The Day That NEVER Happened..!

I would consider myself a very risky person. I like to live on the edge and do crazy things. Skydive, rock climb… you know me!

BUT when I lead people I instantly turn into a safety conscious, mother hen, hyper protective person. I will not allow anyone to take any unnecessary risks because I don’t want to be the one making the phone call home to parents explaining what went wrong!

We are well covered, sometimes overcautiously covered with our risk procedures… We have necessary precautions such as taking anti-malarials in malaria endemic regions, but not all are that essential… some of the most ridiculous rules include showering daily, yes, we need a rule for that. Apparently not everybody believes in daily showers…

But there’s also a good list of needed rules that many people dislike… like having to wear a life jacket at all times when travelling on water. No dugout travels under any circumstances. Dugout canoes are pretty much a dug out tree trunk, highly unstable and requiring the help of a highly experienced operator to avoid capsizing… No walking in water in potential crocodile habitat. And the list goes on. . . .

Now there comes a time where a good leader has to make the hard decision and sometimes breach rules. One of those days might have happened on outreach. We refer to it as the “Day that NEVER happened”!

We were in an extremely remote village of Western Province, it had taken us 2 hours to get there from the ship and our dinghy operator told us he’d come back for 4pm.

We had radio communications back to the dinghy for about 30 minutes then it was out of reach. Sure we had a satellite phone, but that could only reach the ship.

We were done with clinic at 1pm! We connected with the village and walked around, played games, learnt from the mamas… we were ready to go. 4pm came around and no trace of our dinghy!

I tried the radio… nothing. I had someone climb on top of a house to hang our antena higher… oops! No climbing! We received a signal! Our driver was stuck in a mud bank! It was low tide. 

He unstuck himself and finally arrived to our village. Except he didn’t quite get to our village! He was about 1km away from the village, stuck in mud, it’s low tide! A bit of discussion back and forth brought us to the conclusion that the tide wouldn’t be high enough to get the dinghy into the village until 10pm! Time at which the sea would be quite rough!

So I used the little amount of language I had in common with the villagers to inquire about a way to get to the dinghy. They never replied to me… but the men started moving and talking to one another… and soon enough they were tying together 2 dugouts with pieces of wood/bark as seats and bush material weaved ropes.. oops! We had heaps of gear, (medical backpacks, radio, eski…) 9 people, which might have made the dugouts overloaded and sink in quite low… oh and oops! No life jackets! But what choice did we have!? We can’t camp out, we can’t wait for the tide and we can’t do nothing!

We got helped down the slippery log and into the dugouts, they loaded all our gear and two men paddled us out of the creek and towards our dinghy. We kept direction according to the locals in the deeper part of the channel, but unfortunately, even the deepest part was too shallow. Our friends jumped out of the dinghy into the crocodile infested water to pull us through the clay-like mud towards our dinghy. They pulled hard and fast. But we didn’t quite make it. by the time we got to our dinghy, and put our still dry gear safely onboard, our dinghy was well stuck in mud! So here comes the call I would have never made… our dinghy operator called “everybody in, let’s pull this dinghy into deep water!” as a marine professional he gets to call the shots, I call them in the clinic.

I prayed really hard that the crocodiles would stay very far away and that we’d be able to pull our dinghy out into the deep, get onboard and safely return to ship before the night falls and the water gets rough!

This is the day that we know as the day that never happened!   

Deja Vu!

Oh how good is it to visit new places, learn new languages, see new sceneries!?

But the absolute best thing is returning to the same locations year after year… getting to reconnect with friends but really by now they have become family! This year I got to reconnect with friends in Port Moresby, Western Province, Gulf Province, Milne Bay, and Oro Province!

I have seen soo many people I knew it’s unreal! It’s like the coconut wireless warns people and they just flock towards us! So it’d take forever to tell you of all those encounters, so I’ll only tell of two!

My first deja vu was in Sinapa :)
It’s a small village I’ve dropped in on the way to Airara during our pioneering trip in 2013!
We did clinic all day, and when I was about done with clinic, I remembered that I had seen Luisa in Airara.

