What the distinguished audience of Lae city that evening did not realise was that 35 years later, a huge development would take place on this particular land, and the question of ownership would become a significant dispute. The speech I gave at age 15 included many important references and landmarks my grandmother constantly repeated to my cousins, aunts and my mother instilling what was ours. None of these important references were documented. Many of our eldest, including my grandmother have since passed away at 89 seven years ago. Still living are her three brothers – Mambu (age 93), Karo and Mendali both in their mid to late 80s. Uncle Max is the eldest son of Mambu Baim.
Oral history as told by Awagia Hampom
As the story goes, “Awagia Hampom is the eldest granddaughter of Iapo Ankwa and her mother is Awelu Yalecsu. Awelu Jalecsu and Geyamtausu Ngongwe are the two biological daughters of Kemampum Iapo. As a result of a tribal warfare at the time, Kemampum, originally from Kamkumung Village sought refuge at Wagang Village. At that time there were main groupings of people already settled at this place in Wagang Village; such as the Wakangbu and Malacbalum and Ong clans. Kemampum and his family hid themselves on a piece of land within the vicinity of the Wakangbu people. He pleaded with the original settlers if they could agree to grant permission for him and his family to settle on a small piece of land called Ambisi, translated as a ‘yam hole’. This was how this portion of land got its name. The Ambisi borders with the neighbouring Butibam clam.
The name ambisi is referred to a hole that is left after yam harvest.
I looked at it. The black briefcase sat by the door. It was Saturday, mid year, 1988. The mid morning light through the slit in the curtain, drew a right angle across the exposed top corner. This did not lightened the case colour, only, it darkened what remained of the briefcase in the shadows. The thick heavy-backed curtain kept the case concealed. There was a twirling spectacle of dust stirred by the slow-moving fan. The dust particles moved between the dark case, and the top of the opened window. This twirling dust caught my eye briefly as this spot of light was the only light in the room today. From the dark interior, it was hard to tell that the sun was high, the sky was blue and it was 36 degrees outside. The unit had trapped dust but how do I get it out? I was limited to what I could do, and what I could not do. My boundaries were quite clear as they were bashed into me several times over four years. I also knew whom not to speak to and where not to go. Sometimes I felt like a trapped animal and sometimes I was just like a chipped, trapped dog in a yard with electrical fencing all around and someone watching from the shadows.
It was getting hotter and I felt thirsty. I took a step to the briefcase. It was bulky, large, and square, with gold fittings like a pilot’s or a travel case . It had black strong rubber wheels and gold clasps that snapped shut. I looked at the briefcase and did not touch it, afraid.
I have heard him snap-shut the clasps and the lock so many times. He liked that, the strict, military-type barking of orders and routine snapping of things into place. Orders for curtains to close when night fell. Open curtains, he said, meant, I was sending out invitations to be seen, to be looked at, by strangers and our neighbours.
“What if it’s a trap?” I almost whispered, delaying my urge to open the damn briefcase. My curiosity tugged at me one more time but I refrained from touching it. I could never imagine what could be held inside this large dark briefcase.
I went upstairs to the bathroom and washed my face. It was hot. Then I returned down the stairs and sat down at the last one. My legs were weak, but I was not hungry. My eyes went back to the case.
It could fit a small gun perhaps, but he already had a sewn-off rifle. I remembered him removing, caressing and dressing the gun with a soft towel and placing it like a baby in its cuddle spot, in his car. He was excited by his newly acquired possession. Apparently, he got this gun from his cousin, and that was a piece of information I needed to know. I thought to myself, as I poured myself a glass of water, to cool down. What a cunning backstory to cushion my fear that he had access to a gun or weapons, any time, from his relatives.
I stood up and walked the few steps to the front door and peeked outside. The car-park was still empty.
He had stored the rifle in his car booth, under the spare tyre. A fine hiding place, where betel-nut chewing, sleepy, corrupted Port Moresby police were too heedless to look during roadblocks.
“No”, I told myself in realisation. He would not trust me with a gun inside the house. It has been almost four years. I was not dead yet, but something has happened to me. I was no longer myself nor was I the 19-year-old virgin from strong Lutheran faith. I was no longer the traditional Papua New Guinea village-innocent girl that he had conquered. I believed that he knew this. I believed he knew I had changed and this meant one thing – my days were numbered.
I collected the large pillows and took them outside. The colourful coleus amongst my tropical plants in the pots cheered me up. The pillows were heavy and only for show. No one used these pillows; they sat and collected dust on the New Zealand sheepskin leather, which covered parts of the downstairs/lounge. Under the cream sheepskin was a large olive-green, black and white carpet. The carpet looked Moroccan. The lounge was a sombre decoration completed with a collection of prints that I thought were depressing. Curly haired, empty, pale and ghost-like maidens, stared down from sepia prints. They showed no particular emotion, yet, their eyes looked sad. Whoever drew these miserable women, sold them to the right person, that was my view.
I picked up the last pillow and went out the back. I shook bread crumbs off the pillows into the backyard and laid them on stacked sandy-brown pavers, lined with pot plants. There were three of the pillows. Regaining composure, and letting my aching body breathe fresh air, I stepped inside. I thought of cleaning the windows but it meant, I would open the curtains. He liked them shut.
“It keeps the sunlight off the artwork,” he said sarcastically. I wondered if I was the artwork he referred to. Not the monochrome of beautiful and sad curly-haired pale women with very large haunting eyes.
