The liklik meri from Lae: part three – from an empty book

The liklik meri from Lae: part one – in the beginning
The liklik meri from Lae: part two – growing up

This is the final part of the story about Angela Roypo, one of the strongest, determined women I have ever met. Although small in size, Angela’s personality is huge and fills a room. In the retelling of her bittersweet fairytale there were moments when both of our eyes were filled with tears, but her powerful story speaks volumes and shows that despite the biggest hurdles, you can still succeed and be an incredible role model and mother. Angela is an inspiration and although it may have take a while for this final part to come to fruition, I am sure that you will see why. This is the final part of her story…

The first thing that I thought when I knew that Fernando’s Dad had left us was that I had no idea what I would do next. All the hope and trust that I had in Peter had gone. It was a blessing that I was living with the Filipino, missionary couple as my small family was settled in their house. I decided that we would stay and I would help them as much as possible, humble myself, to earn our place in the house and stay under their care because of my son. At this point I didn’t have anywhere else to go or know what to do. I was just hoping and believing in the Lord that I might meet another man who would love me and accept my son as his own. I also hoped that I would be able to find a job one day, as a haus meri, or a cleaner, or anything for our survival.

The Filipino couple were good parents to me and they adopted me into their family with open arms. Fernando and I had become part of their family and they didn’t want to see us with nowhere to go. The Filipino woman would share stories and insights with me. One day she told me that she had a philosophy that when Fernando was four someone would come to me with a work opportunity. But the Filipino lady was old and sick and never did see that day. When I took her to the hospital the day before she passed away, she told me that she wanted me to stay with her family.

From there I sent Fernando to school and I knew that I had a really big responsibility so I had to work out how to get the money to make sure that he had a proper education. Since the old lady passed away I didn’t feel comfortable staying in the house just with her husband. I started to hear negative things from people about the fact that I was living with the Filipino man and I knew that I had to leave. I was preparing to take Fernando back to my village but the old man didn’t want me to go and paid for his school fees. I knew that if I took Fernando back to the village there would be no chance for him to have a good education so I decided to stay in the house with him in Madang for a little longer.

“Even though it was something that I had never done in my life, and even though it scared me and I didn’t really have confidence, my heart told me to try.”

Fernando did his kindergarten and when he turned four years old, the old Filipino ladies philosophy came true. One Sunday, a lady called Benny came over for lunch at the Filipino man’s house. During her visit she asked if anyone would massage her feet. I massaged her hands, then her feet and her back; she was testing us to see if any of us had potential to be trained in massage. From this massage she said that she would teach me so that when she goes away I can fill in for her. So I took the opportunity. Even though it was something that I had never done in my life, and even though it scared me and I didn’t really have confidence, my heart told me to try.

A few weeks later I came to visit Benny at her work at the Madang Lodge gym. She told me that as well as massage she would show me how to look after the gym and service the equipment. Each morning I would come in and learn what to do. I was so willing to learn something new and it was something that I never knew before. I didn’t know what fitness was or what massage was but when I started to do it I found it so fun and enjoyable. I had never really spoken to white people before and I was so nervous to begin with, but every day, new, white faces would come in and I would have to talk to them. This was the beginning of a new chapter in my life and I knew that I had to move forward and forget the pain of what had gone before.

Everything happened so fast. In the process of working in the gym I learnt so much. I quickly became addicted to working out and I wanted to know everything! I was no longer afraid to talk to people or worried about people asking questions and how I would explain myself. At the same time I couldn’t speak English that well and I couldn’t read and write at all.

I met a lady called Judy, who came to the gym but also to the same church that I attended. Judy and Benny discussed secretly about the fact that I couldn’t read and write and Judy came to me and invited to me to her house for lunch. This was the first white lady that I could truly call my friend. When we had lunch she asked me what I wanted to do and I told her that I wished for many things! But one of the main wishes was that I could read, write and speak English clearly and well so that I can work anywhere. She offered to help me to learn if I was willing. We agreed to meet twice a week during my break and her lunch hour and she became my teacher. We did this for a few months together until she went home for a break. She passed me over to Tilly, another beautiful woman with a beautiful heart and she continued to teach me. I realised that there were so many wonderful people who were willing to help me.

