In my experience, one of the most interesting people you can meet in the office is the cleaner. Often taken for granted, sometimes ignored and sadly in some cases given no respect; this short sightedness often means that you get to miss out on the best stories and often the juiciest office gossip! In the case of VSO PNG, Mama Frankie is no exception to the rule but I would actually say that she is the heart and soul of the office and the face most people want to see when they return to Madang. Our indispensable house meri is a cheeky, warm, caring but tough as nails character who I have had the pleasure to get to know in my short time in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Frankie is without question one of the people that has a major impact on your arrival as a new volunteer, her striking Sepik features and facial markings stick in your mind and her mischievous Tok Pisin tests out your newly learnt language skills. All the office staff and volunteers call her Mama Frankie and it is this term of respect that makes her the default matriarch of the office. I’ve been lucky enough to tell stories with my PNG Mum where she has told me tales of her village and her family. After some thought Frankie shared with me that she was born in 1961 making her 53 Kristmas’. In PNG people age themselves by how many Christmas’ they have had and like many of the older generation, trying to think of how old you are often isn’t a quick answer and it isn’t uncommon for someone not to know or only have a rough idea.
Frankie lives in Nambis in Madang which is close to the airport. Her house is in the Sepik settlement where she is close to the sea. There are settlements in most towns in Papua New Guinea. As land ownership is often fiercely contended, if you leave your village to find work, quite often your only option is to live in a settlement. In Madang, there is a real shortage of affordable housing so there are two large settlements just outside of the town. Settlements are often overcrowded and usually don’t have electricity or water. Days revolve around sunrise and sunset and water is collected in empty oil drums. People tend to group together with their tribal groups that offer economical support as they are with their wantoks (family network), it also means that they are more secure. Settlements can often be quite dangerous places so being in regional groups offers some protection although it doesn’t mean that tensions and crime doesn’t occur.
Mama Frankie’s place is Sepik Wara in a village called Kambot in Lower Sepik. This part of PNG is famed for it’s mighty river, the biggest in PNG, where the traditional practice of crocodile skin marking takes place. Life in this area revolves around the river; people wash in the river, do their laundry in the river and collect their drinking water from the river. The region is rife with mosquitoes, that legend tells it are the size of pregnant bumblebees! These swarms of blood sucking insects are particularly rife when it is really flooded making it an itchy place to live. Village houses are built on stilts, sometimes two stories high to cope with the ebbs and flows of the river. Frankie tells me: “It’s a naispela ples (lovely place). We would go to the bush everyday, sometimes to the garden where we grow kaukau (sweet potato), banana, taro, aibika and other greens. We don’t grow as much garden food as other places because of the growing conditions so our main food source is saksak (sago) and fish.”
Frankie’s village is where the traditional storyboard and canoe carvings are made. The men in the village do the craft of woodcarving and they start to learn from a very young age, carving from drawings, often of a traditional scene with two men and a dog in a canoe that go out looking for a pig. Men are also the huntsmen in the village whereas the women go fishing and make baskets that they chase the fish into. When she was young Frankie used to go fishing and help her Mum with washing and fetching water: “We didn’t have a water tank so I used to carry buckets and saucepans on my head to the river. It would take around 30 minutes but it was much quicker and easier in high flood. In the dry season we used to make a ladder on the ground at the side of the river to reach the water. After collecting the water we would leave it to stand for two to three days for the sediment to sink to the bottom and then we would boil it. It was a long but vital process.”
“We didn’t have a water tank so I used to carry buckets and saucepans on my head to the river.”
Frankie has a big family of four brothers and five sisters of which she is the fifth born. Her parents are both from the Sepik so she is a true Sepik meri (woman). In 1976 she was married to what Frankie terms a ‘bighead’ Sepik man. She had two sons with her husband, Alan and Norman who are both in their thirties. In ’79 her husband left her for another woman, a sadly familiar story, causing a lot of family unrest and resulted in Frankie moving to Madang with her two boys to live with her sister: “I don’t want to get married again, I want to stay like this, looking after myself and my boys. I go free and when I come back there are no questions.”
In 1995 she adopted her third son Elijah from one of her ex-husbands relatives, she had been promised the baby and has brought him up as her own, as is very common in PNG. At the same time she started work cleaning peoples houses and in 1998 she started working for VSO when the office moved to Madang. She took a break from VSO for a few years working at the University and a household supplies store before returning again in 2011: “I like working for VSO as it is a friendly place and everyone helps each other. I like meeting all the new volunteers that come in and out. I find out about where they are from and about their families and then when they go they give me the things that they don’t need!” Frankie is a talented seamstress and is really good at making things. She sews with a pedal machine making traditional meri blouses, skirts, shorts and curtains, as well as string bags. She is always looking for ways to make a little additional income to support her family and cooks and sells taro and bananas.
“I don’t want to get married again, I want to stay like this, looking after myself and my boys. I go free and when I come back there are no questions.”
Like most Papua New Guineans, Frankie is very proud of her heritage and her Province and her dream is to return to her village: “I would like to go back to the village but I want to support my son through Grade 12 first. I will go back though. I want a quiet life where I can relax and be respected. My family will be happy to have me home and then I will be back in my place ready to ‘go pinis’ (die).”