Tag Archives: Papua New Guinea women

The Big One – JKLeahy Memoir Stories

The Big One – J.K. Leahy

(A special tribute to some of the powerful women that influenced my life).

With Ma Yang. JKLeahy Watercolour 2018.

My line stretched beyond the width of the fat river. The water was slightly brown-greenish – you could see fish swimming under the surface. There were plenty. Debris from two other smaller river mouths came towards us and unfolded to the current that spread across the wider larger Socwa river. The 250gm nylon fish line pressed an unseen line on the glassy surface. We were in the swamps of Wagang Village, Lae, Papua New Guinea. I felt good my hook and bait was close to the other side. Maybe it will catch the big one.

It wasn’t a race between Ma Yang and I. It was a process of an apprentice with her teacher. And the apprentice in her final learning stages before graduation. The river had risen and covered the mangrove and pandanus roots and low-lying branches are now touching it.  A mix aroma of wild tree flowers hung in the air, but the sweet pandanus penetrated the balance. With the deep current, yellow and peach awaho flowers flowed in a line that meandered through the low-lying branches like ballerinas in their fluff skirts. The flower centres popped out like mini umbrellas in deep maroon and gold flecks.

At eight, I was in primary school. But in my fishing years, I was ready to enter university, so we were there to start that course. This location is not for kids as my aunt would say.

“Only for those who are special” she said with a wink.

I knew my aunt had many secret fishing places. But if my mother knew Ma Yang had brought me here, my aunt would have been in trouble. Mother was mostly away and she would never take me to such places; she said “gaming sac” – meaning bad place, and they were full sorcery and other spirits lurking in the shadows.

Our teacher – my late grandma Tinang.

My lead fishing teacher was beside me, and together we carried our old rice bags, roughly cut at one end and filled with bait (shrimps).  The bait were all alive. We had a bush string each for our catch tied to the bag and dangled in the water. My teacher carried a knife. Sometimes we carried a roast banana or kaukau. Dry biscuits were okay, but they made too much noise when we snapped them with our teeth.

“We can pack them, but eat them on the beach after”, she said earlier this morning.

Ma Yang and I had planned this fishing trip for days. Yang yang means yellow in my mother-tongue, Bukawac. (Aunty Yellow was nicknamed “yellow” because of her skin colour).

Today the river swelled. Lup suc means the river had fattened with partially salt, debris and waste from rotting leaves, swamp and other fish life that would provide feed for the ‘kol pis’ in pidgin which means ‘cold fish’ – these are several breeds of swamp river fish.

I suddenly felt a tug and reeled in a cold fish. It was scaly like a python with brown green and bluish undertones. My aunt looked at me to say, ‘well done!”, but it’s all in the eye-talk.

The mosquitoes were biting, but the adrenaline from the fish bites created some tolerance to the annoying buzzing and bites. Sometimes without feeling the sting, when I took my eyes off the line,  I saw mozzie bellies getting bloody and tight, then the mozzies would fall off and fly away.  To constantly smack the mosquitoes meant an intrusion to the balance of the stillness, and the fish would move away.

Mamang eng – be silence as Ma Yang often warned when we entered a sacred place. Every great fisherman knows that”. With the mosquitoes, she said if we put up with pain and irritation, we would truly master the art of fishing for cold fish.

I put some water on my brow to keep me cool. It was lovely under the trees but still hot. My next shrimp bait was peeled and neatly tucked over my earlobe like a cigarette – Ma Yang did the same.

The youngest of the sisters, Aunty Giuc.

We had travelled to this spot along the beach away from the village and deep into the swamp. Aunty Yangyang always picked a new spot for fishing, because she knew. I know she learnt it from her mother and my grandmother. My aunty’s mother was my grandmother’s sister. I was always excited at the anticipation of what mystery and beauty we would discover next and the fish we would catch there. My teacher never told me where we were headed next until we got there. That was part of the lessons – I had to pay attention to the land marks and work out how to get there on my own in the future. We used only shrimp baits for cold fish. We caught the shrimps the day before in a separate stream not far from our small village.

Travelling waist-deep through the wetlands and thorn bush, sharp objects, shell fish and branches and often stepping on kalum (thorn snail). This small snail is dangerous.  Its tiny spikes broke  off into your foot when you stepped on it. This often  got infested, and can immobilise you weeks, if not dealt with early. It is funny because the word kalum also refers to ‘havoc’ in our language. The more difficult the journey, the more fish we caught, at least that’s how I saw it.

