I sit in the entry-way of a house raised by stilts. Nearly ten mothers sit behind me, breastfeeding their babies. More stand outside just below my feet and others stand under the main section of the house.
Twenty of us, gathered, plus our babies and small children. One man helps translate.
They listen intently as I interview Josephine and other women through two translators—English to Pigeon and then Pigeon to their local dialect—learning what life is like for them on the muddy banks of the Bamu River.
Bamio is a village of 500 on the Bamu River in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea. There is no clean water tank and no market store.
I notice the woman I had sat behind in church the day before – a large hole in her oversized t-shirt that spanned across her shoulders and back.
Another woman – delightfully elderly in a land where many die young – wears a string of pearls against her dirty, ragged dress and smiles up at me from her tiny five-foot frame.
(Have I ever seen a woman so beautiful before?)
And yet another woman holds her son – the size of Judah – and tells me that he’s Levi’s age: over two years old.
Josephine giggles nervously before telling me about losing her baby when he was a year old.
He had been sick with a fever for a week before he died. They didn’t know what was wrong then; they still don’t.
I ask her if she’s afraid to have more children, for fear of losing another and she tells me yes.
“How can I feed them?” she asks me. “There isn’t even enough food for me and my husband. How can I take care of children?”
I realize her fear of going hungry is greater than her fear of sickness and disease.
She tells me about the way her husband beat her for crying about her dead baby, and how they later cried together once his anger settled.
“It’s normal,” she speaks of the beating. “Many men beat their wives here. They know it’s wrong, but they can’t help it.”
I ask her if the beating continues during pregnancy and she says no. “They do it before you get pregnant and after you have the baby, but not in between.”
Josephine may be afraid of having more children of her own, but–despite her lack of formal training–she helps other village mothers give birth in the small aid post where I can see our volunteers caring for patients next door.
I recognize an orange plastic sheet – one of the hundreds we’ve folded for clean birth kits – crumpled at the foot of the blood-stained bed, thin boards tied together with twine.
I ask why she’s helped deliver over 20 babies so far. “Because I have these women in my heart,” she says, without missing a beat.
She doesn’t say it, but I see longing in her eyes.
There’s a resilience in these women of Bamio – who typically birth eight or nine babies and work all day chopping sago (a local root) to provide food for their families.
They amaze and inspire me as they hold their heads up high in worn-out clothes and bare, muddy feet.
I want to talk about maternal and child mortality – to see how common it is in this area and find out how it’s affecting them.
But my attempts are met with more nervous giggles and smiles and women wanting to play with my long hair, pulled back in a pony tail.
“Take my photo,” one woman says, distracted by the novelty of my strange presence in their small community.
The mood lightens and I speak of my littles, taking afternoon naps on the ship.
I swipe through pictures of our children and I capture images of theirs, passing my camera around for mamas and grandmamas to inspect the small LCD screen, alight with familiar faces.
We smile a lot and become friends and hold hands, dreaming of how to make their home a better place.
“A water tank,” they say.
At the end of it all, that is their greatest need and I can see that it’s true.
They need clothes and mosquito nets and education and nutritious food and health care and vaccinations and an end to the cycle of poverty and domestic violence.
But none of it matters if they continue to drink polluted water that carries intestinal worms and lethal disease.
I came wanting to help tell their story, and I left them still waiting for a clean drink of water.
There’s work to be done in Bamio – the village that’s captured my heart.
Dear friends, I don’t know how long I’ll be telling you stories from our time in Papua New Guinea. But right now, these stories are looking for a way out. I can’t tell you how upset it makes me that a village of 500 has no clean water source. What will we do to help?
p.s. I wrote this post while still on the ship in PNG… I’m just trying not to bombard you by posting my stories all at once. I also have to say that I’m so grateful to my friend Erin for making sure I came back with a few photos of our time with me in them. I love the ones she took of Josephine–my mama-loving sister–and I so much. They represent something deeper than I know how to describe. Thank you Erin. x