Pastor Joe: why did it take so long?
I could do no more than stare at this simple but confident Papua New Guinean village leader, as the lump rose in my throat and speech seemed to flee. His words had taken a few moments to sink in. I finally blurted out, “I am so sorry Joe. Please could I ask forgiveness on behalf of my generation of white people that came here to PNG?”
Pastor Joe had been in a Training of Trainers workshop we conducted a few months previous and had become a Community Health Education trainer in his community. He was anxious to have us visit and see the changes and to commend them for the natural beauty that their village now highlighted. It had taken no money to clean their common spaces, to plant vegetable gardens close to their homes, to fence the pigs outside the village, to grow colourful hedges of flowers. But the hard work of digging the fish ponds that were fed by the clear stream meandering down the hill between large boulders was clearly impressive as well as beautiful. They were proud of the results of their labour and delighted to see our amazement.
As we strolled about the community, we asked Joe what he had observed of other changes in the health of the community. His face grew serious as he told us how diarrhea and respiratory illness had decreased among the children and how appreciative the mothers were to know the simple prevention measures. Their time was more productively spent now that there were not frequent trips to the clinic for medicine. They were amazed that this teaching had not been known to them before.
Then he dropped his own story out of the clear blue. “You know,” he confided, “I worked for 20 years for a mission, becoming a pastor with them. The white family lived in the house I now live in right here in our village, raised their family here.” He motioned towards the tidy white house not far from where we stood. “What puzzled all of us,” he continued, “was that their children didn’t seem to get the same sicknesses as our children, and none of their children died while many of ours did. We wondered what the difference was. We talked about this all the time among ourselves. Finally after much discussion, we decided that they had a secret that they were hiding inside their house. We often looked for the secret, but we never found it.”
He was looking sad now as he had shared something so brutally honest, and I felt the air rapidly leaving my lungs as though a fist had laid a punch. He was talking about me, about us. Is that how we had been perceived with our happy healthy children who we raised in this country?
“Sure, they helped us out when we were sick,” he went on, “taking us to hospital or giving us medicine. But now we know there was no secret. It was simple prevention like how to drink clean water, hand washing, nutrition and immunization. Why didn’t they teach us that 20 years earlier? Why did so many children have to die before we found this out? Why was spiritual training seen as all that was important? ” He was not speaking in anger, but in soberness, in genuine questioning.
My mind raced as I replayed the years that we too had been here in PNG, right nearby in fact, at the early part of those 20 years he was talking about. We had been busy, Bill administering the health of the province with all the facilities and staff, I helping to organize continuing medical education for the rural health workers. All good, but top down, outside-in health fixes. Nobody was analyzing why the health education of the trained professionals never filtered down into the homes where the mothers needed it more desperately than anyone. Yes, we thought of training pastors, and started the Village Level Worker School around that time, but it was not a model that was rapidly multipliable into the remote villages. A few were changed. But we had no system-wide approach as we did now with CHE, which Stan Rowland was quietly developing in Africa at about this same time, mid-80’s.
How I wished to give an answer, to justify. But there was no answer, just gut wrenching silence. All I could offer was an empty apology, quietly spoken from a tight throat and a tearful face. I see the scene as clearly as I did then, the grave expression on his face, the beautiful village that was now what it should have been 20 years before, the former mission house still standing with its own secrets, the question hanging in the void between us—“Why did we have to wait so long to understand how to become physically as well as spiritually healthy?”