The reckoning: The Leahy family revisited 30 years on
We Always Have Wine

Sumi, okari nuts & the life of my childhood

Gary Juffa & friendGARY JUFFA

Trouble seemed to follow me obsessively throughout my growing years. I was always learning in some painful way what not to do or say. That’s what this walk down the memory lane of my growing years is about.....

ORO - How in the world had this giant wasp found its way into a dimly forested area? Especially this patch of dimly forested area - the border between my grandfather’s cocoa block and his most eastern neighbour, a place saturated with the tallest okari trees that produced the largest okari nuts. A place where we were doing things we should not have been.

Sumi was almost always found buzzing about the tops of coconut trees and was never known to frequent forested areas like this.

I considered this painful discovery whilst my mother tended to the back of my aching neck exactly where I had been stung by said evil creature, the giant sumi or coconut wasp.

Mum sprayed an antihistamine formula from the first aid kit and that soothed the pain instantly and prepared to remove the stinger and dress the wound. Mum was a nursing sister and very good at what she did; a testament to the health system of the early years of Papua New Guinea’s independence.

But I was in excruciating pain and wept miserably in self-pity, sobbing in that way where your throat has a huge lump in it and an inexplicable tightness in your chest and you feel no one cares for you.

Crying like this goes on for a long time even well after the tears dried up. I cried like this many times as a child. I was always being bitten or falling from some tree or being beaten from some misbehaviour.

Now let me tell you about this coconut wasp, this evil sumi. It has to be one of the most angry and fierce creatures in all of Oro, perhaps PNG. It is black and huge, at least the size of a small bird!

It has two angry orange bands around its thorax and it is fast and angrily moves about attending to sumi business with the confidence that only powerful evil creatures seem to possess. It is often found way on top the coconut trees and you can literally hear it from several meters away as it angrily zips around doing whatever angry sumis do.

No one dares get in its way and no one ever dares attempting to swat it or molest it! It simply won’t accept that and it will literally chase you and sting you!

Many brave warriors would capture it and toss it into a fireplace and feed the charred remains to their hunting dogs as they believed that it made the dogs fierce and fearless and better hunters. But you had to be very brave to do this and most just looked out for dead sumis to roast and feed to their dogs rather than attempt to take on a live sumi.

Sumis operated alone thankfully and if you were stung by one it was very painful and would have you laid up for days recovering. If more than one stung you at the same time, you would pass out and even die!

Moments before this terrible wasp had stung me in the back of my neck and injected its vile toxin and extracted some kind of evil vengeance, I was out and about with one of my cousins searching for okari nuts.

It was okari nut season and everywhere near rivers and along the dirt roads lay okari nut husks where kids had broken them on rocks to split them and get the delicious nut inside.

My cousin and I had been happily gathering nuts in our block from our trees when he had a brilliant idea to raid the okari trees of one of our neighbours, Euticus.

Euticus was a tiny man who always wore a blue short sleeved shirt tucked into his grey short trousers held up by a giant belt with a huge silver buckle. He moved fast and spoke fast too. He was married to a woman twice as tall as he was. His block was across the road from ours and he grew cash crops, mainly cocoa, rubber and some coffee.

He was a hardworking man, exceptionally pleasant.

And he had a line of okari trees just along the border between his block of land and ours.

Everyone has some relative who for some reason simply cannot stay out of trouble. This was my cousin Eki. Trouble followed him everywhere he went.

He was such a lively character that I couldn’t help tag along no matter how many times it had only resulted in pain and misery from beatings meted out by someone for doing something wrong.

Eki’s enthusiasm and energy to try anything was tremendous. Past incidents of beatings and painful realisations of miscalculation did not deter him.

So Eki decided that we should go and raid Euticus’s okari trees. “It’s actually on our side of the border anyhow, so he deserves it. Stupid Euticus, planting trees on our side. This is payment for his wrongdoing,” declared cousin Eki, and off we went as I marvelled at how intelligent he was.

At no time did I recall the many beatings he had led us into with his cleverness as we wove our way through the cocoa patch and eventually the forest and the border and finally the okari trees.

And they were full of okari nuts.

We gasped with joy and started to collect rocks and cut batafas (short throwing sticks) to knock them down.

We had barely started when out of nowhere out came a screaming angry sumi. Stunned we dropped everything we held in our grubby hands and fled.

The sumi came straight at me. The law of irony dictates that the principal troublemaker is never the first recipient of repercussion. It’s always the dumb lackey who suffers the most.

I ran screaming but couldn’t stop the enraged sumi. It crashed into me and injected the lethal payload of poison and anger into my scrawny little chicken neck. I felt the excruciating pain right through my spine and even my bone marrow cringed. The sumi’s entire stinger seemed larger than my neck and so accurate. Sharp, angry, painful.

I clutched my neck and ran screaming through the forest to my grandfather’s cocoa plantation and burst into our homestead seeking mercy and comfort and a solution to this amazing pain.

Fortunately for me, my mother was home on a break and immediately knew what to do. Without interrupting conversation with my grandmother, who was weaving a basket, she deftly grabbed my head and started to apply a liquid which stung almost as much as the wasp.

I howled in pain and stamped my feet as tears flooded down my cheeks creating a small stream on the dusty kitchen floor. Mum forced my head on her lap and started applying antihistamine paste from the first aid kit and that immediately soothed my throbbing neck.

She told me I would be fine and asked if I wanted Milo. This unexpected kindness and care caused me to cry more in self-pity but I was able to nod assent.

Still chatting to my grandmother, mum lifted the kettle and busied herself with making the Milo.

