I HAVE a very nice fibre bag woven and coloured in island style given to me by Agnes Maineke at the 2014 Crocodile Prize awards in Port Moresby. It is a reminder of the diminutive and gentle woman who won that year’s short story award.
Meeting people like Agnes, who have experienced great trauma in their lives, is a humbling experience. At first sight it is hard to imagine the strength and determination that resides within her.
The Bougainville civil war of the 1990s brought to the surface a well of strength and resilience, and she needed every drop of it.
Agnes is not alone of course. Many ordinary people have had similar experiences and have survived as different and sturdier people.
It is important to record such harsh experiences as Agnes did so future generations will appreciate the sacrifices made to bring about the good that is too often taken for granted.
Whether these experiences are recorded in short stories, essays or poetry is irrelevant, the important thing is that they are recorded.
For Agnes the short story format was her chosen method. Stories are a common method of recounting history in Papua New Guinea, especially told in an oral form. Agnes’ story sounds almost like a direct transcript of such a session.
Writing short stories takes particular skills because they do not allow the luxury of longer exposition found in longer works. In a short story every word counts.
Superfluous description has no place. Instead, they rely on sparking emotions in the reader. The best short stories appear simple but are really like a finely honed blade made from quality steel.
Ernest Hemingway, the great American writer, summed it up when he wrote: “If the writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things he knows, and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them”.
Agnes Maineke’s short story about the Bougainville war fulfils all these criteria. It is simply and humbly told, yet contains much more than the sum of its parts.
In it you feel the horror and reality that was visited upon an island in the Solomon Sea not so long ago and which has scarred its people for generations to come.
While war raged in Bougainville there was a miracle at Haisi
I NEVER thought I could give birth on my own, but I did. Confirming for me the words of the Angel Gabriel, “With God there is nothing impossible.”
The year - 1992. The month - October.
Since May we had been hiding from the Papua New Guinea Defence Force in the deep jungle of south-west Bougainville. I was pregnant with my fourth child.
These were difficult times. Food could be carried from abandoned gardens and villages only on certain days. Movement was restricted for fear of both the PNGDF soldiers with their Bougainvillean helpers, the Resistance, and also our own Bougainville Revolutionary Army.
By October I was heavy with my child but still had to carry food, coconuts and other requirements from our village to the bush camps because I had to provide for my three little girls - aged at that time eight, six and two.
My husband was a chronic asthmatic who often suffered attacks due to the state of the slap-dash houses we lived in.
Sundays were special days when everyone left their hiding places and gathered at the Mission Station for service. It was our faith that helped us face the hardships of the ten long years of the Bougainville Crisis.
Even those who didn’t attend Sunday service or Mass prior to 1989 started attending during the war. In those years, until 1999, we sometimes had the opportunity to hear Mass on a special feast day, like the Assumption, celebrated by the Italian SVD Priest, Fr Dario.
He was our light during those dark days. He fearlessly travelled between BRA strongholds and PNGDF posts. He was the one who made it possible for me to travel to the health centre to bear my fifth child. But that is another story.
It was on Sunday 18 October 1992. My husband and I left our three daughters with their maternal grandmother and journeyed to the mission for Sunday service.
My due date was 27 October, so this was our last day to prepare the five litres of coconut oil which the BRA required each family to make and give to them for fuel.
After the service, my husband and I stopped at a coconut plantation belonging to our relatives. We husked about 40 dry coconuts and scraped them in the garden shack. We scraped twenty each and I carried the grated coconut in an old bag and returned to the camp at dusk.
I cooked our evening meal and got the girls ready for the night. When we had eaten our meal, we prayed and put the girls on the mats where they slept.
I had one other task, which was to squeeze the grated coconut ready for heating to make oil.
As I started squeezing, I felt the first twinge of pain in my back. I ignored it, thinking it was due to the exertion of scraping 20 coconuts earlier that afternoon.
But the pain came back after half an hour, so I went to lie down. My scheduled delivery date was still nine days off.
As I lay on my mat beside my now sleeping girls, the pain returned. I knew this was the onset of labour. I got up and told my mother who said I’d have to go to another camp where there was a nurse.
It was dark in the jungle. People in our camp sat beside their fires and told stories.
We had no torches or lamps and I was surprised and touched when my grandmother gave me a little hurricane lantern which she had already lit.
It was her precious treasure which she extended to me saying, “Here granddaughter, you have more need of it than I. Take it with you.” She had kept that little lamp well hidden.
