An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Government Award for Short Stories
MY grandmother was the toughest woman I’ve ever known. She was also the funniest and kindest.
Kathleen Furi Juffa was born sometime in the early 1930s. No one back then knew their exact birth dates.
I once asked her and she glared at me and said it wasn’t important. Living and surviving were important, not the date that detailed when you were born she stated with a special look that said “Say no more or die!” It transformed a diminutive woman into a giant ogre.
Kathleen was just 14 when she married my grandfather Victor Juffa after he came back from the war. Well, that’s what my mum said, in a way that suggested she disapproved.
I recall my grandmother relating this story to me for the millionth time at our home in Kokoda as she sat with me at the fireplace happily engaging in her favourite pastime – chewing betel nut after the evening meal.
My mother, packing to leave for Port Moresby after her usual visit, muttered something about grandmother Kathleen’s brother wanting precious store goods so grandmother got married.
Grandmother blew up! She had that monster look in her eyes and declared in a blood-freezing way, “Well you were lucky I didn’t drop you in the latrine when I gave birth to you aren’t you? Sometimes I think that would not have been a bad idea but luckily my grandson here made up for it.”
My mum clamped up. That was a story she didn’t like. How grandmother almost lost her in the latrine when mum entered this world too quickly.
In general, mum was cynical about my grandmother and they had bitter arguments about everything, usually because of some silly comment one of them would make. All of us would just enjoy the show.
Except when it affected us. “Why did you speak to that dragon? You go and eat with her!” Then it was either cold food or none at all from mum’s kitchen. And if we then did eat with my grandmother, we were snubbed for days. It was walking on eggshells for the duration of the feud. Sometimes they wouldn’t speak for months.
My grandmother’s tribal totem was a large bird, Amone, known for being a real sulk and holding a grudge. It seemed this bird afflicted anybody born into the clan. Everyone held grudges and sulked terribly, she and my mother being classic examples.
Some people will be nodding and saying to themselves, “So this is where he gets it”.
In fact I was labelled the “Incredible Sulk” by my fourth grade teacher in Lae, Ms McCarthy. I had to sit in a corner and glare at the wall on days I was in rage and she sent me there.
My corner-mate was Holmes Kissing. He and I alternated there (love you brother). Ms McCarthy was fat, no kids, a horrible person, a racist I am sure. Her arm was bigger than a child and she wore a tent she could easily fit several children under.
I kept getting sent to the headmaster for various punishments. One that hurt was when I came to school and was admonished for my uniform being dirty and smelly. In front of the class. All the children giggled at my humiliation. I was 10 and a single parent child.
My mother, a family planning coordinator, was often away on field trips visiting villages and remote stations and I was taking care of myself, making my own breakfast and walking to school.
Mother had stopped leaving me with her ‘friends’ when she found that they referred to me as “that little bastard” and didn’t always feed me. I told her I was tired of sleeping under the stairs and missing out on meals, watching them while they ate and I stood outside.
I convinced her I could look after myself and she gave me some money and let me stay alone. I collected bottles after school and sold them at the SP Brewery depot.
I also invited my mates from the nearby settlement (Boo, Mogea, Arua, Richard, I love you guys) to stay with me. We had meat pies and Coke for dinner and again for breakfast. We sneaked into the movie theatres and watched everything. We hardly ever showered. It was cold. We were kids. Anyway, what did I know about personal hygiene?
That day was the most embarrassing of my primary school life. It was an international school and my mother could barely afford to send me there. I never got on well with the kids or the teachers and was always getting in trouble for something I felt I didn’t do.
Parent-teacher events were no fun. Everyone's parents turned up except mine. I had mum’s office gardener, Sape from Kukukuku, come along barefoot with a giant tramontina and a plate of sandwiches. Mum was busy working several jobs.
Kathleen Furi Juffa had raised me and other “little bastards” at Block 168, Kokoda until her husband, retired Papuan Infantry Battalion soldier, Victor Juffa died. That was when I moved around with my mother wherever she was posted - Mendi, Ialibu, Hagen, Minj, Lae - until going back to Block 168 where I had grown up.
Mum had a car accident in Lae when I was about 10 and thereafter struggled to take care of me. She confided in me many years later that she was worried sick. We were living with people in hostels and sometimes terrible things happened. In general, it was about surviving.
My mother always sent me home for holidays so I kept my native language skills sharp and knew my tribal lands and tribal lore. For Grades 4-6 I shifted to Block 168 with my grandmother and cousins who were all somehow rejects or ‘little bastards’ like me.
In these Kokoda days, like many other kids, I had a long walk to school and back. Some days were bliss; others were hell. Especially when I had malaria and could barely walk the two hours back to the block, shaking and in tears and feeling very sorry for myself.
