Peace in the Midst of the Storm

In that moment of potential fear I felt incredible strength and peace. It was as if time stood still, people were moving in slow motion. My thoughts were clear. I kept praying. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I had a deep sense that it was going to be ok.

On our first night in Wewak, the PNG women who had travelled with us from Perth, met with some family members and shared a meal. They met just outside the gates to our accommodation near the Mangroves of Wewak town. There was so much food left over that they shared it with the security guards on the beat in the town. In a matter of minutes a number of guards were eating and laughing with the women, sharing stories and asking about Living Child. At the end of the meal the security guards told the women that they would look after the Living Child team and thanked them for coming to help the mothers and babies.

These personal encounters count. A lot. Who would have known that the next morning the Living Child team would be in an accident and who should be travelling along the same road shortly afterwards? One of the security guards. He recognised the PNG women on our team and stopped to offer assistance.

Through the wise actions of two women on our team, together with a convergence of ‘fate’ or what I rather term, ‘God incidences’, the angry men were calmed down enough for us all to get out of the vehicle and retreat to a nearby house situated above the scene.

Team members and vehicles from Samaritan Aviation and Living Child arrived and we left the scene to return to our base in Wewak once again. Just before getting in the car I looked at the place where the accident had occurred – a narrow bend in the road with a steep drop off on either side. I had a deep sense that God had protected us all from certain serious injury or death. The reality hit hard. My shoulders crumbled under the weight of the burden and I sobbed.

On our way back, Jim took us via the fuel station. He filled up the car and then bought us all an ice cream cone. What joy! I will never forget the taste sensation of that ice cream.

Once back at our accommodation we sat in the lounge sipping on cold drinks and sharing our experience. It was important for us all to debrief, shed some tears and hug one another. It was very powerful. At no time did anyone say that they wanted to go home. There was an incredible sense of gratitude that God had protected us.

I didn’t tell them then that I was secretly planning my escape home.  The burden of responsibility leading a team of women to remote PNG was weighing heavily on me. My confidence was waning. Voices in my head were undermining me. Was this a sign that we were not meant to go to Angoram and Yamen? Should I pull the pin?

We decided to go for a walk down to the beach and have a swim. It was very windy, but still quite warm and very muggy. We had such fun diving into the waves with the locals, eating freshly cut papaya and playing the fool in the wind. It was good for the soul. My spirits lifted and I felt secure in the strength of this amazing team of women. If they could all laugh and joke and enjoy life after such a confronting incident earlier that day, we’d be ok.





A False Start

The first challenge is actually getting to the small town of Wewak on the Northern coast of Papua New Guinea. There are no roads linking Wewak to the distant Capital of Port Moresby. Not even to it’s closest neighbouring towns of Madang, Lae or Vanimo. If the airstrip is out of action, then the only way to get there is by boat. Or foot. Often flights are cancelled or rescheduled, so actually arriving in Wewak on schedule is a major feat indeed.

We took an overnight flight from Perth to Brisbane, then on to Port Moresby, paying the massively high excess baggage bill (the rules keep changing and in exasperation I zipped my lips and just paid the account!). While waiting anxiously to be united with Karen who was travelling up from Melbourne, we got a message to say she was stuck in Brisbane. Her plane had stood stranded on the tarmac while her connection took off for PNG! A team member down. Sigh… onwards to Madang, then Wewak. Each leg of the journey becoming more aware of the distance, lack of infrastructure, humidity.

It was wonderful to be greeted by our on the ground volunteers, Jim and Robyn Nottingham. Seeing a friendly, familiar face after such a long trip was a true blessing. Linda Tano, a PNG midwife had flown down from Goroka to meet up with us and join our outreach. It was wonderful to finally meet her after many conversations. We quickly took our bags to our neat and clean accommodation in the middle of the town of Wewak and then set off for a swim and dinner at Talio’s bar, right on the beach. It was refreshing to plunge into the water and just float for a while, taking in the surrounds and what we had achieved: arriving safely and on time! We slept soundly that night.

Sunday is quiet in Wewak. We rested, did a bit of shopping at the local store, sorted through all our gear, then excitedly collected Karen from the airport. She had made it. It felt good to have the full team together now. All so different, but all committed to helping the women and babies in this remote part of PNG.

Finally the morning arrived when we’d be travelling by road to the riverside town of Angoram. Everyone was excited, but also a little apprehensive as we contemplated being that much further from the safety of the ‘bigger’ town of Wewak with all its luxuries such as power, running water, shopping centres, chemist… It was a bit of a messy morning because vehicle arrangements had changed a few times, messages about fuel and boats for the next journey out to the village had been coming in thick and fast, expectations were high. Personally, I felt a little overwhelmed. The weight of responsibility leading a team was playing on my mind. I closed my eyes and tried to take some deep breaths, praying quietly under my breath for peace.

