BY 2015 we were getting used to Papua New Guinean women dominating the Crocodile Prize awards but were still puzzled why this should be so.
Our initial assumptions that female writers would need a helping hand, special treatment, had been thoroughly unproven.
It took us a while to realise that what we had done was provide women in Papua New Guinea with a means of self-expression, something hard to achieve in a male-dominated society.
This realisation was brought home recently by Rashmii Amoah Bell’s editing of the anthology of Papua New Guinean women writers, My Walk to Equality.
What, to my mind, was significant about this collection was the lack of rancour towards men and the willingness to work with men to bring about changes in terms of achieving equality.
In this sense Hazel’s Kutkue’s short story award of 2015 struck a perfect chord. In her words, “It is a fair enough world”.
Her sharp, bright and funny dialogue beautifully portrayed what is a serious reality - the too common plight of single women with recalcitrant husbands trying to bring up children on their own in modern Papua New Guinea.
In this story, When life gets tough in January, Hazel looks at the way “you mauswara people so they pay your children’s school fees”.
We get a lot of short stories, poems and essays about the realities of life in modern Papua New Guinea, many depressingly bathed in pathos and misery.
It is a superior writer who can avoid that trap and bring these issues to our attention in a forceful and readable way.
Hazel succeeded admirably.
When life gets tough in January
SOME people have it all; the parents with money, the car and many other things. For people like me, you live a pretty good life, but with not so much money.
Your mother is a working class lady and earns K1000 a fortnight. But there is no leftover money because she has seven children.
That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a little unfortunate when you have to go to university and you also have six younger siblings who go to school.
I am pretty fortunate because of genetics. Let’s leave it at that. I was able to grab a place in university. I was offered a scholarship for academic excellence and it all pretty much fell into place.
My mother, a single mum, married four times, received a small loan to pay for my fees and the six younger siblings. My mother is from West Sepik Province. My father from Madang Province.
I have a younger sister Adele who is 17 and a 14 year old brother Dennis whose father was from Central Province. Eric my other 13 year old brother had a father from Manus. Dawn, 9, Kristy, 6, and Howard, 3, had a father from Popondetta. We are a diverse bunch, but love each other very much.
I studied science at the University of Papua New Guinea for one year. I was hoping to get into the medical school. Well, I was not hoping, I knew I was getting into medical school. I had dreamt of the day that I would be a doctor since I was 7 years old.
It was my grandmother, maternal of course, who put it into my head to be one. Well she is long dead now but for her sake I had shouted into our toilet bowl that I was going to the medical school when I got the news because her ashes from the cremation were mistakenly sent down the toilet by my uncle.
I hope she heard me. Otherwise, I’ll have to scream every day until she hears and croaks back from her watery grave.
I got news from my friend Evangeline that we were going into the MB BS program. It was great news, but I was not surprised. I think my grandmother toyed around with my brain a bit when she died.
Well, I was happy. I screamed a bit. But my mother said I scream a lot, which I do not think is true.
I danced a bit, quietly, but as always my mother said the house had new cracks in the floor from the dancing. I think my mother exaggerates a lot. But my younger sister Adele said the same thing. My brother Dennis grunted in agreement.
The night I got the news, I sat on my bed and started texting my friends going with me into the program. I also texted a boy who had had a crush on me since high school. His name was Geoff. Geoff told me we had to pay a fee of K6984 to be a boarding student at Taurama Medical School.
When I slowly walked out to the lounge room to inform my mother, she was busy screaming into the phone at another dad or step-dad, whichever it was at the moment.
“Oii, I said the school starts really soon!” Mum screamed, referring to my 17 year old sister “Why can’t you send me a lousy K650 for Adele’s school fees.”
I rolled my eyes. Every January, every year, I swear for miles around you could hear Mum screaming down the phone at the four dads.
A minute later, she was talking again.
“Denn needs school clothes man. Blari you ba lapun na kus-pundaun na kam lo haus blo em behain em ba hard. Send money and you will benefit.” This time she was really mad.
She screamed for a good 10 minutes. Then she lifted the phone and flung it against the wall. Typical Mum. Then she turned to me.
“What’s going on, pal?” she asked smiling. It is hard to imagine she had been screaming moments ago.
I put on my sweetest smile. I knew she could explode when I told her about my tuition fees and board and lodging fees for medical school. But I was determined she would not explode tonight.
“Mum, I kind of need to tell you something,” I started.
She cut me short.
“Are you pregnant because you know very well that when you are pregnant you will move into the broom cupboard in the corridor,” she said matter-of-factly.
I rolled my eyes.
“I know, mom, you told me this morning and all the mornings of my life I remember.
“If I was pregnant, I’d have moved already so I wouldn’t have to tell you. You will know by what you see.
“But this is really important. The fees for my education are K6984.”
I said the last part of my speech as slowly as possible for Mum to hear clearly. She burst out laughing.
“Oh Collin, giaman blo you winim size blo you. Please, stop this gibberish and tell me the news. I need news, baby,” she said not believing me and already I could see she was not paying attention to me.