I crossed the small lounge to the front door. Remaining inside, I opened the door enough to look outside. I kept my hand on the handle. I dare not step outside, someone might see me and report back. No-one was there. The normal raucous of the compound seemed to have disappeared. The compound area of 1000 square metres encased three blocks of cream concrete airline employee residential units. They were all quiet. His unit was in the first block, second last. The Talis tree outside, in full bloom had seduced bees and insects and a few city birds watched for their own meals. The wide, long leaves were turning yellow, orange and red, like autumn colours in the movies I had seen. The Talis tree usually housed wives and babies of employees under its cool shade. Today, the shade was abandoned.
I pulled back into the unit, closing the door behind me and locking it. I felt the coolness of the ugly 1970s brown tiles on my feet even when the air inside was hot. I looked at the case again. I had nowhere else to go today. The order was to stay home. I stared at the briefcase again. It was Christmas Eve. He left it there. Why had he not taken the briefcase to work? I decided to ignore the briefcase. This was a test and I was very tired.
I completed and took the washing out and hung it. I returned inside the hot two-bedroom brick unit and counted seven small presents I had bought and wrapped. I felt ashamed. I told myself, I was weak and revolting. I was pathetic. I bought these presents – for what? I hated him. My hands were sweaty, I was trembling and my heart beat faster as I thought of what lay ahead. Three things could happen this Christmas. One, I could be dead. Two, there could be a resolution to this relationship. Oh, the third thing…I could kill him. The third was pathetic and I knew it.
My eyes glazed over with tears as I laid the presents under the green, fake Chinese-made Christmas tree. The tinsel and the plastic brush leaves scattered and messed up the base. I did not care. I hated fake things. I let the tears come, that’s was all I had. The tree had red and white bells with some glittering reindeer. I was very careful not to trip the tree over even though, I did not like it. Then, I picked myself off the floor and went to the briefcase and opened it. I felt my face burnt with excitement and fear. My trembling hands worked swiftly over books, papers and travel documents. The smell of planes mingled with the strong smell of vinyl.
My hands touched a small box. It was a dark blue jewellery box with sharp edges. I pulled it out, unafraid anymore. I opened the lid and it stayed ajar. Inside, immaculately placed in white cushion padding were a set of Australia’s beautiful white Opals. There was a pendant with matching earrings. The settings were in gold. It was a perfect Christmas gift for a woman, I thought, marvelling at its beauty. I remembered these opals from the Brisbane duty-free shop. The white opals were my favourite from all the other colours but it was not something I would ask for. I looked at the stones, mesmerized by their beauty, even from the mouth of the dark briefcase. Briefly, I thought of the depth of the earth where they came from and years the stone took to form and evolve into such luminous work of art. I thought of the person that spent laborious hours grinding, polishing and shaping them. I made jewellery so I knew the work involved. The light sipped into and was trapped in the stones, lighting and reflecting layers of intricate colours. The Opal had a sense of innocence, purity, and tenderness. Suddenly, I felt cold and quickly placed the small box back in the briefcase and snapped it shut. Deep down I knew, these Opals were not for me.
JLeahy memoir series – opening chapter/short story
We buried him this afternoon. He had died a week ago. There were a few hours left before the sorcerers would come for his remains. That’s what his father said. We needed to get to his grave before dusk and guard the grave until dawn. His father, mother and I left for Karogo’s graveyard after the last of the gathered family members left.
My aching joints gave me small comfort as I forced them to help me walk quickly up the main road, away from Saroa Village. We were near Rigo, Central Province, Papua New Guinea and in this region, witchcraft and sorcery were rife. We walked inland, headed for the small hill where Karogo and some of his deceased family members had been buried. Other villagers buried their dead in their backyard, gardens and other special places; something I was not used to. In my village, we had one cemetery for everyone.
The heavy rain and dense humidity kept the soil on the road, wet and slippery. The red clay had been washed frequently down the hills by the torrential rains leaving earthy red lines meandering through rough patches of grey and black gravel. I placed my feet carefully away from the soft red mud and in between the milky puddles. I wore thongs and these flipped a backsplash of sand and muddy water onto the dress. My clothes and looks were the last things on my mind.
For a few minutes, I stepped off the main road and I walked along the greyish clay roadside track. The muddy track was imprinted with hundreds of footprints from local traffic. I passed a few thongs left stuck in the mud and this made me want to smile. A pair of thongs was a priceless footwear. Obviously the toe parts of these pairs came apart so the thongs had been abandoned. Karogo’s father was ahead and his mother was walking behind me. I knew the couple had planned to be in this position, to protect me.
I walked as quickly as I could because it was getting dark very quickly. The moon was still rising but night creatures were already on the scene, I could hear them.
Today had flown by quickly like each day in the past week. The funeral only ‘formalized’ the death certificate. Karogo was long gone and this absence was so stark in this strange village. This place was an hour’s flight and several hours on the road, south from my home town. Apart from his immediate family, I did not know anyone. That did not bother me. I wasn’t afraid to spend the night in the graveyard. I knew I was a stranger and as his father told me, “you are a target, so you must follow everything I say”.
“Ok” I said. My own family had taught me how to handle any kind of situation with sorcery. It was always best to follow local rules as grandma would say. I had really wanted to go to the graveyard. That may have sounded crazy, as it sounded to me, but I needed to know what the sorcery-watch was about and I wanted to see Karogo again. Fear was not my issue. I could face the sorcerers or anyone from the dead.
It was not fear, as I had said, it was my anger. Karogo’s death made me very angry. This anger was so strong, that I felt cold and hardened inside. I started to feel older and stronger than my 17 years. I had insisted to his parents to take me to the grave tonight.
