The whole village of Awim turned out to lay Anna Katuk to rest last week. Barely 38 years old, mother of seven , exemplar of cheerful hard work and unflinching dedication to the community, Anna was the epitome of Penale womankind, and yet, remarkably, the most modern of women. She was all things. As her casket was lowered the Village Magistrate was heard to challenge all the other women in Awim: ‘Who will stand up and talk for you now? Who will greet visitors like Anna? Who will make sure outsiders don’t go hungry?’ He said to my son Chris, ‘Now you and the cave team will have no one to look after you.’ And it’s true. As the wife of the principal fieldworker for our project in Awim, Anna was always waiting for us with plates of sago and talapia, ready to organize our washing, fetch water, start the fire. This she did while remaining almost continuously pregnant and draped with infants, as she brought seven children into the world in little over fourteen years. Anna died of stomach TB. The pains went undiagnosed for weeks. There is no clinic or doctor available in Karawari now (--the one longtime APO who ignored these remote populations and starved them of medicines , was fired last year and hasn’t been replaced).
She leaves us all bereft. She leaves seven more of what seems a disproportionate number of motherless children in Awim. Their names are all sibilant---Silas, Cyril, Savior, Samantha, Sandra, Cedric and Sammy---still at the breast. But none grieves more than her husband, Sebastian. They were a twinset couple. Cooperative, funny, self-effacing, models Karawari marriage as partnership. Anna assumed the mantle of top fieldworker’s wife and key informant herself, unobtrusively organizing peers to fall behind Sebi in the Cave Arts Project since 2007. I have known Anna since 1993, though, when she was not yet a mother, but the only woman in Awim to reach out to me, a white missus more accustomed to working with men. Young, cheery, fresh and beautiful, I always looked to Anna for advice and validation. She looked enough like her husband that their seven children were like a set of unstacked Russian dolls, identical in descending form.
And she worked endlessly with her team of mini-me’s, fishing, building a the family house, sago processing, plaiting mats and bags, and never abashed about asking me for small favours when I might return: bilum wool, fabric, sewing needles. Something reticent about her was the key to her irresistibility. You could never know whether she was exasperated by all the extra work our Project imposed on her, or maybe proud to be asked; but she was always gracious and funny when it counted. My respect for her has never flagged over the years. I will never be as much as she was in her short life, and never mean as much to a community as she did, sadly. Nor will I be able to walk that fine line between submission and subversion that she did every day. Cheeky and respectful at once. I have long admired village women for their equanimity in the face of very hard work, but none more so than Anna. She did all this and still managed to be happy and kind hearted.
Sebastian was selected to come to the World Conservation Congress in Jeju Korea this year, along with Livia Roland and myself. We presented a powerpoint on the cave project and spent reverential moments around the hotel’s vibrating musical toilet seat.
Sebi ate every kind of food never to be found in Awim, and never got sick. Yet while Livia was diligent in finding just the right souvenir for his wife Aiyoh, we laughed because Sebi would always demur on a gift for Anna. He’d smile and shake his head---a gift? You must be mad! Instead he collected things for their kids, in behalf of their unified parental identity. But I reminded him he’d bought a cowboy hatfor himself, what about Anna? She wouldn’t expect it, he said. No no, nothing for her. This from a man who made the most beautiful sand drawing of a sago bark painting on the hotel beach one dawn, during a bizarre multicultural prayer to the ancestors. How in the world did Sebi explain to Anna the Mongolian man who as he chanted had two women fluttering around in ministration to his bowls, scarves, and multi-layered cloak?
But within a few weeks of our return, Sebastian rang me from the hello-goodbye Digicel hill above Awim, frantic about a persistent stomach pain Anna was having. She needed to get to an aid post and the closest one would be Angoram, a full day’s motorcanoe and hundreds of kina away. When she arrived they diagnosed her with stomach TB and readied her for the next leg, to Boram Hospital in Wewak. But by the time she arrived, we had lost her. And Sebi was stuck with few wantoks and no real support in Wewak, with the cold corpse of his soul-mate. I was traveling when he rang my mobile phone, and we got word to others in Awim to get to Wewak and help him.
But I remember sitting in a girlfriend’s comfortable high covenant flat in Port Moresby where I was in transit overnight. Sebi’s day had been filled with errands and the assistance of a female wantok from Kreer Camp: the morgue, talcum powder, sewing the long white meri blouse. The Cave Art team had yet to arrive and comfort him, so when he paused over the phone I could hear the silence of profound loneliness and sorrow. He fell silent and I could hear him crying, crying soft and then trying to stifle himself as I started to say whatever I thought might sooth him from so far away. Ultimately he checked himself enough to finish the call, but I knew that somewhere in Kreer Camp that night Sebi would be wailing the biggest sobs of his life, feeling more alone than ever before. Such is the horror of grief in a foreign place, at the Base Hospitals and provincial towns where barely one relative has been able to accompany a patient. Nowhere in the world, not even Jeju Korea, would have been as far from home for Sebi at that moment. Indeed, the next day, when KCA and Awim folks arrived, he fell upon them like apparitions.
That’s all I can say now about Anna Katuk. Who leaves seven wonderful kids—5 boys who have learned to expertly spearfish, hunt pigs, trap lizards and kapul; two girls who fish and scrape sago and fry dry saksak and clean the family clothes as a matter of daily routine. You did a great job
Anna. You accomplished so much in such short time. Now you can haunt us for a period, please. Stick around for as long as possible, or at least until the baby’s wet nurse gets the hang of things. I promise that your kids will not become adults without medical care in the village.
Here is my code: Chris handed me a note from Sebi today, written by our cousin Bonny I think, but at Sebi's behest. It's by far the best of the very rare thank you notes Ive ever received in PNG (other than those written under threat of punishment), and in its way, more telling about a husband's love for his wife than anything else. A man who wouldn't buy a bottle of perfume for his wife would move haeaven and earth to get her home for a big sit krai.