Tag Archives: Wagang Village Lae

A Rope Ambush


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Tinang and I in 2006, Wagang Village, PNG.

My grandmother Geyamlamuo Poaluawe Baim (Geyam) was born on 4/4/1919. She died in 2008 while I was away in Vietnam on a university field trip. Like many others she raised, I called her Tinang which means mother. I miss her so much even though I know, she is always with me.

A Rope Ambush – Short Story (JLeahy Memoirs ©)

Dew glistened on blades and seed pockets as we walked through the thick wet grass. My sun-tanned legs were studded in pale green grass seeds. I wore my brown shorts and an old white T-shirt,  ripped on the shoulders with pin holes all over. It was cooler and easier to work in. I was turning eight and tall.

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so”, I sang quietly as grandma and I headed for our garden. Tinang sang with me and then stopped. The morning was cool and the humidity took its time to arrive. I tried pushing the grass apart with a stick before stepping into the track so I would not step on toads, snakes or get wet.  My feet were covered in mud. If we did not go to the main market in Lae town, Papua New Guinea on Saturdays, I would be out fishing or gardening with Tinang. I was glad Tinang’s elephantiasis leg did not swell up today and I knew even if her foot bothered her, she would have never mentioned it.

We had left the main road to Wagang village and were crossing the wet over-grown track to our old garden. The old and new gardens were side by side. We needed to pick up some young banana shoots, tapioca sticks and kaukau (sweet potato) leaves for the new garden. It was almost 8am. I knew the time because the ambulance had come to pick up my uncle for work at 7am and we had walked an hour from the village. We stopped to visit my aunt; otherwise it would have taken us half hour to 45 minutes. Our garden was further away than other gardens.

“Ampom Mamang!” grandma whispered suddenly.

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Tinang at her home in Lae 2006.

That was a very quiet order, telling me to stop singing.

Over the birds’ songs and the wind rustling the leaves, I could hear voices and wood chopping.

“They are close” grandma said.

“Who were they?” “What were they chopping on our land?” I needed clarity but grandma’s eyes indicated – now was not the time.

We both stood still and listened. We could not see anyone yet. I knew the noisemakers were not our villagers. They spoke a different language and sometimes in conversation, they would speak pidgin. This meant, “they” were outsiders, most likely the squatter settlers. We called them Kaii. This word means foreigners. Tinang and I had no idea how many they were.

Tinang signed that we would take a short cut through the trees and hide in the bushes near our coconut trees. The trees were planted as a landmark close to the boundary of the Martin Luther Seminary. This spot had some vines and thick undergrowth. Beyond the seminary, our tribal land was occupied by hundreds of illegal squatter settlers. They came from Morobe Province and the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Many settlers had lived there for up to three generations and claimed the land as theirs. Often, there were fights between villagers and the settlers.

As grandma and I got closer, the sound of chopping became distinct. People were talking and laughing. They joked and laughed as they went about their business.

Through the thick undergrowth and heavily entwined creepers, we counted seven adult male. Three had ‘weapons’ – two knives and one axe. Grandma and I only had one bush knife. I looked at her and then I watched the others break the dry firewood and stacked them on bush vines – prepared to be tied into a bundle.

Tinang made eyes to be quiet and move quickly. She was almost sixty, but she could move quickly even with her bad leg. She cut a long creeper and removed all the leaves. It was strong and several metres long. Then grandma cut the second one and did the same thing.

Two of the men started playing and chased each other and one jumped almost into our secret hiding place under the vines. I froze. The man fell two metres away, got up and ran and playfully pushed his friend over.

His friend tripped over some Hessian bags and fell. It was the first time I noticed the old brown bags were filled with food. We called these bags “copra bags” because our people sold their copra in the bags. I counted seven bags and four bundles of bananas. They could not get anymore bananas because I knew from last week, only four were ready to harvest. They did take a lot of sweet potatoes and tapioca. They also had taros that I could see from the open bags. They men harvested our gardens for themselves and now to top it off, they helped themselves to our firewood. They must have begun this thieving trip very early this morning I thought and I felt very angry.

I looked at grandma and she was very busy tying ropes in different parts of the bush – it was like, she was setting up a rope trap. I wondered how we would catch these grown men in our rope traps. I was afraid.

I lifted my chin in a question to grandma and made eyes at the ropes. She signalled me to wait and see. Once she tied the two creepers on all the small Aducbo trees, she brought their ends to one spot and told me to stand there and get ready to pull. I grabbed the robes and took my position. She worked under the vines and tied all the trunks of small trees in a semicircle.

Tinang cut two more strong thick vines and quietly under the cover of the vines, she creeped around to the opposite of the spot where I was. She winked at me and smiled. I knew she was up to something and although I was afraid of the men, I was confident she had a good plan.

