New Internationalist

Gracie

Issue 089

Julia Daia and Claire Swale meet up with Gracie Alexander in a squatter settlement on the outskirts of Port Moresby.

Julia Daia (left) and Claire Swale form the two-woman editorial team of the ‘New Nation’, Papua New Guinea’s only - magazine for young people. Julia, 24, left university just over a year ago to work on the weekly newspaper ‘Wantok’, published by a Papua New Guinean company and the only newspaper printed in Tok Pisin, the majority language of the, people. At the beginning of this year she, moved over to ‘New Nation’ (published by the same group). Claire Swale, 25, is an English volunteer who went to Papua New Guinea 18 months ago to work on ‘a developmental, informative and entertainment magazine, in an entirely new environment’.

Many people seeking the bright lights of Papua New Guinea’s capital city end up settling for the dull kerosene glow of Port Moresby’s squatter settlements.

Some of the settlements are large and spacious. Others are small and cramped. All are characterised by the shanty-built houses of varying sizes and status. And in many respects they are not so very different from the rural villages that many of the settlers have left to try their luck in Moresby.

In the Eastern Highlands village of Lufa, Gracie Alexander would not have been short of water or food or money. In the Six-Mile squatter settlement on the outskirts of Moresby, where she now lives, Gracie suffers from a lack of all three, at different times and to varying degrees. But her sufferance of these hardships remains the same. ‘I like living in Port Moresby; she said. ‘There are some worries, but I and my husband choose to live here. If we didn’t like it, we would go home.’

Gracie’s husband is a carpenter and there is always plenty of work for him in their home province. This led him to believe that he’d also have no problems finding work in Moresby. He was right and he is one of the lucky ones who found a job.

We came here simply because we had heard so much about the city, city, city; explained Gracie. ‘If I didn’t come with him, who would wash his soiled shirts when he came home from work at night?

We plan to stay here for about three years and then go home. We came here at the beginning of the year and stayed for a short time with my brother. Then we came here, because many of our people live here.’

In many ways Gracie is typical of the migrants who come to Moresby. She has a second home in the village, and can return there when she chooses to.

Port Moresby is no slum city of the Pacific and the general neatness of the settlements reflects this. A couple of hundred people live at Six-Mile - mostly from the Highlands’ provinces where the people have a reputation for being hardworking and ambitious. There is a strong sense of community in the settlement, which often you will find lacking in the more affluent suburbs of the city.

During the day the village is mostly empty. People are away working, looking for work or simply socialising in the city’s meeting places. Gracie spends her time cooking, talking, playing cards or weaving brightly coloured belts which she hopes to sell.

Like the majority of places in PNG the squatter settlement has no electric power. This causes little hardship as light bulbs would be more of a novelty than a necessity.

Photo: Peter Moake
Gracie Alexander and her adopted 'wantok' daughter Annie: 'The children here are not often sick and some of them go to school. If I tell people where I am living they see nothing wrong with it. This is a good place. And my friends are good too.' Photo: Peter Moake

The biggest problem is a lack of water. The settlement is eight years old, but a temperamental water supply system was only connected this year. It is not turned on until late at night and, by about one o’clock, said Gracie, enough water comes out for the people to wash and fill up their 44-gallon drums for the next day.

The ground is not good for growing food either; she said. ‘We have a few banana trees but only enough for us to eat. At home we always had a surplus that we could sell in the markets. So I buy most of my food from the markets here, or from the trade store.’

When Gracie speaks of the problems she faces, she is reciting no hard luck story. Nor is she a stoic in the face of adversity. She is protected against an empty stomach by the open-handed, mutual self-help system of wantoks. Wantoks are relatives or people from the same clan and whenever one of them is in need, the others rally round.

When my wantok Simon sees that I haven’t lit my cooking fire’ said Gracie, ‘he comes over and brings me food. We do go hungry for a while, but then some food turns up.’

Gracie is about 35 years old and has just adopted a young baby from a wantok. She has no fears that the health of her new daughter, Annie, will suffer from living in the settlement. ‘The children here are not often sick’ she said, ‘and some of them go to school. If I tell people where I’m living they see nothing wrong with it. This is a good place, and my friends are good too.’

Like a lot of PNG women, Gracie has an indomitable spirit and a great sense of humour. The conditions and treatment of women obviously varies throughout the country, but Gracie is content with her lot. There is no question that she suffers more than her husband, or because of him, because she is a woman. She explained: ‘My problems are his problems. If there is no money, then we both go without. We like it here, and in some things, it’s not so very different from home.’

In a few hours’ time her husband will come home, the lamps will be lit, cooking pots brought out and the games of cards will continue under the tall, leafy trees. When the couple manage to find someone with transport to collect wood from her husband’s workplace, they will carry on building their half-completed shanty house. But there is no urgency and tonight they will sleep with their wantoks in a crowded, friendly house on equal terms and in peace.

Gracie Alexander and her adopted ‘wantok’ daughter Annie: ‘The children here are not often sick and some of them go to school. If I tell people where I am living they see nothing wrong with it. This is a good place. And my friends are good too.’

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Gracie

Leave your comment