when i first arrived in png, i was eating dinner with the capital team and we were discussing the living conditions of people in the country. i was asking about the settlements i’d heard of, and wanted to know what they were like.
i think someone remembered that i was so recently out of bangladesh, and that i was probably picturing very crowded ‘shanty’esque situations. so i was quickly corrected. (it’s hard sometimes to switch mindsets so quickly when you are sooooo embedded in a country or region and the issues that exist there… bangladesh has very little land, and a lot of people, here it is a bit different).
land is of huge importance in this country. you must have land. enough land to have a garden. that was the clarification.
so the settlements that grow around the big cities are actually small villages. as one staff member explained to me last week, ‘if you live there, you run cords to the one house for electricity, and you tap into their waterline’. and the landlord? ‘makes a tidy profit for selling you the power and water’. are there gardens? ‘of course!!!’ (how could i be so silly to insinuate there may not be.. again, my bangladeshi experience nails me).
to ask if there were gardens was beyond redundant. of course there were gardens. gardens are everything here. our clinic has gardens around the border where the guard has planted taro and flowers and i think i may have seen a watermelon starting to form. even the dirt patches edging the walkways inside are full of clipped vines, some so small they must be protected by coconut husks as they gain height and strength.
‘what plants are grown here? what fruits?’ i had to ask. (i love fruit, and love to discover the most popular ones in each new location so that i can look forward to massive consumption of them while i live there.)
‘everything’ is the response. the geographical diversity in png means that the highlands grow different fruits than our area, and we grow different fruits than the capital region. ‘they have the best strawberries in the highlands…’i was advised. ‘don’t let someone go there without bringing them back’.
at this point in the conversation, i was getting excited, but still barely matching the excitement of my colleagues.
at one point, the doctor turned to me and said, ‘everytime i go somewhere, and if i see something i want, a plant i don’t have, i have to get it! i just have to get it… and then i just have to stick it in the ground and grow it.’ [i've seen this first hand while waiting for someone - our driver spied some pretty flowers, and saw that some had gone to seed. open invitation to harvest a few to take home for both our garden and his.]
while chatting with some of the staff, i asked about mangosteens… one of my favourite fruits in the world. everyone looked at me strangely as i tried to describe a fruit that tastes like a cross of mandarin oranges and lychees, and looks like a small round eggplant. obviously i must be nuts… nothing like that grows here.
but mere weeks later, i walked into the clinic and what did the doctor have?? mangosteens!! ‘i think i found them! i saw them in the market and bought them!’ everyone was curious about how to approach them, so i started peeling them, staining my hands the telltale shade of purple in the process, and we divvied up the sections. i was hoping it wasn’t an acquired taste, or perhaps one not suitable to the palate of my team. i realised i’d ‘done good’ though when the doctor declared she was going to start growing these in her backyard.
so yes, land is important here, but so much because of what you can grow on it. and when you receive a gift from that harvest, the honour is clear. the services at the clinic are all free, but there are a few cases where women wanted to express their thanks. one woman presented a bouquet of home grown flowers to her counsellor the day after she had been to the clinic. another woman dropped off a bag of vegetables with a note that said ‘thank you’. the gifts could not be rejected, no matter how dodgy an outsider may judge the act of acceptance. it would have been incredibly insulting. so the vegetables became lunch, and the flowers prettied up the staff room. the added beauty and the hearty meal were very nice to have, but the acts… the acts of taking something from their garden, something they had grown, and coming back with them to give us, it was a sign that we had ‘done good’. and we were humbled and honoured and touched by the acts.
this did not escape my thoughts as i sat down to dinner with my colleagues in the capital. we were having management meetings over thanksgiving weekend, and within the team we had a few canadians. somehow we three persistent canadian women convinced the male british logistics coordinator to cook us up a dinner of roasted chicken (almost a turkey) with all the fixins. while stuffing ourselves with the food, questions came up from the non-canadians about this strange holiday we kept referring to, and we did our best to explain. to me thanksgiving is dinner with my family, a table full of vegetables from my grandparent’s farm, a trip to their basement to gather harvested squashes, jars of tomatoes, a cold chain of freezer-bagged corn kernels; food for the winter that’s been grown to share. [not to forget that thanksgiving also means lots of pumpkin pie and the birthday cake for my dad.] it is a changing of the season, a moment with loved ones, and an appreciation of everything that sustains us.
this year, the third thanksgiving i’ve spent far from home, i thought a lot of the things that sustain us. the land the grows the food. the doctors that give us the medicine. the people who are there just to listen, and let us speak the traumas that haunt us, thereby lessening their power over us just a little. i thought about the act of giving thanks, of letting someone know that they did somehow help… giving thanks is in itself a gift of strength, and in the hardest moments it is a gift that somehow holds back the looming threat of feeling overwhelmed and defeated. perhaps what we do, however simple and small in the face of this violence can make some sort of difference. this is what sustains us.