After she tied the ropes at her side, grandma returned to me and asked.

“Are you afraid?”

“No Tinang” I said and smiled at her.

She hugged me. Then she whispered in my ear that she will give me a queue when she starts yelling abuses – I must, in my loudest and scariest voice scream and be very abusive as well and pull the two ropes at the same time.

The words I was to scream out were; ”What are you doing? What are you doing on my land?” “We will kill you, we will get you! We are coming for you!”

Grandma returned to her position and she stared hard at me and nodded, I nodded back and she started pulling the trees and screaming abuses. All the trees became alive in a semi-circle. I was surprised.

Caught off guard too, the men ran in my direction and I started doing the same thing. The ropes yanked the small trees – making noise and in an ambush, leaving only two escape routes. One gap led back to the garden and one led to the opening facing the Martin Luther seminary. Fleeing back in the direction to the garden, the men realised their mistake, turned and ran to the seminary. Tinang and I kept screaming and shaking pulling the trees and bushes until we were sure the thieves were gone. Then we hugged and laughed until we cried.

We inspected and confirmed the bags of food were harvested from our gardens. The thieves also left their two bush-knives and an axe. There were some dirty ripped smelly shirts, which we threw into the trees to hang as flags to celebrate our successful ambush.

Together, grandma and I carried the bags to new hiding places. Then we took the axe and bush knives and went to get my uncles to help carry our harvest home.

An Eel Escape


From memoir series JLeahy. Part 1

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We learn early to fish and catch food for our families. In Papua New Guinea, as in many indigenous cultures, children are taken with their mothers to learn about nature and where to find food. Picture taken my JLeahy on Suki River, PNG. 2008

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.

TO BE CONTINUED..tomorrow.

Short Story – Mother’s Coffee Land


Memoir series – JLeahy

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Credit: Dr Wright picture

In the first moon of the coffee season, the bees would have long gone from the sweetness in the coffee blossom. The delicate petals of coffee blossoms would wither, turn brownie-yellow and drop to carpet the base of the trees. Here, under the tree, other insects such as ants would gather around the sticky rotting pulp. This was the picking time. My mother and her sisters would prepare to harvest grandpa’s coffee.

This is my mother’s Coffee Land story.

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A coffee plantation in Morobe Province

My grandfather’s name means “intelligent” and so he was. Kauc’s coffee garden was planted on his father’s land, miles away from our village.

To harvest the coffee beans; equipment, food, bags, water and all other necessities for processing had to be carried to the garden on foot. It was a labour-intensive method in which cherries are picked, selected and pulped by hand all day and for several weeks.

The remaining flesh from the pulping process was used as composting material for both the coffee and food gardens. Once the bean was dried, it was shelled. The coffee was now ready to sell and grandpa took it to town and in exchange, he bought sugar, rice and a small stick of tobacco. The tobacco was his treat, although he rarely smoked. My mother often wondered why he spent his hard-earned money on tobacco he did not really smoke. She said perhaps he shared it with his friends.

The coffee garden was Kauc’s pride and joy. Being a male and the second eldest in his family, Kauc owned a large piece of land. He was a devout Lutheran and a teacher. Kauc loved the land and he tried some cocoa and his coffee garden for cash.

The coffee garden, near our food garden, was situated less than an hour walking distance from our small coastal village outside Lae, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea. Kauc grew Arabicas. With a high rainfall and good soil, the trees grew well and produced top quality beans. The family did not drink this coffee. They drank tea which came from Garaina, a sub-district in our province. This coffee garden was purely cultivated as a cash crop.

When the coffee berries ripened they developed a glossy sheen on its deep red shades. My mother, her sisters and my grandparents would go to the garden to pick the coffee and spend the whole day sorting and processing.

Sometimes, they would take a break and make a fire in nearby kunai (grassland) to surround and trap bandicoots for lunch. This made the long day interesting.

My mother said she would feed me milk and lay me down in a bilum (string bag) and hang the bag on a Rosewood branch. Under the shade, the cool breeze kept me asleep while she and her sisters picked coffee. My grandfather washed and peeled the red skins, revealing pale beans. The sisters would pick and bring bags of the red cherries and pour them into my grandpa’s pulper.

“He would stand there in his laplap and T shirt and just turn the handles until the machine skinned and spit the pale brown seeds out the other end. The seeds were collected and dried in the sun. He was in charge of this machine” my mother said.

The trees and in particular, the Rosewood tree became the landmark. Memories of the coffee garden surfaced in a family argument over land allocation eight years ago. My grandfather and his brother were the head of our family and clan. Both men had died three decades ago. Their sons, my two uncles who became head of our clan and land had also died. My mother remains the eldest of the family and clan. Her being a woman brought another cultural and customary argument about where she would live.

According to my cousin brothers, my mother should not have any land. Fortunately for my mother, and for the fact that she was born the daughter of an intelligent man, she stood up for her share. My mother made sure she had spoken to my uncles and got both their approvals before they died. When my uncles asked her to choose, she had marked the land where she used to hang me in a bilum, while she picked coffee with her father. This coffee garden became her land. In memory of her father, my mother named her son Kauc and I named my son Kauc.

The Nightmare of Story-writing


I haven’t forgotten to publish a new short story. I have written a few for my Creative Writing workshop and my memoir. The thing with writing stories is that every time you read it, you want to re-write it. It is not verbal so you could just correct yourself as you tell the story. And, just like the critical eye of an artist about his or her work, I feel that the story is never finished. When I do attempt to re-write, I often lose the magical essence I applied during free writing. For example, a short story of 800 words may flow so well on my first draft but when I start to add more descriptions and enrich the content, I start to lose the tension building or the essence of the conflict.

Then, you still have the general structure and language of the story to worry about. I cringe sometimes when I read my writing that I have published and I had missed a typo, grammar or perhaps a paragraph could be better placed or written. You could pick up something in this piece of writing and I would be in trouble again. What a nightmare it must be for all writers. Thank goodness we have editors and ‘know-it-all’ friends who will point out our mistakes. Sometimes you feel like saying, “You think it is easy; why don’t you write it then?” But without them, these “auto-corrector assistants”, we would not be able to bring good stories out to our readers in good writing.

Anyway friends, that was really my reason for delaying a new short story on this page. I am still editing some of them but let’s just call this one a work-in progress so I can give it to you as promised. It is a non-fiction short story from what I am writing for my memoir.

The Windy Curse 

JLeahy Memoir

The wind was howling curses. Footsteps ran on gravel. People were rushing up the main road, away from Wagang, our small coastal village. It had stormed all night and all day. The waves rose in great heights over the far end of Wagang outside Lae, Papua New Guinea. It was 1972.

My uncle Sam said: “Yesterday morning, some houses were washed away with part of the coastline”. I could not go to school.

“The sea is coming!” I heard a woman call out. She half ran with two crying children behind her. Mounted on her back, the woman had three bilums filled with clothes and food. Dusk had approached when she threw that warning at Tinang, my grandma. There was panic in the woman’s voice as she hurried with her children up the road. We lived at the mouth of the main road to Lae town. Other men, women and children with bags walked quickly by, some dragging or carrying smaller children and animals.

I grabbed my clothes, towel and blanket then followed my own mother out of the room. Mother grabbed a few things. She packed them madly in a handbag and a large bilum. I was not sure what to take.

“Quick, come!” she called.

“Where are we going?” I said.

“We must leave now,” she said. I followed her out of our room.

The village was in danger. We had to follow the rest of the villagers inland. The wind had not stopped for two days. The dry coconut leaves and nuts dropped randomly, making it dangerous to walk outside our house. There was some flying debris of plastic, paper, Tuk and Abong leaves. I wanted to run to grandpa’s house, next to our big house but I was scared. I also thought our roof might fly off.

“I will get the mosquito net,” Mother said. She disappeared and returned with a white bundle with pink ropes and added it to my arms. She made eyes at me to go to Tinang.

I could hear the waves getting louder in the distance and heard my aunty Giuc screaming that the sea was coming in. She was also yelling curses at her cousins to leave the village and run up the road. Aunty Giuc was a few years older than I and tough.

“Hurry!” mother said. I had no idea where mother meant. There was no further instructions.

“Are we running up the road?”. It did not make sense to me, I thought – the road was too flat. The sea would get us.

Yesterday, the government radio said we needed to move quickly as the waves would be at the village on the second day.

“Where are we going?” I asked again.  Mother left me in the lounge and headed for grandpa’s house. I stood near the window and watched through the broken fly-wire. There were no louvres so I felt the wind.

Grandpa once dreamt that our village, less than a metre above sea level was going to sink into the sea. He told villagers that one day the water was coming in and we would disappear because the two rivers that surrounded our village joined on both ends.  Grandpa also told the villagers our house was built on the stone so even if the village sunk,  our house would remain standing, just like the biblical house that was built on the stones. I think that part made the villagers angry because they thought he meant our house was better than theirs. The villagers thought my grandpa’s dream was a crazy story.

As I watched everyone running past, I wondered if today was “The day” grandpa predicted. I walked to the front of the house to see where grandma was. I stopped at the top landing of our steps shocked at what was on our front yard.

There was sea-froth on the sand. The bubbles on the browny white foam slowly burst and disappeared into the sand. It left curly wet sandy trails. It was not normal for the sea to come this far, I thought. We were over 100 metres away from the beach. I scanned the ground to see if there would be fish. It was weird. In the last King tides, my cousins caught some tuna in the middle of our village soccer pitch.

I turned to look in our backyard; my eye caught the river rising. The river seemed angry like the wind. The dirty brown water twirled and rushed along debris and household rubbish.  I could smell the sea from my left and at the same time, from my right, I smelt the swamp coming to meet the sea. Watching it, the swamp swell drowned everything in its path as it spilt over the banks and leaked towards me rapidly. Mother’s garden of maa-le, a scented deep green waterlily used for curing fever, disappeared under the brown smelly water. Just like the swamp people’s houses, I saw our kitchen house posts and the fireplace disappearing into the water. Where grandma had planted the Chinese Kangkung and watercress, flotsam mixed with village rubbish of empty Marvolene bleach bottles, Ommo packets and old thongs pushed in, crushing the green healthy vegetable carpet with its filthy weight.

I looked to grandpa’s small house and I could not see mother. I wondered if father and daughter were praying. It made sense. Tamang (grandpa) believed in God.

“Mamaa!” I called out.

She did not answer. I looked at the people passing our house again. No-one waved goodbye or passed greetings. Everyone looked anxious. I decided they were going to walk to town and climb Mt Lunaman. That was the only high ground I knew.

“Mama! Mama!” I called. I sat on the cold timber floor and waited. The sand caught between the timber gaps caught my eye. There was so much sea-sand in the house.

In the past, the waves had come like a thief and took three village houses on the beach. Luckily no human lives but only pigs, dogs and some chickens went with the houses in the waves. The villagers became smarter and built away from the shoreline. On bad days like this one, we all left the village. The waves were left to what to do what they wanted.

“Yupla kisim ol samting na igo antap long rot”, the loud voice interrupted.

Get your things and move up the road. It was the village councillor. The village bell rang three times signalling emergency. Three times also meant someone died. I was confused.

“Hariap!” a loud voice called. I did not see my uncle Sam but he was barking instructions too at my family to hurry. He told them not to bring rubbish.  He also told his wife, his sisters, cousins and brothers to make sure they brought their underpants as he did not want anyone making pictures he did not want to see in the bush. This remark made everyone scream in laughter. It eased their tension only slightly.

I knew mother was with Grandpa. I stood up and looked out through the broken fly wire again. Then I saw Tinang, my grandma and ran down to her near the main road.

I waited near Tinang. My head reached her shoulders. I could smell lime and betel nut. I felt my way into her colourful nylon bilum to see if she had any betel nut. I was nervous and wanted to chew. In Tinang’s bilum, my hand touched empty nut skins, a towel, her Koala skin purse and other small things and not betel nut.

Tinang said, “it would be hard to move grandpa.”

“Why?”

“Because he is stubborn,” she said in Bukawac.

Grandpa can walk. I could not see how grandpa would walk all the way – but to where? The nearest mountain was miles away.

“Where are we going?” I asked Tinang.

“We are just going to go into the bush,” she finally told me. It finally made sense to me. In the bush, if we had to, we could climb up trees.

Soon, sea water ran in from the front of grandpa’s small house. It was made of bush material. There was froth and I knew more sea would come.

Then, I heard a truck coming. It was my grandma’s brother Mambu’s truck, Maac Kalac. A flat-top Mitsibishi with passenger seats. Its name, Maac Kalac in Yabem means the “proud bird”.

“Ampom!” I heard mother calling me and I ran to her. She came over to grab our things. She pulled my hand and took me to the truck and told me to get up. Someone lifted me and sat me on top of some clothes.

Below the truck engine, and all the chattering, I heard the village boys splashing and laughing in the distance and I knew they were having fun. I thought how silly they were to not see danger coming. Mother continued to madly pack food, matches and torch into our bag. Uncle Sam was giving final directions to all our family members to get on Awac Mambu’s truck.

This was a Public Motor Vehicle (PMV) licensed to transport the villagers into town for 10 cents. Tonight it was a free ride. Packed from top to bottom, it was loaded with bags, food, pots, pans, coconut. I could not believe it. Some people brought everything. There were dogs and chickens. Someone brought a duck! A duck could swim and fly. Why did they bring a duck?

“Tamang?” I turned my attention back to mother for my grandpa.

“He will come,” mother lied. Perhaps she was hoping he would come, I thought.

We loaded in less than an hour and the water started to sweep across the road to the tyres. Awac Mambu wanted to drive off and someone said grandpa was not on the truck. I sat up and looked back to the deserted house. I started crying and wanted to get off. Everyone started arguing. My mother ran back with the kerosine lantern. She disappeared behind our big house. Ten minutes later, mother ran back without the lantern and without grandpa. She whispered to me that we had to leave now and Uncle Sam would come back to get grandpa. We drove off. I thought about grandpa’s dream. I put my head on the bag of clothes next to the food and animals and closed my eyes.