FRANCIS S NII
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mining & Petroleum
Award for Short Stories
CHRISTMAS HAS ALL KINDS of faces. For Christians around the world it is the time for the commemoration of the birth of the Messiah; for the capitalists it is mega-buck commercials and for the atheistic poor in Papua New Guinea it is delusion and crime.
It was Christmas Eve 1998 and my family I and had just pulled up in front of Chris and Susan Kopyoto’s fast food outlet adjacent to the Shell fuel depot at Kainantu in our 4 wheel drive Toyota Hilux dual cab.
I wanted to pay Chris and wife Susan a courtesy call while on our way to Anamunafa in the Aiyura valley to attend to a Christmas Christian fellowship program.
Chris is from Enga Province and is married to Susan who is from Kainantu - mama graun.
Three years previously, I had been in Kainantu on a six weeks assignment when Chris and Susan were trying to buy the Shell fuel depot and the entire adjoining commercial premises then owned by Wampna Group, the business arm of the Western Highlands Provincial Government, and I was instrumental in helping them make their dream come true.
Chris had asked me several times to give him a courtesy call whenever I passed through Kainantu but I never did until Christmas Eve 1998.
I got out of the vehicle and went looking for Chris and Susan. My family remained in the vehicle.
One of the workers led me to Chris’s office. We shook hands and he told me he was excited to see me.
Without asking if I had time to spare, Chris proudly took me on a one hour tour of the entire property. A very determined and enterprising couple they were. The way they changed what was once a rundown rats’ lair into a modern multi-commercial centre was very impressive.
After an hour, I returned to the vehicle with the lunch packs Chris had gotten for us. I gave the packs to my wife and got into the driver’s seat.
As I was about to insert the key into the ignition, a young man leaning against the tail of the vehicle turned and tried to grab the key from my hand. I twisted his hand and shoved it off.
At this point, another young man standing against the wall in front of the fast food joint pulled a brand new factory made pistol out of his dirty army jacket and pointed it in my face. ‘Key or life?’ he said and the message sank in.
The moment my wife and the children saw the pistol, they spontaneously got out of the vehicle and fled the scene.
I surrendered the key to the mugger and got out.
As the culprits drove away, bystanders raised the alarm. The public responded to by throwing sticks and stones at the driver to disturb him.
The driver halted in front of the nearby Mobil fuel depot on the other side of the Shell depot.
The man with the pistol got out and fired two warning shots into the bitumen in the direction of the crowd. People ran in all directions.
Then both men held up the Mobil employees and emptied the cashier of all the takings for Friday and Saturday into our bilum that they stole.
After firing another warning shot in the direction of the gathering crowd, they drove to the main highway and headed east in the direction of Yonki.
Not long after, a police vehicle came and gave chase.
About half an hour later the policemen came back with my vehicle. I felt relief.
At the Kainantu Police Station, the police explained that the gang drove to the dead end at the back of Kainantu Secondary School, left the vehicle with the engine running and escaped on foot to the other side of the creek.
The police knew the culprits. They were members of a gang that had been operating in and around Kainantu and their leader was the one with the pistol. His name was Nero, a man of mixed Engan and Kainantu parentage.
The criminals were wanted by police for various crimes and the police assured me that they would still get the leader dead or alive.
The police got my personal details and particulars of the vehicle and then released it back to me.
The vehicle was in perfect condition. There were only few scratches here and there on the body.
The gang stole our two bags - one full of spare clothes and the other containing toiletries, bibles, a bunch of keys and other small things.
What worried me most were the keys. They included keys to all the doors of the entire National Development Bank offices in Elizabeth Street in Goroka. What if the gang found out?
Well, one advantage was that the keys had no name tags. Also I trusted what the police had told me. The muggers only wanted the vehicle to get away and that was the end of their mission.
I decided we should continue to Anamunafa and attend the fellowship.
Eventually we made it to Anamunafa outside the Summer Institute of Linguistics camp a half hour drive from Kainantu town.
I told the host pastor what had happened, including that I was worried about the keys.
At the evening meeting, the pastor announced what had happened and asked people to pray for the keys to be returned. We held hands and all said a special prayer.
We prayed again during the morning session.
When the time came for the evening session, I sat with my back against one of the corner posts that held up the gigantic tent.
As we were about to worship, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the host pastor. He whispered in my ear, “There is someone standing outside the tent at the back of you. You need to meet him.”
I walked outside and there was Nero. I praised God for bringing him to me.
I said ‘good night Nero’ and wrapped my right arm around his and introduced myself to him and told him about what he did to me the day before. I told him I forgave him for the holdup and, to be serious with my word, gave him a K10 note. In that short span of time, we became friends.
I asked him about the keys and he said they were in his in-law’s house, three houses from where we stood. I asked him if we could go and get them and he agreed.
We held hands and strolled together to his mother in-law’s house. I stood outside and he went into the house. After some minutes he came out.
To my dismay he shoved something metallic and heavy into my hand. I held it up to the moonlight and it was the hand gun that he used to hold me up. It was a big hand gun with a long barrel.
“I don’t want this thing. I want the keys,” I said to him.
“They’re here,” he said, giving me the key bunch.
“Nothing is missing?”
“Go and count them one by one,” he said. I praised God in my heart.
I said thank you and gave him back the gun. I felt he was showing off his gun.
As we walked back to the camp site, I asked him why he stole the money.
Nero replied, “This is Christmas and everybody is celebrating and for me and my friends, we need to celebrate too with some barbecue and beers.
“We didn’t have the money to buy lamb flaps, chicken, sausages and beer so we had to steal to buy them. We waited a long time for a get-away vehicle and you came. We couldn’t miss the opportunity so we held you up and got your vehicle.
This is the ugly face of Christmas I felt – delusion and crime.
“Barbecuing and drinking beer are not the only way to celebrate Christmas,” I said. “Look at us, we are singing, dancing and praising God and feasting on the Word of God. We are happy and we have peace and joy in our hearts. And this is the good way to celebrate Christmas because it doesn’t cost us any money. Why don’t you join us.”
Nero was reluctant.
“What if the police catch you?” I posed.
“Ha, they won’t. We know their tactics and they won’t catch us,” he said confidently.
The last word I left with him was, “If you live by the barrel of gun you will die by the barrel of gun. The only way to save your life is to turn away from gun and become a Christian”, and I went back to the fellowship.
At the end of the preaching, I told the host pastor to announce to the Christians that God had answered our prayers. The gang leader had returned the keys back to me with not one key missing.
The Christians roared into applause of praise and thanks to God when the Pastor made the announcement. We all indeed believed it was a miracle.
The next morning on our way back to Goroka, we passed through the scene where all the drama took place on that Christmas Eve and it reminded me of the ugly and delusive face of Christmas.