As my line raced across the flat surface, I pulled. Before I pulled out the fish from the river, there is a dance. The kol pis likes to jerk the line a couple of times and then let go. After a few jerks, it pulls hard and that’s when you know, you have got it. Aunty Yangyang taught me to not hesitate but also, not pull too soon. If you do, you lose the fish.

After years of fishing with Ma Yang, I learnt that some of the kol pis like eboob and ewayum took the lines like the ocean travelleys and made a dash for it.

I took my fish off my hook and I put the bush rope through the gills and dropped it into the water. It was now swimming again with the others I had caught.

Ma Yang was very quiet, but she had her eye firmly on the dark corners opposite us. We had fished for most of the afternoon and had been there for almost six hours already, but she was set on catching the big one. The big one is called “ee oc”. Both our catch lines were about a metre long. This would feed several households.

The big cold fish usually came at the end, like the grand finally and often this fish would come before or after you catch an eel. They co-existed  in nooks of tree roots in swamp holes – both this fish and the eel. When my aunts and grandma and I catch these with our hands, you stick both hands into the holes and gently move along the belly of the eel to find the other. In my learning days, my grandma would find them and guide my hands to feel through the thick swamp. It was exhilarating, but all done in complete silence.

The sun was setting, and it got cooler. I had questions, but I was taught not to ask questions on the job. Anything I needed to know would be asked while we were walking home or by the fire at meal time. No-one spoke when we were ‘in the zone” and the fish were biting.

It was almost time to go home, but I was not tired. As the sun threw its last rays of a golden pink powder over the open space and green scaly pandanus – its reflection came closer to us under the awaho tree. She touched  the water and I looked at her. Ma Yang’s fish line raced across the water and cut in a straight line as if a knife was being inserted into a cake. My teacher flexed her large, dried palm fish rod. It bent completely to the weight of what glided in large curbing circles in front of us.

She glanced at me. The finally dance began. I knew, the big one was here, but I must keep still.


Ma Yang died a few years ago after a long illness – there is an earlier post about her. I miss her. 

Kau Kau Cuttings – Watercolour

Kaukau Cuttings. Watercolour by J.K.Leahy©

My mother and I have been planting Kaukau or sweet potato cuttings. We hope, we will soon stop buying the good kaukau at Coles for $9 per kilogramme. The cheaper – $6 per kg kaukau, is tasteless, so we took the expensive one and tried to grow it.

It was natural to have kaukau on my mind when I painted my first watercolour this year. Women is Papua New Guinea, especially in the highlands, share kaukau cuttings and this is how they transport the leaves – in bilums. Sometimes they would be given the cuttings by friends and family members. Other times they bring the cuttings from the garden home to plant near their houses.

In fact, it weren’t for my mother being in Brisbane, I wouldn’t plant kaukau because it is too much work. The soil is too dry and if rain does grow the tuber; hare, possums, rats and who knows what else, eat the leaves. Often the animals dug for the tubers as well. This time we used bamboo stakes and placed a net around the garden. My mother was determined.

I had to give in to this planting, because my mother would not give up. And now, I’m glad I went along with her. We planted two species, one was our favourite Hawaiian kaukau from Coles.  Another kaukau called wan mun (one month) was given to us by my friend Marina. That term wan mun meant literally in one month we would eat the tuber. That has not happened yet. I’m not surprised because the conditions here are tough.

We are still waiting for the one month kaukau to bear and it is now three months. The Hawaiian sweet potato is white skinned and purple inside. I chopped the tips off and grew them in a drum until the shoots were strong enough to transfer to the garden. It was a long process.

Kaukau Cuttings II. Watercolour by J.K.Leahy©

Unlike the women I had painted and their gardens, the kaukau in our garden seemed to take forever to grow. I remember growing it in the humid Lae (PNG) climate. Six months gone in Brisbane, and we now start to see the kaukau leaves spread and grow rapidly. I stuck my fingers under soil to see whether there were really any tubers – and there are. I was inspired to really bring these tubers to harvest. I will post some pictures here at harvest time. I don’t know when that is.

“We have to wait for a few more months”, my mother said. This was because, she said the hot summer and then hail storms last year killed off all the leaves and then the surviving tubers re-grew new shoots. We cut the stems and planted more. Now my son has this crazy idea we could build a larger garden to grow more. (I don’t think so...I muttered under my breath).

I hope you enjoy my watercolours and I will keep you posted on the sweet potatoes.

Women & Kaukau Cuttings II. Watercolour by J.K.Leahy©



Where is your grass-skirt?


