FICTION - The Old Man knew only too well that people throughout Papua New Guinea desperately needed basic services like health and education.
He had done what he could through his charity for disadvantaged children, but it seemed no person could meet the problems were tearing apart urban settlements and just about every village in the country.
He had driven Delisa past the general hospital as part of her quick orientation to Port Moresby. What she saw had provided a glimpse of the dire state of affairs of the health system even in the national capital.
People slept in tents on the street near the hospital either waiting for treatment or wanting to be close to relatives in the crowded wards.
The hospitals were always short of medicine and equipment, doctors and other employees were overworked and curable diseases like tuberculosis had returned even more acutely while the new Covid pandemic seemed to be defeating all efforts to control it.
To compound the situation, domestic violence, sorcery, drug taking and tribal warfare were escalating and overwhelming health services already unable to cope.
People constantly asked The Old Man to stand for election – a suggestion he would refuse outright. He saw former pastors, judges and police officers win elections but they seemed able to do nothing to improve the poor state of things.
Everything was getting worse. There was too much corruption amongst politicians and bureaucrats. Nobody seemed to care.
He didn’t like the self-serving and wasteful lifestyles of politicians – boozing, womanising, swindling. It never seemed to cease. There were honest politicians too, but they were few and their voices hardly heard. They got swamped on the floor of parliament.
He especially hated election campaigns. So many contestants for one each seat because they knew there was big money to be had by the winner. Every candidate spent huge amounts on vote buying. Few won by honest means.
Nobody delivered public speeches during campaigns. There was no point with all that money floating around. Tens of millions of kina wasted in each election. There were better purposes. And in the end 111 members entered parliament, most of them determined to get rich.
No, he didn’t want to be a politician. He wanted to have one wife, acquire money through hard work and share what he could with the needy. There was satisfaction and blessing in honest activity.
He felt the best way to serve was not to worry but to do what he could. With his late wife Rosemary he had established the Akali Wakane Life Centre charity.
Akali Wakane felt proud the centre was named for him. He wanted to set a standard for others. He was a doer, not a talker, not a waster.
Such thoughts ran through The Old Man’s mind as he thought of what Delisa might do now she was in Port Moresby with him.
He did not like the idea of her staying at home and wasting the skills she had learned at nursing college.
There were a lot of men who did not allow their well-educated wives to work. They feared their young wives might cheat on them. There had been cases of diploma and degree papers burned by their jealous husbands to ensure their wives never found work.
But The Old Man trusted Delisa as he had trusted Rosemary. The country needed more trust - in the family, in the community, in leadership…. There had to be trust, transparency and truthfulness at every level.
He wanted Delisa to use her skills as a nurse at any hospital or clinic that needed them. So he encouraged her to apply for job vacancies in the public health facilities across the city.
The Old Man knew many hospital chiefs as well as the health department head and the national health minister but he didn’t want to interfere in the selection process. There was already too much favouritism for wantoks.
He wanted Delisa to get a job on merit. She was just out of college. She should work her way up.
The recruitment officer at Port Moresby General Hospital was very quick off the mark. Delisa’s interview had barely finished before the call came to say her application had been successful. She could start work on the following Monday and report to a Sister Mercy Ultange in B Wing of the maternity ward.
Delisa was delighted. She loved children and had done well in the midwife units at nursing college. When she arrived in B Wing, Sr Ultange did not waste time. After introductions and a walk around the crowded facility, Delisa was assigned to the delivery room.
During those first few weeks, The Old Man drove Delisa to work and picked her up every day. Occasionally she took the taxi home as she became more familiar with the city. Eventually he bought her a new NiuFord Double Cab Ranger.
One of his wantoks accompanied her to work in the first month or so while she became familiar and gained confidence with Port Moresby’s traffic and the occasional dangers from street bandits.
On the day Delisa came home from work in tears, The Old Man anxiously rushed to her side. She was crying for a young mother who had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, one month premature. The doctor and nurses had worked hard to save them. The mother was only fifteen. Both were in stable condition. The baby was in an incubator.
The young girl was a single mother. She had conceived the child after being raped by unknown assailants one afternoon while taking a shortcut home from school. She was only 14 at the time and in Grade 8. They men had blindfolded her and assaulted her. They had threatened her with knives and told her to say nothing or they would kill her. She had told nobody.
But when it became obvious she was pregnant, her parents wanted to know who was responsible. She explained her ordeal but they didn’t believe her. They accused her of lying. They demanded to know the name of her partner.
She was locked in her room and given little food. The parents said she had brought great shame to the family. The girl begged them to believe her. They would not. A few nights later, devastated by guilt, she tried to hang herself.
Her mother heard the girl’s struggles and unlocked the door to find her daughter suffocating. She ripped away the bedsheets from around the girl’s neck and she was rushed to the hospital. The baby was born soon after. Delisa had observed the incident and was shaken.