After this time with Judy and Tilly I was able to speak English really well and I was able to read and write properly. After all those years, this is how I finally got my education. Being able to read and write made me improve in my job. One day Benny said to me that she was planning to leave PNG and go to Australia for good and she said that her job could well be mine. She started to do intensive training with me on massage and before she left she spoke to the owner of the Lodge who interviewed me. I was so nervous as I had no papers or proof that I could do the job but Benny vouched for my skills. From then I worked for three months, completely on my own and nothing went wrong. From this point they told me that I was the one to run the gym and do the massages in the future. I started working in the gym full time in 2010 and since 2013 I have been managing the gym all by myself with little supervision and the management is really happy with the work that I do.

2015 was a big year of change in my life and I felt really big pain, deep inside my heart. During this year I was again told that I had to find somewhere to live, which is really hard in Madang where accommodation is scarce and expensive. It took a lot of looking but eventually my work found a safe place for us to stay that is walking distance to the gym. Then in October, I found out that I had been blessed again with the discovery that I was pregnant for the second time. I was so happy. It wasn’t expected but I was really joyful that Fernando would have another baby brother or sister. As I knew what to expect I was less frightened but I was scared about the challenges of raising two children as a single Mum. I worried about how I would keep them happy and make sure that they had everything that they need. But I chose to be strong, love my children and prove to them that I can do it no matter what.

“I was scared about the challenges of raising two children as a single Mum. I worried about how I would keep them happy and make sure that they had everything that they need. But I chose to be strong, love my children and prove to them that I can do it no matter what.”

In December, when I was three months pregnant I returned back to the village to visit my Dad. He was actually in hospital in the town rather than in the village as he needed medication, so he had no family members supporting him. I went to see him at Lae hospital, he was sleeping outside on the footpath. There was no bed for him as the hospital was full and his illness needed long-term care so they couldn’t accommodate him, but at least he was safe from the rain and sun. When I saw him sleeping, lying down on the floor it broke my heart. I never wanted to see my Dad like that.

I was with him for one week at the hospital and during this time we decided to hire a land cruiser and take him back to Bulolo, half way from Lae to our village, to stay with my sister. I quickly came back to Madang to buy some big bags of buai (betel nut) to make some quick money, as hiring a car is really expensive. On the way back I sold the buai and headed to meet my Dad and sister. We spent a few days there and then I repeated the trip to get more cash. We hired another car and took him back to the village. I spent one week with my Dad cooking for him, talking to him, but he was in and out of consciousness and I knew that this was the last time that I would have with him. During this time he still gave me advice and encouragement. I said goodbye to him and returned back to Madang and Fernando.

A couple of weekends later I got a call from a family member to say that my Dad wanted to drink a cup of coffee with me. The caller had climbed to the top of the mountain to get connection but I knew from the message that it meant that my Dad was about to pass away. I knew in my heart that it was time for him to go and on that Saturday I was called to say that he had died. The same Saturday that my Dad passed away I packed my things from my old house, with my big stomach and moved into our new home.

“The same Saturday that my Dad passed away I packed my things from my old house, with my big stomach and moved into our new home.”

This time posed great challenges for me. Even though my Dad was really ill, I just didn’t realise that one day he wouldn’t be there. I never promised him anything but the only person that I wanted to make happy in life was my Dad. I always dreamed of having my own home that I could bring him to, to show him love and look after him. I wanted him to know that he was the reason that I am strong from all of his teachings and this was in my heart for so long. At the end of 2015 it felt like half of my life had gone for good.

But then on 22nd July, Eliel Poropet came into the world, assisted by one of the very good friends that I met in the gym, who reassured me that all would be well and it was. Now I have finally realised that I already have the life that can support me to look after my sons. Since working at the gym I have been able to support my sons, I have made many close friends that I never expected to have and learnt about so many different countries and cultures. With the experiences that I have had I’ve gained confidence, knowledge and understanding and now I can face the challenges in my life as a single mother. I always try to think positive thoughts and try to bring up both of my children to have a wider view of the world.

