Sunday, 24 July 2016

PNG 12 - Teresa Bolga

After 42 years Gabrielle and Teresa met again. Two young women from the 1970s were now two mature women in their mid sixties.

I'd wondered what it was that held such a strong place in Gabrielle's memory, such a strong emotional connection to this person. Since the moment that we touched down at Mt Hagen airfield Gabrielle had been asking each person we met if they knew her. Many knew of her but it was in the KaiKai Coffee Haus where she struck gold. "Yes I know Teresa," the waitress said. "She's my aunty." Gabrielle nearly fell over. "Can you get a message to her? She will know me as Gaye."

Now two days later we're on our way to visit her. We're in the Mt Hagen Mission Home minibus with Vanessa, Teresa's daughter, who is directing Gibson, our muscled Christian driver to her village compound on the edge of town. Gibson is a bit nervous. "It's a bad part of town," he says. "Lots of drugs and bad people." Gibson is a giant of a man who goes to the gym every day and plays rugby league for his province. It's a Iittle incongruous that this gruff footballer should be afraid of anything. As we approach NewTown we are surrounded by a hundred colourful beach umbrellas under which people have spread their wares for sale. Rubbish piles dominate the scene. Everywhere. It's filthy. We have arrived at betel nut central. These are the druggies Gibson was referring to. Bright green arrays of betelnut sit beside plastic bags of lime and sticks of siri pona (timor name).

We turn down a narrow lane and find ourselves in the middle of manicured hedges and compounds of neat bungalows. Teresa's place is only a few hundred metres from the beach umbrella chaos. It's a quiet haven. She is sitting at the entrance to her plot wiith her sister and another relative as we approach. The two girls now in women's bodies changed by time recognize each other instantly. Teresa is on her feet and she takes Gabrielle's hand and leads us to her house. I am the observer and watch as these two relax in each others company as if the forty two years were forty two days.

She and Gabrielle trade questions and offer answers about the past four decades. There a directness about it that belies the soft emotional connection between the two of them. Teresa talks about the hardship of living a subsistence life and complains about corruption and government inaction, implying that forty years on, things are actually worse. She pulls no punches. Once a devoted Catholic, she has become a born again Christian. She became disillusioned with the Catholic Church because she no longer felt an emotional connection to her beliefs. "Too much of it was routine. The priest telling us when to stand and when to sit and say this and say that. The Pentecostals make me feel a connection. I need to have an emotional connection."

The land she lives on is her family's traditional land. Her brother lives in a house adjacent hers, her nephew and his three wives live on the other side. The families share the land which supports a banana grove, orange trees and vegetable plots which they harvest for the market and for their own consumption. It's a simple life.

Teresa's house is tiny. A central room not much bigger than a kitchen is flanked by four rooms which house her daughter and three children in one room, her sister and aunty in another and Teresa in the final bedroom. The last room is the kitchen and storeroom. It's a house of seven women. The central room contains a single soft chair, a double seater lounge and a tv on a stand covered in cloth. At one end, the entrance to the house, is a door. At the other, a matter of three or four paces distant is a window. The room is about two paces across.

Jobs are scarce. There is a lot of talk of work in Australia picking apples. They want us to use our influence to help set up job opportunities for the family. Gabrielle says she will do what she can but makes no promises. Vanessa seems happy at the prospect of leaving her three young children behind for six months. Child rearing seems like an extended family responsibility.

Teresa is poor. There's no other word for it and yet she presses gifts of fruit and hand made bilums on us before we leave.

Over the next days Gabrielle tells everyone the story. And everyone seems to know Teresa. "The red skin?" they ask us, referring to her colouring. Her skin is quite light for a highlander and she seems to have rosy cheeks. Two days later Teresa calls us at our lodge in the mountains. She's determined to see Gabrielle again before she goes.

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