THE recent success of the book ‘My Walk to Equality’ edited by Rashmii Amoah Bell prompts me to write this short piece – the story of my wife Julie.
Julie is an orphan, the offspring of a polygamous marriage. She was about six years of age when her mother died from injuries sustained after her father’s third wife stabbed her when she was pregnant with her third child.
Julie grew up in her maternal grandmother’s house after she ran away when her father beat her up badly for missing just one day of school.
Consequently, she missed out on an education altogether thanks to a loving but backward grandmother who never released her to resume classes at Kandep Primary School which was close to their village.
In all the years Julie and I have lived together, beginning 1996, she never told me her full story until I took her to Australia last year, her first ever trip out of Papua New Guinea.
On 16 September we were booked into the Bellview Motel in Cairns, our last night on Australian soil before returning home.
It was the eve of Papua New Guinea’s 41st independence anniversary. I felt I should celebrate the occasion with a bottle of red wine as we reminisced over our travels around Australia those past few weeks.
I reminded Julie we would take lots of memories with us when we flew to Port Moresby the next day and said to her jokingly that she was a lucky village girl to have seen Australia.
Maybe it was the wine, I was not careful with the choice of my words.
“Yes, but just imagine,” she cut in sharply, “if I had gone to school, do you think you would have found me in the village?”
“No, I don’t think so. But its good you ended up there so I could easily find you. Now, you are here, right beside me,” I laughed.
But Julie was serious.
“Hey, look at me and hear this carefully. It’s okay, you can refer to me as a village girl. But do you think I would be your wife if I had gone to school?” she asked, the tone of her voice rising.
“No, I don’t think so, but it’s too late now. Maybe it’s God’s plan that you ended up with me. I love you and all our children. I sincerely wish our children will complete their education and not miss out opportunities life has on offer,” I said.
I realised I had unconsciously provoked some inner feelings by referring to her as a village girl. She was intelligent enough to know that going to Australia was no big deal; anybody with enough money could visit any country, anytime.
A while later, her mood changed. She said it was unfortunate she did not receive an education. Then told me why she was not able to attend school all because her mother died when she was a small girl.
I knew her mother had died in hospital following a knife wound inflicted on her over a lost bilum. Her father’s third wife was the assailant.
Julie had been happily enrolled in Grade 4 at Kandep Primary School but one Monday morning she absconded from class. She went fishing and her father was furious. He beat her severely. He then stung her with nettle leaves to punish her further.
The wounds and nettle stings formed bloody bumps all over her skin. She ran away to the house of one of her maternal grandfathers – the late Lutheran Bishop Philipo Paiakae. The bishop rebuked Julie’s father affirming that this was no way to punish a child, especially one who had just lost her mother.
That night Julie nursed her wounds in Bishop Philipo’s house. Next morning she escaped to her grandmother Neame Saimb’s house at Tatalimanda village a couple of kilometers away. She continued to stay with her grandmother until the old died about three years later.
My glass of red wine turned sour as Julie recited her childhood experiences as if she was reading from a book. I sat on the tiled floor, leaned against the bed frame, turned off the air conditioner and listened quietly to her sad tale.
My mother’s new bilum went missing a short while after she hung it inside our house to stretch into shape. She suspected my father’s third wife.
My mother was the type of woman who did not talk much or liked to point an accusing finger at people for nothing. She suspected the woman because she had been seen loitering in the neighborhood when all other occupants of our house had gone out to do their daily chores.
With no hesitation at all, the third wife stabbed mum in her tummy. My mum was about eight months pregnant. She had to be rushed to Laiagam Health Centre about 50 kilometers away where there was a resident doctor. I think he was from Israel. Luckily the knife had missed the fetus.
Later mum was discharged, came home and gave birth to my second sister. But a little while later she complained of a severe stomach ache. One night it became unbearable and she asked to drink some water. But all the water containers in the house were empty.
There was nobody who could go and fetch some water for her. The only other two people present were my father’s second wife who was pregnant and the third wife who had stabbed her. I was very young so there was really nobody who could help.
So mum decided to fetch the precious water herself despite the severe pain. She asked me to take care of my baby sister and prepared a bundle of kendole or dried pipit to use as a torch.
I remember her lighting one end and walked out through the low door of our bush material house. She held the burning bundle in one hand and a water gourd in the other.
Before mum departed into the dark night she said: ‘There is a saying that in timongo andaka, the home of the dead, there is no water. The spirits find it hard to drink so they only place spittle on the sugarcane leaves unable to chew the stalk which is full of juice. Let me go and fetch the wretched water myself to drink it when I can.’
I was too young to understand what she meant.
In the night my mum did not sleep. The pain was unbearable and she kept drinking water. Early next morning we walked to the Kandep District Health Centre. It is very close but took us a long time, mum was in so much pain.
I carried my baby sister in a bilum. When my baby sister cried we stopped by the wayside and mum tried her best to feed the baby with breast milk.
On the way we saw my father playing cards with a group of men. He did not ask us where we were going. He just glanced at us, turned his head away and concentrated more on his gambling.