I would lie under a cocoa tree in the burning sun, hands between my knees and teeth chattering, shivering until my grandmother came from the market. I don’t know whether it’s pharmacologically OK for kids to take Amoxycillin and Chloroquin and Panadol all at once, but I survived so it worked out fine. Grandmother treated everything with Amoxycillin and Panadol.
She sold cabbages and scones at the market and made do while mum recovered from her accident. Hard times but happy times. We all contributed - chopping wood, hunting, fishing, collecting greens, fetching water, harvesting our small cocoa patch. A dog named Santo was my best friend and with me everywhere I went.
Grandmother was a workaholic. She was up at five and wake all of us and get us to start working. Tending the chicken pens, cleaning the yard, making the fire, preparing breakfast, scraping coconuts. Everyone was busy.
Some days we would have a treat for our meal, like a fresh chicken. It was usually a Saturday and it was a whole day event.
These were the days my mother would send money and grandmother would buy rice and noodles, special stuff. She would also send us to our neighbour’s place to buy a live chicken.
Once she ordered us to kill a rooster which we chased around gleefully trying not to catch it while she boiled hot water, cooked the rice and heated the wood stove to bake scones for market the next day.
Our ineffectual hunting down of a scrawny red rooster got grandmother raging mad. Her ogre came out and she screeched, “You skinny brats! What is taking so long?” strutting out of the kitchen like a dragon from its cave.
She was like that, instantly going from mild and loving tiny grandmother to giant fire-breathing dragon woman. We searched for somewhere to hide but fortunately the little red rooster paid the price.
He was always annoying grandmother anyway; crowing at three in the morning when the others did theirs at six. And right under her bedroom too. She would mutter “the pot is where you will be soon” as she thumped the floor.
But that didn’t irritate her as much as the fact this rooster was a rapist. He raped any creature smaller than himself. He even tried it with our neighbour’s toddler once while the poor unsuspecting child was doing a shit in the woods.
He was a bad, bad bird this rooster. Fierce and aggressive and always raping the hens, even when they were on eggs. None of the dogs would mess with this bag of bones covered with red feathers.
Grandmother loved collecting strays. She would collect puppies and kittens no one wanted and she would look after them. They were usually the most pitiful ones, the runts and the scraggly. Much like us kids, I guess, in Kathleen Furi Juffa's little home for wayward bastards and creatures.
She would kiss these weaklings and cuddle and feed them. Some of these creatures had fur missing, ribs sticking out and shook like alcoholics. Some had missing ears, eyes and teeth but every one would be given love and warm food. Many were near death and few made it to adulthood, dying as kittens or pups but while they lived they were loved.
So she came back and found the little red rapist trying to molest her little collection of pitiful animals. They were squealing and whining and making more noise than a Kokoda Friday social night. And grandmother was furious.
“You won’t crow out of time again you little red piece of hell,” she declared, sentencing the rooster to death there and then. We ate him on Saturday.
Back to the chase of the rooster. As grandmother emerged from the kitchen, we stood scared shitless pondering what she might do to us. She had a mean backhand. But this time she suddenly appears holding a trident usually used to spear bandicoots (another favourite meal).
This she flung like an Olympic javelin and, making a whirring sound, it sailed through the air towards the rooster which was thinking it had escaped us to rape another day. The three-pointed spear pinned the rooster to the ground by the neck, instantly killing it.
We stood there slack-jawed and grandmother muttered, “That’s how you kill a rapist”. At which point we all found something useful to do, working quietly and feverishly like dutiful little colonial plantation workers.
It’s raining outside and such nights bring back memories of growing up at Block 168, Kokoda. Good and bad memories. I sometimes laugh when I recall those times but I can’t help wiping away tears too.
On those rainy Kokoda nights, grandmother would cook early and gather us near the fire to tell us legends. She would chew betel nut and be mellow and warm and loving and tell us horrific legends of murder and cannibalism and ogres that raped and killed their victims and strung them up by their entrails to feast for days on their rotting carcasses.
We would be cosy, sip our lemon ‘tea’ (lemon leaves with sugar) and listen attentively as if in church. No details were spared - she was gruesome - and we had terrible nightmares but we loved these stories.
Then off to bed to listen to the rain falling hard on the tin roof and retell the tales to ourselves, listening to the rain and the night creatures and falling asleep one by one.
Some nights I would wake up and see the low flicker of the kerosene lamp with grandmother sitting working on her bilum and singing and humming gently and crying softly. Singing about her beloved husband, my grandfather who was a true warrior and who loved her deeply. Theirs was a love story that was true and pure.
“You left so suddenly, like the dead branch on a tree surging ahead and leaving me behind.”
Her cheeks would be wet with tears and I wiped away my own tears on those nights and an extreme sense of loss would remind me that I also missed this great man.
I have decided to write these stories of my childhood and capture something of growing up in Papua New Guinea just after independence. Perhaps they will provide some insight for the reader. I hope to collect these stories into a book. Maybe I will call it 'A bastard in paradise: tales of growing up in post-independence PNG'.