From Kerema to Port Moresby: the raincallers and the road


This page in:

Roads are not sexy. You don’t see glossy ads pleading for people to sponsor a road. You don’t see the construction of a road moving global audiences to tears. There are no celebrities, concerts, wrist-bands for the road. I guess that is because for most people in the developed world, we take roads for granted.

Recently I spent some time around Kerema, which although only 350 km from the country’s capital, feels as one of the most remote and cut-off places in Papua New Guinea. Kerema is the Gulf’s provincial capital and, with its surrounding villages, it has been cut-off from the rest of the country due to a mere 67 km of mostly un-passable road. Under the Roads Maintenance and Rehabilitation Project, the World Bank has been supporting the Government of Papua New Guinea to restore the road. Today, the Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved the second phase of this project, which will see the rest of the road restored and paved to a proper national standard.

Speaking to villagers, doctors, and teachers, they painted a portrait of what life is like without a road. For them a road represents the gateway to schools, hospitals, trade and family. The lack of a road impacts everyone.

The Mothers

To get to the hospital, Eme has to walk hours while carrying her gravely ill daughter.

The Kerema hospital itself is a somber scene. The building is dilapidated and falling apart—they can’t get building supplies transported to fix it. Often they can’t get basic medicines or equipment. I met up with the good Doctor John Kiap, the CEO of the hospital, and he told me he started crying when he heard we planned to reconnect the road to the country’s capital Port Moresby.

Women, children and babies flood into hospital in the morning—mostly from outlying villages—having walked hours clutching sick children. It is truly shocking seeing thirty or forty mothers waiting, looking so stressed, so exhausted, so hopeless. Some of the children looked so very sick. I met a woman, Eme, who had brought in her gravely ill daughter to hospital and was washing her daughter down outside to cool her fever. She was in tears when she was telling me her difficulties trying to come back and forth to get to the hospital. Her daughter’s little heart was beating out of her chest, her arms and legs were wrapped around her father with all the energy she could muster. Her long eyelashes were dewy but she didn’t have the energy to cry. It is without doubt one of the most distressing things I have ever seen. It should never have to be like this.

I spoke to Opao and some other women from outlying villages. They told me that when women give birth they have to walk 10-15 kilometres to the hospital as no ambulance can travel to get them. If they are lucky, some people from the village may carry them on a stretcher. Babies often die on the way.

The Entrepreneur

Treacherous waters make it difficult and dangerous for Ken's employees to haul in the drums of diesel fuel needed to power up the town's electricity.

Boat access is one of the main avenues into Kerema. Over the years, many dinghies have capsized, killing hundreds of people. Boats are also the primary way goods make it to town.

I met with Ken, the largest entrepreneur in Kerema. Amongst other things, he provides diesel to power the town’s electricity. Because there is no road, it is brought in on dinghies laden with up to a ton of fuel. Many have sunk on the journey through the treacherous waters. Once the boats get near the shore the diesel barrels are thrown overboard and Ken’s employees have to swim out and bring the drums to shore.

The Schoolgirl

The lack of good roads make schoolgirls particularly vulnerable. Some girls have been raped walking home from school.

The teachers and schoolgirls at Kerema school said the lack of a road has made life very difficult: school supplies are impossible to get in and students are often late to school. Most students have to board at the school, and it is difficult to get supplies in to feed everyone. At the end of term girls will often walk the long journey back to their villages. Many girls have been raped along the way. The girls are scared making the walk back home and the teachers—though stretched—will often try to escort them safely to their families. They said with a functional road they will be able to catch public transport, which will be much safer for them. This is simply unfathomable.

The Raincallers


Village chief Knamo is paying raincallers to not call the rain so road work can advance quickly

I visited another village where road work has commenced but has been delayed due to heavy rains. Here I met the charismatic village chief Knamo. He is the big man of the village and has four wives. He is a big supporter of the road being developed as his village sits on the edge of the road and they aim to sell the sago and betel nut they produce in Port Moresby.


He is desperate for the road works to resume, so has engaged the local raincallers. The raincallers, a custom tradition in PNG, as the name suggests—call rain. He told me that there is something like “raincalling school” to train the raincallers.

