Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Pilot of the Nduga

(A report from Wamena, the capital of the West Papuan highlands.)

I have a new friend. He is Papuan, from the Nduga tribe. He is 22. And he wants to be a pilot.

His name is Samuel.

We met at the Jayapura airport. I had to stand around for hours, and in my boredom, started to circle around the departure lobby. There was a young, very university student looking Papuan guy with a girl, also very student looking, obviously a couple. (On a side note: why is it that people in similar positions look exactly the same around the world? Why is a water engineer dressing into exactly the same clothes in Budapest and in California? Why are bureaucrats in the planning department of the economic ministry look and behave exactly the same in Moscow and Brasilia? The clothes? Ok, maybe there is some common culture. The behaviour? Okay, they have to think about the same things. But the hair?) We smiled at each other, Samuel and I. Then again. Then as I was to pass by them for the third time, he had put his hand out, and announced that his name was Samuel. 

We talked the next hour and half.

He spent his early childhood in a little village in the middle of the Highlands. The challenges implied here are enormous. The Papuan highlands reach five thousand meters, on the equatorial. Translation: extremely difficult terrain, constant torrential rain, you live in tiny little huts, in the middle of a forest full of dangers, the next nearest village is half a day away, no electricity, no water, no roads at all, no telecommunication, no school, no healthcare whatsoever, just you, your family, and a few other families. That’s it. You help grow veggies, and look after the pigs. And play a lot. (It sounds rather pleasant, no?)

And then two events came. First, his dad organised that the village would build an elementary school. Second, and “African-American missionary” came to a neighbouring village, and told my friend, Samuel, that he had used to be a pilot. Samuel always wanted to fly a plane, the only transportation he had seen. There was no way, he could ever do that. But that black missionary told him that you see, here I am, black people can be pilots, too. 

My friend finished elementary school. Then had gone to high school. He had to walk three days to get to his school in the big town. Through the forest. Rain. Danger. Barefooted. Nowhere friendly to sleep. Age ten. Then three days back. Then again.

He finished high school. Had gone to senior high in the provinces capital. Then he got into a pilot school in Jakarta. He finished in May. Looked up on the internet that the best commercial pilot training is in New Zealand. He applied. He got in. Now he is looking for scholarship, and I have no doubt that he will somehow, through the impossible, get it. (Nobody is giving pilot training scholarships, especially for Papuans. But if you happen to sit on one, there is no better place for this money to go to -- I’ve got his email.)

I asked him what the people in his village need. Amazingly, he gave me a ten minute structured talk about priorities. First the landing strip, so that people do not have to walk to get the essentials. Second, healthcare. For little kids keep having diarrhoea, and it takes way too long to get to the town, and some of them die on the way. Third, education. The teacher in the school left, and the school closed. He had his chance, but what about his baby brothers and sisters? Fourth, economic development. People need to get access to the market, and have the technology to use the land and the forest without destroying it. (How many 22 year olds could give a priority list like that at a moments notice?)

He said that if he is going to get a scholarship, he will save enough on it to send his brother to medical school in America, for the second thing that his village needs is a doctor, after a pilot. 

The Papuan Highlands is the last place on Earth which is more or less untouched. Before I came here, I thought I would have trouble discussing global issues with people who share with me a cultural heritage from 45 thousand years ago, and nothing since. I thought the question of integration of global culture and economy would be something I would have to think about based on what I hear from them. Instead they are dictating the solution while I type.

We had one more specific topic. He raised the issue of how much economic development can go against leaving the environment intact. I started to explain that the ecological environment is a system, etc., but he cut into my sentence. “I know it’s a system. And of course, it’s unique. I grew up there. You come to my village, and I show it to you. My tribe will look after it for you.” Well, but who is going to pay price of looking after, then, I asked. He did not even blink: “You are the development economist, you figure it out.”


At the end, I asked him about Obama. You have not seen a bigger grin.