Away in Menyamya


For three days and three nights we had heard the child crying, in the haus win where the ambulant patients cooked their meals under a grass roof supported by four posts, sides open to the cold winds and rain of July. On the fourth morning we had gone about our geological work in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, returning to again hear the same sad crying while we ate our evening dinner.

That night I sent two of my staff to find out why the child kept crying. They returned shaken.

The child, of about two, and his mother, a 15 or 16-year-old girl, had been in Menyamya District Hospital for five days without food. The mother had been admitted by her husband and left there without food, sick with tuberculosis and now weak with hunger.

We sent down some of our dinner: hot tinned fish, vegetables and rice. The next day, as we started our eight-hour drive to Lae, we gave the mother enough ship’s biscuits, rice, tinned meat, tinned fish, and a little money, to last her for the next week.

Menyamya District Hospital lies on the edge of the small township of Menyamya, deep in the mountains of PNG. The hospital’s haus win is next to well-tended food gardens that are worked daily and a busy track that serves as a road to the Menyamya market. A Lutheran Pastor lives beside this road, perhaps 200 metres away.

There is food in these mountains. We had not come to Menyamya to act as Samaritans.

When we returned eight weeks later we enquired after the girl. She had been treated with drugs for three weeks before being sent back to her village where she would receive no further treatment.

Tuberculosis is endemic in the towns and the villages of PNG. It is a disease identifiable by a simple test; against which children can be vaccinated cheaply and about which even the illiterate can be taught. It is a disease of ignorance and poverty, and in PNG its prevention is far less expensive than its cure.

In the People’s Republic of China, following 38 years of brutal civil war interspersed by a long and murderous Japanese invasion, it took only nine years to eliminate syphilis from a population of 450 million. No foreign aid was either offered or required.

In Vietnam, during the 30-year war and subsequent 25-year trade embargo, the country achieved almost a 90 per cent female literacy rate and country-wide vaccination and medical programs that have enabled the population to double to 75 million in the 30 years since 1975.

PNG has a population of approximately 5 million poeple. Yet after 30 years of independence and billions of dollars of foreign aid, young mothers still cough and drown in their own blood in this resource-rich nation.

I cannot resolve the obvious socio-political contradiction. However, were the young mother we met in Menyamya literate, she might well try do so.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.