I never look back and I don’t ask for help from either of the Father’s. I thought that I would get support from them as they are a part of the challenges that I face but this hasn’t been the case. It is such a painful thing but I know that it is not just me going through life like this, there are many other single mothers out there, both in PNG and the world, and I know, like them, that I am strong enough to do this on my own.

Through all of these experiences I have learnt so many things. I have gone through hell. I was like an empty book but now my pages are full and I have so many stories and things to tell. Even when I saw myself as a blank book I had this very small thought that I would become somebody, that I would own a business and make something of myself. I love facing challenges and working out how to succeed and move forward. If I didn’t live this life I wouldn’t be where I am now, I would probably be in the village with 10 children or even dead. From the humble life of a remote village girl, I have followed my dreams and I always remember to have faith, keep positive and take new opportunities. With this mindset I truly believe that anything is possible. My story shows that with great
determination you can transform your life.

 

I am so thankful to Angela for sharing such personal parts of her life with me. We could have talked for far longer as she has such a beautiful way of sharing her experiences, and despite the challenges she always sees the positives. We both hope that her determination can inspire others, as for many women, particularly those in PNG, so many elements of this story will be familiar. I will be making Angela’s story into a book for her with some of the beautiful photos of her little family and one day she will share it with Fernando and Eliel, but for now, this story is for her, the liklik meri from Lae, and for you.

From polygamy to abstinence

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Scholar Sipa Mawe is 43-years-old from Koge village, Simbu, in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). From a very young age her path was defined for her; Scholar knew that she wouldn’t be able to have children. When she was born there was a cultural ritual in her village where taro, a widely grown root vegetable, was burnt in the fire. This custom meant that she was destined to be infertile and wouldn’t be able to carry a child. From a very young age Scholar had time to come to accept the fact that she wouldn’t bear children but of course this was not easy and it has had a huge impact on her life.

In 1991, when she was 18-years-old, her family arranged a marriage for her; she was happy to enter into a partnership but life with her new match was not good: “My husband knew that I couldn’t have children from the beginning. We adopted two children but he wanted plenty of his own biological children. He was violent towards me and he kept asking me if he could take a second wife. I kept saying ‘no’ but the first question that he would ask me every single day was ‘can I get another wife?’” In the highlands communities of PNG, polygamy is a common practice and is understood to be one of the contributing factors for jealousy and violence in relationships. It is very difficult for a women to stand up against her husbands decision to take on more wives.

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During this time Scholar became really interested and committed to working in the area of women’s issues and was passionate about helping woman who are survivors of gender based violence (GBV). She became a local volunteer supporting the district women’s council, helping them with practical knowledge in health and education. During this time she attended lots of workshops and built her knowledge on GBV.

“He didn’t give me a chance, he moved on with his life, had other girlfriends and when he came back he would tell me. He would threaten me that he would give me HIV.”

Despite her perseverance and the continued refusal to her husband that she was unhappy for him to take a second wife, he still persisted: “He didn’t give me a chance, he moved on with his life, had other girlfriends and when he came back he would tell me all about it. He would threaten me that he would give me HIV. He continued to fool around even though I was still faithful to him. After two years I planned to move out and leave him but before I could make the break he got another wife and used our house with her – the house was built by my son and not him so I went to see my uncle to seek justice. I got permission to burn the house down and then I took off with my children.”

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It was incredibly difficult for Scholar, torn between wanting to stay with her family but to also move on with her life: “One day I went to visit and I saw my husband and his new wife having oral sex so I threw a huge stone at them. I had a big fight with the wife. During the fight my husband kneed me in the face and I lost my front tooth. That night I was very frustrated and I couldn’t sleep. The next day I went to the family sexual violence unit at Kundiawa and I reported the case and the police arrested my husband and his new wife and they were put behind bars for three days.”

