A Nurse’s Memories of Her Time in TPNG – by Ruth Pitt (née Lewis)

A Nurse’s Memories of Her Time in TPNG – by Ruth Pitt (née Lewis)

PART 2 . . . .  Part 1 can  be found HERE

Kundiawa was the administrative centre for the heavily populated Chimbu District. As well as Government offices, stores, post office, a motel, golf course on the airstrip, club with an oval, tennis court and swimming pool, there was a district hospital. The District Medical Officer and his wife, also a doctor, ran this. There was no power overnight and residents’ cars would line the airstrip for night evacuations. There was a leprosy ward. Malaria Services sprayed DDT over water puddles and elsewhere, and sprayed the Haus Sista with dieldrin to try to eliminate cockroaches.

Haus Sista was up a track above the hospital. Two Double Certificate nurses looked after the obstetric patients and undernourished infants. One also held a family planning clinic. Another Triple Certificate nurse and I would do the monthly village clinics. Haus Sista had a wide veranda and was a frequent venue for parties. We’d often retire to bed with doors locked while the guests partied on. ‘Squatter’ was a favourite board game. There were themed nights and movies at the club. The Mission Aviation Fellowship flew in for monthly inter-denominational English services there. Riding tractor tubes down the Chimbu River was fun though the rocks were hard on the backside. The Kagul caves across the valley were spectacular but difficult to explore.

No overnight power meant that if a premature baby needed a humidicrib, one of us would take it to Goroka Hospital on a chartered small plane. I was grateful to hand over a live baby for fear of ‘payback’. The other MCH nurse and I took turns, along with the other registered nurses, at being on call for deliveries at weekends, and I found delivering babies and suturing by torchlight a challenge. We had no phone so would be found by a sent messenger.

One week out of four we would stay in town, hold clinic at the hospital and visit surrounding villages. Driver William in our Toyota would drop one of us with our Nurse Assistant and gear at a village then proceed to another. When the second village clinic had finished, they would return to the first and we would all head for home. Good in theory … but with rotting bridges, landslides or mechanical problems we could arrive so late that the mothers had left, or after clinics be delayed or have to walk home, one time arriving after 10 pm. Sometimes women would walk with us to the next village. Our Nurse Assistants did not speak much English but spoke Pidgin, were trained to give injections, apply treatments, clean the equipment and were a great help to us. Donated empty stubby beer bottles were washed and used for mothers to take home cod liver oil for their toddlers, with a cottonwool plug in case there was spillage.

MCH and Dental Clinic, Kundiawa

The second week, on Monday we would set off east, through Chuave (near the Eastern Highlands border) then south to the Monono Lutheran Mission. We would sleep in a separate guest house but eat with the Hueters, taking a bucket of hot water with us after dinner for our bucket showers. From here we would hold clinics in surrounding villages, returning to Kundiawa after clinics on Friday.

We would head north, following the Chimbu River, to stay with the Nordens at the Sumburu Lutheran Mission in the third week. The Gembogl government station was nearby, also the Kegsugl airstrip at the base of Mt Wilhelm, PNG’s highest mountain, with permanent snow on its peak. One day I’d hang my scale in a tree where the locals had gathered to sell the pyrethrum daisies they had grown. This was the only cash crop which could grow at those altitudes but picking then removing the petals of 3,000 flowers for 15 cents a pound didn’t interest the locals unless they wanted to buy a new radio or similar—not a flourishing industry. John Pitt, a Rural Development Officer (didiman) of the Department of Agriculture Stock & Fisheries (DASF) gave us a roast lunch on those days. He later transferred to New Britain.

We flew south to Omkalai Lutheran Mission the next Monday, as the road was considered too dangerous for us. The plane had to rev to reach the top of the strip where the house was. A vehicle would be sent across the Marigl Valley from the Gumine Government Station for us to use for our clinics while we were there.

The village headmen would get warning of our coming and ‘sing-out’ to all concerned. We were the only Administration people to regularly visit some villages and the locals dressed up to see us. We would be greeted by deputations with concerns like land disputes and, once, a local Catholic priest co-habiting with a young lady. We would pass the concerns on appropriately. We would arrange transport for, or take people needing hospitalisation, back to Kundiawa. There were always people wanting a ride claiming they were sick. The doctor tried to solve the problem by them having to pay a dollar if they needed in-patient care, or 10¢ if an outpatient. No charge if they had venereal disease (VD). The young women would sidle up and when asked to show payment, would say ‘Sista, mi gat VD’. It was always possible. I remember one in a lovely wedding dress which became less white each month.

Clinic on aid-post verandah

We had to give the health talks at each clinic here too. I would say a sentence in Pidgin, my assistant would repeat it in her Kundiawa tongue. The headman, who visited Kundiawa for meetings, would then translate it into the local lingo. Goodness knows what it ended up like. Moresby sent posters which we would display. The illiterate had difficulty understanding them. I remember a group of old men looking at an enlarged drawing of a scabies beetle. ‘Oo ahh,’ they were glad they didn’t have them!

Scabies infestation was endemic. I’d treat the burrows on new babies with benzyl benzoate and the next month those would have healed and there would be more to treat. Families huddled with animals around the fire in their huts to keep warm at night. Respiratory problems were common. We treated them with procaine penicillin if severe. They also smeared themselves with pig fat for warmth.

Very cold river water made maintaining personal hygiene difficult. Houses were usually made of vertical timber walls with thatched roofs. Public buildings could have woven pitpit cane walls and kunai grass or iron roofs. Scraped grass fibres were twisted, dyed and woven for bilums—traditional carry-bags for goods, made and used by women. Possum fur woven into them kept babies warmer.

A committee man and bride price display Kogi village

The Government stations had carp ponds—to try and establish a supply of extra protein. Tinned milk, fish or meat and eggs were the principal source as pigs were kept for ceremonies. Sweet potato was the staple food grown. One day we came across bride-price display preparations for two weddings when we arrived at a village. We gave up trying to hold clinic and watched the proceedings. During two hours of negotiations between the families, women cooked vegies in pits then the tethered pigs were killed and rolled into

the cooking pits next to them. We left after this, but were concerned as the partly-cooked, uneaten pork would be distributed, taken home and could cause pig bel, necrosis of the bowel. Immunisation against this has since become available.

A group of us hired a vehicle one weekend and drove to Mt Hagen. Six of us chartered a flight to Madang for another weekend. A trip to Lae in the ‘Scout’ we hired from Monono Lutheran Mission was enjoyable until car trouble lengthened our return trip. I joined a golfer’s charter to Rabaul another weekend to catch up with my brother and friends. Our golfer won the championship and we nursed his trophies on the flight home. Linking commercial flights I had a short visit home to Port Pirie, SA for my brother Mervyn and Jill’s wedding in April.

In late June 1969 I went on leave and that will start the next episode. 


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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