STANLEY MARK | The Crocodile Prize
LITTLE NAKAN HURRIES ACROSS the busy lane to pick up the empty 500 ml Sprite container thrown into the rusty buai stained rubbish drum.
His skinny left fingers hold firmly a white plastic bag containing a couple of empty containers while his right fingers cling on to his buckle, pulling it up to his skinny waist every second, making sure not to let it fall and expose his undernourished legs.
His sun-burnt forehead and cheeks overflow with sweat, showing he has roamed the avenues of Madang town all day for empty containers. He has no choice. He must collect containers in order to eat and survive.
Seven year old, Nakan Akus comes from Tambunum village in the East Sepik province. He lives with his mother and four brothers and sister at the Wagol settlement, a few blocks from the Lae Building Contractor’s headquarter in Madang.
His father had left them for Lae longpela taim and they have not heard from him. The K50 his father was paid working as a bus crew wasn’t enough for both food and school fees, so Nakan had to leave Kusbau Primary School at Grade 2 in 2006.
However, as the first born in the family, he has the responsibility to take care of them.
It all began on one Monday morning, when two of his pals from the settlement persuaded him to follow them to Madang town. He was bewildered to see them going from one rubbish bin to another picking empty 500 ml Coca Cola, Sprite and Fanta containers.
He didn’t trust his pals when they told him that the containers would make them a great fortune by the end of the day when they smilingly received a bunch of eight K2 notes from a buyer.
Nakan decided that container-collection would help him, his mother, three small sisters and brother to have some food on their table every day.
Nakan says he goes to town at 12 noon and collects empty containers until 4 in the afternoon. He brings his containers to the ice block sellers and sells them for 30 toea each.
Because there are many others like him doing the same thing, he receives only K5 -K7 for what he collects.
He takes his money to the Madang market or Balasigo market and buys a heap of kaukau, two or three bunches of raw kalafua bananas and aibika, a dry coconut and spends the rest on peanuts for his sisters and the bus fare home.
“Prais bilong kaikai long stoa i antap tumas na hat long baim rice, olsem na mi save kisim moni mi kisim long konteina i go long maket. Em bai orait sapos gavaman opis daunim prais,” he frowns with puckered brow. [Prices of store goods are very high and it’s hard for me to afford rice so I take the money I receive from containers to the market. It would be easy if the government office lower the prices]
Nakan hasn’t had any visiting uncles, aunties and cousins or any other relatives as far back as he can remember. His mother looks after his sisters and brother at home while he goes to town on his daily container-collection routine. And his mother does not discourage him from going.
He lowers his head and via parted lips, he whispers, “Mi save painim ol konteina long kisim kaikai blo ol sista na brata na mama bilong mi. Mi save sori long mama bilong mi” [I look for container to get food for my sisters, brother and my mother. I feel sorry for my mother.]
Street children are a recently emerging phenomenon. Two-thirds of them are under the age of 13. The major factors contributing to the increase in street children are domestic violence, divorce, unemployment and urban migration.
In addition natural disasters like the Manam volcanic eruption have made thousands of people homeless and contributed to the increase in the number of children living on the streets in Madang.
Children like Nakan are either collecting empty containers and tin cans or begging for a living on the town’s streets.
Before the free education policy was introduced in 2012, parents would spend thousands of kina to keep their children in school. In 2001, 69% of children who started primary school were likely to quit after Grade 5.
A major challenge in Papua New Guinea is that there are no government policies directly addressing the situation of street children. Other major challenges include the lack of government support, lack of resources, and a lack of effective coordination and support between NGOs and government agencies.
Divine Word University Student Service Director, Steven Namosa, says Nakan is a hero to his family. From his tidy office, Mr Namosa says that both father and mother have the responsibility to provide food for the family.
The father should not run away from home if there is a problem between him and his wife or if he has no job. “Because of this, the innocent kids face the consequences and become the victims of the parents’ problems,” he says.
He also blames the elected leaders for not addressing the kind of situation Nakan faces.
He says though Nakan has a village where he could go back and live a good life, he needs enough money to pay for his transport home. “We should not say that’s his problem. This is where a leader should intervene to stop Nakan collecting containers to earn a living,” he said.
Nakan does not believe in miracles. As the DWU students waiting for 9A bus with plastics of cosmetics and restaurant leftovers stood watch, he dashes past them with his plastic of empty containers and picks the empty Sprite container from the rubbish bin.
He uses his half-torn shirt and wipes off the betel nut stains and carefully drops it into his plastic bag. This will earn Nakan 30 toea coins. His sweaty cheeks widen in a beautiful smile and he dashes to another bin nearby.
He has to get some more.
Stanley Mark (27) was born in Mount Hagen in the Western Highlands. He is a researcher at the Melanesian Institute in Goroka and likes to write about his culture and about social, economic, cultural and political issues affecting grass-roots people in Papua New Guinea