After the upset with her husband Scholar felt that she had no choice, so she left her village and came to Madang on the coast to live with her cousin and auntie to move on with her life. This is when she began to pursue a career supporting women in local communities. In 2011 she joined the Real Involvement People with Aims project where she did community home based care for people living with HIV. With more skills under her belt, in 2012 she joined Voluntary Service Overseas as a peer educator for the Most at Risk Populations (MARPS) project. The MARPS intervention is based around peer educators working in identified communities giving awareness about prevention, distributing condoms, encouraging people to know their status, making sure that people attend follow up appointments and referring people to services like family planning. Through highly motivated peer educators like Scholar, the project has been able to reach out to hard to target, key populations in Madang and the work has now extended to other provinces.

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Through her work going to clinics, Scholar has been able to establish that outreach wasn’t being done properly and people were defaulting on their treatment which is a major issue in PNG: “I want to be seen as a role model and share my experience with people to help them seek the essential HIV, STI and GBV services. I go out into communities and make sure that people follow up on their treatment. Defaulters are dying so this is a big problem and I can see that I can be part of the solution to help others.”

“I want to live a peaceful and free life, free from violence and HIV. I am a women with a vision and a mission that I’m driven to accomplish it. I’m still working on it but I will get there.”

From her experience she has made some significant changes in her life and has a firm sight on a positive future for herself: “I don’t want to get married again. I want to live a private life and I don’t want to turn back to a life like before. For the past six years I have abstained from sex. I want to live a peaceful and free life, free from violence and HIV. I am a women with a vision and a mission and I’m driven to accomplish it. I’m still working towards it but I will get there.”

PNG style

What you spot people wearing on the streets of Papua New Guinea (PNG) never fails to amaze me and make me smile.  I can sense that this love may well become one of my photographic obsessions, but who can’t fail to have their heart warmed by seeing a man confidently carrying a bright pink backpack, or spying a burly highlands man wearing a dressing gown with a fluffy collar!  But for the first installment of my PNG style series my focus is definitely on head wear…

Standard driving material

Standard driving material

Casually driving down Modilion road and cheekily peaking out of a PMV is this smiley fellow, wearing a fabulous, fuzzy blue wig.

Lost in translation

Hospital maintenance man, Modilon Hospital, Madang

The huge second hand shops are the place to go to get your fashion fix in PNG.  Massive bundles of clothes and accessories are shipped in from Australia to fill the giant stores.  Quite often what makes sense in the fashion stakes and the slogans that are branded across the clothes are completely lost in a Pacific context.  I’m pretty certain that this lovely, helpful hospital cleaner isn’t really ‘getting on one’ but it is a very practical cap to keep the sun off of your head!

Mrs Binabina

Mrs Binabina

When I saw the fabulous, funky Mrs Binabina fusing her meri blaus and highlands bilum with such a strongly messaged slogan on her cap I had to capture the moment.  Although perhaps another slogan lost in translation, with the expression meaning ‘calm down’, wearing it at the Madang Festival was probably quite fitting!

Morobe fashion fusion

Morobe fashion fusion

Well what can I say about the strong look on this fellow?  At first I thought that it was all about the fact that he was wearing safety goggles as sunglasses, but actually it is his whole look…the flourescent pink and yellow shirt with the cargo fishing jacket over the top, teamed with the stylish trilby hat and his classic leather strapped time piece.  Priceless.

Back of the truck, Karkar style

Back of the truck, Karkar style

Overtaking trucks on coconut tree inhabited Karkar, I spotted this young man wearing one of the fluffiest, tea cosy hats i’ve ever seen.  These head covers are far more common in scorching PNG than you might expect!

Style Henry

Style Henry

One of the lovely VSO security guards, Henry, is always a man who cares about his style!  On this day he’d customised his hat to give his head some breathing space…not surprised that he needed the ventilation as he manned the gate in scorching, sunny Madang!

The sunglasses question

The sunglass question

Now this poses one of my favourite PNG questions.  I am yet to get to the bottom of it, so PNG poros do assist with potential answers.  A common trend that you frequently spot is people wearing sunglasses with the labels still stuck on them.  Is it a style thing?  I’m fairly sure that it is quite obstructing to your view everyday.  This PMV driver has taken it to the next level with his sunnies.  Not only does he have the sticker but he also has the tag still attached – surely this must get annoying when it is banging on his nose!