He has been paying the local raincallers 100 Kina each to stop calling the rain so that roadworks can resume. However, it continued to rain. He believes that someone with a vested interest had been paying the raincallers a higher price to call rain. He asked the raincallers about this raincalling scandal but got nowhere. He said if it continues to rain, it will delay the road, and he will instigate an investigation into the raincalling scandal.

For all these people, the road is their lifeline. I have captured their stories and more on this video.


Join the Conversation

May 04, 2011

A progress in peoples lives but now WB is going to determine them to buy and use shoes and get a sense of poverty also without reverting to drugs? An increase from 20 to 50 kena is just an increase.

May 04, 2011

Thanks for this great piece on the reality of life in Papua New Guinea and the challenges of development in a country with few roads. It has always been striking to me that a country like PNG, so close to Australia and the recipient of enormous amounts of bilateral aid, still struggles with these very basic needs. Is there something in the system that's broken?

May 04, 2011

Thanks Aleta for posting this..It is very true that this has being the case for decades and very sad. It stimulates ones mind in the direction of the high profile, very intellegent, big man that come from this part of town with the likes of [names deleted by blog admin, see our Comments Policy] and the list goes is it that this has somewhat become an oversight???It is one of the two main highways that link those remote areas to Port Moresby??? [edited out by blog admin, see policy]  With regard to the District funds that are used at the discretion of MPs, one would ponder what they were used up for???Certainly not the clinic nor the school?? tsk tsk tsk tsk

Denis Crowdy
May 17, 2011

I note with frustration and concern that the blog admin has removed names in the post by Stella above. The criteria in the comments policy that would appear to relate to this looks to me like: "This includes personal attacks, profanity, or comments that are for any other reason objectionable." Is an attack personal if it points out the shortcomings of public figures such as MPs? The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, doesn't edit out the names of politicians when commenting on perceptions of their work as politicians (whether or not they come from PNG - try the Google search below). What is most bizarre about your policy here is that anyone reading it can simply search Google for "PNG Kerema MP". Why bother allowing comments at all if you aren't prepared to engage intelligently as an organisation? This would be less objectionable if you were to no longer refer to this aspect of your website as a blog. Great job on supporting the road. No points for censoring the very reality that leads to the World Bank having to fund it in the first place.

Claudia Gabarain
May 18, 2011

Dear Denis,

I'm sorry you see it that way. Here's how I see it --and I'm taking responsibility for why it was posted this way. Blogs are still a relatively recent content format, particularly when it comes to their legal aspects. This blog moderates its comments, as anyone submitting a comment is alerted to. A comment like the one above with the names included could perhaps be considered as defamation, and we could be sued for consciously making the decision to publish it --this has happened to other blogs. I am not ready to take that responsibility, and our rules are there for anyone to see and decide if they want to engage under those terms or not. I don't think naming names is the key that leads to engage intelligently. 

This is another way in which this could have been handled: the comment could simply have not been published at all, or published with names deleted but without alerting to this fact. Nobody other than the person who wrote it and myself would know about it and you wouldn't find anything to object to. But would that have been more transparent or honest? I don't think so, and I tried to strike a medium ground that allowed for those views to be expressed without putting the blog at risk.
I don't expect to convince you entirely but hope you'll agree the above is better than no comment at all - ?

-- Claudia
Blog Admin

May 18, 2011

Speaking as a Papua New Guinean and also coming from that region, in my opinion the bottleneck has been (and albeit will continue to be) corruption in the National Government as well as at the provincial level, where aid monies coming from countries like Australia continues to be "diverted" to "other essential projects" and which are usually politicized to further support political parties in power.

This is one reason, I believe, that Australia has tried to tie its aid to specific projects which is a good thing because reports then have to be created to account for how Australian tax payers money has been spent in these projects.

At the local level, many other PNGeans believe that Australian aid does not really benefit us because we don't get to say how and where to spend that aid.

It's almost like a little child who doesn't know what's good for him!

