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PNG dystopia: The perils of life as a single mother

Marlene Potoura (2)MARLENE DEE GRAY POTOURA

AT 8pm on Tuesday 25 October 2016 the power went off. Black out.

I was over-tired; teaching year six teenagers and being a single mum to two lively children is not an easy task.

I held my daughter’s hand and we went to bed. She didn’t want to climb onto the top-bunk, which she shared with her brother, so we both lay down on the bottom one.

“Mummy, sleep with me here. Don’t go to your room,” she said, as we cuddled and said goodnight to each other.

The nanny was sitting outside the house waiting for the electricity to come on so she could clean the kitchen and wash the cooking utensils.

My 12 year old son decided to light a candle. He placed the candle on the UPS power unit that was next to the computer monitor on the table beside the bed where we all slept. He lay down on the top bunk and went to sleep.

The blackout continued so the nanny lay on the carpet in the living room, facing the opened door of my children’s room. She went to sleep.

At around 10pm, the candle burned and melted onto the UPS and a fire started. The UPS is made of some kind of plastic substance and the flames were high and gave out black smoke. They soared halfway to the celling, setting alight to the mattress next to the table.

My kids and I slept on.

Suddenly stones were being thrown at the louvres by people on the road. The glass broke, shattering everywhere. The nanny ran into the bedroom screaming, “Fire! Fire!”

I woke up dazed, half-dressed, while my children screamed; my daughter’s Afro-styled hair just inches away from the flames. I was confused to see the fire stretching halfway to the ceiling, black smoke everywhere.

I struggled to the kitchen tap and filled an empty Coke can, came back and slowly sprinkled it all over the fire. The nanny dragged the burning mattress out of the house and threw it outside. She grabbed my work clothes from the wardrobe and threw them over the UPS.

The electricity came back on at that moment as curious opportunists and thieves invaded our home. I thank God that the lights were on. I can’t imagine what would have happened if there was still a blackout.

Yu laik kukim haus blo mipla ah?” (You want to burn our house?), yelled the caretaker and a man who was a relative of the landlord rushed in half drunk and started throwing punches at me while I stood there half-dressed in the bedroom.

He lifted an umbrella and started beating me. I screamed for him to stop and understand that it was an accident and that the fire didn’t even touch the house.

No words of comfort. No words like, “Are you and your children alright?” None at all. Everyone stood there throwing out curses and staring at us with hatred.

My kids stood there shaking with all the strange people in our house. The nanny held my little girl. As the man who beat me went out, he lifted the umbrella and hit the nanny’s head. My son hid in my office with the lights off. He stood between the shelves while thieves went in there and stole my phones, a Samsung tablet and jewellery.

We were screamed at and harassed with words I cannot write here. The man who hit me kept screaming like an insane idiot directing us to leave first thing in the morning or else he would kill us.

After what seemed like eternity, everyone left and I sorted out the floor in my office and made beds for my two kids. They lay there with hurt eyes and my heart shed bitter tears.

But my eyes were dry from facing such hardships on my own. I always show a brave face even when my heart is in deep agony.

The nanny and I cleaned the children’s room while, throughout the night, some men stood on the road and swore at me. I had never felt so shamed and degraded. I felt lost and remembered my beautiful home village of Oria nestled in its green valley.

Our house there had been big, with six bedrooms. I remembered the large family I had come from. But I was independent and took care of my own problems.

At 4:30am, I woke the kids, packed a few clothes in our knapsacks, crept out of the house and locked it.

We silently hugged our beloved dog, Dudlee goodbye and walked all the way to Eriku. We caught the 6am bus to Tent City and sought refuge at Papa Steven’s, my relative from Watabung in the highlands.

We have been there since.

I wrote to the Administrator of the Salvation Army School where I teach and asked him for a week off because I was really down and out.

I got onto the Task Force Police to investigate the people at the fire for harassment and ill-treatment, but the police wanted fuel money.

The owner of the house came to the school, got me out of class and threatened me that if I took the matter further he would have me arrested for arson.

All our belongings are still locked in that flat we’d called home for years.

The people who were our close friends accused me of trying to burn their building down, which was not something that would ever cross the mind of someone like me. A mother, a teacher, a writer and author.

I still believe in myself and know that I will somehow find a way to pay off the outstanding rentals and move our things out and start anew with my kids, who I have withdrawn from school because they were badly traumatised.

I will never give up for the sake of my two beautiful heartstrings.

Comments

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Ed Brumby

I am in awe, Marlene, of your courage, resilience and determination and your strength of character and spirit.

The tales you have crafted so eloquently, of the trials, tragedies and tribulations that you and your family have suffered and your response to them, will be of great inspiration to the thousands of other Papua New Guinean women (and men) who have suffered in similar fashion.

The tragedy is that those who have inflicted such suffering upon you will probably not read your accounts nor reflect on the damage they have caused to another human being.

The hope (and the likelihood) is that others will read your stories and take courage and heart from your example.

Such is the power of literature, in whatever form.

Joe Herman

I don't know what happened to our Melanesian values about showing care when one is in need. You are a strong woman, Marlene. Thank you for sharing your story. Keep writing.

Francis Nii

Marlene, it really saddens me to read of the dilemma, trauma and agony that you and your children have endured not so much because of the fire but the insane and irrational acts of the landlord and the bystanders. May the peace, strength and grace of the Lord be with you all.

Garry Roche

Marlene, the good thing is that you and the children survived the terrible incident. I must confess that I thought I knew English very well but I had to look up the word in the title "dystopia" - and learnt it means a place where everything is going wrong or unpleasant, the opposite of "utopia".
Nice writing. Hopefully it make us more sensitive to such realities.

Lindsay F Bond

Sad it is that amid devastation and distress, 'curious opportunists and thieves invaded'.
Bad and worse, what place where 'police wanted fuel money'?
Fear of loss by fire, understandable, frightening, but in this report, appears also callous.
Better ways of villages like Oria may yet bind PNGers as a caring folk and nation.
Bravo Marlene in your love and provision for your family. Exemplary. Writing too.

Barbara Short

So sorry to hear of your problems, Marlene. I will pray for you. I'm sure you will grow stronger as you have learnt a lot from this sad experience. God bless.

`Robin Lillicrapp

A traumatic and unforgettable experience, Marlene.

Thankfully, we are able to share your burden through the gift you have of writing about life and times.

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