An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing
THE DUSTY ROAD from my grandfather’s block to the Dame Mary Kekedo Memorial School always seemed shorter on the way back then when going there.
Kids happily sang and skipped on the way home anticipating waiting meals. The chatter was louder and games were played on the way home after school.
There were exceptions. For instance when one was sick the road seemed to go on forever and the tropical sun felt even hotter then usual.
I fell ill several times during my primary school years in Kokoda, Oro Province. Malarial fever, an upset stomach from eating young guavas or perhaps a horrible cough that I couldn’t shake thanks to the wild mango season and playing in the streams and rivers each day.
Fortunately for us children, the school was located next to the Kokoda General Hospital. It was four minutes’ walk to the hospital to see the duty nurse or orderly and get some treatment. Some kids who lived in remote villages seemed to put in a few hours of school while in Kokoda to get treatment!
If you had leg ulcers, scratches or a cut, they would deftly swab the sore with hydrogen peroxide, the sting of which was enough to make a grown man cry out aloud, and then they would cover the sore with purple ointment or yellow paste, all the while smiling gleefully at your pain and discomfort.
If you had a cough, they would make you drink some antibiotic mixture right then and there in case you took it home and gave it to someone else or threw it away en route. If you had the dreaded malaria, you would get a shot in your buttocks
An aside on this English word “buttocks”, which someone had promoted so much around Kokoda that it was in common use. Teachers would say, “John, for coming late you will get one cane on each buttock!” Or a girl would say to a cheeky boy who had shoved her in line, “Look at him, dirty buttocks!”
No doubt the word originated from the hospital where children’s buttocks were subjected to giant veterinary syringes meant for cattle. It seemed someone in the Health Department had made a mistake in logistics and these giant syringes intended for the Mamba Cattle Station about an hour from Kokoda were diverted to the Kokoda Hospital children’s outpatient section.
A shot of quinine (I am sure it was quinine but it could have been some other poison) was the most painful medical experience. The orderlies and nurses seemed to take pleasure in not being gentle.
They stood back as if playing darts and literally threw the syringe as if they were Oro Province representatives at the PNG National Dart Titles. To this day whenever I see a syringe my buttocks clench instinctively.
I had my share of falling-ill experiences growing up in Kokoda. I once fell ill during school and the sickening thought of a bulumakau injection was too much to bear, so I shivered with a high temperature fever all the way home. Two hours of walking down that dusty, lonely road.
The tropical sun seemed to be making a determined effort to fry me alive as I teetered and tottered, my teeth chattering, my knees knocking and my arms folded around me for added warmth as I doggedly walked home. I was about nine.
What relief when I turned the corner at Awuki and Beleni’s Block and sighted the entrance to where we lived. My dog Santo was waiting at the entrance and bounded towards me and I already felt better and wiped away a tear of self-pity.
I was familiar with tears of self-pity on such days of illness. I also prayed a lot. It’s funny how God is forgotten until one is ill or staring at perceived death, then suddenly He is actively sought out and urged to forgive and care and love and help one recover.
That day, with Santo bounding along beside me, I walked through the cool shade of the cocoa trees, crossed the tiny brook and was home. My Grandmother was busy cooking me a meal of flour dumplings in coconut, and upon seeing me knew I was ill.
She quietly placed a mat in the house wind and poured a glass of water. “Drink this and lie down, the meal will be ready soon.” Self-pity tears flooded, accompanied by an appropriate face mask of utter misery and dejection.
My Grandmother ignored self-pity and such displays of weakness, but her matter of fact voice was always soothing and I lay down and immediately fell asleep until she woke me to drink a hot, spicy broth made from a bitter fern that our tribe used to cure fevers and counter malaria.
My mother, being the dutiful nurse, had left a box of medicines and appropriate instructions and my Grandmother knew exactly what to give me.
“It seems we will have to send for your Aunty Glen to administer an injection,” she said quietly. I did not mind Aunty Glen at all, she was gentle and considerate and, before you knew, it was over.
Though I was unable to go to school, I did not miss it at all during that period of recovery; it was the furthest thought from my mind.
In fact, I was much distracted. The time was filled with treats of mushroom soup and fried river fish - the ingono that were abundant in every river and creek in Oro and were especially plentiful in the numerous streams in our cocoa plantation.
These days, this small indigenous fish is a fast disappearing species. It is like a tiny trout, the largest of which would fit in the palm of your hand. It is silver or darkish brown with colourful rainbow flecks along its white belly.
Ingono were caught by children with earthworms on a small steel hook or in a net or, if in shallow water, even with your hands. During a certain time of the year they were plentiful and it paids to block off a small stream, piling boulders across a selected part, using breadfruit and banana leaves to plug the gaps, and beating a poisonous vine called anasi into the stream with a rock.
The poison caused the fish to rise up to the surface because they could not breathe, to be scooped up by eager, chattering children. This fish was so small you need not gut, scale or debone it. Fried with dripping or lard and salt, they were in a word delicious.
Sadly, along with many other indigenous species of fish, they are threatened with the arrival of the prolific tilapia (introduced by some short sighted over-enthusiastic government department) that breed and feed everywhere and eat anything.
I sometimes think that the tilapia is very much an apt symbolic representation of the human race - proliferating effortlessly at the cost of every other living creature.
The other treat I savoured and consumed wholeheartedly during my bouts of illness as a Kokoda plantation child, were the sweet ripe bananas of Oro.
Oro has so many species of bananas but the most delicious of all, the king of them, is hakere, revered by those throwing feasts and always a bride price favourite.
It is a deep red, medium sized plantain banana in a jungle green skin and, when ripened and cooked slowly either in its dark green skin or peeled and soaked with thick coconut cream, there is simply nothing as delicious to savour in the jungles of Oro.
Of course for those who do not know the etiquette of cooking bananas, you have to peel it first before you eat it.
Many years later, as a student at the University of Papua New Guinea, an uncle of mine, who had a way with words, seared a vivid description of the banana by once declaring, after eating a whole potful his wife had cooked, that Oro people migrated from Mars, the red planet, and brought these bananas with them for all humans to consume. But they landed in Oro and for some reason they only grow here.
Overhearing this, my aunt, who is from another province, muttered that “tall tales and cargo cult like fantasies are also products of Oro”. Most likely true on both counts I thought at the time.
I had my share of illnesses like most children growing up in Kokoda, and while major issues required a nurse, doctor or hospital, basic childhood ailments were readily treated by tribal remedies that worked very well for stomach upset, cough and cold, a cut or a insect bite or a boil.
Many of these ancient treatments have long since disappeared along with their practitioners, though some linger as devout followers of this generation continue to swear by them and apply them were possible but gradually, they are being ignored by the globalised generation, technologically adept and culturally bereft.
Upon reflection, I believe there are lessons from those challenging days that, while not what one would call fond memories, were necessary for a reason: that being ill health can develop strength and resilience. It makes one realise that one is fragile and not a machine, prone to stumble and falter in life’s journey.
Those days in Kokoda, when I was ill, make up my memories of growing up. I look back with a fond memory, too, of the beautiful people who were there to nurture me back to health and who showered me with love and care.
I learnt that life cannot be all about the good, for, if it were not for the bad, painful and hurtful experiences, one would never be able to appreciate what is good about life.