The torch slipped out of my tired hands and dropped into the mud almost tripping me.
“Shit!” I cursed and picked it up quickly. I quickened my pace to reach Solomon, Karogo’s father. As I caught up, my mind went back to the funeral again. My eyes salted and I wiped them quickly.
This morning about 9am, while the pastor was preaching, trying to cover his eulogy and bring closure to Karogo’s 18 years of living, I had felt every vein in my heart burst into tatters. Our past three years together were a mixture of child-play and maturing into adulthood together. Then, there were the mysteries in his life that I now could never ask anyone about, ever. He was beautiful inside and out, but he had secrets.
In the front pew, among strangers today, I felt I had been thrown off a plane into a strange place where no one understood my language or me. People were just staring at me, even in church, while the pastor was preaching. To find comfort amongst the staring pitiful eyes, I had looked down at the bright red roses on my black polyester dress. The hem had come apart but the dress kept together. My “Gypsy dress”, Karogo had called it. We were together when I bought this Gypsy dress at the second-hand store in Lae. I was on two weeks mid-year holiday from Year 12. The dress cost me 50 cents. It was strange to feel at ease for a moment while looking at the red roses on the Gypsy dress. I wanted to see Karogo alive in my memories about the dress but only briefly I saw him before my eyes moved and focused on the coffin. The roses in the wreath on his coffin were alive. Karogo wasn’t. He laid there, just like he could have been on the day-bed at his father’s house. His eyes were shut, but he wasn’t sleeping in the opened, beautiful, rosewood coffin.
My dress was the only item that connected us briefly and at that moment in the village church. I sat amongst hundreds of strangers. Mourners, children and adults, dressed in white, kept sneaking glances at me, probably feeling sorry for the young widowed girlfriend. I had cried inside and begged for my heart to stop right then. Yet, above the haunting Perovetta hymn at the funeral service, I could hear my heart still beating while I tried to understand why death could come to a life so young and promising.
“Joyce!’ someone had called me in the church. I remember, I did not even turn. Perhaps it was someone else with the same name. I didn’t know. I was in a daze. My thoughts were too far-gone. I had wanted to know why my chest kept moving, expanding, and contracting. I was breathing air and life, which I did not want, into me. I had wanted to stop breathing.
“Joyce!” Solomon called.
I turned my head quickly to him. I paused. He was a large, tall man with a large Afro. He combed it out neatly and sweat combined with water from his wet hair was coming down his face. He pointed a few metres ahead of me. The physical and emotional pain returned to my body once more as I stepped in the slippery, pale mud towards him.
“Come this way”, Solomon directed and I walked closer to him.
“Are you ok?” he asked, searching my face when I stopped and looked at him. We were both sweating from the walk. His wife caught up and wiped her flushed, sweaty face. She also looked at me concerned.
“Yes”, I tried to smile.
“Let’s go”, Solomon said.
We turned away from the main road and reached a small, slow flowing creek, about ankle-deep. The stones in the creek were all covered in green and black algae. We crossed the creek as the day’s shadows dissolved, forcing us to use artificial light. Solomon lit the Chinese kerosene lantern and gave me the large torch. His wife held the smaller torch. We climbed. In a few minutes, we will be at Karogo’s graveyard.
A voyage through hell: One asylum seeker’s epic journey from Eritrea to a new life in Europe.
Zekarias Kebraeb was 17 when he fled Eritrea to escape conscription. Now he has written an extraordinary book describing his epic journey to Europe. In this extract, featured in the Independent on Saturday, December 6th, he describes the most perilous episode of all.
After illegally crossing the border to Sudan, Zekarias Kebraeb stayed in Khartoum for six months. He then crossed the Sahara Desert to Libya, a two-week journey, without food, on which he nearly died of thirst. Finally reaching Tripoli, he and two friends he had made on the journey – Awed and Aki – found a people smuggler to help them to cross the Mediterranean during the night. In the passage below, he relives the desperate crossing, day by day…
8 October 2002
The rain gets lighter as we clamber down to the shore, though the wind whistles around our ears and tears at the sparse foliage that clings to the rocks. We can hear the sound of our panting and the roar of the sea. The pale moonlight is reflected on the waves; there’s an elongated shape, a dark protrusion, on the shore – a rowing boat, lying upside down on the stones.
I’ve never seen a boat like this before. It looks like a coffin. But it can’t be our boat – it’s far too small. The others have seen the boat too and run up to it. “What’s this?” they all ask at once. “What are we supposed to do with it? We might as well swim.”
“Shut your mouths,” growls one of the smugglers and waves a torch over the boat, revealing gaps in the black tar paint. “Just how dumb are you?”
“This boat will take you to the big boat out there on the water!” calls Jasin, the Libyan colonel who organised our passage, and points out to sea with his right arm. Perhaps 200 metres offshore, a fishing vessel is bobbing in the water, circled by nocturnal seagulls.
Feverishly, my gaze sweeps back and forth between the fishing boat and the rowing boat on the shore. I feel queasy – now it’s getting serious. White foam washes over my feet, the wind ruffles my hair and Awed is standing next to me with hunched shoulders. She has wrapped a blue scarf around her head and crossed her arms firmly over her chest.
She must be freezing. She isn’t looking at me but out across the water.
“When will we get to Italy?” she asks suddenly.
“I don’t know, tomorrow evening, maybe,” I reply. I’m agitated and extremely impatient. A few of us go to lift up the boat and turn it over. It’s heavy, saturated with water and stinks of seaweed and rot. And while the waves keep surging forward relentlessly, we push the boat into the water. It’s cold! I stumble back abruptly.
