A true story based on the author’s experience working at the Provincial Health Office in Alotau, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea from 2009-2012.
It was just another usual fortnight Friday afternoon. The clock in my office showed four-thirty pm. I saved the cashbook and ledgers I was working on and shut down my laptop somehow feeling happy that the weekend had finally arrived. It was a stressful week sorting out payments and allowances for the provincial health officers to do their routine supervisory visits to the districts.
I was about twenty four years old and was a contract staffer of an Australian Aid development program based at the Milne Bay Provincial Health Office in Alotau. I managed the Health Sector Improvement Program Trust Account and all donor funds given for health programs in the province. It was a demanding job but I was an enthusiastic and smart young accountant who managed the trust account prudently. My bosses were proud of me, even the staff at the National Department of Health spoke highly of me. In fact, Milne Bay province was ranked as the top-performing province in terms to key health indicators partly due to my contribution.
The afternoon sun was still burning hot when I walked out of the office. My boss, from Manus was also leaving the office.
“You have a nice weekend Jordan,” he said.
“Thanks boss,” I replied and watched him drive off in the fifth element vehicle that was purchased from the trust account.
“One day, I’ll be a boss too,” I thought and sighed!
I stood for a while under the tree beside the office to shelter from the heat thinking of what to do or where to go next. Pulling out my cellphone, I found Brendan’s number and called him.
Brendan was my schoolmate and friend from Cameron Secondary School. He had dropped out of Grade 10 while I continued to Grade 11 and 12 and onto university. But he managed to get into a family business and was doing quite well. He had a Toyota Corolla, which he allowed me to use from time to time for urgent runs, go out partying or to take ladies out on a date. I dated a new lady almost every month. I didn’t know whether it was my good looks or the money but I didn’t care. I was only concerned about getting laid. Brendan jokingly called me ‘Elvis Priestley’ because of my prowess with the ladies.
“Yes Elvis,” Brendan answered.
“Bro, you have any bright plans for tonight?” I asked.
“Nothing interesting. What’s up?” he knew I was up to something.
“Just want to have a few drinks and watch karaoke at Airways,” I said.
“Cool, so where are you now?” he asked with a happy tone.
Brendan loved drinking beer and it showed on his protruding tummy. He was a slim guy but had put on a few kilograms lately due to his alcohol consumption.
“I am outside my office but will walk over to the beachfront market to look for cigarettes while waiting for you,” I said.
“Okay, give me thirty minutes to sort out a few things,” he replied.
It was almost five o’clock and the sun was losing its heat now. I walked slowly over to the market at the Sanderson Bay beachfront. It was only a three minute stroll away from my office.
The beachfront was a hive of activities and people. The pathway from one end of the bay to the other was littered on both sides with street vendors with their tables and umbrellas. I would sometimes joke and call this area, the ‘Umbrella City’ of Alotau. People from the surrounding squatter settlements and the cargo boats at dock would mingle around here until late at night. The informal street market flourished and the vendors would make about K400 to K500 a day selling their items there. They sold items from scones, betel nuts, cigarettes, cordial drinks to diving torches, sunglasses, clothes and fuel.
At around 4 pm when the main market in town closed, the villagers would bring their vegetables, fish, fruits, and other garden food that were not bought to the Sanderson Bay beachfront to sell and make extra money before boarding the late PMVs at 6 pm to head back to their villages along the highway to East Cape and Garuahi on the north coast.
The first vendor’s table from my office, near the small creek from Duau Compound was my favorite table. Bolo, the young man that minded it, was from Suau and had become my good friend after realizing that I was a frequent customer to his table. For me, it was the convenience of not having to walk further to buy a cigarette since it was the nearest one. He would allow me to collect cigarettes and buai on credit when I was short on cash and when my pay came in on business week, I would pay for it. I always paid up and he trusted me.
“Afternoon boss,” Bolo greeted me.
“Afternoon bro. Looks like a busy afternoon,” I said observing the place.
“You know it already,” he smiled.
I knew from the smile that he had made a fair amount of money today. I’ve had several friendly chats on my frequent visits for cigarettes with Bolo about his informal business and his aspirations. Bolo was a Grade 8 dropout from the village school and had come to town to live with his uncle at the settlement on the hillside. His uncle had given him K100 to buy a few items to sell and now he had saved over a thousand kina in his Micro-Finance Bank account. Bolo wanted to raise enough money to buy a dinghy and outboard motor to go fishing and sell at the market. I admired his determination.
The sun was slowing disappearing over the Pini Range in the western end of the bay. Bolo handed me a stool from his market table to sit down. I watched as the working class people with vehicles parked beside the road and hurried about to grab some vegetables for dinner. I checked the time on my cell phone. It was only 5:20 pm. There was still time before Brendan arrived.
