WABAG – When we met for the first time far from home, the late Jamie Maxton Graham encouraged me to give up Coca-Cola.
It was in Mexico City in August 2008, and it’s not often you come across a national minister who talks on a personal level about health and other important life issues.
But Jamie Maxton-Graham was different.
Maxton-Graham and I were attending the 17th international AIDS conference. At th e time he was Papua New Guinea’s health minister, chairman of the parliamentary committee on HIV/AIDS and three-term member for Anglimp South Wahgi.
The global village where we stayed had an area of over 8,000 square meters and was the heart of the conference.
Here, more than 22,000 delegates from all over the world spent a week participating in conference sessions, special meetings, exhibitions and a wide cultural program.
Maxton Graham led a PNG team of doctors, activists and health professionals to interact, debate, share knowledge and skills, build coalitions and exchange ideas.
I was part of a group of international journalists at the conference and sponsored by the National Press Foundation in Washington DC. We joined hundreds of other journalists who shared a large media centre.
I met Maxton-Graham at one of the venues in the global village. Nearby, in a huge auditorium, official speeches were ongoing delivered by world leaders, scientists and company executives involved in research to find a cure for the virus.
After he and I visited many stalls, he suggested we pay a visit to the display of the host country – Mexico - before finding some refreshments. When we arrived at the stall, we found communication was a problem. They spoke Spanish.
At the restaurant table, Maxton-Graham did not talk about the things tourists usually talk about. He spoke about healthy living. I probably provoked him because I ordered Coke with my meal.
“Bro, we must look after ourselves,” he said. “Many things we eat and drink are not good for our health.
“Our health is very important. There is no second life. This life we have is just one and our very own. We must nourish it with good food and drink.”
I knew he was right but drank that damn can of Coke anyway in that busy restaurant where the waiters all spoke Spanish.
But later, when I got home, I gradually gave up Coke, and beer, cigarettes and buai as well. I wrote about that trip and my change of lifestyle in my book, ‘I Can See My Country Clearly Now’.
I didn’t have to wait for a miracle to happen or a giant from outer space to come and order me to stop these bad habits! I just quit.
It felt ashamed that I, as an educated person, was consuming products that caused so many health problems and which killed people prematurely.
The encouragement from Maxton-Graham was enough for me to give up these bad habits.
There’s still no cure for AIDS but, despite millions of kina spent every year by the government and aid agencies, people are still involved in extra-marital affairs, prostitution and unsafe sex.
Three young men from my village – a teacher, a trainee teacher and a security guard - died from AIDS complications soon after I returned from Mexico. They all knew AIDS had no cure.
I feel thankful that a PNG minister played a part in convincing me how important it was to change my lifestyle and look after my life.
I agree with Sir Julius Chan who said in a tribute that Maxton-Graham strived to make this country a better place, especially through his advocacy on health and a sustainable way of life.
“He has left his mark in this world. The good he left will never be forgotten but live on in every person he has impacted,’ Sir Julius said.
And Carmel Pilotti wrote an enduring piece about his early childhood, education, employment and how he rose to the top in PNG politics to become a firm advocate for healthy living.
Jamie Maxton-Graham was born in Bargana village in Minj, Jiwaka Province to mother Gol Milin and father Peter Maxton-Graham.
His early childhood was spent in Wasne, his mother’s home village, where he had fond memories of being looked after by his maternal grandmother.
Much of his later childhood was spent in Madang where he and his mother had moved with her partner Posu Pouta after his father died. Madang is where he went to school.
He completed Grade 6 at Tusbab Primary School in 1969 - the year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon.
Then he went to Tusbab High where he consistently topped the class. In 1977, he was accepted into the University of Technology in Lae to do a mechanical engineering course but withdrew after three years.
Later, he attended Port Moresby Technical College and worked for different companies around the country until the turning point came for him when he worked as advisor to former prime minister Pais Wingti from 1990–93.
It was in these years that his political aspirations blossomed, eventually propelling him to pursue a seat in parliament.
He won the Anglimp South Wahgi Open seat in 2002 and remained the MP for 15 years.
In 2008, when I met him in Mexico, he must have sensed that his own health was failing him when he told me to give up Coke and aim to live a healthy life.
According to his daughter Carmella, he had a health scare in 2009that drove him to change his lifestyle.
“He was told by a doctor that he had blocked arteries and had to get bypass surgery, but he was determined to find another way.”
His own journey motivated him to inspire others, which led to the opening of the Wellness Lodge in Port Moresby where he and Carmella also ran a health conscious restaurant.
Most people’s memories of Maxton-Graham are of his adventurous spirit and his intelligence. He was always reading and he had a broad range of topics on which he was knowledgeable.
“He was also a very simple person,” Carmella said. “He loved to spend time with his grandchildren, playing sport with people much younger than him, outdoor activities like camping and eating fish cooked on a fire. Playing the guitar and singing – his memories of his childhood made him happy.”
His healthy lifestyle kept Jamie Maxton-Graham going for another 10 years, and I will remember him as the man who, in a strange land far away from home, encouraged me to live a healthy life.
He has left us but his words remain with us to follow if we care at all about our short life on earth.