Ruthie is 12 years old and comes from a small village in Wabag district in Enga Province. She now lives with her paternal aunt in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
She came to Port Moresby a year ago to attend school. "My father believes in education which is why he sent me to stay with my aunty Jetti and go to school," she says.
Ruthie has an infectious giggle that makes everyone who speaks to her smile. She is very popular with the young and old alike, and everyone along the street knows her by name. She also seems to know everyone and can hold a conversation with almost anyone.
I met Ruthie when she first arrived a year ago. Coming into the big city was daunting for her; back then, she was shy and as quiet as a mouse. As her closest neighbour, I remember when her aunt introduced her, she just smiled, spoke little pidgin, and even less English, we bonded immediately.
For the first couple of weeks, she would sit on her veranda and stare out at our street. She was soaking it all in. Here was this 11-year-old who had only known her simpleton village life which was her world. Now here she was in the big city, with all its lights, fast cars, and so many people from other provinces, and countries. It was a huge culture shock, and so it took her a little while to soak it all in.
Her aunt enrolled her at Tokarara Primary school nearby, a 5-minute walk from where we (Ruthie and i) reside. To help with her pocket money for lunch, she assists her aunt in the informal sector after school.
Noticeably after the few months following her arrival, you could see her confidence start growing. She became engaging and began to converse in pidgin and broken English openly. She would say, "Hi Aunty Roz," face beaming and grinning from ear to ear. To encourage her grasp of English, I would rattle a response back in English. She would scrunch her face, laugh and asked, "What did you say?"
Today, she speaks English and pidgin, however, prefers to converse mostly in pidgin. Ruthie is now in Grade 3 at Tokarara Primary, and the novelty of the big city has worn off. She is now no longer considered a village girl but is a fully-fledged "meri Mosbi" (Port Moresby girl).
The PNG Government announced its first imported coronavirus case from an expatriate. GoPNG declared a State of Emergency Lockdown effective Tuesday, March 24 and all children were advised to stay home until April 6 when they would provide a further update. That's almost ten days ago now that all schools were closed.
Ruthie is now kept busy with chores and helping her aunt with the informal table market sales. She loves playing with her puppy, Mala. I think she understands why they closed her school, but I was hoping she would raise it in one of our through the fence talks.
Yesterday an awareness team from the National Capital District Commission (NCDC) came around and conducted awareness along our street. I caught Ruthie reading some awareness pamphlets that a police officer had handed out. She was immersed in reading when I found her attention and asked her what she was reading. It's this disease they call coronavirus. People are catching the cold and flu, and plenty of people worldwide have died already) she says with a profound look. "Coronavirus is the cause of our early school closure."
"The Government has said we need to stay home, do social distancing and not to stand too close to other people and wash our hands all the time," says Ruthie. “I wish the Government would hurry up and let me go back to school. I'm feeling bored at home. And I miss my friends. It's been so long already, when will this end?"
She seemed lost in her thoughts for a moment.
The PNG Government passed a Parliament Bill on April 2 to extend the PNG's State of Emergency for a further two months but under more lenient terms which they will outline over the coming days. So when I advised Ruthie of this today while she was selling her aunts coconuts, she looked confused but calmly said, "How will the Government know if we have coronavirus or not?"
Her straightforward questions got me thinking about the tireless work World Vision Papua New Guinea (WVPNG) was doing in awareness campaigns throughout Port Moresby and our other provinces of operation. Similar to the NCD awareness that had landed Ruthie with her COVID-19 handouts and some new knowledge about handwashing techniques.
The WVPNG WaSH, Health and Education teams and volunteers were supporting the Government Provincial Health Authorities (PHA) awareness campaigns.
Within Port Moresby, WVPNG is working with National Capital District (NCD) health authorities in Hanuabada and settlements on the outskirts of the city educating locals about the virus, how it can be contracted and most importantly, how to properly wash their hands and what protective measures they can practice safeguarding their families and communities.
It got me thinking that there is a definite need for the PNG Government to consider more WaSH programs in urban centres to complement the rural WaSH programs in the Provinces.
My train of thoughts was disrupted when, as an afterthought, Ruthie added, "That's okay. It's time for the school term holidays anyways. But school needs to resume after the Easter holiday break."
Story and photos by Rozalia Dala - Boyd