A new year, a new Angoram MP (Ludwig Schultz---what a relief), and a new batch of kids ready for school. Every year the numbers grow, thankfully. Our aim is to make the Awim Elementary into a Primary school by adding grade 3 this year, and making it the only Penale tribe school---where some of these extremely remote communities can send their kids to begin schooling within their own language group, without fear or intimidation from more powerful neighbours. The snag: our main teacher has left this year for the bigger Yimas school (good luck to him) and we have no replacements. But that’s another issue. What we did recently was travel throughout the Upper Arafundi and Karawari to collect lists of all the prospective students for Kambua, Binam and the Awim school, as well as those in the growing number of students (yay!) ready to attend secondary and high school outside the region.
Free education has been the greatest incentive for kids across PNG, and even here, where our grants had covered school fees for everyone before the policy came in, they are sending more and more young ones to school now. We hold the names and track the government school fees, and top up with project fees where necessary. Thus, for example, we discovered that teachers in some district high schools were not only asking an illegal K300 for project fees, but also requiring it be handed to the teacher or headmaster in cash. Not having strong save manmeri in these areas actually allows this exploitation to continue, which is why, despite sometimes pressing household needs for kids to help hunt and forage, we keep pushing to bring kids to school for a few years. Times are changing and scary strangers --with new ideas about everything from ‘forest management’ and ‘investment’ to fantasy ILGs, and joint venturing with persuasive conmen --have made the need for education urgent, even life threatening for these people.
My team congregated by ship and PMV in Wewak, while I took the boss’ prerogative of flying Air Niugini ...so that I could watch a twelve year old boy sitting in first class with his father open and shut the armrest to drop spit bombs through the stowed tray down to the floor, as Air hostesses sat watching, speechless. Very strange. Remembering that helps me file this away with other curiosities of PNG modernity, like shopkeepers who spend fortyfive minutes handwriting your receipt and security guards acting like petty despots and fashion stylists by removing your cap, sunglasses, handbag and mobile phone at the bank door, or whistling to drivers walking away from a parked car to go back please and park alittle closer to the curb. And ( a personal favourite) business houses that take out newspaper ads to divest themselves of rogue employees: 'This person no longer sells insurance for us---beware!' I imagine a small army of people with stolen rolodexes invading places like the Karawari with big promises and dog-eared outdated letterhead .
So as we set out for Angoram by crowded PMV, we had three special additions: Yat Paol, one of our favourite community workers, and two of his colleagues (ex-Bismark Ramu Group), Siggy and Yorba-- experienced community facilitators and all-around swell people. Only when we arrived wet and exhausted in Angoram (after being bogged in mud, jostled by fuel drums, drenched by rain) did we realize Yorba had a raging case of malaria, and we faced a dilemma. Feed him artemeter tabs or send him back to Wewak for a shoot. Brave man, he agreed to spend a delirious day in the canoe as we headed to the Karawari, fortified by the tablets. But in Yimas, we halted to consider the fact that he wasn’t responding to them. Chris offered to take him to Ambonwari by 30 hp where he could get one of the only shots available in the region (Amboin Aid Post is still empty), and to stay behind the next day as he brought him back for a second shot, just to be sure.
The message couldn't be clearer: travel at your own risk upriver from Yimas.
Our first morning in Yimas we experienced one of the coping mechanisms the Alamblak people have depended on in the absence of real health services: the Charismatic Catholic Church’s St. Michael Ministry, which is no less that a mobile exorcism (that looks and sounds like police raid in the highlands. ) Felix, the Ministry leader, led a parade of maybe twentyfive fervents through the village, and as they could be heard approaching everyone in the area scuttled inside, pulling children and elderly alike into hiding: 'Get inside!!! Insait! '
The mob marched through the hamlet banging bamboo walls and limbum verandahs, water tanks, trees and haus win, calling for Michael! Michael! To cast out Lucifer! "Angel blong God—Israel!!! Israel!!!" they shouted, banging everything in their steady passage through the area, men and women both shouting at the top of their lungs. Huddled inside, we could hear them move back along the riverside to the farthest end of the village where they jumped in the water to chase away evil spirits completely. Be off with you! (to Kundiman?) Sort of like the Friday morning swim club, or a vigilant training session the the rebel camp. Quick, efficient, terrifying. Of course Yorba, still delirious, was only vaguely aware of the ritual on his behalf.
