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First aid in Papua New Guinea

How do you reach unemployed young people whose most obvious career path is violent crime? Two inspired leaders from the Papua New Guinea Red Cross entered squatter settlements where no other humanitarian organization dared to go. The result: a group of committed first aiders who are changing their own lives and the lives of those around them.

Eight young men sit cross-legged in a semicircle on the thrice-swept cement floor of their new youth centre. Outside, in Port Moresby’s Koki marketplace, colourful and frenetic activity swirls past stalls where hustlers fight for space with sputtering mini-vans, while stony-faced youths hide behind sunglasses. Inside, a shaft of sunlight drifts in from under the eaves, highlighting the HIV/AIDS and first-aid posters on the otherwise bare walls. A caramel-coloured dog takes shelter from the heat.

Their clothes are threadbare and the youths are surprisingly shy to speak up. When they speak, it is in soft and respectful tones. Yet many young men such as these, perhaps even some among those present, as one or two of them have hinted, are feared on the streets of Papua New Guinea’s capital.

Port Moresby is a city which looks and feels under siege. Many houses are in guarded compounds, hotel grounds are barricaded behind solid-steel fences topped with barbed wire and it is inadvisable to walk around, even during the day. Dotted throughout the capital are the notoriously dangerous squatter communities, called settlements, some established over 40 years ago, with newer ones constantly cropping up. Up to 60 per cent of the people in Port Moresby now live in such settlements, as villagers shift from their remote rural homes towards the coastal cities in search of jobs and an often-elusive better life.

Unemployment remains stubbornly high. Eighty per cent of the population is not habitually employed. There is little for young people to do. It is hardly surprising that many of them join the raskols, an all-inclusive and disconcertingly trendy moniker for the competing gangs, formed along traditional wantok (meaning one language) or tribal lines, who roam the streets, threatening locals and visitors alike. In a society where income potential is limited, opportunistic crime is rife and increasingly violent. Many ordinary people tell stories of armed ambush and robbery, or worse.

One of those with such a story is Konio Nori, first-aid programme officer with the Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society. It is in great part thanks to Konio and to her colleague Lyndreah Billy, a Red Cross youth programme officer, that these young men from the settlements have found a reason for living and are now engaged in saving lives.

“At first, it was frightening for us as well”, admits Konio, even as she plays down her own brush with violence. “These are dangerous areas and, as women, we were particularly vulnerable. But we wanted to reach the out-of-school youth in the settlements and provide them with something tangible”.

Retaining volunteers had been a recurring problem for branches. So a youth coordinator suggested reaching out-of-school young people with too much time and energy on their hands. In February 2005, the Red Cross identified a group of potential volunteers from the settlements. Konio Nori and Lyndreah Billy worked to penetrate these no-go areas and establish mutual trust. As a result, a three-day first-aid training course was run for an impressive 200 young people from the settlements. The course was overwhelmingly positive.

“No other organisation has walked into the heart of these areas,” says Jasper Touna from Ward 12 at Nine Mile settlement. Speaking in Pidgin, he adds: “In over ten years we have never had government or non-governmental organizations come and conduct such training courses in Nine Mile with the youths. Papua New Guinea Red Cross has given us this opportunity and we are grateful for this partnership and the interest Red Cross has shown us.”

The Red Cross selected some of the new first aiders for further courses, culminating in a five-day community-based youth first-aid instructor course for 19 participants whose commitment, participation and leadership qualities stood out.

One of these was Philip, the newly-elected president of the Koki youth centre, which already gathers together 40 youths, many of whom were previously sleeping in the streets. They cleaned up the centre, scrubbing away graffiti and clearing out accumulated rubbish. This is now their home.

“We were individuals before. Now we are a family,” says one of the assembled young men.

The young men are even learning how to cook — something unheard of in this male-dominated society, where men unquestioningly take “the largest portion of fish”, as Konio impishly puts it. And they have, of course, been trained in first aid.

