It’s not often that you get to experience the solidarity and sheer dedication of a group of people who have united to help others; men and women who show deep emotion to the cause that they are working towards and have invested their lives in helping others less fortunate. I had the pleasure of spending the day meeting these generous people to share their stories…
Meri helpim meri (MHM), women helping women, is a rural women’s programme that helps the most remote, disadvantaged women and children in Madang province, Papua New Guinea (PNG). The small yet incredibly buoyant initiative has 11,953 members across the six districts in the coastal province of Madang. Each member pays K1 (25p) and businesses K100 (£25) to be part of the community-based organisation to get support and guidance.
Established in 2007 by the outspoken, strongpela meri, Lucy Buck, MHM encourages entrepreneurialism, offers small loans to set up businesses, trains communities and gives guidance to local businesswomen. Lucy is an extraordinary woman; accompanying her around town she is fearless and is clearly respected by the people that she works with. A former teacher, Lucy set up MHM after her husband deserted her and her four children. She speaks passionately about supporting rural women: “Mothers are the strength of the family. If you educate women to use their skills and gifts it empowers them to take lead and participate. I believe in making women the breadwinner so that they can feed their families.”
“Mothers are the strength of the family. If you educate women to use their skills and gifts it empowers them to take lead and participate.”
Luxcy Kambae, 32, has been selling fish at the Madang fish market since 2005. Her family was supported by MHM in getting a short-term loan when the engine for their boat broke due to wear and tear. It is really hard for people to get a bank account in PNG, let alone a loan so this assistance was a lifeline. Without the loan they wouldn’t be able to go out fishing to provide for their five children. Luxcy is one of the best sellers in the market and by 9:30am she had already sold out of her morning catch while the other sellers were still swatting away the flies. Her husband and brothers leave at 5am, and again at 1pm, to fish for yellow fin tuna, shark and marlin close to Karkar and Bagbag islands. On a good day they will catch between 80-100 fish. Luxcy tells me: “Fishing provides for our family. Without this income we wouldn’t have had any money to buy food. MHM showed me that nothing is impossible; everything is possible.”
As well as local business owners, MHM works with people from the settlements in the province. Life for people in these make shift suburbs is very difficult and people often live with no water, electricity and it can be unsafe due to tribal tensions. People who live in the settlements are vulnerable, often illiterate and through lack of work some are forced to turn to prostitution. Ruby Kinzu, moved with her family to a settlement just outside Madang from the Sepik in 1997. Along with her husband, Ruby makes arts and crafts to sell at the market to earn enough money to pay for her children’s school fees. Like so many parents in PNG, Ruby struggles to pay for her children to go to school and often she won’t eat as she can only afford enough food for her sons. She makes two baskets per day and her husband carves wooden artifacts. MHM has helped Ruby with credit advice and the unpredictable nature of business as tourism in Madang is so irregular. She still struggles but can rely on short-term loans to get the materials that she needs to make items to sell.Grace Totona, 37, is an example of a woman that has been supported by MHM to grow her business and she is now offering her knowledge and expertise to other women in the network. She moved to Madang in 1980 with her husband and lives with her four children in a lovely, spacious house in New Town. In 1987 Grace set up a small catering business called ‘Grace Catering Service’ providing PNG kaikai to local businesses and functions. As the business grew, so did the challenges. She didn’t have a vehicle so she had to rely on transport to get the food to the customers. MHM helped her to get a loan to buy a 15-seater bus. The K69,000 (£17,000) cost of the vehicle would have been impossible to pay for upfront so the loan has been invaluable to ensure that food is delivered on time and that the customers get good service. Grace can now cater for up to 600 guests in her small kitchen with the help of some local staff. She has become a trainer and offers guidance to women on how to run a business, book keeping and running small projects. Grace shares her thoughts: “There are very defined gender roles in PNG. It’s very hard for women like us, as it’s believed that it is a man’s job to make the money. It’s challenging as men look down on women and think they can’t do things like going to the bank but women can do these jobs too. It’s up to individuals to make a choice, to stay stagnant or to trust yourself in thinking that you can do it. If I can do it, you can do it.”
“It’s up to individuals to make a choice, to stay stagnant or to trust yourself in thinking that you can do it. If I can do it, you can do it.”
To support the excellent work being done by MHM there is a board of Trustees. John Sardo, 66, is the Chairman of the Trustees. He was inspired to support MHM when he saw Lucy’s work and was touched by what she was trying to do so he became an investor and helps to manage some of the projects. John is an incredibly inspirational man himself and as he talked about his involvement with MHM he did so with tears in his eyes. He is a retired mechanic and he has now turned his attention to employing and training young people from the settlements. John explains to me: “When young people graduate there is no where for them to get a job so I employ them. It is really important to help others and there are so many youths destined for negative paths so I do my best to help in the community where I can.” John has influenced the lives of so many and it was touching to meet someone so passionate about sharing his skills and offering opportunities to young people.
From training women in remote villages to sew under their houses using mobile phones for light, to providing assistance to get short-term loans, it is clear the impact that MHM is having on women’s lives in Madang province. These stories provide inspiration and hope and believe me there were so many more stories to tell from just one day with MHM, long may they continue to ‘look to people through women’s eyes’.