Finally we reached the health centre. Mum was immediately hospitalised and put on a drip. Next day they took her to Laiagam Health Centre for a second time. This was the last time I saw her alive. A few days later, her body was brought home never to respond to my needs again.
Those of us in the village did not hear of her passing. There was no mobile phone network at the time. Nor was there many vehicles travelling on the Kandep – Laiagam road.
It was a total shock to see mum’s stiff body wrapped in a single blanket on the ground in the middle of the village square. It had been suddenly brought to the village on a government vehicle.
I was preparing to cook some fish in our house when a boy came and told me my mother had died and people were now crying over the body in the village square. But I told him my mother was in Laiagam and that he was lying. I continued to cook my fish.
Later, the woman who had knifed my mum came and rebuked me for cooking fish in the house when my mother was dead.
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had heard about mum’s death while I was catching fish in the river. I am sure I would have jumped in the water and allowed myself to drown. I loved my mother very much. Who would I turn to now?
Sure enough I saw my mum lying on the ground wrapped in a red and green blanket. I saw my baby sister in somebody else’s arms. When I touched the stiff cold body, I wondered whose body this was. It was not my mum’s warm pulsating skin. Her eyes were closed statue-like.
I sat in stunned silence. An aunty comforted me by saying: “From now on your mother will never come back, she is gone for good. But don’t worry, we are here to help you.” I realised what this meant and joined in the wailing. But yet I felt emotionally strong.
I don’t know why, but before my mum’s body arrived that fateful day I returned home with my catch and changed into my mum’s new blouse. The blouse had been sent to her from Arawa by one of my two aunties married to an accountant with Bougainville Copper Limited. I had searched in her bag and somehow decided to wear it before I prepared to cook the fish.
It seems to me now that I had unconsciously prepared for my mum’s funeral by wearing her black dress sent from Arawa where black people live. Was it a coincidence?
That night my uncle’s first wife tried to nurse my baby sister but it cried uncontrollably. We all tried in turn to comfort her but she kept on crying. Maybe there was not enough milk in her breasts.
Miraculously, as if by cue, my father’s second wife gave birth to a baby girl the very next day immediately after my mum was buried at Yokola village. From then on there was enough milk for both my baby sisters. They grew up like twins and we named them Sandy and Yangi. At the time I was about six or seven years of age.
One night in the first week immediately after she was buried, I saw mum in a dream.
She held two bilums in one hand. In the other she held the cutting of a wild sugarcane plant or kol. She gave me the two bags, then turned and walked down a path towards her grave with the kol plant in her hands.
People interpreted the dream to mean that my baby sisters would be okay and that my mother had done wrong by dying young unable to look after me and my two sisters. But we would all grow up and prosper. Now, both Sandy and Yangi are married with children. Sandy is a primary school teacher.
During the funeral my bubu, Bishop Philipo Paiakae, and all my mother’s people demanded an autopsy be done before mum was buried to determine if the cause of her death was as a result of the stabbing. But I can’t remember what the outcome was.
At the time my uncle who worked as a mechanic at Kaiwei Motors in Mt Hagen took me and my second born sister to his house where we grew up. We stayed there until 1990 when my uncle resigned to contest the Lai Constituency Seat during the third Enga Provincial Government elections.
Before he nominated, he enrolled me at the Kandep Primary School. I did not complete my education because I ran away to my grandmother’s house while doing Grade 4.
Very early, one Monday morning, I took the family pigs to the Patuli marshes to feed on grass, worms and insects. It was the rainy season then and the Lai River was flooded and covered the grasslands for miles around. It even covered sweet potato gardens and the marshes looked like an extension of our big lake – Lake Patuli.
Schools of fish had come inland and were everywhere. I started catching them with other children and forgot about school.
That Monday morning my father had gone to do some maintenance work at the school. In the evening he came home a furious man. He beat me hard with a stick until blisters appeared on my skin. He then used some nettle leaves which stung me horribly. He did not stop even when I begged for mercy.
I was really hurt. I had never missed a single day of school before but why was my father so cruel to punish me so harshly? Did he know that my mum was dead?
I recalled how he continued to play cards when we were on our way to hospital. It was too much for me to bear so I ran away from him. My grandmother cried when she saw me in the condition I was in – swollen all over. She vowed never to let me go to live with his other wives in his harem.
My mother’s people must have been upset when nothing was said or done to the third wife who had knifed mum. He did nothing when the wretched bilum was found buried in a new sweet potato mound prepared by the third wife in her sweet potato patch. Why didn’t my father punish her?
I ignored my father when he sent word for me to return to school. My grandmother ignored him too. I enjoyed very much her love and close attention, something I missed so much after mum’s departure. I stayed with grandmother until she died three years later.
Then you found me in the village. If I had gone to school, do not think I would be your wife! Julie said, teasing me as she ended her sad tale in a fun sort of way.
How many women are like Julie in PNG - with regrets in their hearts and untold stories deep down in their soul?
How many women suffer in silence but actually live lives appearing as if everything is all right?
It was time PNG women wrote their stories down now and perhaps Rashmii Amoah Bell can coordinate a second book, a sequel to ‘My Walk to Equality’, to be launched on International Woman’s Day next year, 2018.