Our village wanted to adopt America’s homeless

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The plane buzzed away over the mountains. Now it was just us and the villagers of Maimafu. My wife, Kerry, and I were assigned to this village of 800 people in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea.

We were the first Peace Corps Volunteers ever in Maimafu. We had been greeted by a large group of people wearing gorgeous, curious smiles. Giggling, naked children hid behind trees during the trek down the mountain to our new home. It was quickly becoming clear that we had just been adopted by a large and unique family.

It was 1996. In Maimafu, there were no cars, electricity, or telephones—just grass huts, large gardens, and a whole lot of rain forest.

The women spent the day in the gardens planting, weeding, and harvesting. The men grew coffee, from which they generated their sole income of about $200 a year. The village had lived in harmony with its natural surroundings for millennia.

The villagers had built us a beautiful bamboo-thatched hut on short stilts. Planted behind the house was a three-acre garden, carefully tended and ready to harvest. Its bounty included corn, greens, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, onions, potatoes, and pineapples. To top it all off, the path to our new home was sprinkled with flower petals the day we arrived.

It quickly became clear that Maimafu was a preserved example of communal living. Men rallied to the building of a new home, the elderly worked and lived with their families,The one parentless, Down’s syndrome man in our village was fed, housed, and clothed by everyone; he would spend a few days with one family before happily wandering in to work or play with the next.

It was when we had settled in that it happened. We were sitting in a circle on the ground with a large group of villagers to “tok stori,” Papua New Guinea’s favorite pastime of “telling stories.” I had passed around photos I had snapped back home in Chicago. A villager was staring intently at one of the photos. He had spotted two homeless men on a Michigan Avenue sidewalk with signs propped between their legs.

Tupela man wokem wanem?” he asked. “What are these two men doing?”

I attempted to explain the concept of homelessness to the group, and the desire of these two men to get some food. Crowding around the photograph for a good stare, the villagers could not comprehend how the men became homeless or why the passersby in the photo were so indifferent. They bombarded me with questions and I did my best to make sense of the two ragged beggars in the midst of such glittering skyscrapers. I read from their questions and solemn mood that they had made an important observation—these two men must lack not only food and shelter but also a general sense of affection and purpose in their community.

Early the next morning, we were startled to hear a sharp rap at the door. Opening it, I was greeted by Moia, Kabarae, Kavalo, and Lemek. Kerry and I went out into the bright, beautiful day and sat with them in a circle. Each man gave us a pineapple. Moia spoke: “After you left last night, all of us men on the village council had a very big meeting. For a long, long time we discussed the two men in your picture. We have reached a conclusion and have a proposal for you.”

We wondered what it could possibly be.

“Please contact those two men as well as your government. Ask the government if they will fly those two men to Maimafu, just like they did for you. We have marked two spots of land where we will build houses for those two men, just like we built for you. Our men will build the houses and the women will plant the gardens to feed them.”

I was stunned and overwhelmed. Their offer was bold and genuine. It was innocent and naive. It was beautiful. And, like the twist of a kaleidoscope, my worldview had completely changed.

What does one say to such an offer? We stammered for a response and stumbled over explanations of difficult logistics, scarce money, and government bureaucracies. But the councilmen would not accept no for an answer. In their lives, it was impossible to comprehend that humanity was host to such an injustice. They wanted action.

The villagers were serious. They were offering everything they had. We reluctantly matched their enthusiasm with a few letters to America and long conversations with the village council. We toured the sites where the homes were to be built. We listened to the women discuss the type of gardens they would plant, which would even include coffee trees to generate a small income. And we answered numerous questions over time from villagers amazed with this foreign thing called homelessness. The plan could not work, we told them. Their hearts sank, and I could see in their eyes that this dream would not die easily.

Sori tru, sori tru we no inap wokem dospela samting,” they told us. “We are sorry this can’t happen.” They shook their heads in disappointment.

This is an excerpt from a personal essay written by RPCV Robert W. Soderstrom, Papua New Guinea 1996. It was collected by Peace Corps’ WorldWise Schools, which provides a variety of resources for educators to integrate global issues and cultural awareness into the classroom.

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