Just another Monday outfit

Just another Monday

And to wrap up this first style installment, what better way than with this chap, casually headed off to work with his tuxedo t-shirt, screwdriver in hand.

Thank you PNG for being so wonderful!  I’m sure that there will be more to follow for this PNG style series.

Going the extra mile

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Ever smiling, forever sparkly, Everlyn Suau, is 27-year-old Specialist Speech Therapist at Modilon General hospital in Madang, Papua New Guinea (PNG). Everlyn was born with polio, which resulted in her having no kneecap and significant mobility issues. With the majority of her young life spent in the hospital, her Mum working as a midwife, and Dad delivering healthcare messages to remote communities, it is no surprise that Everlyn has pursued a career in healthcare. She is dedicated to offering quality service to other patients with disabilities.

“I work very hard in the ward. My heart feels for the patients. I understand as I am disabled and it gives me so much motivation.”

In PNG people living with disabilities are often treated badly. Everlyn is a patient advocate for this discriminated against group: “Disabled people are not treated well. In the village, people are more susceptible to being attacked and discriminated against. If they don’t have a close family member to look after them then they might be mistreated and often won’t be fed. I am really concerned for people like me, as most people don’t understand how to look after people with disabilities. At first people saw me differently but I have used this an opportunity to go out and give awareness. I am working to break the attitudes in the village where they have no respect for people with disabilities. The Government needs to acknowledge people with disabilities so that they have somewhere to be looked after. And I want to stop people having negative attitudes to disability and letting them down. I want them to encourage disabled people to look at their ability not their disability.”

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Everlyn works long hours, rushes around the hospital seeing patients and is often on call at weekends: “I work very hard in the ward. My heart feels for the patients. I understand as I am disabled and it gives me so much motivation. When I see very sick people who have become sick and weren’t born that way, I can draw upon my experience of being disabled to help them. I use myself as an example that I can achieve with my disability and that they can get back to full strength as long as they have the right mindset. I don’t want them to think that they can’t get back to their full ability.”

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In her role in the physiotherapy department she works closely with stroke patients giving them massage, helping with their speech and controlling spasticity. She also work with patients from the village who have never been included before; giving them basic sign language so that they can communicate for the first time. With her own physical disability, Everlyn has a deep understanding of how best to offer care to patients: “Because of my disability I treat patients differently; we have different ethics to able bodied people, we sense things. We know what it is like to be burdened but we want to lift people up from our disability. I give patients a different type of belief.”

“I want them to encourage disabled people to look at their ability not their disability.”

Everlyn 04She received her training through Callan services and did training in Special Education for Disability at St Benedicts in Wewak, East Sepik. She has been working in her role in Madang for five years and is a valuable member of the Modilon team. Her boss, Dr Kuzma, Senior Orthopaedic Specialist, said that he is so proud of her and doesn’t want her to leave: “I want you to be with us forever as you are such a positive role model.”

It is likely that Everlyn will need more treatment for her knee as she has plates that need to be removed and she experiences daily pain. She is also passionate to continue her studies and has a dream to go to school to study paedeatric physiotherapy in Melbourne. One thing is for certain, with her determination she is certain to get there with a smile on her face.

The liklik meri from Lae: part two – growing up

Angela Roypo is 28 years old from a small, remote village close to Gulf province in Papua New Guinea (PNG). In the first part of her bittersweet fairy tale she shared a life of challenges and mistreatment, but through her misfortune came a chance meeting that transported her to another town. In her own words, Angela shares what her new life in Madang had in store. This is her story…

In 2004 my new life began in Madang. This was a hard move for me as I had never been to the coastal town before and I was moving further away from my Father. I was also worried that I didn’t know this man very well and I didn’t know if he was going to treat me right. I left Lae with so many questions. I hoped that I would be happy with him but so much was unclear.

We lived together in Madang for three years and everything was fine, he looked after me very well and gave me everything that I needed. My life started to change and I started to learn new things and meet new people. I started to slowly forget about all the bad experiences that I had gone through with the people that I had lived with previously in Lae.

