J P RICHARD
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Heritage Writing Award
Wars come and go but my soldiers remain eternal (Tupac Shakur)
JUST RECENTLY, DURING MY 2013 new year’s holidays in Markham, I stumbled upon a plant that told me a story of war, love, family history and also broadened my biochemistry understanding of a plant that could transform the face of medicine.
After we bought buai and daka at Ansa market in Mutzing station in the Markham district, my grandfather and I trailed back on the dirt track along the eroding banks of Mangyang creek to our peaceful village of Sampubangin.
Along the track the buai I held in my palm slipped and fell into a bed of thorny bushes of herb. Carefully I tried to pick out my buai and pricked my hand in the process.
“Ouch!” I cried out.
Grandfather laughed and said “Rumpung (grandchild), I’ll tell you a story about this thorny herb.”
I’m like oh boy, here we go, another boring tumbuna story. As a biology student, I already knew what the plant is. It is commonly called touch-me-not, sensitive plant or nilnil grass in tok pidgin. Its scientific name is Mimosa pudica, in Latin pudica means shy, bashful or timid.
The herb is a flowering perennial herb from the same family as the peas and beans, the Fabaceae or Leguminosa family. It’s a native to the tropical Americas but how it ended up in Papua New Guinea had a tale that is embedded in the stories of World War 2 and my grandfather was around 18 years old when WW2 invaded the graceful Markham valley.
The year was 1943 when the Japanese military set up camp in various areas around Morobe province. The Japanese were out-numbered and losing ground but regardless, they had created a simple war strategy that enabled them to maintain their territory in the northern Australia and the New Guinea region.
The Japanese brought in the Mimosa pudica and scattered the seeds along the bush tracks. The seeds grew and spread over the area. Then they would check on the plants occasionally to see if they were disturbed with the leaves being retracted. There they would know by the shrunken leaves together with the boot prints that the Allies were close by and they would ambush them and take them out. The Mimosa pudica was so helpful and had seen them successes throughout the region.
Grandfather remembered his Australian soldier colleagues complaining and cussing at the thorny shrub bristle not knowing that the plants were not native but rather a Japanese tactic to use these shy soldiers to give them signs that the enemies were around.
Those Australian soldiers were reserve battalions, many of them very young and untrained. When they would complain grandfather would brush the plant aside, all the while wondering where those plants came from because all his life in Markham he had never seen anything like that.
The plant was also brought into New Guinea for one other purpose, medicine. The chemicals contained in the herb were extracted and is used to fight snake venom as well as when chewed and swallowed it subdues stomach ache, two of the deadly threats besides being gunned by the Allies.
The Japanese were strategically smart and being cautious with the thought that well, if you weren’t being shot at by the Allies or the natives, you could well die from snake bites and stomach illness.
Later I did a little research and find out that the Mimosa pudica contains the biochemical toxic alkaloid mimosine, which has been found to also have anti-proliferative and apoptotic effects. The extracts of Mimosa pudica immobilize the filariform larvae of Strongyloides stercoralis (a human parasitic roundworm that inhibits the small intestine) in less than one hour.
Plant juice extracts from the roots of the plant have shown significant neutralizing effects in the lethality of the venom of the monocled cobra. It appears to inhibit the myotoxicity and enzyme activity of cobra venom. Of course the Japanese were not too sure if cobras were found in New Guinea back then, well just to be on safe side.
By 1944, Japanese troops had seized the old Kaiapit station up at Sauruan village, Markham and had taken the villages as captives. My grandmother hailed from Sauruan and was around 5 years old when the Japanese soldiers invaded their village and captured them. Being very chubby and light-skinned, the Japanese kept her in a cage together with other ‘edible-looking’ children so they could feed them and eat them because the food supplies for the Japanese were intercepted by the Allies.
Grandfather, as a young man, helped fought with the Allies when they conquered Sauruan in time to rescue the captives. Grandfather’s heart was broken when he saw the little children in the cage not knowing that one of those edible children would one day be his dear old wife.
Grandmother’s bigger brother who was tied down and beaten was finally rescued and became close friends with my grandfather. So there, the family connection was made. When the Japanese lost at the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the valley grew peaceful and our grandfathers lived on after the wars building houses and gardens. My grandparents were married and moved on to Lae when grandfather got a job working for the Niugini Medical distributors.
Today the plant is widespread in Morobe province and other parts of New Guinea region and is considered as weed to agricultural food crops both in gardens and plantations. But the humble story of these shy soldiers of World War 2 lives on leaving a legacy that shaped the classic Morobean heritage.
Wars come and go but these shy soldiers remain eternal.