My husband put the nappies and baby things that he’d bought when he had been permitted by the PNGDF to accompany his late brother-in-law to Rabaul when he got sick.
With these things in hand we set off towards the camp where the nurse lived. My great uncle’s wife was willing to accompany us. I had the little lamp in my left hand and a stick in my right hand to help me walk firmly along the muddy jungle tracks towards our abandoned villages and then further east to the nurse.
Offering a silent prayer to Our Blessed Mother, I walked between the old lady and my husband. I knew this is going to be quite a night for me. As we travelled, the pains of the child-birth were increasing and coming more frequently.
It took us about an hour to reach the first deserted village. By then it was about eight o’clock at night. I asked my two companions if we could stop there, but both of them were quite adamant.
“No! No! This village is near the road. The BRA’s might see us and kill us.”
So I steeled myself and again whispered a prayer to Mother Mary. “Please be with me, dear Mother. I need your help.” By then I knew that I would not be able to make it to the camp where the nurse lived.
By this time we had left the muddy jungle tracks and were travelling towards another deserted village along the Haisi – Boku road.
I was stopping nearly every five minutes because of the pain.
We had just reached the houses of the abandoned village when I just had to stop walking. The pain was excruciating.
I told my two companions, “I cannot walk another step. I know the baby is on its way down.” They both acquiesced.
My husband decided that he would quickly continue on to the nurse and bring her to me. So he took off without any light, not even a piece of firewood. It was just lucky that this was our village and he was familiar with the bush tracks.
Now I had to try to prepare for the arrival of my baby. My three girls had been born in hospital with nurses in attendance, but now I had to be a nurse as well as a birthing mother.
The baby was insistent. What could I do? The house was a ground house with only a broken down limbom bed near the fireplace. No time to cut a big leaf or find something to lie on and let the baby come.
The old woman wouldn’t do anything because she was frozen with fear. Each time I asked her to do something, she responded, “I’m afraid; I don’t know what to do.”
Even when I put the broken pieces of limbom together and laid myself down and asked her, “Can you see if the baby’s head is visible?” She answered. “I don’t know,” without even coming anywhere near me.
I had to resort to touching myself and feeling the baby’s head. So I waited for the next sharp pain and pushed and pushed, eventually expelling the child.
By nine o’clock the baby had been born, falling on to the dusty, dirty ground.
I half-sat and picked up the child, determining that it was a male. I asked the old woman to get a nappy from the bag and give it to me.
The poor baby was already sucking on his bloody fingers because he was hungry. I tied his two hands along his body with the nappy but I had to lay him back at my feet in the dust.
I seethed with anger at this useless old woman. I had thought she would help me because she used to give birth to her children by herself in the old days.
I reminded myself I was still not free. I had to remove the placenta and then I would be able to stand up and attend to the poor baby. I had been told in pre-natal clinics that the placenta would be expelled with the same pain as the baby.
Therefore, when the next pains came, I pushed, and thankfully without further effort the afterbirth came tumbling out. I was free.
I asked the old lady to get me another nappy and I folded it as a pad then stood up and picked up the baby from the ground, wrapped it in another nappy and laid it on a high shelf that was used to put things on. I just said, “Thank you Mama Maria.”
In the meantime, where was the baby’s father? He had gone on a mission to bring the nurse but had got lost in the dark. It was eleven o’clock by the time he and the nurse and my aunt and cousin-sister arrived at the ‘birthing room’.
By then the baby and I were asleep and the old woman sat nodding in a corner.
As he led the rescue party, my husband heard no noise and anxiously called out, “Aggie are you there?” I replied, “Come and see your son.” The baby was still attached to its placenta by the umbilical cord because I didn’t know how to cut it.
Maineke shouted and rushed inside. The nurse and my aunt took over. They made a fire, heated water and made me wash and also washed the baby. It was a relief to place myself in capable hands.
We stayed in that old kitchen until the next morning when we had to return to our bush camp. My aunt and her daughter brought us to our camp before returning to theirs.
My son Barnabas is grown up now, he’s 22 years old.
When he was an infant he was diagnosed with heart murmur, perhaps as a result of his birth. He used to get sick and run a heavy fever whenever he was afraid or stressed. Last year he completed a Certificate in Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning at Badili Vocational School in Port Moresby.
That night, 22 years ago is long gone. But I just thank the Lord for being with me through that night.