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After three years I fell pregnant with my first son.   He was unplanned but it was something that I wanted, despite only being 19 years old. I always dreamed for my first child to be a boy because of what happened with my brothers. During the time that I was pregnant, the company that Peter worked with started to pay him less as business wasn’t going well and our life got harder; sometimes there was no food in the house. At this time the Manam volcano erupted and people living there were displaced and had to move to care centres. Peter decided to go to speak to them to help the relief effort and to see if there was any work that he could do to support them.

“Living in the dense bush I continued to grow, cutting timber for the care centre, until I was six months pregnant.”

When I was three months pregnant we left town and moved to Malala on the North Coast of Madang, which was three hours from town. We moved into the bush which was a long walk from the road, it took me around three hours to get to where our house was and we lived there for four months. Living in the dense bush I continued to grow, cutting timber for the care centre, until I was six months pregnant. After two weeks from returning to town we were told that our house was being sold; we had nowhere to go as neither of us were from Madang. We started to look for somewhere that we could live. I was just living, hoping and trusting in God that someone would accept us. During this time Peter’s work permits expired so we were at high risk and I was so scared that he would have to leave.

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One morning when I woke I was so hungry that I had to speak to his friends to get some money but they knew that he wasn’t working. I decided that I would have to set up a small market to get some money for food so I borrowed K30 (£7) from a lady who was a micro-finance loan lender. I went out of town to buy some fish from a friend at a local fish plant. He felt so sorry for us that instead of selling us 2-3 fish he gave us a whole bag. From that bag of fish I made K600 (£142). I felt so blessed. After getting that money I started to think about what I’d do to make it even bigger. I gave half of the money to Peter so that he could fix his papers and the rest I changed into K20 (£5) notes and I started to give small loans myself, adding K3 (75p) onto each repayment.

With this new, entrepreneurial spirit, I then decided to set up a small store inside our compound. We cut a hole in the fence and I sold buai, cigarettes and cooked lamb flaps. There were a lot of businesses close to where we lived so I was making around K200 (£48) a day. I was heading to the market at least once each day and at the end of the day my goods were all sold. Peter was so happy that I bought him back to Madang as I had helped him out of the situation. We were able to stop worrying again.

“We were so happy; we were living with one heart and one mind. We shared everything and all was going so well.”

But not for long, as after two months we were told that we had to leave and we still didn’t have a place to move to, and now I was eight months pregnant. One morning we heard a knock at the door and it was a missionary Filipino man that I knew from my church. He had heard that my partner was a civil engineer and that he could fix palm boats. He left with the man and told me that he would return with some food. In just one day he was able to fix the two boats that no one else could fix. In return the man let us come and stay with him in their house in New Town. It was a very big house with a houseboy and they offered Peter permanent work. I felt like my prayers had been answered.

FernandoWhen we moved to the house I started to go to church with the old Filipino lady. I stopped smoking and chewing buai; I changed. With these changes, life became easier. We lived with them for three months and on 21st May, Fernando was born. We were so happy. I believed that as soon as the baby was born Peter would find a really good job. After just a week of Fernando coming into the world, Peter got a call from a gold mining company. He set up a business under my name and started work as a contractor. At the end of the month we were receiving K1250 (£300). He would be away for one month and then back home for two weeks. Everything happened so fast. We were so happy; we were living with one heart and one mind. We shared everything and all was going so well.

As Fernando was growing, so was the money in our bank account. In PNG we believe that if you are a real women you will make your man proud so I felt that I needed to contribute. This is the thought that I had in my heart. I was already managing the money but I was able to save. But during this time Peter had been hiding some of his thoughts from me. He told me that he had to have another trip to Port Moresby (POM) to sort out his papers. I trusted him and he went to POM for a week of his next break. On the day that we dropped him at the airport, Fernando turned six months old. When we were leaving him, Peter was really sad and started to cry. I couldn’t understand why as he said that he was only going for one week. The way that he was reacting was very strange. I questioned him but he just said that he would miss him very much.

