Friday, 21 December 2012

Working Hard for the Money

 Approximately 80% of people in PNG live in rural areas. Many of these people are not formally employed and are classified as ‘subsistence farmers’. In fact, I’ve noticed that at schools, even the weakest students whose English is neither polished nor confident have no trouble telling me that their father is a ‘subsistence farmer’, a term that many young Australians would not be familiar with, but that everyone here knows.

Of the many people who work on their own land, some of them are unable to obtain formal employment due to a lack of education (around half of the population is estimated to be functionally illiterate), others because of a lack of job opportunity and probably others, by choice. A lack of formal employment does not mean however that people have no access to the cash economy. From my time in PNG, I have seen countless examples of people’s ingenuity in finding ways to make money, which of course is crucial if they are to pay medical expenses, put their kids though school, and travel into town.  

Perhaps the most common (to my knowledge) way of making a bit of kina, is to sell produce at the market. For some people, this means selling their surplus fruit and veg, but for others, this means selling icy poles, packed lunches (wrapped in banana leaves) salted fish, shell jewellery, woven baskets, betel nut (for chewing), meri blouses or plants. Many people (mostly women) sell their goods at the main market in Kokopo, but there are countless impromptu markets and roadside stalls all over the province. Basically, if there is a gathering of people for any reason, a stall will emerge and someone will be selling snacks (boiled peanuts and cucumbers which people eat as if they were bananas) and refreshments (young coconut or ‘kulau’).
The wonderful Jess, doing the coconut drive though.
A more official looking stall at the East New Britain mask festival.
Women making meri blouses, shell money strands and woven baskets - for sale at the market.

Sometimes around these stalls, there will be someone sitting down, usually under the shade of a big umbrella with one mobile phone, a pen and some paper. At first, I was very perplexed as to what such a person could possibly be doing but later understood that they have put lots of digicel credit on their phone and are selling it. Customers can come up, ask for 2 kina of credit to be transferred to their phone, and the seller will do it, but perhaps charge 2 kina 20 toea and in this way make a profit. There’s a market for this as sometimes people are either too far away from a shop that will sell them credit at the flat rate, or they only have a couple of kina to spare and they can’t buy credit from a shop in such a small denomination. I’ve also met some teachers who have an on-the-side phone credit business. They come into town for work, stock up on credit on payday, and then slowly sell it at a higher rate in their village when they go back over the weekend.

When travelling around the province, in addition to seeing countless woven and thatched roadside shops, it’s not uncommon to see young men and sometimes young boys, filling up potholes with dirt. Some of the roads in ENB are an appalling potholed mess as humidity, earthquakes, torrential rain, poor planning and infrequent maintenance take their toll. (There’s one stretch that my friend refers to as the Grand Canyon.) Of course, a pothole filled with dirt is only good until the next big down pour but many motorists, grateful for a smoother ride today will slow down and hand over some toea for the efforts of these young men, doing what must be incredibly hot and exhausting work.

There is also a little bit of money to be made in tourism, but here I don’t meant the official kind where you work at a hotel or take people on guided tours (though that certainly happens too). Some people’s villages/land happens to contain things which are now of historical interest, such as a crashed fighter plane from World War II or a barge tunnel, built by Japanese soldiers in WWII. Usually, if you visit these sites, you pay the landowners 5 kina per person. In my view, it’s very reasonable to pay people whose homes you are intruding on for the sake of curiosity, and also good if people who suffered in the war can now benefit in some small way from the remnants of that war. I also think that 5 kina ($2.50 Australian) per person is not going to break the bank for tourists, though I’ve noticed that while this system can work quite well on the land, it can get a bit problematic for dive sites.

One of the barge tunnels.
In PNG, people don’t just own the land (97% of the land is under customary ownership), they own the sea around their land too. Fair enough, but how do you know where your bit of the sea extends to? I imagine it may not have mattered that much when people could only go so far in a dugout canoe and only wanted to take what their families could consume, but now, with motorboats and people wanting access for things like diving, it’s a different story.

Inside the tunnel (these are made man tunnels).
The remnants of a war plane.

When we were recently in New Ireland Province, the dive company we were with seemed to have a great relationship with the surrounding villages who they pay (to take tourists to dive their reefs) and from whom they buy seafood, fruit and vegetables (to feed the tourists). However, there were a few places that I was really keen to dive, that we couldn’t go to because of ‘land ownership issues’. At first I assumed the issue was between the company and the landowners, but it turns out that it’s between competing landowners. They can’t agree on who owns the channel and who should collect the money. Such a shame when you think that divers (with responsible companies) don’t damage the reef at all and aren’t removing any resources so it’s a great way for remote places to make some money without losing anything or even having to do anything to the site. At the moment though, they aren’t making any money at all as the company (sensibly) won’t dive there until they sort it out.

