It has been two months now since I had the privilege of meeting an elderly gentleman from Salamaua who, currently, works as a painter and a carpenter.
I’ll call him Papa Joe in this blog post.
Papa Joe spent more than 20 years working on various construction sites in Port Moresby including the Hilton Hotel. He is a typical old school tradesman. A vocational school trained, perfectionist who lost a thumb in a sawmilling accident years back.
It’s his personal story of his struggle as a father and provider that humbled me and made me cry inside. Because when he told me his story, I had no means of helping him apart from the small job that I could give him through a family friend who contracted him.
Papa Joe married late. I think he is in his late 60s. I didn’t ask.
His children are relatively young. His two daughters are in secondary school. Another is in grade six.
After years of living in Port Moresby, he chose to resign from his job and return to Salamaua. But life has been difficult for the old fella. After more than two decades living in Port Moresby, the transition to his wife’s village on the Salamua coast has not been easy.
He tried to adjust, he told me. But it takes time for food to grow. It takes time for a elderly tambu (inlaw) to try to settle into a place where he can’t easily fit in.
Towards the end of 2019, he made a decision to leave his family behind and travel to Lae to look for work. He spent more than a year looking for work but he was unsuccessful. Times have changed. A lot more people have the same skills. A lot more young people are doing the same jobs. Who would want to employ someone with no references and who is well into his sixties?
It’s a personal battle he is fighting well past his prime.
His was a generation that had jobs and education spaces waiting to be filled. In the 1960s, straight after grade six, he got an offer for training at a vocational school where he learned carpentry, sawmilling and painting skills. He got a job immediately after graduating. No problems.
But his was generation that also received no training on how to manage money or build businesses. They were a generation of workers trained for the former administrative machinery.
As my youngest daughter made him tea, he said: “Son, these days, people will give jobs to their family members and wantoks. If I had a small contract, I would be able to support my family.”
A week before Papa Joe told me his story, his two daughters traveled on a boat to Lae. They didn’t know that he was still jobless after a year of searching for work. They had been told that they could not continue their education at Salamaua High School because their fees had not been paid.
He shut his eyes hard and shook his head.
“I hugged them tight and cried for them,” he said. “Papa i no painim wok yet. Papa i no gat moni. Plis, yutupla mas go bek lo mama nau yet.” (Papa hasn’t found a job yet. Papa has no money. Please, you both have to go back to your mother.)
He begged the boat operator to take them back without a fee. After a year of missing his children, he got to see them only for a fleeting few minutes and sent them back to their mum.
I sat silent. Many years ago, I was faced with the option of leaving my kids and going off to Port Moresby to “look for a job.” I didn’t. It was hard. I chose to stay and battle it out. Difference was that we were young and had a lots of opportunities ahead of us.
Papa Joe has found work.
It’s a tiny job that we’ve given to him through a family friend. I wish I could pay him more and my inability to do so, at present, kills me inside. We will try to help him when we are able and hopefully before the school year starts so he can pay for his daughters school fees with dignity.
Hopefully, 2021 will be a better year for him.