I grabbed a betel nut from Bolo’s table and husked it before chewing it with mustard and lime. Then got five cigarettes. Buai goes well with cigarette and I felt good. I gave Bolo a K50 note and collected K20 worth of flex. Bolo calculated the amount for the flex, cigarettes and betel nuts before giving my change.
“Go buy yourself a drink,” I gave him a K5 note.
“Thanks boss!” he smiled in appreciation.
I quickly entered the flex card numbers and subscribed for a data package from Digicel to access my Facebook account. I was so addicted to Facebook and would spend a lot of money buying flex cards. My mum would advise me to cut down on the flex but what the heck! It was my money and I made my own decisions.
Then, I saw him! An old man in his late fifties who probably lived in one of the nearby squatter settlements. He wore an old shirt and had some white hair. What caught my attention was that he kept looking at a bunch of bananas on sale. He turned it over and over, felt it, asked much it was then walked away quietly. Some minutes later, he walked back again and asked the lady who was selling the bananas again. She told him the price and the old man walked away again.
I kept watching the old man intrigued by his movements. He stood under the nearby tree deep in thought. He stood for probably fifteen minutes and then walked back to the lady selling the bananas. Again she told him the price and he bowed his head in defeat and walked away.
Something bothered me so I stopped him when he passed by Bolo’s table on his way to Duau Compound, the squatter settlement nearby.
“Hey father, you okay?” I asked him.
The old man didn’t reply. He just looked at me. He looked worried and helpless. I could see the pain in his eyes.
“I saw you going back and forth checking the bunch of bananas over there,” I said trying to get him to talk.
“I can’t afford it. She couldn’t reduce the price. It’s K4 and I have only K2,” he muttered and bowed his head in response.
“What were you planning on doing with it?” I was curious.
“I have nothing at home. That banana would have made my family a good meal. Maybe one banana each but still okay,” he said.
His response broke my heart. I couldn’t utter a single word and suddenly felt a pain inside me for the old man and his family.
Here I was spending so much money on unnecessary things while a fellow countryman had only K2 in his pocket and a family to feed!
I felt my entire body tremble with the feeling of guilt. My conscious was bothered.
“Here, go buy the banana and some protein for your dinner,” I pulled out a K50 from my wallet and gave him.
He stood there completely lost not knowing what to do, whether to smile or cry. After a moment’s silence, he looked at me. This time I saw a bright look in his eyes.
“Thank you very much son. I don’t know how I can repay your kindness but God will surely bless you,” he said with a tear in his eye.
“Don’t worry about it father. Just go buy the banana before the lady hops on the next PMV,” I ordered him.
“Okay, but thank you again. God bless your kind heart,” he said and walked back to the lady selling the banana.
“You welcome,” I smiled.
I felt his words and slowly took a deep breath. Deep inside, I felt that I had done something good. I had helped a man in need.
“At least, someone else would breathe easy because I lived,” I thought and smiled happily.
I decided not to go out drinking that night after the encounter I had with the old man.
Brendan arrived some time later looking excited. He had parked the Corolla on the other side of the market and walked over to Bolo’s table. He knew that was my favorite table and would find me there.
“Have a cigarette and chew one buai bro,” I said when he arrived.
“Thanks bro,” he said and got two cigarettes and lit one. “So what’s the plan? We go grab a six pack from Toto’s black market to warm up before going to Airways?”
“Nah, I changed my mind bro. I’ll give you some money to get your six-pack. I don’t feel like going out,” I stated politely.
“What?” Brendan looked at me in disbelief.
“Yup, drop me off at home. I’ll give you K50 for your six pack,” I offered.
“Okay Elvis. Something happened?” he kept asking.
I told him about the encounter with the old man and Brendan finally understood.
“I think you’re right. Get us some buai and cigarettes and I’ll drop you off at home. We can go out another time,” Brendan said.
“Thanks bro,” I said feeling relieved.
We bought about K20 worth of betel nuts and a packet of cigarettes from Bolo before leaving for Brendan’s vehicle.
The sun had gone and darkness was crawling in. My mind wandered off to the families all over the country who would be cooking their meals at this time. Some would be cooking delicious meals with chicken or lamb or fish. Others would be dining at expensive hotels. Others would make do with whatever little they had and others may go to bed hungry and hoping that the next day would turn out better. The old man I had helped would cook the bunch of bananas. I hoped he had bought some aibika and fish to go with the bananas.
“May God bless the old man and others like him!” I prayed quietly in my heart.