Alphonse Fokia Wafime, Alfie or AFW to his friends, has a face that tells a thousand stories. Like many Highlands men he has a coarse, thick, black beard and strong build, but his soft eyes, wise face and humble demeanor make him a pleasure to sit beside on long road trips in PNG. Alfie has worked for VSO for 22 years and is a loyal part of the VSO PNG family.
Alfie is a true Eastern Highlands man. Born in Litipinaga in Goroka, his parents are from different villages in the mysterious, rugged mountains: “I love the cool climate up in the mountains. There is big jungle, plenty of water and you can grow all the vegetables you can imagine, from kaukau (sweet potato) to corn to beans and pumpkins. It used to take two hours walk to get to a road from my place which made access to the market really difficult but now it is much closer.” His older brother told Alfie that he is 48 years old but he has no birth certificate to prove his age, a common trait in Papuans.
He comes from a big family with three brothers and two sisters. Alfie was the first person in his village to do grade 1 in 1973 and he studied up to grade 8. After school he returned home to help his family as his Father was sick and he became a village man: “I liked doing garden work but it was really hard. Gardens can be far from the house, often a one and a half hour walk away. I preferred to play sport!”
In 1991 Alfie came from the highlands to the coast, it was only meant to be a short visit to Port Moresby as he was playing in a rugby league match but he had a dream of what life could be like: “I didn’t ever plan to stay but I had a vision that if I got a job it would be a nice life for me so I got work as a security guard. My family was really happy that I was able to get paid work and I supported my family and small brothers.” It was from this private security job that Alfie made a connection with the VSO Country Director (CD) and his long career with the team began.
“When I pressed the buttons and saw the letters come up on the screen I thought it was amazing! I had never seen technology like it before, it was just like magic and I felt like I was a real office man!”
Alfie has stayed a faithful VSO employee moving with the team from Port Moresby to Madang. He started working for VSO in July 1992 as a security guard, while working he had the opportunity to learn to drive which was a dream come true. It wasn’t until the VSO office moved to Madang in 1998 that Alfie really took to the driving seat. Alfie has never had any incidents during his time as a driver which considering the potholes is a miracle: “It was a big step up for me but it was my dream to be a driver as I don’t have a car. It is tiring doing the long journeys but I’m in control. People’s lives are very important and I always have a contingency plan, I have a family to look after for a long time so I don’t want any problems.”
Before becoming part of the VSO family, Alfie held fairly typical male PNG attitudes and behaviours. Through a very close relationship with one of the CD’s he came to understand that violence against women was unacceptable. It wasn’t until these views were challenged that he came to see that violence towards his wife and family was wrong: “Patrick was like a brother to me and he would give me guidance and encouragement. It really helped me to understand gender equality, something I had never considered before. Violence used to be an everyday part of life but now I control my behavior and I just walk away. I saw something new and I am a changed man.”
The following CD’s wife, Sandy, showed Alfie how to use a computer and gave him basic training: “When I pressed the buttons and saw the letters come up on the screen I thought it was amazing! I had never seen technology like it before, it was just like magic and I felt like I was a real office man! I can now use Word and Excel and I will never forget these skills.”
Alfie reflects on one of the challenges he has had with planning and thinking ahead since working for the development organisation: “From a village perspective there is no thinking ahead. Some things are seasonal but in the most part people just do what they want to do and react to situations like births, deaths and marriages. For daily normal life there is no planning ahead but there is always work to do in the garden. It has taken a lot to learn how to plan properly in a work context.” This certainly touches on one of the considerations when working in PNG but this live for the moment approach merely challenges the western idea of how best to achieve things.
“VSO has done a lot for me professionally and personally and I have been able to contribute a lot to my family. I really don’t ever want to leave.”
Alfie is a family man and lives with his wife and two children, Scholar and Kukuto, in New Town, Madang. He lives in a small village house that he made himself out of wood and corrugated metal, on rented land. Like a lot of the out of town villages there is no power and no water, the latter is a huge problem and despite the water drums to catch rainwater, he is “always praying for rain.”
Like so many of the staff in the VSO PNG office, Alfie has a big heart and is an asset to the team and it shows in the fact that he has stayed with the charity for over two decades: “I feel like I have come from no where but still all the staff in the office are very helpful and give me training and confidence in doing new things. VSO has done a lot for me professionally and personally and I have been able to contribute a lot to my family. I really don’t ever want to leave.”