“Women and children first,” yells Jasin.
The boat rocks and sways as the first few people clasp each other’s hands and get in. When it’s full, two strong men take the oars and row out towards the big boat. Aki, Awed and I are on the last boatload to the fishing vessel. The loading process has taken more than two hours; it must be after midnight. I stagger and have to hold on to something. I grab the railings and land hard against the side of the boat. That’s what happens when you lose the ground beneath your feet.
9 October 2002
Ragged, dark grey clouds rage across the night sky. Stars appear and then disappear again. Banks of fog drift over the water and seagulls fly up screeching when our captain fires up the engine, which splutters and dies down, causing him to rage. The captain is gaunt, with a piercing gaze. Wearing boots, he has a violent temper; and before we’ve even departed, he’s already lashing out kicks to left and right. People duck out-of-the-way and soon so much water has sloshed on board that we’re completely soaked through.
The boat isn’t big – perhaps seven metres long. Painted blue and white, its sides rise maybe half a metre above the water. There’s a mast and a shelter for the helmsman. I sit on the planks right up against the stern with my friends. Our legs are pulled right in and we’re pressed in, bodies against bodies, almost as tight as on the pick-up truck in the desert. We sit back-to-back so we can hold each other tight, wheeze together, freeze together. Because it’s cold, icy cold.
The engine starts and the boat sets out on the open sea, into the night. The wind lashes water in my face. I look back to where the narrow, rocky shoreline is growing smaller and smaller. From now on, everything will be different: new and wonderful. I’ve overcome borders, hunger and thirst, the fear of death and the shame of being nothing – all that’s behind me. If it weren’t so strange, I would laugh. But there’s a new border in this place where solid ground gives way to water, probably the most daunting of my whole journey. I can’t walk or fly over the sea, and if I fall out of the boat, I’ll have exactly 120 seconds before I drown… I’ve never been this close to the paradise at the other end of the world, but I’ve never been so far away either.
Worried about patrol boats, our captain has turned off the navigation lights. He steers with a compass, heading unwaveringly north. Sleeping is out of the question – it’s too wet. The sky and sea are opaque and black, and we lose all sense of time. I don’t know if we’ve been travelling for two hours or four hours.
The boat is tossed back and forth and I sink into a trance-like state. I recite numbers in my head like litanies: those thrown overboard, drowned, killed by thirst, battered to death or lost. Since 1988, 14,921 immigrants have lost their lives crossing the sea to Europe.
I cling on tightly with my whole body. My freedom is the only thing I have left to live for. I cross my arms over my chest. Or is it fear that shackles me and wraps me up like a parcel? I can’t think any more – only hear, see, smell, feel. I listen to the storm and hear the captain. “Bail out!” he roars. He struggles to bring the boat about, steering across the waves. Mechanically, we start to tip and pour buckets of water over the railings, even though more water keeps sloshing in moments later to replace it.
My mother, I think to myself, would interpret a storm like this as a punishment from God. But why – what did we do wrong?
Aki, Awed and I hold hands again. I can’t imagine us surviving this hell. What is drowning like? Slow or quick? How long does it take until your lungs fill with water? Does it hurt? I hold on tight.
There’s nothing to see except water and mist – no horizon, we’re trapped in a cloud of fog. A continuous grey desert stretching out endlessly – it’s a miracle, but we’re alive. Laid out like sardines, slumped over and against each other, with nothing to eat or drink.
Hunger gnaws uneasily in my stomach. It’s an almost liberating feeling, but only for an instant: I’m alive. Even though my eyes are stinging from salt water, even though my skin is wrinkled and swollen, I’m alive. I try to stand up but don’t manage it, crumpling like an empty sack. Aki and Awed pull each other up, sway and also collapse back down. We hear snatches of barked orders telling us to stay sat down, got it? “Anyone who dares to stand up will be thrown overboard!”
There’s nothing to eat. My friends look for bread in their bags but don’t find anything except damp crumbs. I run my tongue along my salty lips, open my mouth and try to catch raindrops on my outstretched tongue. Salty. I form the water into a thick mixture with my spittle. It’s disgusting – I feel sick. Before I can make it to the railings, a pool of purplish-brown vomit spews on to the planks in front of me, mixing with green brine and seeping between us in trickles. I’m not the only one: almost everyone threw up during the night, either silently or retching noisily. The wind even flung some people’s sour vomit back in their faces. We’re in nature’s hands and can no more escape our filth than we can escape the sea.
The fog has vanished. The sea is endless, there’s nothing but water in the heavens and on the earth. No time, no space – everything flows and undulates. The white foam on the crest of the waves is the only thing our gaze can fix on, for one brief moment at a time. Our fellow refugees pull copies of the Bible and the Koran out of plastic bags and read them silently. Suddenly, a woman throws her Bible to me.
“Read it!” she calls. It doesn’t sound like a request. With numb fingers, I flick through the pages, looking, while drops of water soften the thin pages. “Go on, go on!” she shouts. “What should I read, exactly?” I try to smile. “I’m not a priest, you know.” I can barely feel my body and I’m supposed to read to console the others – as though that will help. I don’t want to, but I begin anyway.
“Saint Paul’s voyage to Rome.” Fitting. “A storm at sea and a shipwreck in the Mediterranean near the island of Malta.” My voice is a sigh against the storm. I shout until I go hoarse, vying with the seagulls who are shrieking as they circle the masts. The unnatural rattle of the engine sets the rhythm as I continue reading: “… After long abstinence Paul stood forth in the midst of them, and said, Sirs…” The wind flings the words back in my face.
