We’re at Brown River settlement, just outside of Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The children are sitting in their age groups, boys 2 – 5, girls 5 – 9 etc. They wait patiently. They don’t smile. They don’t even hardly wriggle. They just sit, wide-eyed while seven foreign, white media professionals take photos, videos and stick microphones in their faces.
These are some of the most disadvantaged kids in Papua New Guinea. They’re almost all dirty. Some of their eyes are inflamed and infected. Many of them seem malnourished. The innocence of childhood is hard to recognise. These children are probably the most neglected children that I have ever seen. They’re not used to being the centre of attention. They’re not used to having much attention at all. That’s why they’re sitting in such stunned silence. They hold their shoeboxes reverently. Not just because of the stuff, but because they are special, because they have been remembered. Because for these few minutes, strange white people want to take their picture, and hold their hand and see them smile.
One of the shoeboxes that I took with me was from a woman called Gaye. I give her box to a young boy called Tony. He takes out the soap and holds it up for me to see. He takes out various other gifts. His favourite is a blue recorder that he follows me round with tooting. He toots it right in my face. He follows me more and toots again. It’s a hideous, screeching, obnoxious sound. He blows his “flute” (as he calls it) right in my ear. I have to laugh. He’s deliberately annoying me and seeking my attention. He’s being a kid again.
Just a few days earlier, one of the media team had their (very expensive) camera equipment stolen. It was locked in a car which had many people guarding it, but while a decoy was waving goods for sale in their faces, another rascal had opened the side window of the van and just happened to hit the jackpot. The camera bag was right underneath the window. The Brown River squatter settlement is a refuge for rascals. They steal from people in Port Moresby then escape to the outlying areas like Brown River. Though we were there for only a short time, the atmosphere was volatile. Many of the men were drunk or on drugs, and immediately after the boxes were delivered they started to shout out their political messages. I found myself very quickly separated from our group for just a minute or two, surrounded by a sea of people I couldn’t trust. Within ten minutes of delivering the shoeboxes, we were bundled back into the car and taken down the road to a quiet place where we could do interviews with the local pastors. But even in that short time, I had seen something transformative take place. A child was being an innocent, annoying, attention-seeking kid again.
The previous day we had visited a village, Bonanamo, where shoe-boxes were delivered last year. It was good to see the children still cherishing their presents from last Christmas. But we were also there to open five new wells that had been funded by Samaritans Purse as a result of last years’ shoebox drop. There were also many latrines that had been installed by SP’s partner church in Port Moresby. The local pastor explained how for them the shoeboxes opened the door to do other development work. The goodwill created by the shoeboxes meant that they were able to say, “What do you need? How can we help you?”
While we were there, we got talking to a village mum. Only it turned out she wasn’t a mum. She was an Aunty. The children’s mother had died of TB just a few months before, so now the Aunty, who didn’t have children, was looking after the three youngest kids. How many people do you know who have died of TB? It really brought home the importance of clean water and sanitation, the two things that Samaritan’s Purse and their partner church had delivered to the village, thanks to the shoeboxes and their ability to open doors.
Brown River settlement won’t be receiving water pumps next year. The village lacks the structure, organisation and leadership to cooperate on a project such as installing and maintaining water pumps. Without a dedicated group of committed leaders, projects like that will fail to make an impact, the pumps will fall into disrepair, infighting will break out. However the church hopes to take a medical clinic to them and help them to improve their houses. The shoeboxes are a first-step in reaching out to them. They’re a sign that somebody cares about their children.
Before we escaped from Brown River, another boy came up to me. He said his name was Andrew. He spoke perfect English. His eyes were clear. His face was smiling. He was polite. He was also looking for affirmation. I told him he spoke beautiful English and he beamed at me.
In an age and society where our children have so much, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that that’s what a Christmas gift is all about, an affirmation. It says, “You are special, You are loved. You matter to me.”
And that’s what it says to the kids at Brown River. “Someone cares about you. You are loved. You matter.”
Merry Christmas, Brown River.
This time next week I’ll be in Port Morseby, Papua New Guinea, getting ready to head out on the road, delivering Christmas shoeboxes filled with presents to the children of Papua New Guinea. For those who aren’t aware, Operation Christmas Child is part of the work of Samaritan’s Purse and they spread Christmas cheer to children who otherwise probably wouldn’t receive a gift. I’m pretty excited about the idea of seeing the children receive their presents. I know it means a lot to them to think that somebody in a distant country cares about them enough to send them a special box full of presents. It sounds like a cliché, but I know it will be a life-changing experience. I’m just slightly concerned about leaving Birdy for five whole days!
I’ve never really gone anywhere without her. I left her overnight with a babysitter once for our wedding anniversary but we were back home by 8am the next day. Just the other day when we had The Voyage of the Dawntreader preview screening for work, Birdy had a sleepover at my sister’s house. Now I must admit I quite enjoyed having a night out without her, but when I got back home the house seemed strangely empty. And when I woke up, there was nobody squashing me off the edge of the bed. Normally I go to sleep in the usual way, lying on my half of the bed, but when I wake up Birdy has crawled over the top of me, sandwiched herself in between Mum and Dad in the wee hours of the morning, and I’m like a seagull perched on the edge of a cliff, about to fall off, with Birdy sticking her legs and arms into my back at all sorts of impossible angles as if she’s trying to give me acupuncture. I don’t know how I’m going to sleep without my early morning torture session.
