This story is dedicated to my loyal little band of village Rural Development Assistants at Pindiu, Papua New Guinea, during the 1970’s, who did most of the foot-slogging and achieved so much yet were rewarded with so little.
For Tala, Kosoaleng, Kati, Gindi, Sanake, Goroseng, Timbangu, Pau, Kwajau, and my friend and partner in crime, Risieve Mumengte.
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In the twenty-first century much of Papua New Guinea is covered by the mobile phone network, but 40 years ago the lack of communication facilities seriously hampered rural development.
Each Government outstation was allocated a daily 15 minute slot (“the sked”) on a designated HF radio frequency to send messages, food and supply orders, or have the operator in town connect us with the telephone landline network to the rest of the world.
Village people continued to live in relative isolation.
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Rural development projects fail for many reasons, some of which can be avoided by more rigorous planning and execution, but occasionally however you encounter an insurmountable obstruction.
With the best of intentions I tried to improve communications between our small but scattered band of didimen working on village projects in the Mongi, Kua and Burum valleys.
Tala, a good extension worker with no formal education, was our main man in the Burum Valley. He operated out of a tiny bush-material shack adjacent to Ogeranang airstrip.
My base was at Pindiu, only 12 miles away in a straight line,
yet the two of us had no direct means of communication.
At least once a month one or other of us (mainly Tala) had to walk the narrow “mountain goat” track between the two places so we could plan work projects.
Seven exhausting hours each way.
In an attempt to reduce the number of walking trips,
I ambitiously bought an $80 set of walkie-talkie radios which had
“a range of up to 1000 metres”.
Walkie-talkie radios operate best when in “line of sight” of each other.
As the following diagram illustrates, “line of sight” is something that was in fairly short supply for Tala and GOF.
In pursuit of the impossible dream I contacted a bookseller in Australia who sent me in return a wonderful publication called
“How to Build a Quad Antenna”.
Unlike the illustration above, our antennas were constructed entirely from whatever materials we could scrounge locally. Bamboo poles were tied together with bush rope to form the 4 metre-long cross arms, and discarded 7/064 building wire from the station dump served as the aerial.
My quad at Pindiu could be rotated around it’s vertical axis (for directional tuning) and was mounted on top of a long post cut from the bush, while Tala’s was permanently fixed right on top of the roof of his “office”.
In an occurrence which managed to totally astound both myself and my critics, we hooked up the radios and quite magically the “up to 1000 metre” radio reception range suddenly became 12 miles, and Tala and I were thereafter able to communicate on a daily basis.
He was extremely proud of this marvellous technology which was admired by all the people who trekked into Ogeranang from surrounding villages for Saturday market days.
A marvellous example of appropriate technology?
A year later Tala’s transmissions unexpectedly ceased, so I flew into Ogeranang taking with me a fresh supply of AA batteries for his radio.
He had seemingly aged by about 20 years as he nervously pointed towards what little remained of his antenna. Taking me inside the “office” he handed over the molten remains of his walkie-talkie radio through a very large hole that had been blasted in the wall by the lightning bolt before, as he put it; “the big blue and yellow light exploded out through the door then skipped along the ground all the way down the airstrip GOF”.
Tala had been sitting just 6 feet away from the radio when this happened.
He thereafter refused to have anything more to do with my smart-arse technology suggestions, and I was left soberly considering the reality that I had come very close to contributing towards the death of a fellow worker and honorable human being.
After that, my home-base antenna at Pindiu remained unused, except as an object of intrigue for a couple more years.
A respectful monument to God’s wrath and inappropriate technology, before it too collapsed and went to the eternal scrapheap of bad ideas.