Now the story of how I first met Luisa is typical PNG!!! The story starts in the Highland of Oro Province, Kokoda to be precise. I meet this lovely women called Julie. Julie was the first person I met with a Face tattoo! And when I say face tattoo… I mean full blown face tattoo! The Oro people especially Miacin people (around Tufi area) are renowned in PNG for their tattoos. Julie and I had great chats and one day she heard that after leaving the mountains, we’d be heading down the coast towards Tufi. She then told me to keep an eye out for her sister Luisa in a village called Airara!

I then thought… Right! How in the world am I supposed to find that village (not on the map) and find this lady whom I have never seen, and have no picture of!!!??? But eh! I told Julie I’d keep an eye out! To my greatest surprise I ended up in Airara and I found Luisa in 2013.

So being nearly done with clinic, I thought I’d give it shot and try to inquire about Julie’s sister… except, my memory failed me that day and I forgot Luisa’s name…
So I ventured out of the Aid Post and asked the local mamas if by any chance they had seen Julie from Airara! (An entirely different village from where we are, not a chance!) Then a lady in the crowd says… “Well Julie has left a long time ago, but her sister Luisa is here!” Then Luisa who had been sitting on the side of the Aid Post for God only knows how long stood up and came to see me!

“Oh Angie! It’s so good to see you! I heard that white people from a ship were here so I had to travel and come to see just in case I could find you!”
IMG_3307 Notice how we haven’t changed at all in 2 years!!!

The other one is one of my absolute favourites… I’m biased of course, but she has my name, so I can be ;)

I got to see my little baby Ange once again in Oro Bay, her parents heard that the ship was coming to the port and they came to see me every single day! Baby Angie is now 2 years old, cheeky as ever and loves to give me bananas :)

IMG_3338Baby Ange and her mum Leoni

Uiaku: A Story of Hope

Some days I walk in complete boldness, confident that I make a difference in the world…

But often times I wonder! Is it all worth it… Are things really changing? Do we make a lasting difference? We’ve been going to the same locations for up to 5 years in some areas… Will we ever work ourselves out of a job!? Maybe, maybe not. At times it sure feels like it’s only a drop in the ocean.

Then days like that days make it all worth it!

We arrived in Uiaku, knowing that an official welcome would be held and that clinics would happen in the afternoon. I was excited at the thought of returning to a location I had visited two years earlier in 2013! But I wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen!

I recognized the layout of the land, the creek where we used to wash and the sketchy bridge we used to cross! The school… wait a minute! The school was twice bigger and in much better condition, it was no longer made out of bush material! There was now a new church building in the hub of the village, and to my greatest excitement, a new Aid Post! With running water and solar panels!

When we first came, the aid post was old and crumbling! Esmie, the health worker, had condemned half of the building because patients kept falling through the floor. She had no running water, no electricity and a bare minimum of supplies!

On our initial trip to Oro Province, there were countless Village Assessments! Some days we’d visit up to four villages and barely connect with the village beyond our set of questions. Uiaku was slightly different as we stayed there for a couple days and used the location as a launching pad to reach further isolated villages. We stayed with Esmie and her family and got to learn the challenges she faces and the health conditions of her people.

When we first visited the Miacin people (Uiaku region) we didn’t offer health clinic and to me it felt a lot like a promise with no timeline. We talked about what we could do if we ever came, without saying when we would return. Telling them we were scouting the land finding their needs for YWAM and for their government. I liked saying that we also passed the result of our assessment on to their government! Unconsciously and never spoken out loud, it reassured me that we weren’t expected to bring answers and solutions to all their needs. It relieved some of the responsibility I felt when they confided and shared about their village.

When leaving the province the first time, we compiled our report and gave it to the provincial health authority. And I like to childishly believe that when it’s out of my hands it’s taken care of.

During the welcome, the Second Chairman for Health in the province announced the purchase of a health dinghy for patrols and to assist the Aid Post to transport patients to the health centre! He also announced that the Aid Post would receive a cold chain (solar fridge for immunisations)! He proceeded to say thank you to the YWAM pioneering team of 2013, mentioning me (the only returning member) and how all of the improvements for the Aid Post (new building, dinghy, and cold chain) were made possible through the result of the assessment of the village we had turned in to their office!