This is the second part of a draft chapter I am working on and sharing with you. If you find grammar or other errors, just smile and forgive me. This chapter may change as I edit and re-write. There is still a lot to be done.
JLeahy Memoir Series The End of the broom
“Where is the mouth of the road?
At the entrance of the cemetery.
That’s where my body will rest and become soft.
But my spirit would fly to you,
Where I will see your face Lord”
I hummed the song in my head. It really wasn’t a good song for the start of a day. I was too distracted today.
I had to get my Saturday morning chores done. I picked up the broom; a bundle of dried brown coconut sticks, and went to the back of the house near the pig pen to sweep. In preparation for my getaway, I threw my red on the weak, bouncy, low wire clothes line that was slowly coming apart from the two ends, tied on coconut trunks. I was careful not to ‘bounce’ some of the wet clothes off; they had no pegs on them. We did not have any.
“Kalem! Kalem!” the children were calling me from the river. I waved and made hand signs that I was busy, and would join them later.
From the back , I used the coconut broom to sweep to the front yard. The bare sandy yard studded with beach pebbles embraced two houses, both of distinct characters. The larger house faced the main road to the village and the other faced the side of the larger house. There was a large hardwood tree at our entrance called Abong. Because we lived under this tree, our place was called Abonghu, which meant, “at the foot of the Abong tree”. The larger, white house, had blue trimmings and two blue door exits. With her nursing money, Mother helped her father to build this house for all of us. It happened before I was born. After I was born, when I was asleep, she hung me in the bilum on the Abong branch. The three rooms were shared with her two siblings and parents. Mother often fought with her older brother and his children over the ownership of this house. Each time, she would count the number of cement bags, timber, and roofing iron and tell them the total amount of her pension she had spent.
I tried to avoid the pig droppings as I swept. Pigs made such a ‘neat’ mess. Little black round balls looking almost as if they were rolled by hand. It did stink though. I swept past Mother and my room.
There were three bedrooms. Each room in the house Mother built housed several people. There was a lounge room, which turned into guest room when our families visited from the coast or inland. The lounge room had tired old fly-wired windows. Scrawly pen and pencil marks drawn by kids on the wall. The brown unpainted Masonite walls dropped down to unpolished evenly nailed timber hardwood floors. Various stains in years, soaked into the fibre of the dead wood giving it a distinct character. The other house was made from unpainted timber with a mis-matched stacking of planks. The roof was made from sewn sago leaves, and topped with a few iron roof sheets. The sheets had holes in them. Inside, the house was blackened by the built up of daily smoke from the fire. My grandma’s fireplace was on the verandah of this house. The two rooms had no fly wire, just cotton laplaps. The roof had holes. If your bed is positioned right, a raindrop will fall from heaven straight through the hole into your eye – shocking you. My cousin and I have tried this. It was funny.
To my readers: If you had enjoyed this draft, let me know. I won’t be posting the end of this chapter. It will be in my book. I shall be posting other parts of chapters as I start writing them. These last two stories (in The end of the broom) were parts of the first chapter I have ever written of this memoir. I have been writing a series of short stories in the last two years in my creative writing workshop. I am now attempting to connect them together and create a structure and a spine for the story. If this is the wrong way of writing a book – then I guess I have created a new way. Thank you for reading.
The day was hot, thick and sticky with humidity. School was over yesterday. I was nearly nine. My mind was lost. Mother was going away. I had no idea when and for how long. She had a new job in Kundiawa, Simbu Province, Papua New Guinea.
It was so hot. I was dying to have a swim. Already, the children in the village were swimming in the river near our house. I looked down and saw them. Then my eyes caught the broom on the ground. I knew I had to get down there and sweep.
Mother trained women to sew clothes and make a living. She loved her job with the Lutheran Mission at Ampo (Lae), but now the government welfare office gave her a real job, she had said. Werner Knoll offered her this job. Werner was a German kiap who became a welfare manager and headed the office in Lae. He had told me he was my guardian. I knew being a guardian meant, he was not my father, but something like an angel. I heard that word “guardian” used in our church. I also saw it in grandma’s bible.
I went to our room to get my red towel and walked back to the kitchen. I stood there and looked at the children. They were jumping off a platform we built on a tree, and landing in the river with a bombing sound. The water splashed everywhere. I was jealous. I looked at them but my mind went back to my mother. May be Werner could not pay us any more. Maybe, he ran out of money.
Mother and I visited Werner each month to collect money. Mother said we collected $AU20. When we arrived at the Welfare, Werner would beckon me with his pointer. He then lifted me onto his lap and pinched my cheeks. Then he pecked me on both the cheeks with his beard scratching me roughly. He had a large pink mole on his cheek. Then, he would order me to open my mouth so he would check my teeth for betel nut stains. I was terrified but I did as I was told. Mother and all the women in the welfare thought it was funny and laughed. After, Werner would tell me to promise to be a good girl. He would warn me not to chew betel nut and wink at my mother as he handed her a pink slip to go with to the bank. This ritual started when I was able to walk and speak.
I was to find out much later, this money came from my father whom I had never seen nor heard about. No one told me the money was from my father then, so I never knew. I had always thought Werner was related to me somehow and it was Werner’s money that he gave us. He was being kind. Mother had to bring me every time she visited Werner to get this money. I thought the whole ritual with Werner was part of the reason for getting the money. It was Werner’s rule.
“I will make a lot of money in this job”, Mother had said last night.
“Yamandu?” Really? I said, not convinced.