Lastly for this entry, comes my favourite way of making money for some people in Kokopo and this, dear reader (if you are from my homeland Australia), comes directly from your own forgetfulness and/or carelessness. I am also happy to report that lately, I’ve been playing a very active role in this successful money gathering enterprise.

In Kokopo, there is a big warehouse sized second-hand clothing store called ‘Labels’. Geoff and I are big fans of Labels and recent acquisitions include a pure silk, charcoal coloured Saba dress, a crisp, white, seemingly unworn Armani shirt and a Sass & Bide angora cardigan all of which collectively set me back about one Australian dollar (I know, you’re now thinking you might be willing to brave the gangs of unruly raskols and come to PNG for a shot at Labels gold). Anyhow, all these clothes come from donations (I think through the Smith Family) from Australia and it means that local people can buy good quality clothing for a tiny sum (stop judging me, coastal Papua New Guineans have no need for that Angora cardigan it’s 32 degrees everyday I tell you!).  So how does ingenious money making come into play?

When I first went to Labels, with my friend Hannah, I saw a staff member approach her and I then saw her give him some money. It struck me as odd because people in PNG, no matter how poor, do not, in general, ask others for money. She later explained to me that he had a few Australian coins and she had changed them for him into kina. The same request was later made to me from another staff member of Labels. This has happened to me often in Labels, but only in Labels and to be honest, I didn’t, initially, give it much thought. Finally, one day I started wondering where they were getting all these coins from and I had a chat to one of the guys who works there. Of course, they are finding coins (and sometimes notes) in the pockets of the clothes that come in! Sometimes people ask me to change 20 Australian dollars (all in coins) for them and I always do if I have the right money on me. (I’ll be travelling home with kilos of coins!)

The amounts they have are too small for the bank to want to deal with, and of course the bank will charge them a fee (you’ll be happy to know that I give a very reasonable rate as a money changer J). The Labels’ staff are very trusting with my calculations (one of them thought that the 2 dollar coin was worth less than the 1 because it’s smaller – a reasonable assumption that could have got them ripped off). Recently, the staff at Labels found a 50 dollar note - that’s 100 kina and that’s, well, a sh#t load of Armani shirts in this town. No one ever asks Geoff to be their money changer (cause they think he’s Chinese or Japanese, even though when I run out of Kina I tell them to go and ask him and that he’s an Australian) but recently, as word has got around that the lady with the orange hair and the funny pidgin will count out and change your Aussie coins, I sometimes have 5 people come over and hold out their hand and ask me to change money for them. I can usually only change money for the first few I see which leads to a race to the door when I enter.

It’s amazing to think that someone in PNG might be wearing those jeans you bought on sale and only wore once and that they also might have bought some rice for their family with the coins you accidently left in the back pocket. Or, for that matter, that I’ll be travelling back to Australia and joyfully buying my first latte in a long while with some coins that I myself may have lost, which somehow found their way back to me via a Papua New Guinean with whom I made an exchange. OK, I know I’ve gone a bit off topic, but who’s with me? The world is an amazing, interconnected place.

So yeah, opportunities to get your hands on some kina, however hard you’re willing to work, can be tough sometimes over here. It’s a shame because as you can see, there is no shortage of entrepreneurial people willing to work and in need of some cash. I’m sure that are many other clever ways that people make money informally in PNG and I’d love to hear about them if anyone out there knows of some that I haven’t mentioned. I’ve actually heard of people holding village movie nights (everyone sitting around one laptop) and being charging admission but I’ve not experienced this myself.  As Christmas approaches, sadly some people find less honourable ways to make a buck and I’m told that crime increases across PNG in December. Well, that might have to be the next blog entry topic. Crime in PNG – it’s not like anyone’s written about that before! I’ll see if I can say anything of interest. Until then, lukim yu, and if you ever donate used clothes, do the charitable thing and don’t check the pockets beforehand :)  


  1. Lauren sent me - this is fantastic, I'll certainly be trawling through all your back posts! I've just come back from 3 weeks in Morobe with my wantoks, and had my brain thoroughly scrambled.

    I found those phone top up cards so frustrating, especially compared to our Australian phone plans - why am I paying 7K for 5K worth of calls? Rah!

  2. Loved this entry Simone! I love how much you fit in. You do anywhere you go. You're a rainbow. Miss your energy. xoxoxo
    Danielle Costello