That day all doubts about purpose and wether or not we are really making a difference vanished! I knew beyond shadow of a doubt that not only we had made a difference in the village, but also on the provincial health office and we would continue to have an impact through the local health worker and the extended services she’ll be able to provide because we were led into her village!

As part of the welcome, they also gave us war clubs to say that we will be fighting side by side towards eradicating target diseases and enhancing the health of their people!

I continue to be amazed at the trust that we’re extended, but also realize the weight of the responsibility associated with the trust we’re extended.

My grateful heart can’t help but wonder how it got involved in this amazing privilege, but also ache at the thought of all the injustices that still remain.

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Nitchkey’s Family Planing Talk

Contraception, or “Family Planning” as they call it in Papua New Guinea is a very sensitive topic. Rightly so… as there are often misunderstandings, fears and cultural and even religious beliefs that come into the equation. But despite it all, it’s one of my favourite topics!

One day you can hear a family tell you that they don’t need medicine because they boil up the roots of a special tree on their property that makes them sterile, while the other day you get a desperate mother with eleven children who’s had more than enough and wants to care for the children she has without having to worry about feeding one more. And being able to assist her in that way, and give her ownership over her health and that of her family is just very special. Too often I hear of unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortions, which can be avoided by education and proper use of contraception. In some villages not a single soul will opt for contraception whiles in the next village multipara mothers queue up all day to get this precious medicine.

I usually start the day with introductions, a word of prayer and some health teaching. Most days I’ll do a family planning talk. If throughout the day I see that not many women come forward for contraception I’ll give another talk. Once in the Gulf Province during of those talks, I could clearly see the interest in the women’s comments, and reactions, but still no one dared come forward. I asked an older lady why nobody wanted family planning, and her response surprised me… “Their husbands aren’t here.” “Ok” I thought… let’s get the men here, educate them and get these ladies some life saving contraception! I turned around to find the village counselor and asked him to bring the men of the village for some vital health education. Some thirty minutes later, I started my speech all over again. This time making sure the men understood the risks incurred with every multipara pregnancy, the importance of adequate spacing for the mother’s recovery as well as the advantage it was for them not to have to travel to the health centre if they received family planning from us. The men agreed and the women received contraception. (We use mainly three types of contraceptives: oral/daily tablet, injection/quarterly Depo Provera, and sub-dermal implant good for 4-5 years.)

After I was done teaching the men, I asked one of the local health workers if he thought he could teach the men in the next village. He seemed uncertain, not too willing, and even ashamed… Which made me think I’d be the one teaching forever :(

Little did I know… when I asked Nitchkey, half-jokingly, the following day to use our family planning flip charts with a group of men just how well he would connect with those men!

He had a group of fifteen men who agreed to sit down and listen to this “important talk about women’s health”… they didn’t seemed too engaging but Nitchkey decided that he was going to get his message across…! So he pretty much opened up by saying: “If when your wife is about to go fetch water, you say ‘No, no, no honey, let me do that for you’… when your wife is about to go chop fire wood, you say ‘No, no, no honey, let me do that for you’… when your wife is needing to go to the health clinic you say ‘let me paddle for you’, you can be sure your wife will give you ‘the best in the night!’ ”

Suddenly Nitchkey had all their attention!!! He talked to them for nearly an hour… Talked about why it’s important for a woman to rest in-between pregnancies, comparing the uterus with a bow and an arrow. How a uterus that has given birth to more than three children is like an old and slack bow that can’t propel an arrow, just like a mother could die in prolong labour from weak uterine muscles.

He explained feeding the family in terms of limited resources. If a family has only one packet of bisket (4 dry navy-type crackers) and has eight children, each child would get half a bisket. On the other hand, if the family had only four children, each child would get an entire bisket or twice as much food.

By the end for his talk not only he convinced the men that family planning was the rightful duty of the head of the family but he also had a group of fifteen men say “You’re right Nitchkey, we should all get vasectomies!”

Needless to say, I was surprised by this outcome and Nitchkey was “voluntold” to do all of the remaining contraceptive talks with the men for the rest of our time on outreach! And he secretly loved it! ;)


Don’t Eat the Fish!!!

