I recently spent a little time visiting remote communities in Central Papua New Guinea, staying in villages and working in local schools. This was my third visit to the area and as always I was struck by how happy and contented the children are.
These children live in a country with shocking infant mortality rates. One in 18 live births will not make it to age 5 nationally and the rate is even higher in remote communities, due largely to lack of access to medical facilities and antibiotics.
These same children eat a maximum of two meals a day, sometimes less. Their diets are lacking in protein and consist mainly of starchy vegetables and greens. Many have the tell-tale distended stomachs of malnutrition. Living in a society where elders are highly esteemed, the eldest in the family always eats first, with the rest following in hierarchical order, all the way down to the youngest. This means if food is scarce, small children may well go without or receive only scraps.
These children play with their friends and siblings after school but work in family vegetable gardens on weekends, often walking hours to and from the gardens and working hard digging, weeding and harvesting whilst there. Without doing this work, they and their families will not have food to eat.
There are no fancy toys here; in fact, very few ‘toys’ at all by our standards. No electricity is available to charge devices even if they could afford to buy them. Small solar panels provide light for some homes and many use small personal solar torches, charged in the sun during the day and worn around the neck or on the forehead at night.
Most of us would consider this a hard life, but clearly no one has told these kids that!
All the children we saw were happy, smiling, active and constantly playing outside. Soccer and running games were most popular and played by both boys and girls.
In one village a group of girls were joyfully playing elastics, reminding me of playground games when I was a similar age.
Footballs were seen in most villages, although a preschool aged boy was also seen having a lovely time kicking a makeshift football, an empty plastic bottle, near his family home. The delight on his face was plain to see as he kicked the bottle and chased after it. Every now and then, he threw it up and enjoyed the sound it made as it hit the ground, bouncing. Playing alone, he needed no one else and was perfectly happy playing with his repurposed toy.
In another village, a large plastic bottle with one side cut off and a rope tied to the handle was transformed into a baby wagon. An older sister ran, pulling on the rope, whilst the baby sat, delighted, smiling and laughing as it was bumped over the carefully swept hard-packed black dirt surrounding their home. Another sibling ran alongside, ready to help as needed. I was reminded of my own children many years ago, my daughter pushing her baby brother around inside our house in washing baskets and empty nappy boxes. Littlies everywhere love playing with their siblings and enjoy the sensation of movement.
Groups of boys wandered around one village, arms around each others’ shoulders, chatting as they walked. Another group of boys played amongst banana trees perched high on a hill, climbing amongst their trunks, tackling each other and rolling in the undergrowth, laughter echoing around the area. This rough and tumble play was similar to that seen in playgrounds and backyards the world over.
An old lawn mower without a motor had been repurposed into a billy cart and was spotted all around one village, constantly being used by various groups of children. Several children sat on the mower, whilst one or two pushed it and others ran alongside, all laughing and having a wonderful time. This old mower, so out of place in a remote village provided hours of entertainment for numerous children, no fancy gimmicks required. Coincidentally, it also provided considerable entertainment for us visiting teachers, as we relaxed after school in the afternoon.
Children played happily with family members and friends. Raised voices were rarely heard and there was no fighting, sulking or other playground disputes, no complaints of being bored or requests for parents or other adults to provide entertainment. They simply enjoyed their games together.
It was refreshing to see children caught up in innocent play, unaffected by the outside world and loving life.
Photo credit: Claire Schiller (images 1,2,4) and Robyn Marklew (image 3), 2018.
Statistics quoted are from UNICEF.