IT IS a well-worn trope that writing for children is one of the hardest literary chores of them all.
Too often the temptation to be cute and cuddly is overwhelming, just as is the temptation to pander to kids’ liking for the crude and shocking.
Papua New Guinea has a long tradition of storytelling for children and it forms an important part of their development by presenting useful information, norms and ideas in an entertaining way.
These days we blame a lot of the ills of society on what kids absorb from all sorts of media, especially the internet, film and television, much of which originates overseas. In this sense good children’s literature in Papua New Guinea is very important as a counter to this trend.
At its best, this literature should reflect Papua New Guinean values and not reinforce the trite commercialism that imported children’s literature often displays.
Joycelin Kauc Leahy achieved this with her winning children’s story in the 2015 Crocodile Prize. The story is entertaining but contains an important underlying message about wildlife conservation, just as traditional Papua New Guinean stories have done in the past.
In winning the prize for a children’s story Joycelin became enthused about the concept of the Crocodile Prize and when it was handed over to Papua New Guinean control in 2016 joined Emmanuel Peni and his team in organising the awards.
The song of the turtle
JOYCELIN KAUC LEAHY
THE night was dark. The dogs did not bark. The wind blew gently.
Children and babies had stopped crying and laid their heads to rest. Even the night birds were silent around the coastal Morobe village.
Below the whistle of the gentle breeze, Kalem heard a song. It was soft, beautiful and so sad it almost made her cry. It sounded very familiar.
Lying still on her woven pandanus mat that grandma had made for her, she searched through her memories - where has she heard this song? Her grandma had passed away last year. She missed her. After tossing and turning for what seemed like forever, Kalem knew she had to find the source of the song.
She picked up her mother’s torch. Beside the torch was a piece of hard shell, a turtle shell she had found on the beach. She kept it for good luck. Suddenly she remembered - the song! It was the song of the turtles. Their nesting time happens near Kalem’s birthday, but they have not come to her village for a long time.
Tonight, something was wrong. Grandma said only the mother turtle sang the turtle song. No one in the village knew that song except her grandmother, her mother and now her. Grandma sung and taught the song to Kalem while they were fishing. Who is singing it now? Kalem wondered.
Afraid but excited, Kalem headed to the beach. As she walked, she remembered Grandma’s words: “Our people are connected to the ocean, we fish to survive but we must respect the lives in the ocean. We must never kill for nothing.”
Not many people can connect to the animals and fish, but Grandma said their family had a special gift because their ancestors came from the sea and are tied to the ways of the sea. Kalem walked quickly along the beach as she listened for the song.
“If you ever hear the song Kalem, you know, Mother Turtle needs you,” her grandmother told her. When Kalem was born in the turtle season, grandma told her mother, “This girl will one day meet Mother Turtle.”
Kalem followed the song out of her village and along the shores, further and further away from her house. Her heart beat faster when she arrived at the river where the villagers washed. Where the river met the sea, villagers set fishing nets along the shoreline. Kalem heard a loud splash. She slowly stepped forward, flashing the torch.
Tied to a large driftwood stump on the beach was a long, green fishing net. On the calm surface of the water just offshore a big red buoy floated at the end of the net.
Something had been caught in the net. The thing splashed again. It rippled and frothed the seawater in a circle. It was large, dark and near the shore. It did not look like any fish or crocodile Kalem knew.
When she flashed the torch at the dark shape, she was shocked to find a very large sea turtle tangled in the net. It was so large Kalem was sure it must have been the mother of all turtles. She flashed the torch on the water.
She could see smaller turtles floating about, their heads bobbing in the water. The turtles circled the net. They were all making strange noises like they were crying too. The mother turtle was bigger than Kalem’s ten-year-old body, but Kalem had to try save to her.
Even with no strength left the mother turtle kept singing her song. Her tired flippers hit the net and her voice faded to almost a whisper. Kalem’s tears flowed down as she waded through the water quickly and tried to set the turtle free. After struggling with the net and the weight of the turtle, Kalem ran back to the village and woke her mother.
“Help, wake up!” Kalem cried. “It’s Mother Turtle - we must help her”.
Kalem’s mother was confused. Often she thought her daughter was a daydreamer. After Kalem calmed herself and explained, she grabbed her mother’s arm and led her back to the beach.
They took a knife and cut the net to set the mother turtle free. The large turtle swam up to Kalem and her mother. She bumped them with her nose before she and the other turtles disappeared into the deep, dark waters.
Kalem remembered Grandma telling her about the life of the mother turtle. Grandma said it took many years before the turtle was ready to make babies. Every two or three years, the mother turtle lead her group to her own nesting beach, where she was born. Sometimes she travelled long distances to get there. Usually she would lay over a hundred eggs, but only a few survived.
Other animals, people and large fish ate the eggs and baby turtles. Kalem’s people loved eating turtle eggs and meat. Their village was once a nesting-ground for turtles. Lately, less and less turtles have come to lay eggs.
Standing silently in the dark with her mother, Kalem thought of how scared the turtles were tonight.
“They might never return…we must teach our people to protect the turtles,” she whispered to her mother.
“I am so proud of you Kalem. The turtles will head to a safe place to lay their eggs. Maybe this was not the right place for them, but they will find a perfect home someday.”
Her mother held Kalem close as they headed back to the village.