Warning: So this one is a bit of a funny one, not actual clinic, but a “Malarone” dream I had while in Oro!

“I’m in a supermarket, very western looking, actually I’m fairly sure that it is Woolworths in Townsville. I’m filling up a shopping cart, seemingly shopping for my outreach team (5 people). I’m walking down the aisles with a PNG mangi (~15 years old boy) and for some odd reason, we’re deciding what I’m buying. We get to the ice cream freezer and I pick a type of ice cream he doesn’t like and we argue about it for a bit before compromising for a different kind. I thought, “Wow! Why is this boy calling the shots!?” We get to check out and the shopping cart is way full! Way more food than my team would ever eat. “Oh well!”

We head back to the village we’re staying at in Oro Province of PNG. As we’re entering the village, I see loads of people buzzing around, mamas preparing a feast. I see a massive fish being carried to the mother. And then it clicked in my mind! They are cooking the fish for that mangi and I! In this village, the tradition is that when the couple shares the fish, they’re married!

I run as fast as I can to the end of the village! There’s a big platform rock at the tip over looking the ocean. On the platform, I find one of the health workers travelling with us. I tell him: “I can’t do this, I’m not eating the fish, I’m not getting married!” to which he replies: “No worries, it’s no big deal, you just have a little fish, then we go, we move on to the next village and then you forget about it, easy!” “I’m not eating the fish, I’m not getting married!” Then I woke up.

Now of course, I will have to have fish when I get married! Hahaha!

Nitchkey’s Famous Fish

Last year with the Primary Health School, we went on patrol to the North Coast of Oro Province. During our travels on the sea, our guards and local health workers spent a fair amount of time fishing. One night, we had a feast and Nitchkey, a community healthcare worker (CHW), decided to fry us some fish. I had never seen Papua New Guinean men cook, nor tasted any of these guys cooking. The fish was good. But didn’t strike me as the best fish ever… maybe because it was late and I was starved.

This year, working alongside the same health workers, I told my school that they would have amazing fried fish from Nitchkey. Maybe raising the bar with expectations ;) Little problem as the guy never had the time to fish… My team started to doubt that he could actually catch fish, let alone cook.

One fine day, he came to see me in clinic, asking for flour and soy sauce. I dropped everything and went to find him his ingredients. One of my teammates looked fairly confused and asked what was going on. “We’re going to eat fish!”, I said. I can’t tell you all that goes in this recipe (partly because I went back to clinic once I got the cook his ingredients) but this time around it was definitely worth waiting for! This was the second best fish in the world next to salmon, my personal favorite! When asked how to make it, the answer I got was: “Ask a man to catch you some white belly fish, and fry it with flour, soy sauce, chilies, garlic and onion!”

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The Face of Transformation

Last Sunday I went to church and was greeted by an overly excited young lady. She knew me by name, I had no recollection of who she was and it made me feel like the worse person in the world. I had been to this church a fair bit in the past… enough to call it my PNG “home church” and I’m usually good at remembering faces… but not for this girl! I’m hopeless with names, but I do well with faces… usually.

At the end of the service, she came to see me and told me that she had a baby girl 10 weeks ago. Right away I remembered everything!

In mid April while on outreach with the Primary Health Care school, we partnered with a clinic in one of the settlements of Port Moresby. Every Wednesday is antenatal day. My favorite day! All the gorgeous pregnant mothers “Bel Mamas” come to get assessed and get their regular supplies of iron supplements and malaria prophylaxis.

In the afternoon I stepped out of my examination room to take a breather and chat with the mamas. I like asking them how many children they have and whether they’d like to have a boy or a girl. The mamas always laugh at my Tok Pisin and my cheeky jokes. (They laugh because it’s funny to them that a white lady knows their language, not very common.) That day I noticed a much different mama. A rather young lady, too young to be pregnant, and also not glowing… You know that pregnant mama glow…!? Well she didn’t have it.

I sat down beside her and asked a few questions. It didn’t take too long for me to gather that it wasn’t a planned pregnancy, nor was she happy. Mary was ashamed, very soft spoken and cried a lot. I understood maybe a ¼ of everything she told me, but I understood that she had made a mistake, her boyfriend left her when he found out she was pregnant, and then her family also kicked her out. She had no one to help her, and had to work long hours in order to afford a place to stay and some food.