On the way upriver to Awim we stopped at Yimas 1, the ancestral village, to search for time capsules buried roughly forty years ago by the anthro-archeologists Rhys Jones and Paul Gorecki (the first outsiders to record the Karawwari caves) which, we were told, consisted of small plastic pouches with things like sago seeds and locally-made tools. They had told Stephen back then that someone who come disinter these bags to discover what their life was like back then. We sort of felt that forty years in a swamp, where flooding moved the riverbed and redefines the terra firma several times a year, was long enough to wait. Plus, we didn’t think we’d find them anyway. And the prospect of digging under someone’s big house was a little daunting, with visions of Hollywood pratfalls and crying babies. These time capsules may have to wait until the post-homo sapiens finally succeed us in the Sepik.
I was very pleased to find Obo the muruk hale and hearty in Awim, having tracked the baby bird’s progress from wee chook to the dinosaur amongst us. Apparently he (colouration seems to be ruling out she, but then adolescence is always confusing...) likes to snack on dead batteries and steal sago pancakes from the fire, like any good Karawari kid. He neighs like a horse and purrs like a kitten, fighting off curs for his piece of the pie. Honking and heaving like a bellows, he even chased little Siril out of the kitchen. This big ass bird with weird quills and reptilian legs has both blue and orange streaks on his neck now and sort of resembles a nineteenth century golfer with his furry knickerbockers and long swinging sticks of legs. Funny bird... he has aboslutely no sense of humour.
The next day we zoomed upriver to Kandamkunda where the Meakambut have rebuilt their camp into a couple of makeshift camps now. Motoring past Yamandim, Imboin and the garden camps between, its like moving through a museum in a scooter, waving at all the dioramas of people lined up on their embankments and undaunted by intruders, most of the kids arse nating and caught in the middle of a mud fight or bellyflop tournament. ...Hi. Hi. Don’t mind us. Just passing through.
It is a million silly things along the riverbanks that make these trips like one extended Crique de Karawari experience. Like the voyage to Where the Wild Things Are (now). The stick in the river that vibrates like a nodding duck. Boys with trousers as hats. Trees draped with heavy throws like summer furniture in storage; quacking duck floats, Loraxian bauble trees and a long backdrop of Dr Seussian figures on both sides of us. Maurice Sendak Masalai live here and they wear big Louis XIV wigs and hold martini glasses as they loom over Lilliputins in our motor canoe. That is no exaggeration.
February is flame of the forest time everywhere, the bright orange blooming vine strung across the deep green flora like a costume jewelry. There is another vine, too, that turns a heart-shaped leaf white and also hangs from tree to tree like fairy lights for the holidays. Low dense clouds, cormorants skimming the water, and all the strange creatures wearing pearls flatten with declining light into silhouettes along the riverside. Big dark sentries to the bush beyond. Looking upriver the fine blue scrims of mountains have less pomp and are presided over by Susu Mountain, the reclining woman with a pompodour and perfectly rounded breasts.
There’s a game I play as we motor along the rivers, and I play it at the seaside too. Unconsciously. It comes from a childhood on Lake Champlain in Vermont, looking across to a vast range of forested mountains on the New York side, where barely one or two houses had carved a niche. I see a patch of short grass, or a clearing, maybe the illusion of a morauta wall up ahead, and I think of a perfect home hidden in the jungle, just out of view, beyond the decorative trees at the embankment, perhaps the hedge before a dock where we keep the dinghy. It will be a house out of a George Cukor film, the picket fenced country home, a retreat for The Thin Man where Myrna Loy is mixing gin and tonics as we slump into stuffed chairs by the fire, unwinding while someone draws us a lovely hot bath. And always, in these delusions, there is a train station in the village that takes me back to Manhattan.
At night I'm reading Henry Green’s mannerist novels about class in the UK between the Wars. What does that say? Searching for the rabbit hole to middle class comfort? Or is that rabbit hole really a black hole?
Hard to say whether it is a function of my Pidgin or my personality, but here, as elsewhere, people prefer to tell me what I want to hear to spare the real explanation. Taking off for Kandamkunda, I see Jeffrey load not one but two baskets of 10-kilo weight sago for our stores. Surely we don’t need that much? I am perplexed. Yes we do, he smiles, and keeps loading. Yes we do, of course, when we pull up to Imboin en route and one load gets wordlessly handed over to Manu and family. In the same way, Camillus’ wife, standing at a garden camp further up, handed us three stalks of bananas and a bundle of smoked tilapia. Why bother explaining?
