An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Award for Heritage Writing
IT’S THAT TIME of the year we know as the rainy season. One of Papua New Guinea’s only two seasons. The other is the dry.
Both last about six months in this tropical nation, home of the world’s third largest rainforest area. From about November until April, it shall rain throughout Papua New Guinea. The downpours vary in frequency and intensity; often thick and heavy jungle rain.
I like the rainy season. Even now, it brings with it memories of growing up in Kokoda. Great memories. Nostalgia tends to be the melody of raindrops falling on the roof whenever I take a moment to listen on any afternoon of a day ending with rain.
Like today. As the daily afternoon rain fell, I made a cup of hot sweet tea and sat down to watch the day quietly bid farewell. In Kokoda, you can hear the rain coming long before it falls. The day becomes dark and sombre and the wind brushes across the treetops, whistling as it blows through the forest.
On such days, as a child growing up on my grandfather’s cocoa plantation, I would run out eagerly with my cousins, hopping and skipping about anticipating the slippery, sliding frolicking fun we were about to have.
There would be much falling down and laughter and giggling as everyone got soaking wet and ran here and there. Eventually, as it grew too dark to play and the evening meal was ready, our tired parents would call us and we would run to the creek to swim and wash off the mud and clay with bars of yellow cake washing soap.
Then we’d run through the rain to our homes and stand by the fireplace to dry off, our teeth chattering and our hands folded across our heaving chests as we waited for plates of steaming food and sweet black tea.
Sometimes we’d be lucky and have Carnation condensed milk in a can small, white and with a red carnation flower on it. The milk was thick and pale yellow as it was poured into the tea. Everyone sat eating and drinking and there would be story telling of the day’s events or of funny experiences and memorable moments of days gone by.
It was so dark you could barely see beyond the light of the hurricane lamps and the fireplace but you could hear the rain falling hard on the tin roof or kunai grass arara or hauswin.
The fire would crackle and pop and the dogs lying beside it would lazily scratch themselves, eking out as much warmth as they could without getting burnt. The flooding creeks would threaten to burst their banks and the wind would softly whisper our names.
I remember those nights most vividly, sitting on the hauswin (house wind), a shelter built on raised stilts and with a thatched grass roof and sometimes a bamboo woven semi wall. It was designed to be cool on hot days and warm on cold rainy nights.
The roof would overhang over the shelter and a floor of split young black palms that were springy and pleasing to lie, sleep and sit on – a good place to eat a meal or sip a hot sweet cup of tea while listening to stories.
Stories were the stuff of our entertainment, all manner of stories. If you were lucky as a child, you could sit quietly and hear adults speak in low tones, telling stories you should not be hearing. An alert adult would rebuke you and send you off to bed.
We all enjoyed listening to stories and no one told better stories then my Grandmother. Hers were legends, long drawn out sagas of ancient people and creatures, of demons and evil spirits that had strange and awesome powers and did horrible things to their victims.
These stories were legends, folk tales and history explaining the geographic features of our tribal lands or the history of a particular creature and why they came to be or why they behaved a certain way or made a certain sound.
She would tell the most horrifying legends, unless my mother happened to be visiting from Port Moresby and was within earshot. My mother disapproved of the stories and admonished grandmother for frightening us. But we loved them.
Grandmother’ stories were told after dinner on such rainy nights, often when she was baking her scones for sale at the Kokoda market the next day. The stories filled us with fear and seemed to make the rainy night more meaningful. Everyone huddled close and, if you listened carefully and concentrated, you could see the images of the characters as your imagination painted their features.
It seemed the night birds loved these stories too, for they seemed to draw closer, their eerie sounds chilling us to the bone as we also grew closer- to the fireplace.
No story frightened us more then that of Aha Siworo, or Mother Earthworm, a feared ancient lady who lived in the deep woods.
She ventured out every rainy night and walked through the forests humming in a low voice, her eyes fiery red orbs, her grass skirt swaying and rustling, carrying a large string bag carefully on her head. Her string bag contained parcels of carefully wrapped banana leaves.
And there is a noise. Hear that? Why it is the tiny death bat who is heralding the march of Aha Siworo, screeching in a piercing whistle as it flits fast and angry above the feared witch.
If you watched carefully, you could see the ghosts of those about to die, clinging to the wings of the death bats. And Aha Siworo, her shrivelled and dried body straining hard under the weight of her bag. She would stoop over a recently prepared grave and take out a parcel, place it carefully, unwrap it and keep walking to the next grave.
My Grandmother told these vivid stories with great detail, her facial features expressing every development, every step, every feature. She would chew betel nut and deftly use her lime pot stick, fishing around in the lime gourd and chewing slowly and meaningfully as she continued her story.
Awa Siworo on her journey of the night, not walking but gliding, her grass skirt swaying and rustling, stopping at recent graves and placing her morbid package.
Grandmother would pause and carefully spit her betel nut onto the fire’s ashes, her hard cracked feet an covering it with earth with.
“The packages,” Grandmother glared at us as we huddled closer and anticipated the moment of revelation with wide eyes and racing heart, “were filled with wriggling, turning and slippery, slimy earthworms!”
We all flinched as one.
“For these worms were her children and she would feed them with the flesh of the dead. They would burrow into the earth of a recent grave, through the coffin and right into the bloated flesh, and after gorging themselves they would rise up to the earth and await their mother, fed and full.
“They would leave only a set of recently cleaned bones. Aha, Siworo would return humming her song and pick them up, carefully wrap them and place them in her string bag, and walk off to her far away home where no one has ever been…”
Everyone would gulp their now lukewarm tea. We had just witnessed a kind of magic, storytelling that captured our imagination and took us to a place of mystical creatures and strange practices..
“Japeh, en ejo hingetora!” a quiet small voice would pipe up from one of us. “Grandmother, another story, we want to listen”….
The art of storytelling, the passing down of folk tales and history, of explanations and translations were rich aspects of a gradually disappearing culture. And those who weaved their magic on such nights are themselves but fading memories.
I am brought back to today. The rain is still beating down hard and a great night’s slumber beckons me to my bed.
My tea is cold and my mind struggling to grasp those memories before they slip away somewhere in my mind and heart, where my beloved Grandmother and her many, many legends remain.