Stories

Vee still cries every day over the loss of her son and grandson after a flood destroyed their village in southern Laos in July 2018.

While her five-year-old grandson’s body has since been recovered, the mother of seven is still mourning the absence of her son, whom she last saw drifting in the water with her grandson.

“It has been a terrible nightmare,” Vee says. “I think about my son and my grandson every day. I cry and I can’t sleep, because when I close my eyes I see terrible images in my mind.”

It was about 9 or 10pm when water first began creeping into the house, Vee remembers.

She thought the water wouldn’t reach the second floor but it continued to rise, forcing Vee and her family to flee the house.

They piled into an old boat and hung onto a tree, when the power in the village suddenly cut off. “There was a lot of noise and people began shouting very loudly,” Vee says.

Parts of homes and people’s possessions floated all around them. Suddenly, a large log smashed into the boat, hitting her daughter’s face and knocking her grandson into the water. “My son jumped out of the boat to save him,” Vee says. “He carried my grandson up to the surface and both of them were floating.

“That was the last I saw of them.”

Vanuamai is a small village. Maybe 200 people. It’s in Central Province, Papua New Guinea, about two hours or more from Port Moresby. It should be closer but for the first hour out of Moresby, the Hiritano Highway is rough and deeply pot-holed. You need a 4WD.

Once across the Angabunga River, you can enjoy the well-sealed road through the Doa rubber plantation to Agaivaro. Then take a left-hand turn off the Highway and the narrow track to the village truly tests the capabilities of your vehicle.

Vanuamai Elementary School is on top of the hill – a little removed from the village, with the primary school close by. The school is like dozens of other elementary schools that I have stood in, all around Papua New Guinea.

The walls and roof are a mix of tin sheets and bush materials, an open doorway, open window frames, and a knee-high gap between the bottom of the walls and the earth floor. It’s airy. There are desks too. In most elementary schools, children sit on the floor.

Elementary teachers in PNG have (perhaps) Grade 10-level education, very little training and no resources to teach English which, at best, is their third language (after Tok Ples and Tok Pisin). It is not surprising that most children entering Grade 3 cannot read or write.

These children spend three years in elementary school (Prep, Grades One and Two) and Grade 3 teachers have to ‘start again’ and teach basic literacy skills. But in Vanuamai Elementary School, that is changing. Thanks to ChildFund.

I sat at the back of the Elementary 1 class. The teacher, Mr Francis Oa, smiled and introduced me to his students as ‘the author’ of their books: Mr Ray from Bilum Books. The class sang  ‘Welcome Mr Ray’ in unison. There were about 20 students, a smaller class than most in PNG.

Elementary Schools, especially in urban areas, have enrolments of 60 and 70 and higher (per class) at each Grade level. Sometimes with three and four classes of that size per Grade level.

Mr Oa began his lesson: Term 3 Week 10. A one-hour lesson teaching English. He began with ‘Speaking and listening’. He had written the poem Off to Market on butcher paper: