Brother, can you spare a hut?

Robert Soderstrom and his wife, Kerry, spent 1996-’97 with the Peace Corps in Maimafu, a forest community in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea. Now a lawyer near Madison, Wisconsin, he wrote this letter to WorldView, a quarterly magazine published by the National Peace Corps Association.

After settling into our new bamboo-thatched house on stilts, built for us by the village council, we sat one day with our neighbors for storytelling. When my turn came, I showed our new friends a collection of photographs of Chicago. I was planning to wow them with the enormous buildings of an American city. Shortly into my presentation, however, I was stopped by Moia, one of the village leaders, who had spotted two homeless men on the Michigan Avenue sidewalk with crude signs propped between their legs.

“‘Tupela man wokem wanem?’

Moia asked me. ‘What are these two men doing?’

“I tried 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 understand how the men became homeless, or why the passersby in the photo were so indifferent. I tried to answer all their questions about the two ragged beggars in the midst of such glittering skyscrapers.

“Moia sat and held the photo in outstretched arms, as if he were farsighted. Villagers crowded behind and peered at the photo as if they had just paid a buck to see an alien freak show. Their brows furrowed in disbelief, they quietly talked among themselves, and they gestured at the two men in the picture. I read from their questions and solemn mood that they had made an important observation–these two men not only lack food and shelter, but also a general sense of affection and purpose in their community.

“That night, the 21-man village council held a big meeting and, with Moia in the lead, came to our house early the next day with a proposal.

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

“I was stunned. We stumbled over explanations of difficult logistics, scarce money, and government bureaucracies, but the councilmen wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted action.

“We wrote a few letters to America, and had long conversations with the village council. We toured the home sites, and the women planned gardens with a few coffee trees for sustainability. They continued to ask about homelessness.

All the while, the photograph was being passed through the village.

“We tried to temper their enthusiasm by explaining the impossibilities of the project. The plan could not work, we finally told them. Their hearts sank.

“Villagers clicked their tongues and shook their heads in disappointment. ‘Sori tru, sori tru we no inap wokem dispella samting,’ Moia said. ‘We are very sorry this can’t happen.’

“I could see in their eyes that this dream could not easily die. Over the coming months, they worked with us on other projects, and their wish to import the two homeless men slowly disappeared like a fading rainbow.”