Jane Fajans is a professor of Anthropology at Cornell University. She was invited to join the James Cameron expedition during their time in Papua New Guinea and share her insights into the culture of the Baining people. Jane conducted fieldwork with the Baining on the island of Papua New Guinea, near the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific.
On Monday I decided to visit Kolopom Primary School. Martin offered to accompany me since I had never been to this school before. Kolopom is the biggest school in the coastal Baining region and is growing. Until recently it only went up to 6th grade. To continue their education, students used to have to graduate with good grades from 6th grade, and then go on to boarding school elsewhere. Only a few families among the Baining could afford to send their children to boarding school in the past.
Tony Paska, headmaster of Kolopom School, Coastal Baining District, Papua New Guinea. Photo by Jane Fajans.
Nowadays, the schools are being extended to include all grades up to 10. Kolopom is now offering grades 3-7, and next year will add grade 8; they will add a new grade every year until the school can accommodate up to to grade 10. For the first two grades, children go to elementary schools in their own communities. Then, they move to the more centralized primary schools, which host children coming from 4-5 local elementary schools. After grade 10, some students go on to high school, and some go to vocational school to learn special skills to help them acquire jobs.
Most Papua New Guinean children start school at a later age than those
in the United States and Europe–they are typically seven or eight when
they start. In part, this is because they often have to walk long
distances to get to school. For instance, from Number 1 Lassul ( a
Baining village) to Kolopom is almost an hour’s walk, including a
traverse over a small mountain ridge and down into a valley.
Additionally, the children have to cross a river, which most of the time
is quite shallow, but it can become very deep and fast-moving after a
big rain. Many students do not cross this river when it is flooded. The
school headmaster often dismisses school early when the river is rising
so that students can get home safely.
On Monday I watched my ‘granddaughter,’ Binan, get ready for school, her
homework all done. She got up early (before 6 am). She cooked for the
family over a fire, scraping coconuts to make a broth for the ubiquitous
greens, which are usually cooked in a saucepan with the coconut milk.
This soup of greens is served with either taro or Hong Kong Taro (called
After cooking, she washed in the sea, and then
rinsed off with rainwater. She put on her school uniform and packed
herself a lunch. By 7 she was on the road to school, which starts at 8.
She did all of this without a clock or watch to help her schedule her
time. Most Baining just gauge the time by the amount of light and the
position of the sun in the sky (which changes very little for them
throughout the year, since they are only 4 degrees of latitude from the
Martin and I started out for the school about an hour-and-a-half
later. We ate the breakfast Binan had prepared (but not eaten) and
washed ourselves. We walked up to the top of the ridge, following a
dirt-and-stone road that leads to the old village site of Lan, and after
a long journey eventually ends up in town. At the top of this small
ridge we had to go down. The path was a muddy track, which looked to me
like it headed straight down vertically. Usually the paths I walk in
Baining country have trees and tree roots that offer some traction on
the incline. This one didn’t seem too. Martin asked if I wanted to try
it, and I asked if there was another route. He said there was.
while along we came to the next path and it looked somewhat better to
me, so I started to venture down. Only about six steps down I slipped and
fell onto my back, with my head heading downhill and my legs sprawled
around. How embarrassing! Martin helped haul me up and we moved on to a
third path. This one was actually quite easy to follow, and we
descended down the ridge and moved into the valley.
At some point our path merged with an old truck/tractor road from
one of the plantations and the road evened out more. We walked and
walked through pretty deep forest until we came to the edge of one of
the plantations. These plantations were cleared and planted over a
hundred years ago by German colonists, who conscripted local labor to
clear the forest and build the roads. They then hired a number of
plantation laborers, many of whom came from other parts of Papua New
The lingua franca (general language) “Tok Pisin” developed in
contexts such as these, where people from multiple language groups came
together and evolved a language of mutual comprehension. Pisin still
maintains many German words that were incorporated in these early days.
After the Germans lost their colonies (at the end of World War I), many
Australians took over the plantations. The Australians are now also
mostly gone, and many sold their plantations to Papua New Guinean
The plantation we walked through was very overgrown and had not been
‘worked’ for more than a decade. The group of Baining that had adopted
me considered this plantation part of their territory, and they were
gradually starting to rehabilitate it, even though they did not have
legal papers to show ownership. They will have to clear a lot of brush
and plant many new trees.
