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By Jonas Cullwick

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (June 20, 2001 - Port Vila Presse/PINA Nius Online)---The voice at the other end of the telephone line was firm, mature and confident.

"Good morning. Health Department. May I help you?" the pleasant-sounding voice inquired. I hesitated, caught unaware of what she would sound like.

"He-he-hello," I stuttered, not knowing what to say. Questions came racing through my mind as to what I should say and how to say it. "Could I please talk to Leitangi?" I found myself asking, still unsure whether that was the right thing to say, because I knew she has been the telephone receptionist at the department for, it seemed, ages.

"Speaking," confidently came the answer. I was happy I had gotten through to her but at the same time feeling I had somewhat made a fool of myself.

I regained composure and was again a professional, a journalist seeking an interview for a story.

Leitangi Solomon was on the dot. At exactly 1 o'clock she was wheeled down from a shortened lunch break to our interview appointment.

Her office is small, but neatly kept. The first thing that caught my eyes was the smallness of the switchboard on her table. I always held the view that she would be operating a large bulky machine. This view stuck with me from day one when word circulated that she had been employed as a switchboard operator for the Health Department.

I remember that day as if it was yesterday. The news item on Radio Vanuatu told the whole the country that a "handicapped" lady was starting with the Health Department as a telephone receptionist, and how everyone who saw her in action marveled at her ability.

On Friday she celebrates 20 years in the public service.

"My story is a long one if I told it," she said shyly.

Leitangi's first day at work is still her best memory. "I didn't expect to work, but was thankful and excited to be coming to work on my first day."

Department of Health Director of Public Health Myriam Abel vividly remembers that day too, saying that at first everyone was skeptical about whether she was the right person for the job and if she would be able to do it. Many members of the public also came to try and catch a glimpse of Leitangi at work.

"Now she's proved to everyone she can do it," she said, referring to Leitangi's efficiency and dedication to work.

Leitangi was born 38 years ago at the Paton Memorial Hospital on Iririki Island in Port Vila Harbor, without legs and forearms, to Moses Solomon and his wife Leiwia, of Nguna Island, off north Éfaté. Her father worked for a long time at the John Ah Pow Bakery and her mother worked as a nurse at Iririki Hospital until Leitangi's birth, when she finished work to devote her time to Leitangi.

Leitangi described growing up as good, but difficult some times.

"Many times I wonder why I'm like this. But I'm blessed with very loving, caring and supportive parents, family, relatives and friends. Life was also very difficult sometimes because I am different from other normal people, and people were curious and didn't know how to deal with someone like me."

The phone rang. Leitangi leaned forward, expertly clamped the phone with her arms and lifted it to the head. Her left hand held the mouthpiece against her head while her right hand worked the extension numbers on the switchboard. The whole operation was carried out with ease

Leitangi spent three months learning how to do the job of telephone receptionist at the Colonial War Memorial (CWM) Hospital in Suva, Fiji, towards the end of 1980.

She was at the end of eight years of education at the Fiji Crippled Children's School in Suva when she was asked what she would like to do when she returned home to find work. Telephone receptionist, she said.

She remembers: "In Fiji, the settling down part was hard, but the whole time was better and easy because we were among other disabled children. Also, I was with Leisiel Sope."

Leisiel is of Pango village and she is hard-of-hearing. She works at the Central Hospital Outpatients Department, where she has served for the past 20 years also.

"The Fiji Disabled Society looked after our school fees and our airfares to Fiji and back every Christmas during those eight years," Leitangi remembers.

Her first days at work were difficult. But now the Department of Health cannot do without her.

Mrs. Abel said: "I've never seen any receptionist like her. It's a nightmare when she's away on holiday or is off sick."

Leitangi is Presbyterian and goes to church whenever transport allows. She says her strong religious conviction and faith in God has carried her through these years. "Even though I'm like this but I know I'm God's creation."

She is a secretary of the Vanuatu Disabled Peoples' Association and has represented the disabled community in overseas forums. She spends her spare time reading, watching movies and meeting people.

The phone rings - not more than three times. "Health Department. May I help you?" The now familiar, confident and warm sing-song-like tone echoed around the room. People were also wanting to come in to see Leitangi. It is time for me to bid my farewell.

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