We arrive at the first of three camps that have come to replace the old Kandamkunda, little more than a garden house filled with young men. Too crowded for us to stay, as we are ten of us for some reason. We reach the second camp in pounding rain which forces us to bolt up the swampy foreshore to the embankment, carrying everything. Here there were two houses, one large and decidedly more rickety, balanced precariously over the edge with barely enough limbum palm flooring and a sketchy morauta roof. We could all pile up and join the six young men, kids and a woman sitting inside, and we’d be sure to collapse the haus in minutes and spill down the slope. The second house is small, stronger, and occupied by a young woman with three tiny kids being sheltered under a large sago spathe from a leaky roof. We could split up and send half of us further upriver still, but who would go and who would stay?
Finally, we induce the woman and children to move in with the others in the big house so all ten of us can lay our bedding down in her place for the night, which is perched above four big toad-in-the- hole pigs that burble and grunt continuously. That’s better than the pack of mangy curs living under the other house, except that one of them, the most resourceful of the bunch, has found a way to jump up the houseposts to the first floor. he shimmies up the pole. This is the same dog who, when I sneak down the notched pole for the toilet at 4 AM, having turned the pole back after Jeffrey hid the notches from intruding dog, seizes the opportunity to skip up the pole after all.
After gossip and jokes and drai saksak under the darkening sky, we wrapped ourselves in laplaps slept pretty well.
Sebi told me later he was thinking about those spectacular foliage sculptures at the opening party for the World Conservation Congress we attended in Korea this November (his first trip, memorable in part for the vibrating/singing toilets in the hotel). Looking back now at these photos of the scultpure I can see how much more tame and polite they are compared to the looming silhouettes along the Arafundi. Little Kitty creatures versus the really Wild Things. Manicured WWF mascots versus the masalai of the Sepik floodplains.
I fell asleep listening to a podcast by Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant, interviewing their goofy friend Karl Pilkington about his newfound obsession with nature---asking him to explain why insects do what they do. And Gervais has one of those full throttle laughs which, like Edward’s rising glug of water, makes me chuckle just to hear it. Then I realize my laughs are making the floor shudder, and that everyone else in semi-sleep must be thinking I’m crying, not laughing, myself to sleep, and they’re too shy to come over... Poor Mum. She must be miserable. Let her sleep...
Next morning Donald spread nutella and peanut butter on my sago, so I tore it to bits for the kids---who will no doubt recall the taste like Proust’s madelaine forever. What was that thing we ate? one will ask himself. Don’t think they’ve had as much sugar in one bite before, its lucky they don’t go mad before our eyes. We unpack a bag of collared and t-shirts donated by friends in Australia, Roz Fidge and Jan Shier, and everyone scrambles for a piece of something. One grille-covered kid gets himself a clean white cotton shirt and he buttons us up to the collar, as if waiting for a bow tie and cuff links.
We push on to the last camp, where Lidia and Pasu with their baby Lebeka, and Jake with lots of young men, are hunkered down for the season. Between two feeble garden houses a covered fire on the ground is a cozy third shelter. Everyone looks well and happy, no recent deaths but a couple of births. Always good news. Although none of the babies have inoculations. This leads us to the subject of Cyril, the Kamindimbit tourguide, who recently brought three Israeli tourists to visit the Meakambut, and even walked with them to their proto-village atop Mt MacGregor. I heard about this from Chris, who was there bringing water tanks for us, and who failed to convince Cyril, much less his clients, that these people are not in fact a tourist destination and that they are more afraid than not to see strange white people enter their encampment.
That frigging National Geographic article has come back to bite us, again. It’s one thing when people send email queries about the Meakambut, and even when documentary crews propose to film them in some series about nature or social evolution or some such reductive theme. I can deflect those pretty well, knowing the Meakambut do not in fact want visitors, they have repeatedly told us so. But its quite another thing when wealthy ‘explorers’ decide to make second contact.
These women were apparently medical people of some sort, and although not hired to do so, they took the opportunity to give the young women check ups (once again—stirred by the melodrama of Lidia’s ‘pneumonia’ in the article and the brave intervention of the National Geographic team that saved her life!---FYI, she has had pneumonia as well as malaria again since, and recovered on her own, just as she did from natural childbirth).
I asked the women whether the strangers had told them anything about their health, and they shook their heads, because of course even had the women imparted their information, the Meakambut do not understand English. They also said Cyril had not paid them for the visit (although I assume they paid someone to sleep in a house). Brilliant. Hit and run social work masquerading as adventure tourism. Chris' photos confirm that Cyril asked them to dress in the tumbuna costumes, for better effect. Who benefitted? The Meakambut were left confused, at very least. And Cyril made a profit, you can be sure. Carpetbaggers and conmen, they’re everywhere.