July 17, 2011

The author says, "Under the Roads Maintenance and Rehabilitation Project, the World Bank has been supporting the Government of Papua New Guinea to restore the road." If you are supporting the Government of PNG with your money, the vast majority of the funds will most likely be stolen with the remainder misspent. Please World Bank find out ways you can build roads in PNG without supporting the large-scale and systematic corruption that has swamped the PNG government. Do not pretend this doesn't happen when your employees know it does. I hope for the people of Kerema one day they will get a good road.

Epe Hamora
September 13, 2011

Thanks for bringing this piece to the outside world. Its a sad case for my people. Life has always been hard for my people. However, I have to say, they are partly to be blamed for supporting the same corrupt leaders over these years.

john urquhart
April 23, 2012

Millions has been spent during my 32 years in PNG but percentages of the Tender often go to politicians so the roads cost more than they should. Profits are very high with road builders and apart from corruption at a Governemnt level you have landowners and others also asking for payments. If you think a road project should be K30 million then in reality it will cost K50 mill.

May 01, 2012

So you came and saw and exposed such a debiliated a situation right under the nose of PNG governments at all level and the international donor community. The situation you have observed and described is close to perfection. To me what you have observed are the direct outcomes of two factors:

(i) Aside from weak political leadership and unbearable administrative incapacities at the provincial level (Gulf), I think it was a gross oversight on the part of the national planners and the Department of Works in the lead up to the JBIC loan funded Bereina-Malalaua Transnational Highway. The planners and the responsible technical Department should have known that the road they were going to construct will ultimately link up with the already existing Malalau-Kerema road. Given that the Kerema-Malalaua Road was built for light weight (small size) and few vehicles (frequency), the opening up of the Bereina-Malalaua road will have a lot of negative implications on it as the frequency of vehicle movements and the number of vehicles increases. The result: the 67 plus kilometer road became impassable and eventually covered by bush.

(ii) It is great news and relief to the people of Gulf for the World Bank to help in reconstructing the road to all wealther status after many lives have been lost in the sea. Yet, I must say that the Bank would not have considered favorably for the inclusion of Gulf Province in the Road Maintenance and Rehabilitation Program had the PNG Sustainable Development Program did not make it as a condition to its contribution of K26 million in counterpart funding arrangement on behalf of the PNG Government. Aid is largely a humanitarian concept which means it is supposed target at where poverty is at its highest of which Kerema being one. But all donors in PNG always prefer areas or provinces where their aid can be absorbed or drawdown at record time. This is the reason why few advanced provinces in PNG have larger percentage of donor concentration with rest especially the most backward provinces being almost forgotten. For those who believe that aid funds do not triggle down to provincial level due to deviation of those funds by PNG Government I recommend you to erase it from your mindset because donors are in control of their own money and not the PNG Government. if there are corruption with aid funds, then that corruption occurs in the donor's own court. PNG receives significant level of aid funds every year. If only aid is used on humanitarian grounds, most of these social ills could have been addressed effectively but aid focus is far removed from that approach. Hence, the social ills are here to stay despite growing level of aid.

Over to you all....

An Observer
January 18, 2014

How often shall we cry for PNG? A touching article indeed but how does it explain the failure of the World Bank and its donor partners (Australia, Japan, Asian Development Bank and more recently China) to put in place a maintainable basic road network managed by a half-decent road organization. This despite decades of providing massive amounts of financial aid for road building and technical assistance and advisers for institution building. What has emerged in PNG is an aid industry that perpetuates itself through armies of expatriate consultants, who bemoan and groan about the corrupt and inept national administration, but participate in and benefit from the corruption that surrounds them. PNG is moreover an experimental laboratory for aid agencies to try out every possible fad in the road sector ranging from road funds, road boards, road authorities whose mandate and purpose is only known and clear to the supporting aid donor, performance based contracting when no one is sure what performance means in the context of PNG, and an elaborate sector planning process run by expatriates that produces massive volumes of planning data and reports; that only looks into the future and never assesses what was accomplished in the past - the plan just completed. And despite all the planning, no one knows how many vehicles ply PNG's roads and despite the availability of beautifully rendered road maps, no one for sure knows how many passable kilometers of road there really are in PNG. Could there be a greater planning travesty than this? And the business of development goes forward shamelessly in the name of the people of PNG.