Here is a draft of a potential chapter. I may use it in the memoir, but the story was prompted by Isabel D’Avila Winter in my creative writing workshop last week for the biggest lie I have ever told. I have not shared any memoir pieces lately, because I have not been writing much, but here it is for my readers who enjoy the memoir stories on Tribalmysticstories.
The Chinese kerosene lamp burnt low. It was close to me and I smelt the kerosene cut into floral smells from the freshly washed bed sheet. In a continuous dance, its golden-yellow flame peaked in a steady poise and melted into the dark head of the small metal lamp. The lamp was barely taller than my school ruler but it gave enough light for me to see the print. The flame in the round clear glass, size of an orange, outlined the specs of paprika stains on the lamp. At the same time, the flame threw a soft orange ambiance under my sheet and even around the room.
If I moved too quickly, I could knock the lamp over and burn myself because the lamp was partially under the sheet, and next to my book I was reading. This was my private and peaceful space where I read my books. This was also against Mother’s rules.
Having a lamp to myself was a luxury I rarely had in a noisy, crowded house. My mother and I had a small room about three by three metres and my older uncle (of two uncles) and his wife shared another larger room with their five children. My grandmother and aunty shared the last one. My younger uncle was away at the University of Technology, about 20 minutes from my village. My uncle was the first man from our village to go to university.
It was a house where everyone knew everything that was going on. My family had this one Chinese lantern to use as an inside lamp and one Coleman lamp as the outside lamp. Both lamps burnt on ‘kero’ as the villagers referred to kerosene. Fire was the main source of light and there was a torch, which hardly had batteries because no one could afford them. The torch was mostly used for travelling between the village houses. It was also used to visit my aunts and uncles or for going to the pit toilet away from our house – not for reading or using as a room light. If we left the village to fish or camp, the Coleman and the torch came with us.
I knew I was using the 20 cents kerosene up but I was solving a mystery with Nancy Drew. I liked being a detective myself.
“Ampom” mother called and without saying, I knew she called me for dinner. She used one of my names that meant, light-skinned.
“Ok” I said, without moving.
In the village, kero sellers would buy wholesale in 44-gallon drums in Lae City and retail the kerosene to us in re-cycled wine or spirit bottles – charging 20 cents per bottle. It eventually became 50 cents and then a $1. That was in 1970s. Wholesalers bought kero from service stations and general stores. My cousin and I would take our bottle, a clear Vodka re-cycled bottle, and I did not remember which of my uncles drank the Vodka – to any village retailer for kero. We stood there while they pumped the kerb into our bottle but there was a special technique where the boys in the village mastered. The pump would be pressed a couple of times and stopped. The air would push the blue liquid from the drum through the transparent pump into our re-cycled bottle. You have to stop the pump quickly or it sprayed the kero everywhere. I always thought it was cool and I wanted to have a go at pumping the kero this way.
At home, every night, once the kero was put into our Coleman lamp and some in the Chinese lamp – my family gathered in our blackened old kitchen and ate their dinner.
The floor was uneven and with the weathered timber leaving gaps in between, we dropped the bones of chickens and pork to the village dogs and pigs, which fought over it. Sometimes the fights would become too aggressive and the animals would run into the fragile posts so it felt like the kitchen would drop off the side of the main house. My cousins and I would get scolded for dropping our scraps down the timber gaps. Tonight, my family were only a few metres away from me separated by a couple of walls. I turned the lantern wick higher for more light. I adjusted my bed.
Most of the kapok had fallen out or shrivelled in my pillow so I tucked some clothes under it and raised my head. I reached up with my book and turned the pages.
I knew Mother would place my food on the bench top, near the hot teapot, so it will stay warm. Sometimes grandma would place the covered food at the fireplace and they both would insist I go out and eat before bed. Both mother and daughter always respected my reading and schoolwork, but sometimes, my mother would agitate me with her calling. On this night, I wanted to finish my book.
“Ampom!” Mother called.
“Yes” I answered, annoyed.
“Come and eat”.
“Come now, the food is getting cold.”
“I am coming soon”. I turned to the next page and read faster. This was not fun, but I tried to go as fast as I could without skipping any pages.
A few minutes later, mother called again and I could tell she was getting angry. I was not ready to eat. I did not answer. I removed and turned the wick on the Chinese lamp so low, the room became dark. I shut my eyes and put Nancy Drew away. I was annoyed at my mother. I was hungry but only to find out what had happened in the story.
“Ampom!” I heard mother yell. I did not answer her.
Mother rose from the floor in the kitchen, and I heard her march to our bedroom.
She opened the door by pushing hard against the grating sand on the floor. The door did not have a lock. I had shut my eyes and twisted my body into an awkward position and pretended I was asleep.
Mother started calling my name and sat down and tried to shake me. I did not move.
