months at most of the 34 sites, and I believe that it has taken root and will be sustained by local communities. It seems to be an ideal time for national leadership, and I think that L is up to the task. He is happy and a bit anxious; we’ll spend the next few weeks engaged in a handover and planning the support he needs to succeed.
I’ve been offered a consultancy with SAGRIC in the Education Sector, organizing HIV/AIDS trainings for teachers and curriculum development. Have been approached by Save the Children to manage a project. Got a call from World Vision in Australia about taking on a new project here next year if they get the Asia Development Bank tender. I’m not ready to make any decisions yet. Have learned over the past three months that there are many things to love about this country, the people in particular. But not sure that I want to live here all of the time. In Port Moresby at least, there is the constant security stress. Driving is a big stressor as well; there are always people and dogs in the roads, and the public motor vehicle (taxi vans) drivers have a tendency to dart out without warning. It’s a bit like driving in New York City, constant vigilance required. So want to wait and see if FHI contacts me about the China job, and also see whether World Vision can offer me work in both PNG and other Pacific countries so that I could be based in Australia or Indonesia and work here part of the time.
Thursday we narrowly averted a lock out of our building, which we share with the National AIDS Council Secretariat. Seems the rent hadn’t been paid for 3 months. Check had been written, but no one felt motivated to deliver it to the landlord. The NACS staff were all at a budget retreat, so our team leader stepped in and organized the check handover with 2 hours to spare. The lock out was planned for 4:06 pm…interesting time choice. Maybe that six minutes was for vacating the building.
Friday we had the monthly HRSS meeting, with about 30 people attending from the various sites. The B youth advisers were there, and also the F consultant who has conducted the behavior change trainings and follow-up monitoring missions. Having several advisers in country is trying; they all criticize one another’s work and mine too, no doubt, behind my back. Strong women too easily turn into bitchy women. I also invited a young American who is organizing a group of national volunteers to do HIV prevention, and is wisely researching who is doing what already to make sure the new volunteers support and complement and don’t interfere with activities underway. Right approach, and as a result people want to work with him. After two months of effort (and complaints to the Melbourne managers) I was finally able to get all of the provincial HRSS coordinators on contracts with medical care for themselves and their families.
Yesterday we had a launch of a new Tingim Laip site at Hagwa, one of the settlement villages near where I live. The people there have migrated from many different locations, so the dancing that accompanied the launch represented several groups. A launch is a big celebratory event that typically includes speeches from dignitaries (and I get to be a dignitary), music provided by a local band of young people (who often sing HIV songs they have written), entertainment, light refreshment (fresh fruit, beet and lettuce sandwiches), and a formal launch moment (a ball is kicked, or thrown). The island dances resembled a simpler version of Hawaiian hula dancing. Transgender community members were incorporated into the talent and the drama group presentations, which were great. The youth volunteers were all wearing the tee shirts and baseball caps that I recently approved a grant for. They have organized a sports tournament and lots of HIV education for the village youth. Several people from other local villages trying to start up HRSS sites attended to get ideas for their launches. National EM TV, which I seem to appear on a lot lately without wanting to, was there filming. Every time I am asked to speak on camera, I replace myself with a national coworker who can represent this project at least as well as I can and who is a far more appropriate spokesperson for a PNG program than an American expat.
In the month of July we have the youth advisers traveling and conducting two more youth workshops and a meeting with Save the Children, the consultant finishing up the draft procedures manual and final report and giving a debrief to NACS and NHASP staff, and the M&E consultant coming back for two weeks to continue to strengthen our monitoring and evaluation procedures. There are many exciting things happening on the ground in this project that quantitative indicators simply can’t measure. This month we hope to hire a new HRSS coordinator for Oro Province, to work with the Higaturu Oil Palm company, and also a regional facilitator to support L by concentrating on helping the 5 military barracks sites and the private industry sites (Lihir, Porgera and Oktedi mines) that are still struggling.
At end of month we will plan a launch for the Tingim Laip (think of life) logo. The initial brainstorming suggests that we may organize a Run for Life at various sites simultaneously. The FHI consultant is attached to the idea of launching helium balloons from the parliament house, one for every known person who has died of AIDS in PNG. Interesting and strong visual, could perhaps start the run at Parliament House after balloons are released. We also need to start the planning for the annual symposium and strategic planning event in October.
Weather has changed. We’re in the dusty, windy season now. Hills are starting to brown. People are lighting fires everywhere. People from the Highlands have a tradition of slash and burn agriculture; they seasonally torch their gardens. So living here in Moresby, they torch their yards. Often smoke rises up into my apartment from little crackling fires down below in the neighborhood. Sometimes it’s hard to drive down streets because smoke blocks out the view. Although I haven’t regularly smoked cigarettes since my early 20’s, the smell of smoke always makes me want a cigarette.
If my energy holds up, I’ll travel to Lae this month for a workshop on better integrating peer education and HRSS activities into the Provincial AIDS Councils (the PACS). It’s a slow, tedious conversation that’s been going on for a couple of months. Not sure this workshop will accomplish anything, but it’s what AusAID wants us to do. I also plan to take a holiday weekend trip to Madang, which everyone says is the most beautiful spot in PNG. We have a very strong site there, so on Monday, the holiday, I’ll probably visit the site.
Am helping the NACS Deputy Director organize his poster presentation for the Toronto AIDS conference. Have arranged for some of the PNG staff who are going to stay where I’m staying, so we can get to know Toronto together. The 18 year of son of the wonderful women I am supposed to facilitate workshops with in Toronto has just died unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage. Awful time for her, and she has cancelled her plans to come to Toronto from the UK. So we are hoping to fund the attendance of an experienced Stepping Stones facilitator from Africa to do the workshops with me. Am waiting to hear what will happen with that. It would be a big lost opportunity to cancel the workshops. I’m prepared to facilitate them with whomever wants to help, but A must make the final calls and she is absorbed in grieving at the moment.
Am organizing give aways of the few household things I bought here...television, radio, kitchen stuff, sheets and towels. Most will go to J, the lovely young woman who enriches my life through her weekly cleaning visits. She has a real quandary at the moment. In traditional Highlands tradition, her parents have, without talking to her, agreed that she will marry a man she has never met, who apparently has a good job, his own car, and the ability to give them a good bride price (which they will keep…J won’t get it). Jis very much in love with W and they plan to marry. He has a good job but not his own car. J is deeply upset. Yesterday I invited her to come to the launch to take her mind off of this difficult situation for a few hours. She and W plan to talk with her parents today. The parents have already accepted a down payment on the bride price, but fortunately haven’t yet spent it. So there is hope. I gave her a ring that is worth more than the down payment, in the hope that perhaps her mother will be content with that while W organizes some money for the parents. J is ready to run away, but W wants to treat her parents with respect and try to negotiate with them. I hope that she will be allowed to marry the man her heart desires.
Probably this will be my last note home for this trip, simply because July is packed to the brim with activities and will go by in a flash. Thanks to all of you who have shared this adventure by taking the time to read the notes. Life is such an interesting adventure, wherever we choose to live it.