Remote Baha'i school adds two new grades

October 31, 2007
Residents and visitors join to celebrate the opening of new classrooms at a remote school operated by Baha'is in Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. The photo was taken from a helicopter that was bringing special guests to the event.

BUNISI, Papua New Guinea — In the remote village of Bunisi in Milne Bay Province in Papua New Guinea, the age you start school doesn't depend on how old you are – it depends on whether you can handle the hike to and from class.

Each morning, children trek for two hours, walking 2,000 feet down the mountain to the Ikara Primary School. And each afternoon, they hike back up.

Not easy for a 7-year-old.

"By the time the children get to school they are exhausted," said Jalal Mills, a Baha'i familiar with the educational system in Bunisi. "Then they are expected to concentrate in class and learn."

But now the situation is changing, at least for the first and second graders. Last month, the Bunisi Elementary School, which until recently only served preschoolers, added new classrooms.

A festive meal – with a wild boar cooked outdoors – was part of the celebration for the new school buildings. Slideshow
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A festive meal – with a wild boar cooked outdoors – was part of the celebration for the new school buildings.

Operated by the Baha'i community of Bunisi, the school serves students in preschool and now grades one and two from nearly a dozen nearby villages, covering an area with a population of perhaps 1,000 people. The pupils come from different religious backgrounds.

"The people are happy that the Baha'is have helped build a school to provide education for the boys and girls of the area," said Kessia Ruh, who in September traveled by helicopter from Rabaul to attend the inauguration of the new classrooms.

A Baha'i counselor, Ms. Ruh said the Baha'is themselves were eager to have outside visitors for the ceremony. "They hadn't had visitors from outside the area, and they wanted other neighboring villages to know that the Baha'i friends from (other places) would come," she said.

The school was started in 1995 by local Baha'is, who were concerned about the lack of educational opportunities for their children. They began with a preschool and spent last year working to add the new classrooms. They hope to expand further, perhaps adding a grade each year. Some 50 Baha'is live in Bunisi, with another few hundred in the surrounding area.

Instruction in the school is in the local language, Umaikana, because that is the norm in the country for the first three years of school. Students pay the equivalent of about US$3 a term and, because it is a government-registered school, public subsidies pay another US$99 per term for each child.

The school has three teachers, offering class for some 75 children in all. Two of the teachers are Baha'is, but most of the students are not. Religious instruction is limited to specified periods, and several religions are taught.

Even for Papua New Guinea, Bunisi is remote. Located 4,600 feet above sea level near the Milne Bay area in the eastern part of the country, Bunisi doesn't appear on most maps – it is just one of many small villages that dot the area. The closest settlement with electricity and running water is Rabaraba, a coastal station reached by a two-day walk through the mountains.

Bunisi itself has no electricity, no running water and no telecommunication services. Most of the people are subsistence farmers.

In addition to Ms. Ruh, other guests of honor at the inauguration were Chief Sigeru Buapa of the Bunisi area and the headmaster of the Ikara Primary School, where older children from the area will continue to attend classes.

All the guests joined in singing and dancing with local residents and hundreds of other visitors from the area who had hiked to Bunisi to participate in the festivities.

The land for the school was donated by the chief.

"Before, I used this land to hunt cuscus, and now I give it for the future generations to hunt for education," he said at the inauguration ceremony for the new classrooms.