“When we were told about Red Cross first-aid training it grabbed our attention. We decided we wanted to save lives,” Philip explains in his soft-spoken way. The young men nod. “Out of being no-one, the Red Cross caught us”. He looks away for a moment. The emotion is palpable.

“We find it hard to say thank you to them. They have given us a direction to do something. Now we must try to see the good in our society and become responsible for what is in front of us, as nation builders.”

In Koki market, these newly-trained Red Cross first-aid volunteers are sought out time and time again. Previously shunned by their community, people are now gravitating towards them, seeking their help when anything untoward happens. Some days ago, they were called when a pregnant woman collapsed in the market. Later, an older man, feeling unwell, staggered instinctively in their direction, before fainting at their feet. When another woman was robbed and stabbed, these young men knew exactly how to apply a pressure bandage and to transfer her to the clinic. And they were also able to provide first aid when a tree fell on a man as he was trying to cut it down. At the hospital, the doctor was so impressed that he asked the young men who had taught them.

“The Red Cross must have taught you well,” was the doctor’s assessment. The man survived.

In another settlement, on the outskirts of town and far from any medical assistance, Risky Ricky, as he is known, has been chosen for additional leadership training.

Wooden huts on stilts scatter up steep hillsides, while skinny dogs and children scamper about on the hard-packed earth. Red Cross first-aid training is essential to a community such as Ricky’s. Having completed the youth first aid instructor course, he has been teaching first aid to others in this and surrounding settlements. This is a tremendous accomplishment, not only for the skills being imparted, but because it is breaking down some of the barriers between wantoks.

Ricky feels shy about teaching but also proud. First-aid training has enabled the community to deal with such common occurrences as snake bites and machete wounds, injuries often sustained while cutting firewood. Not only that, but Ricky has also learned about Henry Dunant and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. His dream is to one day be involved in disaster response. For him, the Red Cross is about helping everyone.

Mesie, a lanky young woman, stands silently to one side, listening. Next to her, a brightly woven hammock swings gently from a tree branch. Cupped inside, an infant stirs then curls up again peacefully. Softly, she speaks up. “One day, my baby was choking on some food. But I knew what to do”. She is one of the young women to have been trained in first aid.

The Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society is hoping to be able to replicate the youth programme in other parts of the country.

At Koki settlement the young volunteers have been discussing setting up health posts in the markets. They need tents, information material and first-aid kits. They don’t need much, but it is beyond their means now. For this National Society, the challenge now is in channelling the energy and desire for learning unleashed through this project.

“I used to be really frightened of you boys,” Konio Nori now laughingly tells the assembled young men at the Koki Youth Centre, who grin sheepishly back. Half in jest, one of them says he never thought he would find himself inside a heavily-protected hotel, where a training meeting was recently held.

“The way we looked at it, those people were big and we were small”, he explains. They joke that there is now a common group of Red Cross wantoks, who are breaking down the traditional barriers, of gender, of tradition, of tribalism and of fear.

Mostly however, it is clear that the opportunity provided to these youths by the Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society is breaking down internal barriers. There is pride in every face and a deep sense of accomplishment. Time and time again, the young men and women reiterate with satisfaction that they now possess the skills to save lives. For these young people, the call to save human lives has superseded self-interest and, in the process, has provided them with new lives.


Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society staff Lyndreah Billy and Konio Nori, top, dared to enter slums and mobilize unemployed young people like Risky Ricky, bottom. Now Red Cross activities such as fi rst-aid training are breaking down barriers among tribes, and between young people and the rest of society.
©Catherine Lengyel and Hilda Wayne










©Catherine Lengyel and Hilda Wayne










©Catherine Lengyel and Hilda Wayne










©Catherine Lengyel and Hilda Wayne




“We were individuals before. Now we are a family.”








©Catherine Lengyel and Hilda Wayne




Catherine Lengyel and Hilda Wayne
Catherine Lengyel was an International Federation reporting delegate in Papua New Guinea. Hilda Wayne is media officer at the Papua New Guinea Red Cross Society.


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