Talking with Jake about bringing a couple of Meakambut kids to the Awim school this year, maybe giving Meakambut some land in Awim to make gardens while the kids are in school. We have to find a way to keep these kids from running away. Across the Karawari kids are clamouring for schools, and the Awim kids are the only ones who share the phobia of a desk and pencil that many western kids have growing up. They dread school. So they boomerang back to the bush. They like their freedom, Jake shrugs... And that says it all. Freedom.
The bush life---who can beat it? Especially for boys---hunting all day, frogs and birds for lunch, fishing for dinner, owning the entire rainforest without needing to feed dependents. It’s grand of course, even Samuel Clemens would see the point. But I tell Jake that this is exactly why they have to make the sacrifice. That freedom could be wrenched from them by any smartarse conman or pseudo-investor with forged signatures, and they know that. Suspicion is their best asset. But we also need to cultivate readers and writers, the kinds of save manmeri who can actually fend off opportunists not just run from them. Someone has to pay the price for everyone else’s autonomy.
Nevertheless, I’m reminded of a letter Marianne Moore wrote to her niece I think, bemoaning the latter’s first day of school. She was sad for her loss of intellectual freedom, of boundlessness to her imagination, now that the printed word will supersede these. She will learn to parrot other thoughts before inventing her own. And this is very much how I feel about the Meakambut and school, about their loss of intellectual and physical freedom. Henceforth clocks and calendars and deadlines will interrupt the flow of endless possibilities of living in the rainforest. Education , but also ‘development’ in general, represents a Faustian contract for remote people like the Meakambut, Sumariop and Ewa people in the project area. There are a million slippery slopes to social change, inalterable change, but none as steep as the move from complete self-sufficiency to town life. The social contract of the developed world is much more fettered than that of recent hunter-gatherers in the Karawari, but no one knows that when they aspire for a 'better life.' And of course the danger is that too much education of one sort comes to undermine their traditions, their values and their self esteem.
People like Lawrence D, Chris’ brother, are like Cyril---desperate to excel in the modern world. Desperate to find a cause with donor funding, or a niche market to exploit. Lawrence has been a medicine man, an evangelical pastor, an engineering student, a trainee bulldoze driver, a conservationist and now a resource developer offering snake oil prospectus to his own people. For the kind of commission, I would guess, that might just fuel his Pajero. He's a happy pawn for snarky opportunists.
Headed downriver now, we stop in at Imboin, where Lukas faces a serious dilemma. Ever a doubter about our work, he used to yell at us from the riverbank as we puttered past en route to Kandamkuna. 'Why you going to them? Those are our caves—they’re just primitives! Naked!' ( 'So were you naked until yesterday,' I once told him.) All of this became fait accompli as we avoided him more and more. Once with Dr Samiak on medical patrol, Lukas screamed that we weren’t welcome there—go back! We don’t need your water tanks or medicine! Stop paying our school fees! (This last request made even Dr. Samiak laugh).
He had just bought a gold dredger and no doubt felt he would himself be able to provision the village with modernity. That was before he learned it was just a bill of goods. Now it’s broken somewhere, unrepairable I hear, and he owes K10,000 to a mysterious ‘investor’ and another K10,000 to ambitious rubes up and down the Arafundi. Ruben in Awim for example gave Lukas a life’s savings of K1500 for a piece of the money-making machine.
All that bluster of big plans has dissipated now, and Lukas welcomed us ashore for a chat in the haus win.
I had once had a friend from Coober Peedy who invented a better gold dredger for the panning skirts of Porgera mine. This was in Mt Hagen, twenty years ago. But he caught in a web of intrigue with some paranoid Engans, and the dredger had to be hidden against abduction in someone’s yard in town. It was all very cloak and dagger, and we’d hear stories of security guards being bought off and supplies stolen. But the best story I ever heard came from the Engans themselves, when they came to Hagen, to Haus Poroman lodge where I was working, to sign the MOU with my friend and his mates. One of these idiot Australians, a young kid, had brought Beaver magazines to sweeten the deal, no doubt because the Engans wanted to see white twat or some such.
They did soften, enough to reveal a harrowing incident: how sometime before, a white woman, presumably Australian, had come to pain their river for gold and when she’d had enough she invited them all to come to Hagen for a stay at the Hagen Hotel with her. Naturally this involved her taking on all the Engans, because white women are insatiable. They were finally knocked out by sex and drink when this woman riffled through their pockets and absconded with all their gold! Pity us! Boo hoo! For those who love great stories, and are led to believe all women are witches, this makes perfect sense, especially with a gang of seven grown men corroborating the details. But my friend, a grown Australian man, was the one to gobsmack me by asking ‘Why don’t you believe them Nance?’