She was eyeing the dish of fried kaukau on the kitchen table and rubbing her floppy stomach poking through a black top. I could hear her stomach rumbling. It was a horrible sound. I knew strange sounds never came from my stomach, they just came out another place.
So I walked right up in front of her, so she was staring at my stomach. I stuck the phone with the text message blipping on the screen right under her left eye.
“Do you believe me now, Mum?” I said smiling my sweetest smile again.
It was then she exploded. And she kept exploding for another three hours until she choked on a piece of kaukau and went to bed.
We followed suit, but only after Adele, Dennis and I put on a show imitating Mum when she exploded. Our younger siblings Eric, Dawn, Kristy and Howard collapsed in fits of laughter, only to be reprimanded by a hoarse voice coming from my Mum’s bedroom, which did not sound like my mom at all. The piece of kaukau had done a lot of damage.
The next day, my mother got ready for work. She was her old self. She whistled and she screamed at us to get the chores done. We all grumbled and clucked around like chickens.
Eric was planted in front of the TV watching the movies on EMTV. Adele was yanking him by the hair to get up so she could sweep the floor. Howard was hanging on Mum’s right leg as she walked around dragging him on the floor. Dawn and Kristy were fighting and Dennis was trying to stop them.
Mum was mumbling under her breath about a miracle happening and one of the dads deciding to cough up some funds. I knew that would be impossible. Our dads were the ducky types. They ducked and hid whenever we needed them. Full of the usual, empty promises.
I never really cared about their existence. Mum called them ‘big time losers’. She warned us not to do the same. But we did anyway and called them losers when she was away at work. When a slip of tongue occurred and she was around, she’d widen her eyes in warning. Then she’d chuckle and say, ‘Good work guys’.
I knew my mum had a way of making things work out right. I knew she’d get my school fees paid somehow. But I was not entirely sure. I was hoping my rich uncle, the one who had dumped my grandmother’s ashes in the sewer, might slide some cash to Mum.
That was what wantoks do in Papua New Guinea. I was also counting on my CEO uncle, a third cousin of Mum’s. A bit of a distant relative but still a wantok. I planned to spend the entire night praying for my school fees. I announced it to Adele.
“Adele, I’m going to be praying for my school fees the whole night so you and Kristy and Dawn have to sleep on the couches in the lounge,” I told her.
“God never listens to people who go around calling their dads losers,” Adele smirked.
“Well then, to make up for that I think I am going to pray for two nights so you have to sleep in the lounge for two nights,” I said matter-of-factly.
“Whatever,” Adele said lazily, and pushed me off the double bed we shared.
“Hey!” I protested from the floor.
I guess she had a point, but I thought I could make up for that by praying for two years.
That afternoon Mum came home smiling.
“Wad up Mum?” Dennis shouted from the veranda as she walked towards us.
“I got good news, duck,” Mum said.
“You don’t call me duck, remember? Seriously Mum, do I look like a duck?”
Dennis quacked from the veranda in his squeaky 14 year old voice.
“You sound like one” Dawn said.
Dennis scrunched his face and got ready to shout. We all blocked our ears.
“I do not sound like a duck!” Dennis shouted. “And in a few years when you have hips like Mum’s and grow breasts, you’ll look like a duck.
Mum lifted a warning finger at Dennis and climbed the stairs. Dawn shrugged and kept tying her underpants to the veranda rail.
I watched Mum. She was happy. I knew she had good news. Mum waltzed with an imaginary man on the veranda. Then she pointed to me.
“You have your full fees paid by Uncle CEO,” she beamed.
“What? That’s what I was planning to pray for!” I screeched.
“I didn’t know you prayed,” Mum eyed me.
“Hey, I needed the fees Mum, how could I not pray if that was the last thing I could do.”
Did she not know that I always pray when I need something badly? That was selfish but what else can you do? I think everyone does that, well at least people I know. So that means a lot of Papua New Guineans do that.
I looked at Mum sideways; I knew there was always a deal when it was uncle CEO who paid.
“OK, don’t look at me that way. The deal is Dennis and Adele and Eric have to clean the CEO’s bathroom and toilet every day after school for 10 minutes each,” Mum said.
“Mum!” Dennis, Adele and Eric chorused. “He has dysentery every day!”
I flashed my most evil grin at them and rose to hug Mum. They all laughed. I rolled my eyes. They didn’t think it was evil at all. It was like looking at a cross-eyed clown.
I was happy. I ran into the bathroom and shouted down the toilet bowl.
I knew tomorrow would take care of itself. After all, I was in Papua New Guinea. It’s the land of wantoks. It is where you pool money to pay for bride price. It is where you pool money to compensate people. It is where you mauswara people so they pay your children’s school fees.
It is where you get into deals that cause your 17 year old daughter and your 14 and 13 year old sons to clean your third cousin’s toilet for 10 minutes every day for a whole year. It is a fair enough world.