ALISON ANIS chronicles a day in the life of a village mother
SHE muscles the heavy bilum full of vegetables from one hand to another as she swings it purposefully over her head and shoulders, before finally letting it rest on the crown of her head.
The long thin stretch of woven strings from the bilum which hang over her head are tugging down hard on her temples due to the heavy weight she is carrying. But she seems oblivious to the pain as she picks up her two-year-old son and sits him firmly in a small laplap draped across her shoulders and hung loosely over her hip.
Once the boy is in place, she leans forward and picks up the bush knife and a digging stick on a pile of rubbish nearby and starts the long walk home.
The afternoon sun is beating down on her bare skin, around the nape of her neck and outlines her small deformed shadow with a huge lump on the back.
“How ironic,” she thinks to herself. “It was raining all morning and now the sun decides to show up.”
She takes slow steps at first through the muddy and slippery bush track, and then big strenuous ones when she reaches the clearing ahead.
With her head bent forward as she tries to balance the heavy load, the woman’s voice is gentle and calm, though you can still hear a strain in her voice when she tries to sing and talk at the same time to keep her little boy from crying.
From her swollen abdomen, now visibly outlined by the wet clothes which cling to her body, come the small punches and kicks – the baby is due soon.
She closes her eye for a second, places her hand on her tummy and whispers: “Not yet little one, now is not the time.”
At times like these, Lucy (not her real name) wishes that one of her two girls who are attending a primary school in the neighbouring district stayed back home to help her – and many a times they are forced to skip classes just to help their mom because of her condition.
Twenty-five-year old Lucy and her husband Tim, 27, their two daughters (who are two years apart) and two-year-old son lead a very ordinary and detached village lifestyle in a small mountain kibbutz situated along the ridges of the Owen Stanley Ranges – one of the most hazardous and rugged terrains in Papua New Guinea and home to the renowned World War II Kokoda Trail.
The young couple hail from Menari village along the trail.
While Lucy stays home looking after the three kids, collecting vegetables and greens besides working long hours in the garden, Tim works as a porter for one of the Australian trek operators along the Kokoda Track, carrying a 20kg backpack loaded with food rations to feed the trekkers who come all the way from Australia to walk the track.
Every trip is a hectic one for the father of three and this one is no different. Tim carries a maximum weight of 20kg at the start of each trip and walks long and excruciating hours on the dangerous and slippery, steep slopes of the 96km track.
As usual, he does not care, his mind is already on the list of items he will buy for the new baby once the trek is completed and he gets his pay from the trekking company.
He is worried about leaving his pregnant wife behind with the children but he has no choice. With the money he earns, he will get a new bathing dish for the baby, as well as nappies, towels, blankets and some clothes. He will also get some new clothes for their three kids back home. Half of the money will go to savings until the next trip comes up but that will take another month.
Lucy’s baby is due in two months but she fears it might come sooner than expected – all of her three children were born prematurely or before their due dates.
Her two girls, one aged eight and the other six – were born in the traditional way at home, the birth performed by the village midwife.
The young mother does not know much about health information regarding babies and pregnant mothers.
Here, basic health services including health facilities and care for pregnant mothers and newborn babies is lacking.
Churches and organisations like Rotary in Australia have done much over the years by establishing health facilities, but they lack financial backup from the Government. The facilities have almost become like the monuments erected along the trail to commemorate fallen heroes.
Lucy has been to the clinic once, but that was two years ago and she had to walk two days through the track and cross fast-flowing rivers to get to the nearest clinic, located miles away in Sogeri.
There she gave birth to a baby boy – now a toddler hanging in the crook of her arm.
Beads of perspiration trickle down her lovely face as she makes her way towards the small creek ahead. A few more hasty steps and she is there, lowering the bilum from her head and onto a huge boulder close by. She puts her son down and using a folded leaf she picks out from the bush, she fetches drinking water from the creek. She gives some to the boy and has a quick dip in the icy cold water. After washing off all the dirt from the garden, she gives her son a quick bath, puts him back into laplap and once again, with a bilum swung above her, she struggles up the last slope towards her home.
At home, she changes into her warm clothes, prepares a meal for the children and makes some vegetable soup for herself. When dinner is over, she puts the kids to sleep and though she is tired, she makes sure the house is in order before she goes to sleep, with a long sigh of relief, pleased with what she has achieved in a day’s work.
Tomorrow, it starts all over again. But tomorrow is another day.
Lucy is just one among the hundreds of thousands of rural women in the country who have to work long hours every day, often under extreme conditions, to make ends meet. In a place where literacy is low and basic services including proper health care and facilities are lacking, it is indeed an uphill battle.
Each year, the high infant mortality rate and maternal mortality rates continue to rise in rural PNG.
A specialist on child health care with Department of Health, Dr Job Hawap, says under five (0-5 years) infant mortality is especially high in the remote rural areas where the literacy rate is low and where there is no form of development.
I met Lucy and Tim in 2003 when I first walked the Kokoda Track. We have become friends since then and I recently bumped into the couple at a shop in Boroko after almost nine years.
With them was a newborn baby boy. According to the couple, Lucy had walked for two days to get to Port Moresby where she could give birth properly. – [email protected]
* White Ribbon Day, the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, was celebrated on Wednesday.