Anyway, Lukas was now in a serious double-bind. How to pay anyone back? How to deflect these creditors and still come out on top? Part of his answer, we could sense, was in conciliating us, and in so doing pretending to be the conservationist we want see. He asked us several questions about the World Heritage and other ideas for the caves, nodding respectfully as our new community facilitators sketched out some of the dangers of resource extraction in these rainforests. We really weren’t here to convert him, only to make peace and see what he was thinking these days. None of us brought up the little we knew about his dredger debt, investors, or whether he’d met with other dubious speculators along the river, like our relative Lawrence. We presume he had.
Lukas is a small handsome older man with short hair and high cheekbones, almond eyes, and some sort responsibility for the local church. That’s where we put our solar panels two years ago, the same gift we gave all these villages at the time. But he complained that they weren’t good enough, or weren’t large enough. Then we left Imboin a patrol box they would deliver to the Meakambut when they next came down the mountain; it was the same gear we gave each community: a new guitar, mobile phone, nails, that sort of thing. Must have been months later when one of the Meakambut asked us if this crummy battered old guitar had really been a gift from us. What? Lukas had switched his old for the new guitar and not bothered to deliver any of the other kit. Even then, he complained about the quality of our gifts, just as he did now. That keyboard you bought? It’s broken now. Cheap garbage from China.
We will always be the proverbial gift horse.
Now Lukas took a gambit. He asked us what an ILG [Incorporated Landower Group] was? We explained that it was a legal entity mainly for commercial purposes. Lukas wanted to know if he should get the entire Karawari area to sign one, maybe as part of our campaign to ‘save’ the forest. I didn’t smell fish at this point, but maybe Bonny and some of the others did, because when he showed us a form for establishing an ILG that he’d already begun filling out, Siggy and Yat both explained that this was a dangerous step that no one wanted to take right now. And some of the Imboin men hanging around the edges of this talk were sniggering at Lukas. We gave him our conservation speil, and he nodded with zeal. Absolutely. Save the bush.
Then as we were winding down to get in the canoe and head home, I heard him say to someone (Bonny?) 'Mi bai kisim mak bilong olgeta komuniti blong Karawari na Arafundi lo dispel.’ I’m gonna get every community to sign this. Then he added that it would take him K21,000 kina to register the ILG but he would get it done! Hold on, we thought. Siggy explained again that registering an ILG is virtually free, no one has to pay for it. And again, it is not the document these communities need to sign now (they’d be better off with a conservation ‘covenant’ of some sort). But when red flags go up in these kinds of conversations (which are far from transparent) it is sometimes best to walk away rather than fight. Fortunately I wasn’t in a prickly mood and had been half-sold on Lukas’s professions of innocence and need. Otherwise I might have had one of my crazy white missus tirades.
Only later than evening did we realize that Lukas' plan would be to collect 21,000 from villages across the Karawari to register an ILG, in his words, and thus pay back everything he owed on the dredger. That would leave him something like K1000 ahead, at very best. But free.
No doubt he lives now in constant fear of retributive sorcery.
After a night in Awim, we headed up the Karawari River to Ratoma village. To our well built Ekabu Sange Gasst Haus in the old abandoned village of Ratoma, which is like a ghost town minus the swinging saloon doors. Everyone’s moved inland to create a small village on higher ground. But the only thing dilapidated about our house is the verandah railing, which broke and spilled out tens of kids the morning we brought a newspaper with the photo of their new PM, Peter O’Neill, barely days after the election.
After a quiet night on the floor of the house, talking with a few Ratoma folk who were not far away in their seasonal hunting and gardening camps, we headed off to see the ‘new’ Ratoma. It was close but not easy to find, indeed almost hidden in the bush. There are apparently two ways in and out, both safeguarded by long logs through swampy ground and suspended across a baret that runs like a moat around the village. One could almost imagine a Hobbit-like plan for the place: a Tarabithia or Narnia guarded by death adders and wrapped in the cloak of invisibility. Passwords needed.
We ascended a path lined by newly planted eaglewood trees, which morphed into a cleared footpath hedged with crotons. At the crest of the hill we looked over a lovely planned village, almost like the set of a Midsommer Murders episode in old England, it was so quaint. Well kept yards, cleaned paths, decorative flowers, new haus win, evenly bamboo-ed walls and carefully laid out gardens. Where were we? Brigadoon? I’m looking for Gene Kelly, trying to remember the film, as the local church leader, Matthew, greets us in his peculiar voice-cracking way (nothing says fringe population like pubescent middle aged men). This was an apparition in the jungle, we told him. Paradise. Credit due to the Healthy Island representative, Julie Gawi, who apparently came from Wewak to teach them how to plan and maintain this PNG equivalent of a gated community. It does elicit Marianne Mooore-ish fears of conventionality at first, but the sheer loveliness of it all won me over.