Mother lifted my shoulders and my head rolled back as if I was unconscious or dead. I was supposed to pretend I was asleep, but somehow, the idea of being dead entered my head – so I went with it.
“Ampom, tisa, tisa” – Mother begged in Bukawa for me to wake up.
“Giuc – Giuc!” mother started calling her sister. My aunt was shocked by the tone of my mother’s voice and tried to ask my mother what was going on. There was no time for mother to explain. By now my mother became hysterical and started calling her own mother for help because she thought I was dead.
In minutes – everyone rushed into the small space on my bed and started pulling my hair and calling all my four names. They would throw cold water on me next to try to wake me.
I finally ‘woke’ up to the relief of my mother – who was already crying. I told Mother I lied and I was pretending to be asleep and she did not believe me. I told her; I only wanted to have some peace and quiet – and even some light to read my book. Being a nurse, she was not convinced so she gave me a thorough check up; feeling the temple, checking the eye-balls, checking the ear and the throat. And then, I had no choice but to go outside and eat.
I grew up in Papua New Guinea, and the people of my country are fearful of sorcery. Although my family members were devout christians (Kauckesa, Tamang, my grandfather was a teacher and clergyman for the Lutheran Church) there are other traditional beliefs and practices that culturally and spiritually linked our people to the nature and the environment. These beliefs and customs have helped us survive for many years. Sanguma (sorcery) was not one of these beliefs.
In my own life, I have seen and written some stories, recalling incidents and events that have been directly associated with sorcery and the beliefs of our people. I know of many killings that were alleged to be sorcery related. I have seen family members wasted to their last days, and buried because they refuse modern medicine. They suffered immensely, but believed witchcraft and sorcery was causing their illness for some reason or punishment and their ailment was incurable.
On the other hand, a different kind of societal treachery occurs in a community fearful of the occult, where the accused is judged and attacked or killed. No courts. No help. Often the community or village would stand back, hands held up with reluctance, letting the crime take place.
My grandfather used to call it Satan’s work. Evil striking on a whim, and prayer was the only thing to offer in efforts to rescue or heal. It has never been clear to me – I have felt each one of us have spirits deep within us. These spirits are so powerful and they create the characters and the people within ourselves. We choose the spirit, the one or the ones that become us. What clearly stands out in the sorcery violence is, the accused are mostly women and children. I wonder, is sorcery merely offering another avenue for blood-thirsty, violent men in PNG?
Sanguma and the fear of it, is rampant in Papua New Guinea. Education makes little difference. The deep-seated, hysterical terror of sorcery and its consequences is unfathomable, to the extent that it is so easy for anyone to pick up an axe, knife, or spear to hurt the next person based purely on the suspicion. An uncle can kill a nephew. A husband can kill a wife or daughter. Anyone could be a witch. Our culture allows violence and our culture allows the beliefs to exist because we allow it to.
“Stop Sorcery Violence” wants to highlight the work of local women and men bravely taking a stand against sorcery and witchcraft accusations, providing assistance to victims and survivors and advocating for a positive change.
I wanted to share one of the organisation’s success stories tonight. Please be warned, you may not like what you see or read on the website. Some of the stories are horrific.
A boy is accused
A nine-year-old boy from Simbu Province is happy in his new home after surviving terrible torture because of sanguma accusations.
In July this year Peter was admitted to the Kundiawa hospital with severe cuts to his head and body, and with the loss of blood, there was a slim chance of survival. Peter’s own uncle attacked the boy with an axe after accusing him of practising sanguma (being a witch).
When taken to Kundiawa Hospital, quick action by the doctors, miraculously pieced Peter’s body back together, even some of the severely damaged tissues.
In over two months, Peter made a remarkable recovery. It was not what the doctors had expected. He regained most of his movements and ability as a normal person.
Then, came the daunting questions, now that he had survived, where would Peter go? The boy’s parents were both dead. His own home and extended family were not safe for Peter to return to. No relatives had visited him in hospital, and the option of him returning back to his village was too dangerous.
Several members of the Catholic Church: Archbishop Douglas Young, Bishop Don Lippert, Father Philip Gibbs and Father Jan Jaworski worked on finding a place where Peter could go and be with other children, to continue his education and develop a normal life. The public responded very positively, and after identifying some places in the Highlands, he was relocated to a safe place to start a new life. Peter was one of the lucky ones.
Regarding Sanguma accusations and their related violence, women and children are the targeted victims. For each woman or child that has been saved, another is tortured, banned from her family and village or murdered. There are many people standing up against sorcery related violence. Many are working hard to prevent violence and assist victims. Human Rights Defenders, the Catholic Church, Community-Based Organisations, International NGOs and some government bodies including police are realising the extent of the this specific kind of violence and have started to develop strategies to save lives. For the PNG people, every person is encouraged to take a personal action by joining the fight to stop the violence.
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.