I think she’ll be fine. If she does miss me at all, it will probably be at bedtime, because we always cuddle up in bed and read 4 or 5 stories together. It’s our special little time at the end of the day. But I don’t think she’ll miss me too much because she’ll have an army of people looking after her. My husband will be there (when he’s not working), my sister’s coming down to stay, my parents are helping out for a bit and then there’s her other Aunty and Uncle and cousins who live nearby. So she won’t be deprived of TLC. And as long as she manages to stay out of hospital for five days, I probably won’t be too worried about her. I thought I might try to leave her a little letter to open every day while I’m away so she knows I’m thinking of her. I’ve also got to figure out how to get my phone to do international roaming. I don’t think I could go for five days without at least sending a kiss and a cuddle down the phone!
Have you ever gone away without your kids? What’s the longest period of time you’ve left them for? How did you cope? How did they cope? Are you glad you did it? Do you have any ideas to help make the separation go more smoothly?
PS. I won’t be able to blog from PNG, but I’m sure I’ll have lots to write about when I get back!
How time flies. This week our family commemorated exactly a year since we lost our beloved Henri, our adorable Siberian husky. He died at the ripe old age of 14, but not a day goes by when he doesn’t get a mention in our house. Birdy particularly misses him. So to commemorate the first year since he died, I got some photos done up on a canvas and gave it to Birdy and hubby to remember him.
So now that a whole year has passed, it feels like to right time to think about another pet. Not that every kids needs a pet, but Birdy seems to be particularly interested in animals. She’s a bit of a Bindi Irwin at heart, without the annoying accent. Even before she was two I remember sitting with her patiently on the pavement for about 15 minutes while she waited for a rabbit to come over and say hello. Whenever we go for a walk she makes friends with the cats we meet. Just a few weeks ago we looked after our neighbours’ chickens and she just picked one up and held it without batting an eyelid. I could never do that. All that flapping and pecking just unnerves me.
I don’t know where she gets her animal talents from – certainly not from me. I’ve never been great with animals because we never really had them around when I was a kid. A number of my friends had a real menagerie in their backyards. I was always sooo jealous. I remember begging my parents for a dog for about ten years of my childhood. When my parents went away, I got to stay at my godmother’s house where I made friends with an old blue heeler – I just loved him. Perhaps my love of dogs comes from the fact that we had a Labrador when I was a baby. He was ‘put down’ when I was only nine months old and in spite of my continual pleading, my parents never caved in to my requests for a dog. You can see I’m still bitter about it.
The closest we ever got to a real pet was a blue budgerigar called Higgins who only survived for about nine months. There was also a brief period when we had a couple of goldfish, but that was pretty unmemorable. Probably the highlight of my childhood was the week we looked after a potty lamb for a neighbouring farmer. (Unfortunately the lamb ate rat poison and died about a week after he went back to his home.) Finally I gave up on the idea of a dog and begged for chickens instead. Dad said we could only get chickens if I would cut their heads off when their time was up. Needless to say, we never got chickens either.
Although we didn’t grow up with animals, there is a little bit of animal talent in the family bloodstream. My Dad’s sister runs a pony stud in England. A few years ago, my husband and I lived with her for about six months. While we were there, she commented off-handedly that my father had a gift for handling livestock. This came as a bit of a shock to me as I’ve never seen my father working with animals. I knew he used to be a dairy farmer and I know he used to do very well showing his dairy cows. I also remember hearing a story from my father’s ag college days about a bull that was supposed to be extremely aggressive. Dad had been told to wait while the lecturer got someone to help him move it but the lecturer never came back so he ended up just handling the bull himself. Afterwards, when he told the lecturer what he’d done, the lecturer nearly passed out because this animal was supposed to be so difficult and temperamental. I also remember my Granny telling stories of their dogs in England, of how well they were trained; they used to go out and catch the rabbits if they escaped and bring them back by the scruff of their necks, perfectly unharmed. In spite of all those stories, hearing my Aunt say that my father had a gift with livestock really surprised me – it’s always strange to learn something you didn’t know about your own parents.
But my point is that it’s certainly possible that Birdy could be naturally good with animals, like my Dad and my Aunt. And if she is then I’d like to encourage that gift. The thing is, we really can’t get another dog. Henri cost us a small fortune in vet bills, and because we’re renting, getting a dog in Sydney would really limits our options if we had to move. We can’t get a cat. I’m not a cat person. We can’t get a bird – I don’t like birds in cages. We don’t have room for a fish tank. We can’t get chickens because Birdy’s allergic to eggs which makes the whole exercise a little pointless. So that leaves us with the choice of a rabbit or a guinea pig. Guinea pigs are a bit too much like a rodent for my liking. I’d prefer a rabbit, but I hear they get a bit smelly. I feel like I’m in that picture book Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell where the kid orders every kind of pet from the zoo, but keeps sending them back until he finally ends up with the perfect pet: a puppy. Sigh. In my heart I know the truth: a dog really is the perfect pet. Anything else will just be a poor imitation.
What pet did you have as a child, or what pets have you got for your children? What are the pros and cons of each type of pet? Has it been expensive? What would you recommend? What’s the better choice – a rabbit, a guinea pig or neither?
PS. If you’re a lover of all things canine, check out my friend’s new dog blog, Pretty Fluffy by Serena Faber Nelson.