There were barely a handful of people home, everyone in their camps, but we were struck by how happy the inhabitants seemed to be. Gertrude gives us big stalks of sugar, and we sit in a haus win with Matthew, meeting two women who both seem to have chest infections, and for whom we can leave antibiotics.
Eventually, we are led out by the back exit and across an even longer series of suspension logs, slippery and thin, conjuring images of my death by evil swamp creatures. At the end, I almost felt that the village would be swallowed by mist if we dared to turn around.
Like those buried time capsules in Yimas, lost to the outside for another 100 years or so. In fact, Siggey, Yat and Yorba were so struck by my telling of the Brigadoon story in the haus win that I’ve promised to get the DVD and come back to play it on my laptop.
Moving upriver we are greeted like relief workers after a disaster. But that the disaster has been years and years of government neglect, bringing as much psychological devastation as a real tsunami. At the settlement of Divek a small crowd has been waiting for us and a middle aged woman launches into an angry harangue about withholding medical supplies to them and visiting only some of the Ratoma with our project! They will block the river if we don’t stop! I love these speeches because they are exactly the same outbursts to which I am prone--and which may seem perfectly logical to the aggrieved party but always fall like a lead balloon at a birthday party. In my case, of course, I sometimes wind down a long harangue standing alone in a clearing. Family and friends AWOL. But we were a captive audience and turned off the engine to hear her out this time. Miraculously ( family: take note) she was placated in minutes by the simplest of explanations: we weren’t avoiding them, we just hadn’t brought the doctor on this round. Okay, thanks, blessed day to you! She waved us on.
Barely a kilometer downriver we’re ensnared by Yeramat villagers, who take an entirely different approach. They’d waved us as we passed going upriver, and we had promised to stop after they explained that they had a ‘program’ for us (which can only mean a ceremony). Now they asked us to wait in the canoe while they finished preparations. Boughs of shredded limbum palm fronds described a grape trellis path to the village, no less lovely than the faux Roman paths surrounding the Las Vegas Bellagio gardens, I might say.
When we climbed up eventually, women garnished us with leis and then smeared mud all over our faces---that grey clay that dries so white on dark skin and looks like a sad mud mask on mine. We were being welcomed to the opening of a new guest house, which they said they had made for us. Could we spend the night please? (Not this time, but thanks). A young man named Albert Timothy approached me and we were told he had been the lead builder of the new (and very nice) house, after which he extended his right hand holding a chook by the legs and made to bend over for a hug. I naturally did the same, thinking how delightful this touch. But he proceeded to move the chook around my body two times, ceremonially, as I recovered with sufficient aplomb to please. The chook was a gift. A master of ceremonies (Councilor was away) told us they had 30 caves, which flabbergasted me—yet more to explore and record. It's official; I will have to live to 150 to finish recording these caves.
We were now headed for Moinene, which I dreaded, because we had heard so many rumours about villagers being hoodwinked by wheeler-dealer relatives and rogue arseholes. Besides, only months before two Moinene men (prompted by Yimas neighbours) had come to our camp Awim and demanded that Sebi’s wife give them 3 gallons of fuel so they could run a VCR by generator in Yimas one night, no doubt to watch something as important as Alvin and the Chipmunks. Chris had come to Moinene since and was told the culprits were away, although they were apparently hiding. Chris inspires fear I suppose? That's news. This time Donald had gone to his garden camp, and only Philip and Mika, of the adult set, were there.
When we motored up to the back entrance, only children could be seen scrambling down to greet us---including several ass-tanget kotkot relatives. The several minutes it took for us to tie up the canoe and start up the path produced no adults either. Hadn’t they heard our motor? Where was Philip and his wife? At the clearing in Donald’s area I asked two young girls where everyone was and they shrugged.
We went to sit in the haus win outside our project house. Atop the hill and behind our house was a newly constructed church (EBC I think), and they had rug me in Madang to bring extra rice for the opening, so I felt alittle miffed to have been formally invited and yet greeted by no one. We were just about at the haus when when Philip’s wife stumbled out of her house, saw me, and darted back inside. To warn Philip? It was uncharacteristically timorous, and I worried. Soon enough they both emerged with smiles, and Mika also joined us for a low-key greeting. Why is everyone so afraid of our arrival? I asked. Surely they heard our motor? Who knows, perhaps because so few families were around.
