We walked through the lush rainforest to Ruth’s house in the Goroka Highlands in Papua New Guinea, down steep dirt track pathways quite a long way, sun streaming through the tropical plants – a really beautiful scene, like the Garden of Eden, untouched.
The first stop down the path was the church that the families have built with the money from Among Equals. All of the children came to meet us, so proud to show us this lovely building (the children would usually be at school, but as a special treat they wanted to meet us).
All of these local families are supported by micro-plots of land – family plots where they earn a small amount of money looking after the coffee plantation.
British and German colonists established the plantations in PNG – banana, coconut, coffee, cocoa. But the main workforce in the area is flown in from other parts of the country or overseas. The local families’ only other form of income is the sale of Bilum bags.
Further down the hill, with the blazing sun on our backs, we arrived at the cluster of homes built into the hillside that make up the village where Ruth lives. Again, the money from the sale of Among Equals bags has had a direct and powerful impact – the walls to Ruth’s house were paid for with this money. And Ruth is now able to send her children to school, two of whom live in the house with her, while the other son is away boarding.
There is no electricity or running water, and no infrastructure for hygiene in the village. The only place to gather water is back up the dirt track that we have spent the better part of 20 minutes climbing down. The hillside is also littered with rubbish, as there is nowhere to dispose of things.
The women weave by candlelight or kerosene lamp. As a result their eyesight is deteriorating, since the only time to weave is at night. They cook over an open fire, and bathe in the small, dirt-coloured puddle in the centre of the village.
There are few if any of the modern conveniences we take for granted – as recently as 50 or so years ago, the people were living a traditional tribal lifestyle.
In the village, the age-old practice of Bilum weaving is taught to the younger generation of girls. It is an oral culture that passes on tradition through storytelling, first appearing some 75,000 years ago according to the anthropological data. None of these women have been to school, they can’t read or write and most don’t know how old they are. When we asked them their age they tried to remember how many Christmases they have had!
I am constantly inspired by the women’s spirit, strength and determination to make a better future for themselves and their children.