It was a slow afternoon along one of Port Moresby’s busy industrial streets.
My colleague and I were waiting for our pick up to return to the office when we met some friends who called us over for a chat. Naturally our chat needed the complement of buai and we were told the police are chasing away vendors along that area.
As it is with these situations, you will almost always find some if you ask the right people.
We found some from a guy sitting inconspicuously on a flower bed. As usual, it’s become a cat and mouse game between the police and the vendors. “Yu spet buai lo hia?” a woman raking rubbish in front of us asked one of us in the group. At least that’s what I thought she said as she continued raking.
She had a thick accent and a bilum with a sleeping baby hanging from her head down her back. “Polis kam, mipla ol lain salim samting na yupla tu baim samting mas ronowe. Nogut yu wokmeri go slip lo Boroko or Six Mile,” she said referring to the police stations in Port Moresby’s suburbs.
As she continued raking towards a broken rubbish bin I saw another child sleeping on an old tarpaulin, spread out at the base of a tree. He must be 4 or 5 years old. Is she one of the street cleaners? I was curious because I couldn’t see any wares that she would be selling and why would she bring her babies with her?
I approached her as she was taking her baby out of the bilum and laying her next to the sleeping sibling. As I was asking her the first question, I noticed two empty cans of soft drinks sitting neatly on slab of concrete next to her sleeping child. Before I can make the connection, she was off on a run leaving her children sleeping there.
She ran to the bushes and brought out a market bag. Out from it came a cold soft drink which she passed to a woman who had crossed the street to make the transaction with her.
The signal for the purchase was so discreet, I didn’t know what was happening until it happened.
Then she was back, slightly out of breath, smiling, checking on her baby.
Me: “Ol kastoma save olsem yu salim drink?”
Vendor: “Mi mama lo hia, ol lain save,” she said, pushing the scarf off her forehead slightly and wiping the sweat off.
Me: “Na yu no laik lusim ol baby lo haus?”
Vendor: “Ol polis ronim mipla, na nogut ol bai kisim mi go lo sel. Mi larim ol lo haus, husait bai lukautim ol? Mi les lo ol lain paitim ol sapos mi go lo sel.”
The question and answer were halted as she raced back to bring out more goods to display on the concrete slab.
Vendor: “Yu lukim kar go yah, ol polis go pinis.” While she was away retrieving her goods from the bushes, a young boy of around 8 in a pair of school shorts walked slowing towards where the babies were laying. Her eldest child I instantly assumed.
He leaned on an iron post, observing his mother. By then the baby was crying and I was making funny faces and baby noises to distract her from the distress of not having her mother near. I noticed the school boy had a tear on his left cheek. He walked up to the baby laying on the tarpaulin, picked her up and cuddled her with a smile. The baby smiled back enjoying the attention of her brother. His left eye was red and puffy.
Me: “Eye blo yu?” School boy: “Ol boys lo class blo me sprayim wantaim spray,” he said.
A young man came by to buy a drink and a biscuit from the mother. Another man came by for buai. I saw her pull out her hidden wares all the while keeping an eye out for any sign of a police car. Seeing her baby attended to by her eldest child, she tapped her middle child awake.
Vendor: “Kam slip insait lo bilum blo baby.” The boy woke up, fussy and crying.
Vendor: “Em sick yah,” she said while she placed him in the bilum, tied the ends up and hung the bilum on the branch of a nearby tree. She dragged the tarpaulin with her feet to rest directly under the sleeping child in the bilum.
Me: “Na man blo yu?”
Vendor: “Em go lo ples,”
Me: “Na yu les lo go?”
Vendor: “No gat mani lo go,” she said pointing to all her children. “Bikpla mani lo baim balus.”
Amazingly she didn’t tell me to piss off. I was probably just another inconvenience in her life that she had to deal with.
Me: “Na man blo yu go mekim wanem lo ples?”
Vendor: “Em no tokim mipla.”
Then she returned to the concrete slab where the empty cans and biscuits were, sat down on an old paint tin, took her baby from the older boy and asked him to bring her a buai to chew. Our pick up arrived before I could find out the reason she left her village in the first place.
As I sat in front of a computer in an office, I thought about the concept of hard work. How much do I achieve in 15 minutes, which was the amount of time or less that that vendor took to deal with her business on the street?
She is a Papua New Guinean, trying desperately to make ends meet the best she knows how, taking on new challenges every day.
An absent husband, a sick child and the threat of police brutality.
The strength that she must possess to come to terms with the fact that any day now, she can go to jail and she will bring her babies with her.
What will become of her school aged child, who will take care of him and his school needs?
It was obvious that for him and his siblings, their sanctuary and their world is their mother. She cannot afford the luxury of taking a break from her everyday work to attend to a sick child, that is another challenge that she must manage within her limitations. In all these the question of personal choice comes up but at what point is it her burden to bear on her own and at what point do we as a society, as a government provide for her needs.
This strong, resilient woman represents the most vulnerable in our society, does her socio-economic background, her personal choices, exclude her from demanding from our government?
Papua New Guinea as a nation will not only be measured by glossy buildings and reports we put together, we are and we will also be measured by the welfare of the most vulnerable in our societies.