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.