Friday, January 12, 2007

The life of a Mortlock lady

One of our characters (who I will call Geraldine) has come over to Takuu for the holidays to look after her sick father. She is an expatriate and is married to a PNG man living in Port Moresby. Inside the shade of her house I met her father. He is in his late 80s and was lying on a grass mat. His body was incredibly frail, his head had a crown of thick white hair and his legs, on the mat, were like broken pencils. He was talking the way a baby might and would throw his hands in the air trying to grab things. Geraldine explained that sometimes he could get quite violent and angry. Most of the time he would moan about food. Sometimes he calls her and her sisters his wife and other times he appears delirious, telling them that the house is on fire. I asked her what was wrong with him and she didn't know, just saying “he's old”.

Geraldine is bound to her house. She has to look after her father all day and all night, taking breaks when her sisters come by. At night she lies next to him and because he is so active, always pulling her hair and crying for food, she never sleeps. This is the first time she has seen her father in three years. Her life in Port Moresby is very different to here, but she sees it as her obligation to come back and help take some of the pressure off her sisters who both have to care for her father in this way throughout the year.

There is no help for people like Geraldine and her family. Many people on Takuu complain about the lack of support they receive from the government. Here, there are very few medical supplies and what is available is usually passed its use by date or does not have adequate labeling. There is no doctor or nurse and if somebody does get sick, getting them to mainland will be the cost of chartering a boat and money must be paid up front by the family. This doesn't always mean they will get a boat to come, as they rely on one ship, which may already be engaged. For many of the traditional people on Takuu it is very important to die here. So for Geraldine's father there would be no question about taking him off the island. This is because if you die out of Takkuu you cannot be buried there. It would be considered very bad luck and breaking custom. For those that do die on Takuu, they get the chance to have a proper funeral and will be buried in the cemetery on Takuu.

Unfortunately for Geraldine her brother died in London. He was a young film student at the time and had hoped to make movies and documentaries about his culture and indigenous issues within PNG. He had won a scholarship, and happened to be staying in a hotel that was the target of an IRA bombing. Her sister’s husband died of alcohol consumption on the island so her family appears to have less help or support from fit and strong men. Her father likes fresh fish but there aren't many hands free to get fish since this is usually a men's task.

As I was sitting talking with Geraldine a young child walked past, popping her head through the door. The girl looked to be about eight and was holding a baby at her waist. Geraldine explained that the young baby is her father's great-great-grandchild. The baby was crying, being scared of the old man.

The next day I brought Geraldine a packet of panadol, which she was incredibly grateful for. In my visits since then I have noticed people pop by asking for some of her panadol.

Life on the island for women is generally much harder than that of the men. They are always working. Most get up around four or five. They first go down to the water to wash their pots and pans, they then sweep the streets, spreading the coral evenly over the ground and back into their houses. Then they make breakfast. This involves getting dried wood and coconut husks and burning them under open fires in their cook houses. I am sure some of them by this time are also making lunch. They bake fresh bread in the hot gravel heated by their fires, and also fish, wrapped up in taro leaves. The women might then wash their clothes in buckets of water, which they have to continually refill at the nearest water tank. Their days continue on like this until the sun sets and then you might see one or two sitting with their families, but always minding the children at the same time.

In contrast to this the men are sitting around all day. They park their plastic chairs in a nice location near to the sea, they drink cups of tea and study the weather. They will go out fishing, or maybe gardening giant taro, they might fix a canoe or a knotted net.. but generally their workload is much less (from what I can see).

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