After a week I called him and he said that he was still waiting for his papers. After another week I had the same conversation. This continued until Fernando was close to a year old. The truth is that he was in a relationship with another PNG lady. I waited for a few more months but he never came back. During this time he started to withdraw all the money in the company account until there was just K800 (£190) left. At this time I was so young I didn’t realise what was happening and I trusted him. He spent all of our money with that lady and then he got another job and started to make a family with her. From six months to nine years old I have looked after Fernando all by myself. Fernando has never met him. He has spoken to him on the phone, sometimes on his birthday. He just calls him when he feels like it. He still lives in POM with his second wife and five children. He has never explained to me why he left. His new wife has called me and sworn at me but I have never said any bad things to her.

I have now been in Madang for 12 years…

Speaking out and saving lives

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Margret Noel is 32-years-old from Simbu in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Life has not been easy for Margret. In 2002 she came to live on the streets of Madang as she had to leave her abusive husband in her village. With no real education, she set up a life selling buai (betel nut, a mild stimulant) and cigarettes on the street.

In 2005 she got married to another man from Simbu and life began to look brighter but a couple of years after they got married her husband was diagnosed with HIV. A year after his diagnosis Margret attended self-care training to learn how to look after her husband, it was during this training that she learnt about how HIV is contracted, the importance of using condoms which previously she didn’t know and that she also needed to be tested for the virus.

“When they told me that I was HIV positive I broke down, I was angry because I hadn’t been tested sooner and I knew that I needed to begin treatment straight away.”

Soon after, she was tested at Id Inad clinic in Madang where she found out that she was also HIV positive: “When they told me that I was HIV positive I broke down, I was angry because I hadn’t been tested sooner and I knew that I needed to begin treatment straight away, but I was able to find strength as I knew that if I took the medicine I would be fine as I had learnt about anti-retroviral treatment during the self-care training.”

VSO MARPS Project Peer Educators conducting a condom demonstration at Id Inad Clinic. L-R Schola Sipa, Margret Noel, Serah Kaul, Betty Sakuri, Rebecca Nime. February 2016

Following on from her diagnosis Margret felt like she had to do more to help people with HIV and raise awareness about the risks of catching the virus. Initially she became a community health based carer where she gave care and support for patients who have reached the final stages of the virus.

In 2010 she became a peer educator for FHI 360 and later for Voluntary Service Overseas.  The USAID funded, Strengthening HIV/AIDS Services for Key Populations project, works through enhanced peer educator outreach to specifically target hard to reach, key populations. The key populations that are the core focus of this work are men and women in transactional sex, men who have sex with men, transgender and high-risk men and women who are having sex with multiple partners.

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Peer educators are selected from members of the high-risk groups to reach out to the key populations.  In this role Margret goes to identified hotspots looking for potential clients to encourage them to get tested for STIs and HIV and to seek proper treatment. She also speaks out openly at big events about being HIV positive: “Now I have the confidence to stand up in public and talk about what I have learnt. I share with people that I’m HIV positive, I tell them about the work that I do and that I take the medicine. The first talk that I gave was at a school. When I began to speak I couldn’t help but cry, it was really hard to share such a personal experience and disclose my status to people. It was the children’s first time to see someone with HIV so they were very surprised because I didn’t look sick. Because I don’t have any sores they thought that I was lying so I showed them the medicine that was in my bilum and told them that it was helping me. I told them that if they hug me they won’t get HIV and was able to tell them about the ways that you contract the infection.”

HIV is still very much a taboo subject in PNG but through Margret disclosing her status and giving awareness talks, people approach her on the street for more information and look to her as a role model: “When people see me on the street they come to talk to me. They ask me where to go to get treatment. Often people don’t speak out when we are in the talks or discussions but they recognise me and find me when I’m in town so that they can talk confidentially. Since I disclosed my status I have helped so many people; people give me presents from bilums to food to say thank you.”

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Through her work Margret can now read and write in English. Her courageous actions have made a real difference to people in her community, she has assisted over 50 patients in community based care and over 50 of her clients have been diagnosed with HIV when they have been tested at the clinic: “It makes me really happy to have the talent to save people’s lives, by getting them to go to the clinic for testing and I help with ensuring that patients continue to take their medicine regularly. Other peer educators are previous clients that have come to me to find out more information and are now helping other people who are living with HIV.”

“It makes me really happy to have the talent to save people’s lives, by getting them to go to the clinic for testing.”