Mother promised me with such excitement in her eyes, I started to wonder what we would do with a pile of money. I did not think it was ever possible for us to have money except for Werner’s $20. Grandma said too much money was evil. Not many people made money, unless you had a bank; that’s what the village children said.
Mother’s job sounded ok. We could share the money with everyone. However, I was also concerned it would be too cold for Mother in Simbu. She needed to keep warm. She was smart, she could make fire in the evenings, I thought. I could not imagine how we would be apart. Deep inside, I had too many questions and felt uneasy about this job as I embarked on my own jobs for Saturday morning. I decided not to think about Mother. I went and started my chores.
“Kalem! Kalem!” the children were calling me from the river. I could see them from our house. I waved and made hand signs that I was busy, and would join them later.
To get my chores done I started with the coconut broom. I picked up the bundle of dried brown coconut sticks. They were held firmly at the thick end with re-cycled black rubber from tyre tube. I started sweeping from the back of the big house. My chores had increased with my age. Each day the chores changed, but most of the tasks were the same. We shared the chores between all the women in my family. The boys and men shared theirs. My chores were cleaning, washing, cooking, and helping Mother. Sometimes I helped my grandmother and aunties. If not fishing, the girls and women would be gardening together or making art and singing. On special occasions we would prepare our costumes and dance. The evenings were for story telling, and laughter after the church service. There was an occasional women gathering or village meeting. On Sundays we went to church and cooked a feast after. If someone died, we all gathered and cried together for at least two days before we buried them in our village cemetery. As we carried the dead to the cemetery, we sang in Yabem:
“Where is the mouth of the road?
At the entrance of the cemetery.
That’s where my body will rest and become soft.
But my spirit would fly to you,
Where I will see your face Lord”
(Draft only, and to be continued in my memoir series).
That was the question of our discussion in creative writing workshop tonight. My friend Bill Heather is an architect. He is also a writer in my creative writing workshop group. The group is tutored by Isabel D’Avila Winter, a published author. Pamela Jeffs, another writer-friend suggested that I should blog this discussion and my own response, to help writers who are planning to write autobiographies and memoirs or fiction based on real life stories. I begin with Bill’s email to me and others in our group.
Bill Heather: Hello all you aspiring and proven writers,
Is there a limit to what you can mine from your own life experiences for a story?
Are authors of autobiographical fiction or memoir at risk of alienating their family and friends in their search for that elusive storyline?
Is ruthlessness in search of your best fiction a necessary attribute of a writer?
Would you publish a story if it could destroy the marriage of your closest friend?
There are good questions to ponder as we head towards the end of another year, and ones which are addressed in the attached article from the November 2014 issue of the Monthly. Link at the end of my response to Bill.
My Response to Bill: Dear Bill and friends,
Thank you Bill. I found the article very interesting and very true. The most safe writing would be fiction.
The pen does ‘cut’ deeper than the sword.
In my Memoir writing, I question everything I write. I know there will be a lot of ‘hurt’ of others as well as my own. I have created pain in many stories I read in our evening workshop. For example, if I had told my mother the old uncle rubbed my sore leg the ‘wrong way’ I think there would have been some serious charges or bloodshed in my family. The man is dead now but if I spoke about it now – what could happen? I don’t know. I also spoke to my mother and step brother about some stories I have written so far, and we discussed them. These stories were all painful…my stepbrother is my late step father’s son. But my step brother is my best friend – we are very close.
So my point is, as often as I do, I ask, should I just change my memoir to fiction and pretend it is not me or get my ‘freedom to express’ in fiction? Perhaps some stories could be written differently, safely..? Those and others are questions I ask myself all the time. 75% of what I have written, I don’t bring it to our workshop, I am scared to. Sometimes, I write the whole thing and then delete it.
Every now and then, I write fiction for the class exercises, because, this gives me the freedom to write freely without guilt, pain, horror and more. I totally lose myself in the ‘fake’ when I write fiction.
I deal with my writing the truth ‘problem’ this way; I write about me, the events, people and places and things that affect me. I write it all, then I decide what I can manage to live with, and I keep that story. I tell myself, ‘stop thinking about everyone else’. I just write ‘my’ story. I can always pull out what I think is too much at the end of the day. The final choice is mine, and I have to live with it.
I stuck my right fore-finger into the freshly dug sandy, mud holes. A crab must have tried to invade this hole and got chased out. It left tracks in the mud. I imagined how it happened, and smiled. There were other holes, all about bottle-top size. The sandy mud was soft and pale brown. We needed food so my uncles had to fish tonight. My job was to catch bait; baby eels.
“Kalem! Ampom!”, Tinang called. Tinang was my grandma. She used both my names meaning, a welcoming joy, and light-skinned.
“I’m here!”, I responded softly, trying to not disturb the eels nor other life forms.
“Go there!”, she directed me, pointing to the other side.
I nodded and stepped to the other side of the creek and my eyes canvassed the freshly dug holes. I was in my blue shorts and T-shirt. At seven I was tall so mosquitoes loved my long bare legs. Even when they had filled their tight blood bellies, I could not smack them for fear I would disturb the catch. The mosquitos were also too ‘drunk’ with the blood, so I rubbed them off.
There were crab holes and eel holes but there was a difference. The eel holes did not have a messy gathering at their entrances. From the size of the hole, you could tell how big the eel was. These were small. The eels had two exit points. I started digging into the top opening and then feeling my way to the ending at the second hole. Where I had interfered, dirty water trailed down the footprints to the clean running creek water. I looked back to see where grandma was. I stepped carefully to avoid the small openings. Then, I picked one and I inserted my fingers into the hole and followed with my hands. I trusted my instincts and repeated the process until we had enough eels.