At 8.30 am the first vehicle was on its way loaded with 8 Living Child team members. We waved the others goodbye and were off. We were in the Samaritan Aviation 10 seater ambulance vehicle being driven by one of their pilots. Their float planes were not flying at the time and so they offered to drive us out to Angoram.

The climb out of Wewak is quite beautiful. About 30 minutes into the journey, our driver called out to us that if we wanted to have a last look at Wewak, now was the time to do it. At that same time my phone beeped and I looked down to see a message came through from Jim to say that the fuel for the boat journey had been arranged. I sighed with relief and thought, “God is good”. I had hardly finished the sentence when there was an almighty bang, screams, shattering glass and the scraping of metal reverberated around me. All I could see was a big truck sliding along the length of our vehicle. I thought I was going to see the end of our vehicle ripped open and mangled bodies laying everywhere.

After the noise of the impacting vehicles died down, the screams rose high. I looked back and saw that everyone was there. No blood. No mangled bodies. No twisted metal. “Are you all ok?” I shouted above the cries. “Yes”. “No one injured?”, I checked again. “No. All ok”. Thank God.

Our driver slowly edged the vehicle forward and reversed into a driveway next to the bend in the road. We all peered out of the windows and could see that the PMV had come to a stop, there was no obvious damage to it and no injured people. But then we saw an alarming sight. The driver of the PMV, together with a few other men, were running towards our vehicle, shouting and with arms raised holding metal bars, rocks and wooden planks ready to attack our driver. The evil hung in the air. It was thick and heavy. Start praying I called.



In A Bit Of A Daze

I can’t begin to describe to you the challenges of providing maternal & newborn training in Papua New Guinea.

It’s hard. Really hard.

In fact, many times, I just want to turn away, return home and forget the whole crazy idea.

Over the next few weeks I’ll do my best to try and paint a picture for you of what the Living Child team has just completed over 2 weeks immersed in the lives and world of people living in remote villages of the East Sepik Province.

At the moment I think I’m feeling a bit stunned at what we did. Perhaps a bit traumatised at what we witnessed too. I haven’t ventured out of my home yet – not ready to face the world we live in here in Australia. So much stuff. Services. Superficiality.

When I was in the village of Yamen last week I turned to my team member and colleague, Karen, and said, “It’s not in my imagination how bad it is here is it?”

“No,” she answered softly. “It’s really bad.”

“I’m not going to gloss over the reality of the situation for women anymore and try to justify that it’s not that bad. I’m going to tell it how it really is,” I said sadly.

How do you find the words to really tell it as it is? The photos tell a story, but even they look lovely and don’t capture the dirt and grime, heat and humidity, cries of desperation that are around all the time. Soon after we said good bye to a mother taking her dead 22 year old daughter (she died from unknown causes) down the river to her village for burial, our host and leader in the community of Yamen said, “Sara, it is good you have experienced the death of this young woman. You will now appreciate what we face all day every day due to a lack of services. I believe this will help to tell our story.”

No health services for over 20 years. 76 health Aid Posts in the District, but 69 are closed. Women having no choice but to give birth at home in their village or if they make it to the District Hospital, allocated the disused laundry with a piece of cardboard covering the crumbling concrete floor as a ‘sheet’. Staff who have had no training or supervision in over 20 years, too afraid to look after pregnant women because so many of them die. No proper record of births or deaths. Few, if any, babies immunised. Leprosy. Measles and mumps sweeping through villages and killing babies and young children. A high rate of young teenagers getting pregnant.

There is a ray of sunshine and hope and that comes in the form of Living Child. At a community workshop we held on the first day in Yamen, representatives from different villages told us that in the 5 years since Living Child has been in the area, they are noticing that their mothers are happier and enjoying life because they have a contraceptive implant, rather than a toddler at their feet, a baby on their hip and another on the way. A number of villages reported no maternal deaths in the last 5 years since village birth attendants have been trained. Wow!

I have to say, I took a double take when I heard that. No maternal deaths in the village since Living Child has been giving training. Suddenly I was inspired to go on. Despite the overwhelming needs and problems, despite the slow pace at which we’ve been able to do anything, despite the challenges and frustrations, there had been no maternal deaths in Yamen since 2013. That gave me enough of a jolt to keep doing what we could, no matter how slow! It is making a difference.

So, we rolled up our sleeves, mopped our brows and got to work…