The sound of the Ranger faded into the distance, jostling down the pot-holed road. I stood grasping the hat Don (a fellow missionary and my driver) had just given me, a kind token in the blazing sun and a reminder at how poorly I was prepared for this adventure. Pastor Apa beckoned me down the road to his house and home for the disabled.
I had just started my truncated bush experience, a tradition for new expats working at the hospital to go spend time in a remote, rural village for a week to better understand the culture and the language of the area. My time had been reduced to three days at a place closer to the hospital due to quarantine and the need for physicians at the hospital to help the staff who had been overworked since the start of the pandemic. Pastor Apa had agreed to let me come stay with his family for the three days and he had a full itinerary.
Pastor Apa is a kind, strong and well-connected PNG man who lives about 30 minutes away from the hospital in the small village of Kandu. He has kind eyes and a rare but winning smile. Due to a congenital abnormality called syndactyly, Apa only has two functional fingers. He is, however, one of the strongest and most capable people I have met. Due to his condition, he has developed a heart for the disabled people of PNG and is undertaking to create a home and services for them, as they are often mistreated and neglected.
Pastor Apa (Dark blue shirt) at church
I walked down the road behind him to the building that is the start of his center for the disabled. Along the path near the house, flowers were strewn, and two lines of carefully strung flowers hung overhead. A cluster of children waited with curiosity and apprehension as I stepped into view with my bags. Shy smiles, small waves and hellos greeted me as well as a quick listing of names. This was the beginning of what turned out to be the first of hundreds of introductions over those days. (As a quick aside to those of you who are wondering, Covid has not made its presence strongly felt in PNG and there have been no recent cases in our province. While I wear a mask in the hospital, Covid precautions outside of the hospital are few to nonexistent. Other infectious diseases, primarily treatable and vaccine-preventable ones, present a much more dangerous threat here, at least for now).
That morning we walked back to the main road down to the market. Walking in PNG is itself an interesting cultural experience. There are two primary ways to go; along the dirt roads that intersect and grid the villages and farmland near the main roads or across the dirt paths and ridges between the irrigation troughs of fields, behind homes. Almost everyone walks in PNG, so we passed a number of people on the way to the market. We greeted everyone along the way, while some we stopped to talk to for more extended introductions and a discussion of the plans for the day. Along the path to the market, Pastor Apa introduced me to his sister. I later realized, after meeting many other sisters, brothers and mothers, that these are common ways to refer to others and do not strictly mean a blood relative (although they frequently were cousins, in-laws and occasionally immediate family).
The boys at the market
Land belongs to the people in PNG. Land traditionally lived on and farmed by a family belongs to that family and is passed on to the (male) children. This often means that one lives next to relatives who have also inherited their family land. While certainly not perfect, this system provides a degree of wealth and a means of living for many PNG families. While malnutrition is still present here, it seems to be much less frequent than what I have seen in Sub-Saharan Africa and usually the result of unfortunate social circumstances.
When we returned from the market, it was the boy’s task to entertain me while lunch was prepared. They took me down to some of the fields owned by the family. In my halting and broken Tok Pisin I started asking questions. They told me about school, their siblings, ages, etc. After a while, I started to ask about the plants, and they began to enthusiastically tell me the names of all the plants. Even the youngest knew the types of crops and how best to plant them. Several of the boys showed me their slingshots and demonstrated the deadly accuracy with which they could use them to supplement crops with the occasional bird.
Following the boys through the fields
We eventually arrived at a small clearing between some taller trees where thick vines hung down. Several of the boys immediately jumped into the vines, swinging back and forth and showing off. They laughed as I tried to climb up one of the vines, not making it very far.
One of the boys, Bobby, the youngest son of Apa had a stern face and capricious spirit. He would answer some questions with great detail and then in the next moment seem uninterested in talking further. He would sometimes lead, but didn’t seem to care if he led or not. He followed his desire not what he thought another might want from him. From time to time Bobby would run over to this swath or large-stalked, wide leafed plants covering a hill and do jumps and flips into the soft landing-sometimes the other boys would go with him and sometimes not. One of the times as he went to go jump in the plants I followed after him with an ungainly flip. Soon all the boys were jumping and rolling through the plants, laughing and yelling. I felt something shift as the beginning of a friendship, a comradery took place.
Later that day as we were walking to a haus krai (the funeral ritual in PNG after someone has died), Bobby surprised me by taking my hand as we walked. This is a common practice here (and in many other places in the world) that two friends walking together will hold hands. He carefully steered me around large puddles and mud as we made the long walk together. On occasion as we would walk together, he would grasp my hand or arm and the sternness would flee from his face like darkness into the corner when turning on the light as a big smile would fill his features looking up at me. That smile filled up all the corners of my soul as I experienced the free love from this child.
The chiefs from Apa’s village extended a warm welcome to me, giving an impromptu speech for the small crowd that had gathered the first night as we were walking through a crossroad. They welcomed me as family to their place, said that I was welcome to any food growing in their fields and they would love to have me come and visit whenever. The chiefs then came to Apa’s place to have dinner with me and to talk more. We discussed the culture, past traditions and current problems of land management as the sun went down and light dimmed to a small solar-powered light in the back of the house. One of the chiefs spent the night with us as an extended honor to me.
These evenings at Apa’s home for the disabled were special to me. As the light from the sun disappeared, there was no electricity to turn on large overhead lights to carry on with work/business as usual. Instead, it was a time to talk, to sing, to draw closer to each other until the need for sleep settled in. There were no television or computers, only the warmth of each other’s presence and company.
One unexpected moment came when Bobby asked me if I thought a picture of a waterfall displayed on the wall of the home for the disabled was real. I told him I thought it was as I had seen similar looking waterfalls before. I proceeded to look for a picture on my phone, and to mine and everyone else’s astonishment, it was the exact same waterfall as the one in the picture. The boys got a huge kick out of this and proceeded to tell Apa and his wife Betty about the picture. Hours later I heard Bobby saying to himself “I thought that picture was a lie.”
Our time was filled with many other things-traveling to see the large Waghi river and to see people travel by intertube down and across the river to come to the market, tubing down a different river, attending the haus krai, walking everywhere and back, and attending church. The last day I felt a sadness in my heart to be leaving. Although only a very short time, I had felt such a deepness and connection in the life I had spent with this family and their friends.
It has made me think deeply about poverty and the many lines drawn between us. What would Apa and his family think if they came to visit and stay with me in my house, even the simplified and scaled down house here? How can you have deep connection in the face of such inequality? And what about my own poverty, my lack of community and connection in comparison to Apa and his family?
I don’t have answers yet, nor do I think that easy ones will ever come. But the thankfulness of my heart for the way it was touched by the love, generosity and acceptance of Pastor Apa, his family and his community remain, in the background, the moments between moments.
by Alice Jones
The morning when I first notice
the leaves starting to color,
early orange, and back-lit,
I think how rapture doesn't
vanish, merely fades into
the background, waits for those
moments between moments.
I think this and door opens,
the street takes on its glistening
look, Bay fog lifting, patches of sun
on sycamore—yellow sea.
I am in again, and swimming.