In her community Margret is well-respected and her friends and family are supportive. Her adopted 4-year-old daughter helps remind her to take her medicine at the right time: “Now I am strong. Now that I have disclosed to people I get a lot of respect and I have been able to share my knowledge and help them to understand the importance of safe sex, getting tested and accessing the right treatment.”

Snow-topped heads

Since December my obsession with white grass hasn’t diminished. There’s just something particularly captivating and majestic about a head topped with snow coloured hair. Quite often when I’m driving in a car or sat at a singsing, it’s the frosty ‘fros that catch my eye.

I couldn’t help but follow up with a sequel to my earlier white grass photo series to share the beauty of these snow-topped heads that I’ve spotted on my adventures.

Natural beauty

Natural beauty

I’ve always found it quite funny how people get obsessed with preserving their youth. My newfound white grass, which is slowly sprouting in my eyebrows and starting to appear in my hair makes me happy, my own natural glitter. And when I look at this lady with her alabaster hair, with radiance glowing from the inside out, it reminds me that it is perfectly fine to embrace getting older and the wisdom, knowledge and smile lines that it brings.

 

Mister Morobe

Mister Morobe

Sometimes you can’t help but be captivated by a face and as soon as I spotted this man sitting under a shady tree, at Angau hospital in Lae, I was fascinated. This charming old man welcomed me with a beaming, toothless smile and with the most surprising spoken English. I think that it was the contrast of the modern and the traditional in him that interested me; his clean, white polo shirt and thick, modern rimmed glasses that were held on by string, combined with his stretched earlobes and colourful highlands bilum.

 

Island lewa

Island lewa

At the end of a two-day story gathering trip to some remote island communities in Morobe, we dropped some of our crew back to their homes on a palm fringed island. The whole family flooded to the beach to welcome home the crew and among the bustle of people was this clearly doted upon, bubu mama (grandma). With bubus gathered around the hem of her meri blaus she looked into the boat at us, slightly unsure, slightly protective but simply stunning with her light, wispy, white head of hair.

 

Papa Kange

Papa Hagen

Kange is the Tok Ples word for a man from Hagen. On the road story gathering in Western Highlands, it was a fleeting moment on the side of the road when the team stopped for buai that I spotted kange Hagen. The urban legends that are told of fierce, unfriendly folk in the highlands are simply not true. From my experience it is the warm, smiley expressions from wise and knowing faces that are synonymous from this remote part of Papua New Guinea.

 

Village life

Village life

Out in a village called Khusen, an hour up the North Coast from Madang, it is easy to feel like you are a million miles from anywhere. I sometimes liken living in PNG to feeling like you are on the moon, as you can feel so far away from things. In this community, Voluntary Service Overseas was conducting a baseline survey for its gender based violence project and I spotted this smiley lady taking part in the group discussion. It always amazes me that no matter what the situation, people here are so incredibly resilient and no matter the struggles of life they still wear a smile on their face with great pride.

 

Serious style

Serious style

Well what can I say? I can imagine there will be a lot of beard envy after seeing this man. At singsings there is so much to be amazed by, from headdresses adorned with full birds of paradise or like this coastal man’s, incredibly intricate detail in the elements that create it, telling a story about where he is from and his culture. But really it is his long, twisted beard that is the showstopper; no matter how many pig tusks, it is his white beard that caught my attention.

 

Nen Madang

Meri Madang

And it really wouldn’t be a proper singsing without people of all ages dressing up in their bilas, singing and dancing together. One of PNGs most wonderful qualities is the absolute pride and commitment to retaining age-old customs and cultures. Seeing young and old dressed in traditional clothes, singing and dancing with songs that have been passed on for generations is one of the most evocative experiences that you can ever have.  Nen is Tok Ples for Mama in Madang and this meri is coastal to the core.

 

Ivory Smile

Ivory smile

And yet another smile but this time from the market place, where a market mama sits selling her handicrafts. It’s so lovely to sit and tell stories with the ladies in the market who work so hard in the hot sun, selling their produce, but who are always so warm and welcoming.  With all this white grass and wisdom around there are so many stories and smiles to be found.