Eliptamin Women’s Conference – MAF in Papua New Guinea
Report by: Bernie Axon who has been serving with her husband Richie and their family with MAF in Papua New Guinea since 2010.
Photos by: Mandy Glass
An event hosting over 500 women would be a big undertaking in any country. But when you take into account the remoteness and lack of infrastructure in PNG, this becomes a major feat. That is just what the Min Baptist Union did in late June, holding their 3 yearly ladies conference at Eliptamin, just a 5 minute flight from Telefomin but inaccessible by road. MAF flew 170 of the ladies into the conference on subsidised flights from 11 airstrips in the area, and women who were young enough walked there.
The ‘conference centre’ in Eliptamin consisted of a large tent made from wood and tarp to hold meetings in, and 10 or so smaller tents made the same way for people to sleep in, and women sleeping on the floor on mats in the ‘womens centre’ – an unprecedented building in this area, large enough to sleep several hundred women like sardines. Extra pit toilets were dug for the occasion but were still a 5 min walk away from the conference site. The women walked 20 mins to the cold river every morning to have a wash, and the catering was done in a large bush kitchen with 30 or so women working at any time and cooking food in large pots over fires. There was no power except for one generator which was used to power musical instruments and a sound system for the meetings and was only used at these times to conserve fuel which is very expensive in the bush.
Siohain Cole, Mandy Glass and I had been invited to attend the conference for 3 days and 2 nights, to speak about the work of MAF and give out Days for Girls re-usable sanitary pads with education on how to use them. It was with some trepidation that we made our flight on the Wednesday afternoon, armed with our camping gear (sleeping mat, sleeping bag, mosquito net, insect repellent, drinking water, plates and cutlery, walking shoes) and ready to share the rudimentary living conditions of our PNG compatriates for a few days.
As we stepped off the plane in Eliptamin, we were met by a group of ladies colourful in their traditional dress and brandishing drums, singing songs in their village language and wearing shells which make a pleasant percussive sound. They accompanied us singing and dancing for the entire 15 minute walk to the conference site, announcing the arrival of their honoured guests. As we reached the conference site, hundreds of other voices joined them in welcoming us in their traditional way to their land, to their conference. The noise was deafening. Over 500 voices lifted in joyful song to welcome us, what a privilege.
Our fears for our living quarters went unrealised, as we were led to the nicest house in the village for our stay, which the owner had graciously moved out of and was sleeping sardine style with the other ladies in the conference centre. We had a flushing toilet (hallelujah!) and a small solar system which gave us lights at night. There were screens on the windows and ladies brought water every morning for us to have a bucket wash. We received the royal treatment. We were also given the best seats to occupy in the meeting tent, and if we even thought about sitting on the floor a chair would magically appear for our use.
‘Come back to your first love’ was the theme of the conference, and former local lady Carolyn Wayne shared God’s word faithfully, exhorting the ladies (and over 100 men who sat in on the sessions) to not let anything in this life take the place of Jesus. An altar call on Thursday morning saw 200-300 people committing or recommitting their lives to Jesus. God’s spirit was moving powerfully.
On the Thursday night, the 11 Baptist associations that were gathered presented an offering to support the work of MAF, where they all performed traditional dances and wrote songs expressing their appreciation to MAF who in a lot of cases is their only link to the outside world. They gave so many vegetables from their gardens that even between the 3 pilot families and 6 Papua New Guinean base staff families there were more vegetables than we could eat. They also gave K5000 (AUD2000) towards the work of MAF. It was very humbling that these bush people who have so little were so generous towards MAF, they really appreciate the work that it does to provide them with access to services that we take for granted in Australia.
It was a blessing to be involved in distributing ‘Days for Girls’ packs at the conference. Imagine not having access to sanitary products, or products that are very expensive. That is the situation that these girls face. Siobhain, Mandy and I along with Vero and Joyce, two Papua New Guinean friends, did five sessions across Thursday and Friday, where the young women were given general education on their menstrual cycle and then we demonstrated how to use the pads. We were able to give out 100 packs to young ladies from the bush who were incredibly grateful.
One of the highlights of the conference for me was meeting up with Sila, Jesslyn and Richard. Not long after we arrived in Telefomin 6 ½ years ago, Richie did a medivac for Jesslyn who was having trouble in childbirth, and Sila came along as her helper to look after her while she was in hospital. He brought them from Eliptamin to Telefomin and Jesslyn was able to safely deliver her baby boy, whom she named after Richie to honour the pilot who had saved his life. We often wonder what happens to the people who we help, and it was exciting to see a healthy 6-year-old boy and his mother that are alive because Richie was able to help them. Sila shared many similar stories of ladies with difficulty in childbirth whose lives had been saved by a MAF medivac, and we are thankful for the opportunity to help these mothers and their babies.