As early as you could, most children in the village were taught how to catch an eel. I was around seven and very good at catching eels. Catching eels was always exciting and scary at the same time. Physically, the eels scared me, but they were beautiful when I watched them gliding through the water. There was a certain peace and calmness about them. We were not allowed to catch very large eels. I have watched many get away. The large eels were considered landowners, art of us and our ancestors.
The trick to catch the eel was all in the hands. You reach the eel in the hole by touch, and caress the eel until it relaxes, and you can catch it. Sometimes you can catch the eels with bare hands, but they were slippery and difficult. My aunts were better at hand-catching the eels. The way we were catching today was by scarring the small eels back into the creek and they swam down into a hand-held net.
My uncles and grandma’s brothers would use the eels on large hooks for the open and deep-sea fish.
About six metres downstream, my mother was waiting with the open nets ready to catch the eels. I could not see her, but I could hear her smacking mosquitoes and flies and trying not to curse.
There was bush and wild banana trees between us. Vines from cane and pandanus crisscrossed above me, letting rays of sunlight spill onto the sandy bank. Not far from me, I could see the eels easing their way out and following the creek downstream. We only had to catch a few. Tinang was a few metres behind me, digging on the opposite side. If she started a song, we would sing together quietly.
Sometimes we just hummed in low tones while we fished but we were in a little creek and catching eels so we could not sing. It was very quiet except for the silent scratching noises on the sandy bank. I did not even hear one bird sing.
“Tinang!” I called in a whisper.
She looked at me.
“Did you see?” I asked, excited about the eels that swam down.
She just nodded and kept digging.
Earlier, I had asked Tinang to hold the net. We always fished together. I held the net and she brought the fish into the net. Today, Mother came along. I don’t know why because Mother hated eels. Just like snakes and anything that looked or shaped like snakes, she would run if she saw any. Mother even hated lizards and lizards had legs.
I didn’t eat eels but I didn’t mind them. My uncles said, the eel had a special smell that attracted fish-just like blood drawing sharks under water. An eel was the best bait.
“No, let your mother hold the net Tinang had told me earlier. You are better at catching the eels”. Tinang said.
“You go with Tinang” Mother said, smiling at me. I gave her my net and followed grandma up the creek. I knew mother was up to something. She wore her evil eyes in her funny smile.
The nets were cut out of small knitted nylon fishing nets. They were shaped and sewn along the sides. The top part was held in a hoop by a cane/rattan stick. To catch an eel, we got all our three nets and plugged their mouths halfway into the muddy base of the creek. Half of the mouth of the net would be open to catch anything that floated downstream. The three nets joined and combined at base, blocked off the width of the creek. The creek was about three metres wide.
Mother had bent forward and held onto the three nets. Where she was positioned, Mother could see everything that came downstream – fish, eels, yabbies, nuts from the trees and any other floating rubbish.
It was pitch black. The day had gone. Heat and humidity parted swiftly and everything was swallowed by the early evening darkness. By touch, I placed my towel on a nearby tree branch and stripped for my bush wash. My skin woke to the cool breeze. My right foot carefully searched on the large, rough and wet stones to the small piece of plywood. I stepped up, trying to keep it balanced under my weight. The ‘ply’ was held up by other stones. The underneath was muddy water. I stared into darkness and caught very faint glimpses of trees.
Already pulled out of the well with a rope and bucket, I reached it. The water felt cold. Today was an especially hot day. My mind went over how sticky it was. As I filled the saucepan, the steel cooled to the temperature of the water. I raised the saucepan and saw them coming. The ‘light’ visitors. They came in a fanfare of glows seemingly in rhythm, yet, their presence was soundless. I realised I had missed the fireflies in Port Moresby’s city life.
The fireflies came closer as if curious. They scribbled bright disappearing lines in the ‘black’ all around me. Their light made the darkness even darker.
I poured quickly. The water was cold.
“Ohhh nice!” half-shivering, I yelled out to my family, wanting to connect us through the depth of darkness between us. The chattering of my mother, my sons and, nieces and nephews were a few metres away.
This well water must have come from the centre of the earth. Untouched by the 36 degrees heat of Lae, Morobe Province. It was so cold.
After pouring three saucepans of water on myself I looked up again. By now the fireflies gathered just above me. They synchronised in an orbit-like dance. I looked up at the fireflies, entrenched, and the soft mushy Lux bathing soap slipped out of my hand. The soap’s creamy white oval-shape slithered away under the old plywood with a soft plonk in the muddy water.
I am not about to put my hands in there I thought. I stared at the ‘nothing’. It was still pitch black. I bent my knees but half-way, I decided, it was not a good idea. I am not going to find that soap unless I am prepared to feel through snakes, centipede, spiders, worms, and God knows what else is in there.
An owl startled me back to reality. I listened to the owl speak to another softly. I was dripping, half-soaped and cooling down fast. The fireflies lost their rhythm and separated. They flew away. I reached for another saucepan of the cool rinse and grabbed my towel.
“I’m finished!” I called and picked up my clothes.
Through the bush, I could hear my mother bringing my sons towards me to wash them. They were nine and six. She had the lamp and the boys had their torches. Suddenly, everything looked different.
In the background, my nieces and nephews were waiting their turn to the waterhole. My cousin Sam Newton dug this well before he even built his house. The water feeds and quenches the thirst of hundreds in our community. Because of where Sam had dug the well, the water remained cool all day and night. We used the water for cooking, drinking and washing.