I told Mary that she was loved and that it didn’t matter how bad she messed up, she didn’t deserved to be forsaken. I advised her to seek the help of “meri safe haus” a shelter for abused women to have a home and fellowship. I prayed for her and trusted God for the result.

Part of my work in PNG is very transient and I rarely reconnect with the exact same people. I have a tendency to blindly trust that all is well when I leave. It’s just too hard not to.

But this time, I had an amazing surprise! My “PNG home church” runs “Meri safe haus” and Mary had been staying with them ever since I first saw her 4 months ago. Not only Mary and her baby girl were both alive and well, but Mary was also filled with joy and hope. Something she hadn’t had for the past year.

All it took was for me to stop working. To stop being so focused on the task and to allow myself to look beyond the obvious and see the real need. A 5 minutes conversation is all it took to change this young lady life. How will you spend your coffee break today?

My Eyes Are Good! … Or so I thought!

I love living in PNG! I love the villages and the kids! I love bringing medicine to remote areas, but life isn’t always that great…

I mostly tend to write about all the good things I see, hear and like, but I do realize that I’m giving you a biased perspective. So this post won’t be as happy and full of life. It’ll be a glimpse of what happened to me on IPHC outreach this year.

So the first time it happened, I was in Popondetta, meeting with the Provincial Health Office, and trying to sort out the details of our upcoming and urgent patrol to respond to a Pertussis (Whooping Cough) outbreak. My right eye was irritated, even painful… not pleasant, I thought I just had to get my contacts out! I put my sunglasses on as soon as I could, and it felt better, but I definitely slept the whole way home. In the evening I removed my contacts and tried to wash out my eye… but nothing took the pain away.

I thought the next morning would be better… but unfortunately not. I woke up with a massive pain in my eye. I looked for my phone to see the time but the brightness of the screen was just too much to handle! I had to wear my sunglasses, in the dark, to look at my phone or to use my torch! By daylight I had to hide in the dark and wear sunglasses. We decided that it’d be better for me not to go to clinic that day. Naomi (my other staff) took our team to clinic. I felt so useless! I was thinking… I have only one day to get better, because I cannot not go on patrol! I slept all day and all night… and was better the next day :)

Had it been finished… I would have forgotten about it and enjoyed the rest of outreach. But NO! It happened three more times!

The worst of all was when we were in Kokoda! Kokoda is my place, and my dream! I feel drawn to bring medicine to remote areas and I love to hike. So to be sick and completely useless when it’s all happening was just too much to bear.

I had a really rough day. I woke up with pain under my eyelid and feared the worse! I turned off my alarm and winced in pain at the sight of the light. I tried to find my sunglasses and walked to the toilet. Tested my eye out a bit. I was supposed to go to the market at 6am, but Naomi saw that I was wearing my sunglasses. I was determined to make it to the market and back to prove myself that I could bear it and see despite my extreme photosensitivity and excruciating pain. But Naomi saw right through me, sent me to bed and went to the market for me. I prayed so hard that my eye would get better in the hour, but it didn’t. By the time Naomi came back, I couldn’t even open my left eye without causing pain to my right. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere at all that day.

I went to bed curled into a ball and cried. I hadn’t cried in a while (well, not true, since the last time my eye acted up..!) This time though, it wasn’t as much from the physical pain, but from the emotional wreck that I was not being able to do what I knew I was meant to do! My heart ached to go but was trapped inside the house and this momentary blindness crippled me inside out.

On the Track

Ever since I first stepped in Kokoda, I’ve dreamt of bringing medicine to the most isolated communities along the Kokoda track. I’ve made many many different plans on how to, where to and tried to explain why I wanted to face the mountains to bring medicine. This year was not intended to be the year when I would return to Kokoda. But somehow Papua New Guinea IS the Land of the Unexpected and I made it back to Kokoda!

The Provincial Health Office asked our team to help provide services in the catchment area of the Kokoda Health Centre. Equipped with our medical backpacks, two legs each and a strong will to see the sick healed; we walked between 30 minutes to 2:30 hours to clinic daily. Most villages we visited had no Aid Post or running water. Most villages were uphill and quite difficult to get to. So much that a sick person wouldn’t make the trip to the hospital unless they were convinced that they had absolutely no choice.

I love Kokoda, I love the mountains and a good walk. But more than anything I love the idea of bringing hope and healing in remote areas.

My favorite day was the day we hiked to Hoi. Hoi is a village located 2 hrs up from Kokoda on the track. It’s the second big village on the way. The path was long and muddy, the village was beautiful and so were the rivers on the way. Clinic was quiet as the village wasn’t expecting us and had gone to the bush/garden in the morning, but the day was so worth it! On the way to Hoi, we stopped on the track to make a funny video. I thought that I’d be funnier if I had a banana leaf for the video… so Vinka and I went in the bush to fetch me a banana leaf. On our way to the nearest banana tree (which ended up a fair way away…!) we stumbled upon the path to a village. We thought it’d be great to invite the village to come for clinic up in Hoi. We agreed to continue on the path until we arrived to the village ~3 minutes and inform them of our coming. This village was amazing! Away from the track, rarely visited by trekkers, up on a hill and beautiful! Children were running on the soccer field, mamas boiling water on the fire while looking after their babies. Many gathered around us to hear what we had to say, I felt welcomed and loved instantly! This was Mudulu!

MUDULU!!! No way I thought! This is one of the villages I had down on my initial proposal for a trekking IPHC! We had to get back to our team now that I had my banana leaves but stepping in Mudulu and seeing how good the reception in the village was made me dream of what could be. Not only I was dreaming about the future, but Vinka, the local health worker was dreaming too! She was agreeing with me that we should trek together on the trail and reach the villages branching off the trail. She agreed that the need was big and the task was hard, but she put her hand up and said: “Count me in!” Kokoda… I’ll be back :)

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As You Do at the Market!

It was our last market day in Oro Bay, a Saturday morning, my mind was busy planning our next move and my body just wanted sleep but I thought we’d give the market a last go to get some much needed fresh fruits!

The market in Oro Bay is… well a typical PNG Market…

Let me explain. A large amount of mamas prepare their crops (all types of garden fruits and vegetables: squash, green beans, green leafies, kaukau/sweet potatoes, taro, cooking bananas and sweet bananas, coconuts, oranges, papaya, if you’re lucky pineapple…) and they also bake (that can be flat bread, fried flour balls, sago or fish).

The market is held in an open field on the side of the road and the grass is usually kept short by machetes and human power. The market in Oro Bay has been flooded or at least swampy half the times I’ve ever been. The mamas find a dry patch, sit on the ground and lay their good on a bag or a piece of tarp on the ground. Buyers walk through the mud from one mama to the next.

Markets are held Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Saturdays are the bigger market days. Some mamas walk down the mountains for many hours to come sell their crops and others to buy.  Needless to say, on Saturdays, the town is filled with people from different villages.

I can’t remember what we got at the market that day… all I remember is one of my teammates wanting to get a coconut drink right before leaving. As we were paying for the coconut, I noticed a lady starring at us. I thought, “Of course, this is PNG… she must not have seen many white people!” As we were leaving, she walked towards me, extended her hand and said: “I am Leoni”, and as she pointed to her baby in her arms, I recognized Leoni and I said: “Baby Angelica!” She was so big and healthy and pretty!!!

Turns out baby Angie had a little cough and her mother took the opportunity of the market day to go to the Hospital and get her baby checked. Once they finished at the hospital, she made her way to the market. And such a good surprise for all of us as we met just a little over one year after baby Angelica’s birth!

(If you’d like to read more about baby Angelica’s birth, click Here)

Just a few days prior, I was booking our flights to Tufi and felt disappointed and sad that I hadn’t seen baby Angie. I was wondering if she had made it to her 1st birthday. Neonatal deaths are so common in PNG and the frightening possibility of her not making it thus far was very present in my mind.

Imagine the relief and joy in my heart to see baby Angie! Knowing that all the efforts during the birth, the struggles to keep her alive and all the prayers had not been in vain. Two days later, we flew out of Oro Bay, but my heart was settled, I was at peace. I knew that my little girl had made it through the first and most difficult year.