We learned that six men had been MAF airlifted by Lawrence D to Wewak to discuss myserious ‘investments’ in their garu and gold. Only Donald was home, but he’d left that morning for his garden camp and couldn’t be chased up this afternoon. We made the decision to try to reach Robert’s camp upriver tonight and send word for Donald, indicating we would be back tomorrow afternoon for the night. So we set off again, unaware of how low our fuel reserves had grown.
Christmas Holidays are camping season all over the Karawari. We were headed up the Karawari to a hunting and fishing camp (I sound like a maharajah )far far up near Kaiam. Albert, our trusted driver and Fagan of all lost boys, had filled 25 gallons of fuel, which would normally have been more than enough. But it barely sufficed now thanks to a clogged fuel filter and a raging tide.
Got to Wally’s camp where some Awim and Imanmeri were gathered for the last few weeks, and decided we couldn’t make it much further so we turned round for Moinene. We would have to spend the night there after all. Robert jumped out at the camp first, with a promise to trek for the next day upriver and see if he could bring the other Robert back to meet us instead (and was later to find all the upriver camps abandoned). So by the time we returned to Moinene, our dress rehearsal debacle was corrected with a proper greeting, including being smeared with clay by some of the young men. Two facials in one day. All I needed was a mani-pedi.
Mika is an exuberant migrant, having brought his family back to his family place after a lifetime in the Wewak settlements. But he will not stop talking, which poses a real problem to me because Im not the taciturn type and I resent not getting a word in. The rest of the village are as tolerant of their new verbose member as they are of me, but with a greater dose of avoidance I suspect for Mika. He also eats his words, highland style, so that Angoram is Agrim. Ludwig Schultz is Luwig Shtz. Nevertheless, you cannot beat his enthusiasm for conservation, fueled now by the mysterious ‘Asian’ NGO based in Wewak that provide powerpoint awareness programs on the dangers of ‘cargo’ over ‘custom’ culture. Plus, Mika is a master of indirection, never missing chance to call a spade a shovel, and mumbling while he does so. You get caught leaning in to one of his stories and you wait for the parable, some sign of an exit, before your back starts to ache and you give up and move away again. Meanwhile he keeps talking.
The Moinene also LOVE to blame the victim. They rebound guilt even better than Lukas in Imboin. I ask them where the volleyball and net were that we'd given them and am told ’You didn’t get us a good one, just a cheap one, so it broke.’ Some of this is just the nature of Tok Pisin, which a declarative, barely nuanced language. No pardon me’s or apologies. I bark back making fun of them for whinging, and everyone laughs.
The next day we wait for Donald to come back, as we’d sent a messenger to his camp. But it’s almost late afternoon and we have a long ride back to Awim tonight, so we start to moan about missing Donald, about his maybe avoiding us. A young woman walks up to the haus win and launches a fabulous harangue: ---'It’s your own damn fault for sending a message saying you’d be back from Robert’s camp to spend tonight not last night in the village. Don’t blame Donald! Yu yet—yupla paulim tok pinis!' Excellent push back, Im thinking: will she accept our apologies? I’m laughing, though, saying she is having a good whine at us for nothing! We’re waiting aren’t we? She laughs. Restorative justice: blame the one you’re with.
Donald does come eventually, as we hear his side of the ‘investor’ saga, and why he didn’t fly with the others to Wewak. No MOU has been signed. Apparently all the plans went ‘bump’ and the men have spent their eaglewood and gold money now. Donald’s a player, and even more than Lukas, he tends to speak from two sides of his mouth (hedging bets), but we did get the feeling he would be happy to sit down with Siggy and Yorba when they come back for a conservation awareness next week. We can only try. Let’s work on District Grants from Ludwig Schultz for now. When will you run for office? he asks me. No ideological loyalty, just the chance to get a friend in power.
Back in Awim I chance upon a piece of exercise book paper with a note by Sebi left on the table in the big house. In red ink on one side it says Anna L. Katuk. On the other it says in Pidgin, To whomever you are who killed my wife, who made her die and suffer, and who made me cry and left my children without a mother, I hope something horrible happens to you too.
Like a little sorcery bundle of words sent to the community at large. I have to read it again, my eyes tearing up. We have been nursing his six month old baby Sammy back from a chest infection since we arrived, first he was feverish and very ill, then we had sunshine milk and smashed aspirins in his baby cup bringing his fever down. Sammy is theyoungest of seven, and was barely two months old when Anna died of an undiagnosed illness that everyone has attributed to sorcery. She had suffered severe stomach pains and swelling, but by the time Sebi poled her to Angoram they could do nothing.