Drinking tea was a great tradition in our family, a time when adults would sift through events in their past and discuss their plans. Kids would drink Milo and listen quietly to intriguing adult gossip until the adults caught on and shouted at them to go away.

Our kettle was famous because it had never ever been washed since it had been bought decades ago. Granddad insisted it never be washed because he claimed the water made the tea taste special. Long after he had died it remained unwashed and everyone said it still made the best tea.

One afternoon Grandad came home late and made a huge fire for the kettle. He had dinner and was rolling a cigarette when he jumped at a cracking sound coming from the fireplace. He realised it was the kettle. He lifted it gingerly and saw no one had filled it with water.

I had woken up and peered through the window of the room where I slept in his giant bed. I watched him flinging the kettle into the dark towards the tapioca patch near our house. Furious, he swore angrily under his breath as he went to the creek to shower. His routine had been interrupted.

He usually ate his meal and drank his tea before showering and he hated disruption to this routine but Granddad never blamed anyone for anything and would just mumble and mutter and shake his head.

Early next morning, even before our irritating rooster scrawny red rooster woke us up with his squawking crow, we were roused by the sound of shouting and rustling in the tapioca patch. I climbed onto the wooden stool next to my Grandmother and cousin sister and peered into the mist and saw Granddad muttering and struggling through the dew soaked tapioca searching for his beloved kettle he had flung away in rage the previous night.

My cousin Jajau giggled and covered her mouth and Grandmother smiled and shook her head and we all grinned as we watched Granddad struggling to find his kettle muttering all manner of swearwords.

Anyway back to sumis. I sipped my Milo and sat miserably watching Eki who until then had not been anywhere in sight. He held a small parcel of something that looked like river fish and came up to me and whispered that this was ours, placing it into the embers of the fire looking like an obedient and dutiful child.

Grandma peered at him over her glasses as she wove her bilum and was thoughtful. She was not fooled.

“What were you two doing and where were you to be bitten by sumi?” she asked. Eki mumbled that we were coming home after looking for firewood and greens.

“Eki, I am not a fool. Don’t lie to me. You come from a long line of liars and it’s running through your blood and on your tongue.

“Now tell me before I roast you in that fireplace with your parcel of undernourished bony fish.”

Grandmother had said this quietly in a voice that said it was not a good idea to cross her. She glared at Eki with piercing hawk eyes. I lay back down, feeling ill. We were going to get a beating for sure.

“It’s my fault japeh,” I mumbled.

Grandmother looked at me.

“And?”

So I told her the story of the failed okari nut project and the angry sumi and how it was my idea. I knew if I didn’t tell her it was me, Eki would get a severe beating and my mother would feel sorry for him and beat me too.

If I admitted to my Grandmother should would just scream at Eki for not correcting me and tell me off for not being careful and we could avoid a beating.

“Well, if you steal, that’s what will happen. Don’t you know that Euticus is a witch? He placed that sumi there to guard his okari against little thieves like you. Better be a careful tonight. He may have cursed your little testicles and when you wake up they will be bigger than watermelons and how in the world are you going to go to church and school looking like that? Forever!

“He did that to a few men in our village and they had to carry their watermelon testicles miserably everywhere they went, sweating and grunting as they grew larger by the day until they looked like tractor tires and exploded.”

My Grandmother had a morbid sense of humour and she knew how to frighten us into shaking little bags of skin and bone.

“Oh come on!” Mum never could stand that talk and would always admonish Grandmother for her cruel jokes.

“Don’t mind her. You have both been punished enough. Drink your Milo and eat your taro and fish and go to bed.”

The next day, a Sunday, cleaned up and fed, Eki and I found our Bibles and waited for Grandmother to come so we could go to church. 

We joined the people walking to church in their finest clothes. Everyone wore their best clothes to church. Everyone was clean and tidy and their clothes were most spectacular and most often white. They carried their Bibles and held their children’s hands.

Fathers carried little children on their shoulders and everyone was pleasant and said hello. Different from today. People take little pride in church attendance. Their dress is untidy and unkempt as if they are going to market or some afternoon buai spin.

Some of the young ladies dress as if they are going nightclubbing. The children are often unclothed and look like they had been dragged out of their beds bawling in protest: snot and tears smeared all over their grubby faces.

As we watched the citizens of Kokoda walk to church, saying hello and enduring many cheek pinches from various aunts and hand-crushing handshakes from uncles, we spied a fast walking little man and a giant woman. It was Euticus and his giant wife. Eki affected a look of complete innocence and smiled at them, nudging me with his elbow.

“Look its little Euty and his mother,” he whispered and grinned. I could have kicked him. I just glared. My neck throbbed and I could feel it pulsing under the dressing Mum had put on that morning.

Euticus smiled at us. “Well, how are you two okari experts?” he asked.

Eki’s face froze and his eyes widened while I smiled stupidly and stepped back. “Oh leave them alone,” said his wife angrily and pushed him. Euticus trotted off, laughing loudly and shaking his head.

The next days and nights were pure hell as we anxiously and frequently checked our testicles to see if they were swelling up.

Comments

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Philip Fitzpatrick

Gary is a really good writer.

Hopefully he'll have enough material to put together for a book soon.

John K Kamasua

Like a screen played out in my mind. Enjoyed this one!

Lindsay F Bond

If only PNG citizens more widely (wisely) possessed skill and knowledge of Gary's fabled Grandmother, PNG parliamentarians might be more circumspect. Lead on, Gary.

Robin Lillicrapp

Well written and most entertaining, Gary.

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