Palms returnee volunteers invariably express that they received much more than they gave during their placements. This would certainly be true of recent returnee Des Hansen as he reminiscences over his experience at Emmaus Farm, his second Palms placement in Papua New Guinea.
Working with the students daily, and sometimes of an evening, was a challenging, rewarding and entertaining experience. As a school teacher back in Australia, one particular assignment I always set my students in English classes was called “How Aware Am I???” It was designed to remind them that so often the little things in our everyday life can be the most delightful/fascinating/memorable. I was reminded of this every day at the Farm. And I want to share with you just a few of those moments which spring to mind.
Half the guys were illiterate, so what you tackled in terms of classroom learning had to be well thought out. Nearly all the students loved role play situations, where they had an obsession with acting out the dying, the dead and eccentrics/misfits. They also, once they got the hang of it, could think outside the square with charades. They provided many hilarious minutes. Of course, come graduation day in early December, they would insist on putting on some form of drama for the small audience.
Communication could sometimes be a battle, as their spoken English could be different to yours. I remember one young man coming to me one evening complaining he was angry. And so I tried to get to the bottom of his problem. After much questioning it turned out he was not angry at all. Rather he was hungry. (rarely do the people of Western Province pronounce their “h’s”). And again from time to time one would come to me requesting eggs. Eggs? “What on earth do you need eggs for?” After a deal of word exchange, came to the realisation he was after an axe to chop the firewood! I’d laugh and think of Manuel in Fawlty Towers. The only trouble with all this was you could rarely share any of the humorous moments throughout the day with other people. Because they just didn’t get it … and this was a drawback I encountered frequently in the area: no one who could fully appreciate and share your experiences with. No one to bounce any of your ideas or brainwaves off. By writing about them, it at least helped keep my sanity, and was a record of many memorable bits and pieces.
I love to remember Cliffon chasing butterflies with his bare hands, as he tried to catch one alive, to help him complete his list for the scavenger hunt.
I love the way the guys, when they had cooking, would try and crack an egg… they were so scared of doing it the wrong way, that they just gently tapped one end hoping for some miraculous release of the yolk inside. They loved cooking but were incredibly tentative about it. I still recall Victor in his readiness to get in and cook, throwing the precious soup we had made onto the ground instead of the waste water. Perhaps it was because our soup looked too watery!
I loved their enthusiasm when we put together all our preparatory lessons on time, distance and direction in an outside activity called war games. I can still see Bondros completely burying himself under a huge mound of rubbish to avoid detection from the enemy. They would get so carried away with this activity they would spend twenty minutes dressing themselves up in all sorts of paraphernalia …many had obviously seen films involving guerrilla warfare.
I love to recall Maiko practicing the routine of hop, step and jump, as the students competed in the Wednesday afternoon septathalon. The great struggle to complete the correct order and to hit that take off board properly … all incredibly demanding if you have never heard or seen this strange jumping before. So frequently, incidents like this would end up with everyone in uncontrollable fits of laughter.
I really could meander on for hours as I reflect on incidents after incidents. I frequently recall the old ditty Old MacDonald had a Farm. In my two years at Emmaus Farm, “Mr Des”, as they all called me, could easily replace the name “MacDonald”, although the title would not quite capture the environment completely, as it was the guys that made the Farm something special.
I’ll conclude with a bit of a snap shot of my last contact with the guys. On the night before I departed I went to the classroom, mustered the students, and divvied up the items of clothing, shoes, hats and other items which I was not taking back with me to Australia. A lot of thought went into compiling the fifteen separate parcels and there was great excitement in the room. I conducted a tattslotto-like draw of numbers to ensure a fair selection for the goods. Naturally all was snapped up … jocks and socks as much as shorts and shirts. Next morning I popped in to return some keys, I ran into a few of my friends. Hardly recognised some as they all seemed decked out in their new wardrobe of gear. I left cheered with the thought that I had left something behind for them.
Finally I’d like to quote from a church newsletter I recently came across which could hearten anyone who might be thinking of giving some time from their lives to help others in less fortunate positions. It read: “If we open wide our hands and our hearts to the lost and needy we can be sure that we will never find our baskets empty but will end up having much more than we began with.”