A young woman in a brand new grass-skirt from the Trobriand Islands.

The story about grass-skirts

A question I’m often asked, and I know I am being teased by friends and people from other cultures is; “where is your grass-skirt?” Many people expect you to have one and wear one because you are from the islands. May be they are just joking or wishing they could see you in a grass-skirt. Who knows? The other question I often get asked is, “where are your coconut shells?” We will leave the second question for later. May be they have watched too many Tahitian dancers.

As for the grass-skirt, let me tell you, I do have one. In-fact, I have had more than one over the years. I have one grass-skirt with me here in Australia. It was not easy getting it through quarantine, but it got through. The sad part is that I have not had a chance to wear the grass-skirt in ten years. It is now too short and small for me. That says a lot doesn’t it? I need to start thinking about making a new one.

Smaller skirts for ankles.

The heritage of PNG women

Grass-skirts are the pride of women in Papua New Guinea and other Pacific islands. In the Melanesian region, grass-skirts are made from  and dyed, with natural fibres and pigments. More women are using Chinese made dyes for the brighter colours, but often, traditional performances, songs, and dancing call only for plain grass-skirts.

Sago palm fibres on a Central Province grass-skirt waistband.

Grass-skirts are made from young fibres of sago palms, bark, sisal, pandanus, banana fibres, and many other natural fibres. The time it takes to source, collect, and prepare the raw materials; splicing, drying and dying takes a lot longer than actually making the skirt. The collection of the material process could be weeks or months and the skirt can be made in a week or less.

Using imported dyes in a Trobriand Island grass-skirt.

Using natural fibres

In my tribe, women use young palm leaves for grass-skirts. The shoot is cut early morning and boiled or spliced and dried immediately to stop iodising/browning of the cream colour. This process captures the supreme creamy white colour. If you ever see the weaving of the Micronesian women, the same kind of process is used to keep young coconut fibre almost white. A tree bark is kept under water for weeks before it becomes soft enough to pulp and split into threads for twisting. The threads would then be used to sew the palm leaves into place at the waist band. When the palm leaf is dried, we decide where the colours would be on the grass-skirt design and dye the colours. For black we use charcoal and dark grey, the fibres are buried in the water for a few weeks. Red comes from a tree seed and finally turmeric is used for yellow and orangey shades.

Rhonda prepares her grass-skirt for festival

I found this interesting film on YouTube (see link below) which gives an insight into a young woman’s preparation for the Hiri Moale Festival. Rhonda Tiana, a Motu-Koitabuan gives you an opportunity to see her prepare her grass-skirt, and use it in the Festival. This grass-skirt is from Central Province.

A beauty from the highlands of PNG

Grace Nugi pictured last Saturday with a bouquet is surrounded by two former Miss PNGs, Quest Committee member Kathy Johnston and her mother.

Grace Nugi was crowned Miss South Pacific-PNG 2014. The 24-year-old from the Papua New Guinea Simbu Province took out four other awards from her five competitors. Grace will represent Papua New Guinea in the Miss South Pacific Quest in Samoa later this year.

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My Views

What I enjoy most from this beauty quest is, it is nothing like what you see or hear in the international arena. Coming from challenging personal backgrounds and a wider culture (PNG) where women’s freedom is threatened with continued violence and in many areas women and girls are regarded as lesser than their male counterparts. It takes a lot of courage for the contestants to be in public and learn to develop a sense of confidence. The quest teaches these young women – how to gain confidence and strive to be whoever they want to be. The quest opens doors for the young contestants to opportunities in education and career apart from the obvious tourism aspect.

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Cultural Heritage and Cultural Preservation

The other thing I love about the quest is that it promotes our material culture, the intangible culture and it involves family and community. Through the promotion of both tangible and intangible culture we preserve our heritage.

How does this happen? Each contestant wears (traditional and day wear) that is original and handmade. The dress could be made using tapa cloth or hand knitted string made fibre (hilum) from natural fibre, shells, bark etc. The headdress and body adornment would come from the province of their heritage and most likely made by family members. Each contestants have to perform a traditional dance from her own heritage. Bear in mind PNG has over 330 languages and 22 provinces with many tribal groups.

Finally, the money paid by their sponsors, is put to a good cause. It funds other young women to complete their education. The quest also assists the winners in international travel to the Miss South Pacific, and further develops the contestants while they are engaged in tourism to promote their country.

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All pictures shown here are from Rocky Roe Photographics. http://www.rockyroephotographics.com

For more on Miss South Pacific (PNG) click on the click below: