I WAS SURPRISED TO READ in Jeff Febi’s recent article that the tradition of older, wealthier men having more than one wife lives on.
But sometimes love can triumph even over the fear of sorcery as I found in 1970 when I was a kiap at Baimuru.
The Village Constable from Uraru, which is located on the upper reaches of the Purari River, arrived at the station clutching an object wrapped in a sheet.
The Village Constable told us he wished to report the murder of a villager, an man of over 50 years of age called Momei.
As was the custom in much of Papua New Guinea at that time, many men aspired to have several wives, partly as a display of wealth and partly to help spread the domestic workload amongst more women.
The wives were ranked in order of precedence from wife No.1 (the ‘Chief Operating Officer’ of the family group) downwards. The youngest and most lubricious wife was, rather predictably, usually allocated the role of ‘sex object’, although a thoughtful, not to mention robust, husband sometimes felt moved to spread his genetic largesse as equitably as possible amongst his wives.
It seemed that the late Momei had both the wealth and the inclination to take four wives, the youngest of whom was only 15. It also transpired that there was a virile and ambitious young man from a village located several days walk away who felt mightily aggrieved at the arranged marriage of his beloved to the distinctly decrepit and not terribly bright Momei.
The young man had neither the family wealth nor the prestige to accumulate a large enough ‘bride price’ or dowry to outbid Momei for the girl. Thus the scene was set for the Shakespearean tragedy that followed.
Despite her marriage, the girl had continued to engage in romantic trysts with her beloved. Evidently the hapless Momei had no insight into what his youngest wife was up to although it was quite clear that the other villagers knew what was going on.
For a while domestic tranquility prevailed, but the young man simply could not accept the idea of sharing his beloved with the ancient Momei. He therefore conceived a plan to be rid of him permanently. Like a latter day Iago, he managed to inveigle himself into the confidence of Momei, becoming an apparent friend and confidante.
After some months of careful preparation, he invited Momei to join him on a hunting trip which involved a trek of several days. They duly set off and, after two days of steady walking, when they were far from the village, the young man killed Momei with a single axe blow to the back of the head. After hiding the body, he returned to the village alone.
Feigning great distress, he told a tale of how the old man had collapsed while crossing a river, with his body being washed away before he could reach him. While not implausible, this tale did not convince the villagers. Their suspicions were further aroused when, only a few days later, Momei’s youngest wife disappeared in company with her paramour.
This incited the eldest wife and the Village Constable to go off in search of Momei’s body. It is a testament to the Village Constable’s formidable bushcraft that he succeeded, based upon the murderer’s own account of where Momei had died, in finding his way to the very spot that he was killed. There, after a short search, he found the body.
The Village Constable now faced a problem. He could not bring the body back to the village as it had deteriorated greatly. He therefore hit upon the idea of removing Momei’s head and setting it upon a large ants nest.
Over only a few days, the voracious ants as well as other insects, systematically consumed all the edible matter, eventually leaving only the skull, complete with the telltale fractures and cavity left by the murderer’s axe.
He then trekked back to the village with the skull and spent a further week paddling down to Baimuru to report the murder. The object wrapped in the sheet was the victim’s skull, which was solemnly presented to ADO Peter Harrison and me in our office as proof positive of evildoing. It was a thoroughly convincing piece of evidence.
After consultations with the District Commissioner, it was decided that Peter and I would hunt down the offender. This involved several days’ canoe travel up to Uraru, where we established a Base Camp.
My job was to gather evidence from the villagers, while Peter, the Village Constable, several other villagers and two police would walk the several day’s to the alleged murderer’s village to arrest him. My part of the business proceeded fairly predictably but Peter’s did not.
When he arrived at the village, the residents, virtually all of whom were relatives of the young man, stoutly maintained that the murderer was not there. He was supposed to have run away into the bush with his girlfriend. They claimed that no-one knew where they were, nor had seen them for some days.
The Village Constable said nothing when the villagers were present, but later told Peter that their story was a lie. Peter then decided to carry out what proved to be a brilliantly effective ruse. He announced to the village that the patrol would press on into the bush in search of the murderer. In fact, they simply marched off far enough into the bush to be unobserved and then set up camp.
After an interval of some hours, Peter crept back to a ridge overlooking the village and, as they say in police procedurals, “awaited developments”. In due course, the murderer and his girlfriend were seen cautiously entering the village, where their relatives gleefully told them that the kiap had been deceived and sent off on a wild goose chase.
Peter realised that the geography of the area, where the village had to be approached over relatively open ground, conspired against any attempt to sneak up unobserved to seize the murderer. He puzzled over the problem for a while before coming up with the idea of creating a diversion that would allow the patrol to enter the village surreptiously. The question was what sort of diversion would work? It was then that he devised a masterstroke.
One of the accompanying villagers had with him a heavily pregnant wife who, as a relative of Momei, had insisted on accompanying the patrol to see that the murderer was caught. Peter asked if she would be willing to walk into the village and then “collapse”, apparently in the throes of premature child birth, while her husband would scream and wail.
The theory was that this little soap opera would provide the necessary distracting drama to allow the patrol to seize the murderer, who would no doubt join his relatives in seeing what all the fuss was about.
Incredibly, this seemingly mad idea worked like a charm. The villagers were utterly taken in by the charade and Peter and the police were able to seize the unsuspecting murderer as he, along with his devious relatives, distractedly watched an Academy Award winning performance by the pregnant woman and her husband.
Any resistance to his seizure by his relatives was suppressed by the police meaningfully gesturing with their Lee Enfield rifles complete with fixed bayonets.
The murderer was brought back to Baimuru where he was held for several months pending transportation to Kerema for trial before the Supreme Court. During this time he was accompanied by his girlfriend who, thanks to our rather relaxed approach to running Correctional Services, was soon pregnant.
He spent his days wandering around the station carrying out various tasks, many of which required the use of an axe or machete. He never once tried to escape and proved to be a cheerful and quite amiable prisoner.
He was duly convicted of murder and sentenced to four years imprisonment, a typically lenient sentence then handed out for crimes committed by people regarded as living entirely traditional lives.
Everyone, including the judge, knew that his problems would really start upon his release, as he was then at considerable risk of being the victim of a payback murder.
The only way he (or his relatives) could stave off such a fate would be by making a substantial payment to Momei’s aggrieved relatives, whether monetary or in kind, such as several pigs and valuable decorative items such a Bird of Paradise feathers.
The last I heard was that this latter course was indeed the plan. Perhaps he and his paramour lived happily ever after.