The Old Man was also shocked. He felt for the young girl. She was typical of the unfortunate children his charity assisted. Delisa said she hoped the parents would believe the girl’s story, take pity on her and accept her and the baby back into the family.
The Old Man asked Delisa to get more details from the young girl including where her parents lived and their mobile phone numbers if possible. He also asked Delisa to check to see if the girl’s mum, dad or any other relative had visited her at the ward.
When Delisa went to work next day the girl told her that nobody had visited her. She girl gave Delisa her mother’s number but said she would not respond because she was afraid of her father. Delisa got the number anyway.
Delisa had brought some food with her to give to the young mother. The young girl told her that she was the first-born child in a family of three. Her parents had placed much hope in her. She did well at school and was always a great help to her mum. She never wasted time.
Her family had been landowners in one of the resource-rich provinces in the highlands. They had received royalties and land compensation and moved to the city, bought land from local people and built their home on the side of a hill.
This wasn’t an unusual story. Hundreds of other settlers had done the same and transformed the hillside to resemble one of those shanty towns in South Africa or Brazil.
There were too many people crushed close together without electricity or water supply. There were no roads, just tracks weaving through the hillside. Some of the houses were built of quality materials and quite well-designed. They looked strange in this poor neighbourhood.
The girl’s family, like everyone in the hillside settlement, had to walk to the main road to catch a bus. The girl had been attacked when she had followed a different route home.
If the girl had reported the rape, police would have been alerted. Her father would have mobilised his wantoks to assist the investigation. They would have demanded compensation from suspects in the immediate neighbourhood. They would have forced the truth from them. Somebody would have talked.
Even if they didn’t catch the culprits, her father and his wantoks would at least have acted. When the girl became obviously pregnant, it was too embarrassing to talk about in public. No compassion either. The girl was lying. She had to pay for her wrongdoing.
Delisa was moved to tears again. She could not believe some parents could be so cruel. They hadn’t even visited the young girl to see how she and the baby were. They didn’t to want to show their faces as parents of this liar who brought shame and embarrassment to the family. They left her to suffer on her own.
But now Delisa was able to share her sorrow and provide some comfort. Each day she brought nappies, blankets, towels, soap and any other item she could think of. After a few days, the baby was taken off the incubator and allowed to breast-feed. She and her mother would soon be discharged.
When Delisa had given The Old Man the phone number of the girl’s mother, he immediately called. Nobody answered. He tried several times over the next 24 hours without success. Then he asked staff from the Department of Community Development to intervene.
The next morning two officers visited the girl at the hospital. One of them was a towering figure, a woman from Bougainville with a beautiful smile and a firm approach. She was in charge of assisting victims of abuse. The department was under-resourced, she said, but she assigned the officer accompanying her to work on the case.
A day passed and there was still no contact with the girl’s mother. The Bougainvillean woman, who was taking a close interest in the case, decided to seek police assistance. The commanding officer assigned two police constables to accompany the two social workers and Delisa to the family’s hillside home.
At first the girl’s parents were apprehensive but when they were told they were not under suspicion, they settled down. The police told the parents to accept the girl and the baby boy back into the family. It was wrong to deny their right to a home. The police suggested it could amount to child abuse if they were accepted back.
And you must visit her, too, added the Bougainvillean social worker. She did not commit a crime. She was a mere child. The lives of two people were at stake and the parents bore responsibility. The police warmed to the task. They would be back, they said, if they heard the girl and her baby were mistreated.
Later the same day, the girl’s mother visited the hospital. She explained that her husband had threatened her and she had been afraid of his violent outbursts. He accused her of giving him a daughter who would had brought him shame.
The mother could not contain her emotions. She held her daughter tight and cried. She held the baby boy in her arms and cried some more. The girl cried – and so did Delisa.
Delisa told the mother she would call her that evening. She must answer the phone so her husband could hear everything that she and The Old Man had to say.
When Delisa called, the girl’s mother answered the phone immediately. The Old Man introduced himself. He told the girl’s mother that he and Delisa would help her daughter continue her education. They would pay all the costs for her to stay at an all-girls’ boarding school outside the city. He encouraged her to adopt the baby boy as her own child. They would support her and the baby too.
The deal was done. When they were discharged, the young girl and the baby went home with her mother. Soon after, the girl’s name was added to the list of disadvantaged children the Akali Wakane Life Centre supported. The baby was doing fine too. The father kept out of the way. The plan had worked.
It was a few months later that, one evening, Delisa broke the news to The Old Man that she was pregnant. Overjoyed, he took her into his arms and comforted her and assured her everything would be okay.
As her own baby grew inside her, Delisa continued nursing the steady flow of women who passed through Ward B. There were sad days when mothers or babies died or babies were still-born. Delisa learned much about motherhood, and about people.
Still, she sometimes found it hard to suppress her own anxieties as the date for her own maternity drew closer.