It’s one thing to raise money for the mothers of PNG from the middle-class luxury of Canberra. It is quite another thing to leave your family, jump on a plane and go and experience some of the maternal health services on the frontline in Port Moresby.
Tara Taubenschlag and I did exactly that in the days leading up to Mother’s Day. Our reason for making the trip were two-fold – firstly to accept our first official Australian Government grant (fist-pump!) to support some of our projects – the second to familiarise ourselves with the birth culture of women who live a world away from Australia.
PNG is only 150km away from Australian shores. Yet women in PNG face dramatically different life and birth experiences than their sisters in Australia. This we saw with our own eyes when we spent two days at the Port Moresby General Hospital Maternity Ward.
The thing is, women accessing this hospital are experiencing a blue ribbon birth compared with their sisters in more remote regions.
Touching down in Port Moresby was a cultural awakening for Tara and I.
We were fortunate to be accompanied by one of our best friends and supporters, Karleen Minney, who is photographic editor of The Canberra Times. Karleen has dedicated enormous time and energy to Send Hope Not Flowers, and had already been to PNG in 2013 to chronicle some of the work we were doing after first setting up.
It was reassuring she had seen it all before and could advise us on what to expect. Downtown Port Moresby is quite built-up and looks relatively modern, but as we drove around we saw small shanty towns with families leading fairly subsistence lifestyles. We were strongly advised not to even open windows in the car to take photos and did not travel anywhere outside the hotel, embassy or hospital due to security concerns.
PART 1: The Gifting Ceremony
We checked into our hotel, changed into our Send Hope shirts and waited for our lovely Australian High Commission escort Jasmine to pick us up for our visit to the High Commission.Part of the reason for the trip was to accept an $80,000 Direct Aid Program grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for our work on the ground with partners in PNG.
The program aims to provide small grants from Australia’s aid budget to work flexibly with local communities in developing countries on projects that reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development consistent with Australia’s national interest.
Part of the funding will support Dr Barry Kirby on a range of interventions while we also bought two very life-life and state-of-the-art obstetric birthing models for both Barry and our wonderful midwife partner Sara David.
We met Sara as we arrived at the High Commission with her midwife volunteer Karen Heyward. They were attending the gifting ceremony before heading off to East Sepik to train some local village health workers and do some contraceptive implants.
We headed into the main board room to see an obstetric birth model laid out on the table and a stack of stethoscopes stamped with Australian Aid stamps on them (these were an additional and unexpected gift from the High Commission). The room filled with about a dozen people including Deputy High Commissioner Bronte Moules, who was incredibly warm and engaging.
Barry, who was in Brisbane organising his seaplane to access mothers in Milne Bay Province could not make the ceremony, so sent his friend to represent him – Peter Neville – a Milne Bay Province Health Authority board member.
The formalities got under way and Ms Moules made a speech about how much she admired the work of Send Hope, how it was targeted, practical, on a small and local scale and how it was having measurable impacts on women’s lives. She said delivering grants such as ours was one of the highlights for staff and they had been very excited about our visit. She paid tribute to the entire team and said we should be proud of all that we have achieved.
Sara David then thanked us for helping her secure such a state-of-the-art birth model, and also for our continued support of her work and personal encouragement. She said on her last training mission, she was telling a group of women about Send Hope. She said they were feeling so scared about the risk of pregnancy, and joyless about life in general. She said that hearing there was an organisation in Australia working hard to bring them support and to help them have a safe birth brought them “hope”. Sara said it struck her just how important and appropriate our title was.
Tara and I spoke about how validating it was to receive government aid and how it was an honour to support midwives like Sara to go out in the field. Peter spoke on behalf of Barry to explain where he was at with his plane (hangar is being built, plane has been secured with donations and fuel has been donated, so it is going great guns!) and said how much Barry valued Send Hope’s funding and awareness raising.
Then it was time for official photos before some chocolate cake and coffee and tea! Tara and I were on a high. Honestly, to start up a charity and put in those hours to keep it afloat and growing, and then to receive a government grant, well, it makes it all feel real and makes it all feel incredibly worthwhile. The only downside was that our two other board members, Professor Steve Robson and Alex Fahey were not there to share in the event.
PART 2: The Maternity Ward
We travelled straight to the main hospital in Port Moresby after the ceremony. It is large and gated. Security is stationed at the entrance and the grounds are dotted with families waiting for treatment or for transport home. Some have spent days travelling to get there and face a return journey. Like any maternity ward, Port Moresby General is busy, with pregnant women arriving and tired but smiling mums taking completely beautiful newborns home.
The hospital is professional and ordered and happy, but there is a stark lack of facilities, medical supplies which quickly run out, torn mattresses, no curtains, and mothers who were presenting without the most basic of personal possessions. One of the most beautiful experiences of our trip was to hand out some of the baby bundles we put together for mothers. Soap, singlets, wraps, flannels. It seems basic to us but some mothers had no clothes for their newborn.
Small things make a huge difference over there. This I see so clearly now. We tried not to be intrusive as we took shots of the maternity ward, delivery room and spoke to the mums. Tara and Karleen took an inventory of necessary medical items which we delivered to the head of the maternity hospital, Professor Glen Mola, the following week.
It feels just incredible to play a small role in helping the mums of PNG. No matter what else we are doing in our crazy over-schedules lives, what Send Hope is doing is actually helping women, emotionally, physically, and culturally. We must never lose sight of that. We arrived home exhausted but fulfilled and energised to do more.
Finally, we would like to give a shout out to the PNG High Commission in Canberra for their exceptional assistance in helping us secure last-minute visas (long story but we promise to be more organised next time we visit).
It turns out that we have a very dear and supportive friend in Deputy High Commissioner Saskias Tameo. He tragically lost his sister in childbirth and made sure we could be on our way as soon as possible. He also loved our “enthusiasm” for the cause.
Thanks also to Armeen Sanjeeda Khan, who processed our paperwork in lightning speed (plane was literally on the runway, again, we promise to be more organised next time!!!)