One of my favourite quotes has long been that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Sitting alone in an empty house in Naenae with a young child I used to wonder how different it would be like to raise a child in a physical village surrounded by others. Now I am here, at Kapuna, raising my now much older children in the most village-like setting you can imagine and I have some sense of the answer.
Just moments ago the 7 year old popped in for a brief conversation. He told me he’s been swimming in a friend’s pool – a damaged rain water collection tank kept for the purpose – all afternoon with two of his age, making their own fun. One day it will be bows and arrows, another day catching fish, a third soccer, colouring in, climbing trees. Sometimes I don’t even understand what the games are. The 5 year old is at the neighbour’s house playing with their children and the much loved kitten. It’s been almost 8 weeks since we arrived. Isaiah roams free with a variety of children, mainly boys around his own age. The activity they are engaged in seems secondary to the fact that they are together. Isaiah relates easily to a wide range of other. He’s our outdoor boy and Kapuna is, in a way, his version of heaven. As long as the children stay out of the river, the deep, wide, swiftly flowing expanse known to harbour crocodiles, and away from the base of coconut trees where they risk fatal blows from falling projectiles, the dangers are few. There are easily 30 households in the village, plus men’s and women’s dorms for students and single staff, but everyone is connected. Patients and their guardians or caregivers are the only outsiders but remain in the public areas unless they’re providing casual labour on projects or earning some kina helping in gardens . As two of only four light-skinned children there are many watchful eyes on them both of our pikaninis. Mercy needs to stay closer to the house, but that is scarcely a hardship for her as our two closest neighbours both have young children and she can usually be found at one house or the other. A gentle engaging child, she is popular not only because she is different and both families are as happy as I am that their children have suitable playmates.
We employ a babysitter for Mercy in the afternoons as her preschool finishes at midday and I’m occupied until 4pm, but it has turned out this is more to do with keeping track of what she is up to than any actual hands-on childcare. While Mercy plays happily with local children, the ‘baby sitter’ sweeps endless cobwebs from the ceiling, husks and scrapes coconuts for coconut cream and runs errands to the shop or market for us. This home help is as much about keeping the kina circulating as it is about us having help with the more labour intensive aspects of village life. We have gone from being people of quite limited means, to people of relative wealth here, and employing others is a dignified and appropriate way to help others.
For all of our wealth, though, we are the beneficiaries of astounding generosity. I read in a PNG history book that PNG people may have been some of the world’s first gardeners. I have no idea if that is true, but gardening is certainly an integral part of Gulf culture. The climate is ideal for growing. The soil is always warm and damp and it is surreal to feel the heat of the grass on bare feet. A bit of judicious weeding in the garden, or rather hacking with a bush knife, is usually sufficient to ensure that crops grow happily. Most local people subsist on their own gardens with wild bush food or sea food thrown in. Sago, a starch made by beating the pulp of the plentiful sago palm, is labour intensive to produce, but is an all-year staple, even during the wet season when other food sources stop producing. Even employed people with cash income have fruit trees and a banana or pineapple patch and the Community Health Worker students grow their own food by labouring in their gardens 1 hour a day. We have some fruit trees, a couple of coconut palms and an area of ‘garden’ but as I can’t tell a weed from a plant in this ecosystem, I’m yet to feel an overwhelming need to get gardening, despite the welcome assistance of some students who cleared the area for us a couple of weeks back. We get much of our food from the market where sellers come from the nearby villages to exchange produce for cash and I’m very happy to pay. Several times a week we will hear a knock on the door and someone will be on our step with a pineapple or pumpkin in hand. It’s the village way, and a sign of gratitude that we have come to live and work here, and it’s incredibly humbling .
We were having a rough time here a few weeks ago so we asked our near neighbours to come and pray with us one evening. I made sugar donuts and tea for the occasion. At the appointed time two mighty men of God stepped out of the darkness and joining us in the living room. They sat down on the woven mat and immediately began to pray. Later on, we felt to call others to come so one visitor left to carry the message. He returned minutes later with two more friends. We found ourselves surrounded by mature men of great faith, earnestly interceding with us and for us. We will not easily forget how quickly they came at a time of need or the sense of being upheld by others when we were unable to do it ourselves.
I know this place is not a ‘normal’ village. We live in close proximity to others and interconnected as tribal societies have done for millennia, and as those in the surrounding villages still do. But more than that, we are also at a Christian village. The bonds between all here are not only natural, but spiritual bonds of brothers and sisters in Christ. There is one purpose here, to shine the light of Christ in this place with both words and actions, and all share in the purpose. There is a common life of work rhythms and meeting together and a common expectation regarding behaviour- that we all ought to, as much as possible, imitate Christ. It’s far from perfect, but we’re trying.