The original coconut trees on this property
are over 100 years old, 100 feet tall, and are not bearing as many fruit
as they once did. The cacao trees (cacao is what chocolate is made
from) have been devastated by an insect called the cocoa pod borer
(CPB). These trees bear almost no usable fruit now. The Agricultural
Ministry is working to develop a cacao tree that is resistant to these
insects, and some new species have now been planted.
As Martin and I walked through this plantation we encountered quite
a few kinsmen spending time in their small homes or working out on
their blocks (sections of trees planted or harvested by a particular
individual). Each of these encounters required a social interaction,
betel exchange, conversation, etc. Most of the people we met promised to
come and visit me in Lassul.
It was almost 11 when we finally arrived at the school. The
headmaster came out to greet us. He had already heard about my arrival
and was expecting me to come one day soon. We went to his office to talk
Tony and I talked about the school and about general education in Papua New Guinea. Kolopom School has been improving greatly in recent years and now has two classes of students per grade level, meaning they are adding two classes per year as the students advance. This means they will have to build two classrooms and two teachers’ houses each year for the next three or four years. AusAID, the Australian Agency for International Development, built this year’s classrooms. The school is expecting a new teacher, but since there is no house yet, that teacher has not yet arrived.
I think Tony is helping in the classroom to the best of his ability. He worries that because the Baining are so isolated from both Papua New Guinean urban culture and the larger world influences, Baining children are unprepared to move out into the external communities, and less competitive when they do so. We discussed some things that might help. One easy way to help some of the older students in the school reach beyond their borders would be to set up pen pal relations. Writing letters to school children in the U. S., Australia, and other parts of the world would help the Kolopom students gain mastery in English and form connections to students who live very different lives. Students who live outside of Papua New Guinea could also learn a great deal about this part of the world and the lives of their peers.
I hope that some of the teachers and classes reading this blog become interested in forging such pen pal relations. I have names and addresses of some students to start with, and I can maintain contact with Tony Paska to expand this project. Finding students in different communities to write to the Kolopom students and describe their lives would be great, because then the Kolopom students could learn about a number of different global locations and cultures.
One major difference in the lives of many U.S. students and those in PNG is that Papua New Guinean students have almost no access to computers or the Internet. They do not know about–let alone use–email. They do not have cell phones (or if they or their parents do, they do not have coverage in the region and can only use them in town). They do not spend all day texting their friends.
These are experiences that I’m sure the Papua New Guinean students would love to have, and Tony Paska and I would love to be able to set up some computers in the school that could be used for surfing the web, doing research, and corresponding by email. Until that happens (if it happens), they would love to write using pencil and paper and receive hand-written letters, as well. Remember, because they start school at an older age, the students in lower grades are the same age as students 2-3 years ahead in other places of the world. I hope that they can try to correspond with foreign students of approximately their own age.
Here are some pictures of the different classes at Kolopom School.
Fourth-grade students at Kolopom. Photo by Jane Fajans.
Sixth grade class at Kolopom Primary School. Photo by Jane Fajans.
After the chat with Tony, we went and saw one class going outside for a life science lesson about planting flowers. We saw another class engaged in a math lesson. A third class was discussing a reading.
Classroom building with two classes inside.
After we left the school, we went back to the river and washed and talked with some people sitting along the banks. We then decided to walk back along the plantation roads, which are flat. Although the route is longer, it avoids the hill I fell down. By this time my knee was feeling sore from the fall, the sun was hot, and I felt much older than I wanted to.
Luckily, as we walked along the road, a tractor-trailer passed us in the other direction, carrying sago leaves to weave into walls for the new teacher’s house. We decided to flag a ride back to the Bay on the trailer when it returned. We were not the only ones doing so. There were about 15 of us riding on the rough trailer behind the tractor. We bumped along and called out to people working along the road. Several school children jumped on the back and were dropped off near their homes. The Baining can and will walk long distances, but they are always pleased to have a ride, too.
If you are interested in the pen pal program with the Kolopom students, please email OceanEd@ngs.org.