“Where is the soap?” I heard my mother ask.
“Forget the soap Ma, just wash them in the water”.
I smiled and dried myself.
Mother returned from the Lae city markets. It was a Saturday afternoon. Today, we were preparing for a big singsing in our village. We were preparing our best for the Annual Morobe Show. There would be hundreds of tribal groups and performers so, we had to wear only authentic costumes. We had to wear the costumes carrying markings and stories of our people and the costumes we inherited from our ancestors. I needed a centrepiece for my headdress.
As she came up to me, I searched Mother’s face for emotion. She teased my un-spoken questions with the twinkle and mystery she showed in her eyes. Finally, she was smiling. Her lips remained sealed more so because she was chewing but I knew she got it. I broke a smile at her and completed my task.
“There was only one Highlander selling two tiyeng ngawahu (Bird of Paradise plumes) and I bought one”, she said.
“Ohhh ngayam!” grandma responded in Bukawac, meaning “good”.
Grandma was pleased the mission was accomplished.
I sat next to Grandma, helping her to twist the sisal fibres on my thigh into strings. We twisted two separate bunches of single fibres which formed a string. Then, we dyed the strings yellow and orange with turmeric roots, and red from Mbuec, a tree that gave red dye in its seed pods. To get grey, we buried the other strings in the muddy banks for a few weeks. For the black we used crushed charcoal with coconut oil. Once dried, Grandma used a ‘needle’ made from a 15cm long re-cycled and sharpened wire. This ‘needle’ came from the inside of a broken umbrella bone. Grandma sewed the strings into bilums (string-bags). The new bilums will be worn in the dance on the day.
We used some of the strings to thread scented leaves and herbs for breast decoration. These same leaves were used for magic, but I was not allowed to know. Not yet, Grandma said.
As she tried to speak, Mother’s mouth was full of red chewed betel nut and she needed to spit. She eased her bilum of food down in a heavy thud. She fished in her smaller shoulder bilum and spat. She held out her hand with a crumpled newspaper wrap.
I jumped up to grab it.
“Careful!.. be careful!”
I was thrilled. Without searching her bag as I usually do for the market gifts of peanuts, green margarines and cucumbers, I turned away from Mother. I smiled at the faded newspaper as I bent and laid the small light bundle on the dry sand next to my twisted strings. I sat down and brought Mother’s parcel to my lap and un-wrapped it.
I was afraid to touch her at first. The bird was beautiful and so soft. A spot of black around her beak. Green velvet on her neck and breast. The rest of her body was a burnt butter yellow with a white centre and a beautiful pale yellow outer-feathers. The base of the main feathers was an intense, vibrant golden-yellow which faded out into white. Her inside was gone. It was shallow. She had been dried, smoked and flattened.
I suddenly felt a pang of guilt and pain swept over me. I thought of the bird flying high and calling out in the trees and I wondered if she suffered. I felt more guilty about this bird than the chickens which I already had feathers from. I was seven and never held a real Bird of Paradise in my hand, even a dead one. I had seen many on headdresses during the festivals. I have held other birds and had parrots as pets. I looked at the bird a little more, each faint wiry piece that joined the next. Then I reached out and touched her.
Of the 39 species of the Birds of Paradise in the island of New Guinea (PNG and West Papua), this one, known as “Greater Bird of Paradise” was the most precious centrepiece for our tribal headdress. The birds did not live in our bush. Our people traded and bought the feathers from the highlanders.
Mother had to seek out hunters from Western and Southern Highlands who rarely brought the feathers to the main market in Lae. She was very lucky today.
To have a Bird of Paradise as your centrepiece was the ultimate dream of every dancer in our tribe. Many other Papua New Guinean tribes wore numerous plumes in singsings. Many more longed for such honour but only settled for parrot, cassowary, and chicken feathers. This bird was our National emblem.
In our Wagang village singsing group, most people wore cockatoo, parrot, cassowary, turkey, guinea fowl and chicken feathers – all made into spectacular head pieces.
I laid out the Bird of Paradise plume and stitched it into my headdress. The headdress was made of feathers and shells, sewn onto a tapa cloth. Most of the headdress was completed days before. I was only waiting for the centrepiece. The cloth would be tied around my head. The Bird of Paradise would be the centre feature. When I wore the headdress, the golden-yellow, wispy and silky soft feathers would sit high above and dance. The beak would be looking down at me and her tail would move with me as I danced the we-e si-ing (war dance).
Protected Species – the Birds of Paradise are a protected species in both Papua New Guinea and West Papua (Indonesia)
Much sought after as pets or for their feathers, several birds of the forests of New Guinea such as parrots, lorries and birds of paradise are illegally exported for trade. But just the local use of a species can be detrimental to its survival; wildlife capture and trade of cassowary for traditional use has severely reduced their populations in some areas and where they remain, there is increased pressure for trade.7
Birds of paradise have also been historically traded, especially for their feathers. While West Papuans’ use of the birds’ feathers in cultural celebrations is part of their tradition, Europe was once the main market for the plumes, to be used for women’s hats and accessories. Trade peaked in the late 19th century, when plumes from more than 50,000 birds were exported every year, generally to Paris for capes and hats.8
Birds of paradise continue to be smuggled out of Papua Province, Indonesia. The trade in the birds adds to the pressure they already get from continued hunting and the destruction of their habitat by logging, road construction and conversion for human use. Although banned by the Indonesian government since 1990, trading in the feathers of the birds of paradise is still ongoing.9