By the time we left Sebi had strapped Sammy to his chest and set for the long walk to Kaiam and the expat doctors based there with our friend Anton Lutz. Poor little baby with an old man’s face and no mother’s milk to strengthen him.
This is also when my cat starts driving me crazy.On arrival two weeks ago, I’d discover that my petulant male cat had ‘marked’ all my clothes in my duffle. It was worse than a litter box, stinking everything up within fifty metres of the bag. Just now I’d finished washing everything piecemeal, and it was all soap scented and dry --finally. Somehow, though, the smell of cat was lingering. What could it be? It was bugging me now, this indelible urine of an angry male cat. This is not helped by my having just read an Atlantic article by Kathleen McAuliffe, about Czech scientist, Jaroslav Flegr: How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy.
'Jaroslav Flegr is no kook. And yet, for years, he suspected his mind had been taken over by parasites that had invaded his brain. So the prolific biologist took his science-fiction hunch into the lab. What he’s now discovering will startle you. Could tiny organisms carried by house cats be creeping into our brains, causing everything from car wrecks to schizophrenia? '
Apparently the effect is gendered: men who have contracted the schizophrenia gene from cats are relatively unbothered by the smell of cat piss. But women hate it. Clearly I have schizophrenia. What do ‘third sex’ people feel? Ambivalence? So it is in this cheery state that I take my old canvas hat off to throw on the floor, defeated. And that’s when I smell it: The cat piss. He’s peed on the inside of my hat for gawd’s sake. Not only have I been chasing the wrong clothes but I’ve been wearing this smell on my head for two long weeks now. Proof positive I am schizophrenic. QED.
As we head back to Angoram and then Wewak, Im having one of those low grade anxiety attacks I used to have when I would return to uni after a visit home: please don’t make me go. Please?
In my last two days in Karawari I am always prey to everyone’s ad hoc requests and importuning for school fees, medical costs, fuel, and petty cash. The signs of an imminent request are always the same. Someone lingers around after a conversation group disperses, or waits until I am walking or sitting on my own for a microsecond. 'Mums, mi laik askim yu. ' Torch, trousers, nails, even a 30 hp motor. 'Inap yu givim mi twenty kina?' Makes me tetchy as these ploys fill the last 2-3 days of my stay. No. Sorry no. No. no.
We got to yimas 1 and took Maria and her five kids aboard, as they had no other way to Wewak where they wuld have to pay fines for missing a flight last weekend. For some reason, Pio didn’t want to take her when he might have---she seems to have been a polarizing figure in people’s minds for charging school fees at all, when I recollect she was the first woman to even start the school in Yimas. She remains my hero for that.
But as we loaded her gear in the boat, facilitated by a young man I didn’t recognize to be (my son) Leonard’s biological brother, Maria broke into tears and hugged her father Bruno, so frail and tiny now, knowing she would most likely never see him again. Her daughters did the same, and it was very sad.
After another all-day canoe trip back to Angoram, we wait for 7 hours in the humid dark of Jimmy’s compound, for his PMV driver to take off for Wewak. He likes to leave at midnight and arrive by dawn.
Hungry, itchy, very dirty and tired, we all sat around the yard like zombies before Jimmy opened his kai bar and we could buy biscuits and a cold drink. We tried to get a hold of Ludwig Schultz and his elusive new mobile number, which changes all the time. He just happened to be in town. Eventually someone found a number for me to try, and I rang to no answer, thinking better to text.
’Honorable Member congrats on the election but sorry about you medical worries. We’d like to help your office in an y way possible re the karawari region.’ (The next day, lo and behold he texted back thanking me and asking what did I have in mind? )
Around midnight the driver shows up. We rouse our weary heads to load the truck. Maria and her brood, plus lots of cargo and fuel drums had already been loaded under the canvas roof. People seemed to have filled both long benches in back, so the driver invited me, following Jimmy’s suggestion (who refused to be paid for the room we napped in), to sit shotgun in the cab with the bos kru. We had some time to wait, I believe for the bos kru. And the driver didn’t want to move while there were bands of (Sunday night?) drunks along the roads through town.
So I turned on the ipod and listened to an Ian Rankin novel with relatively decipherable Scottish brogues. Aye, cudna makoot mostuv eeet. Eventually we reversed through the main gate, and the bos kru I recognized as Frank banged on my door for me to unlock and open, which I did. He jumped aboard and began an argument with the driver that was a lesson in polite conversational debate, PNG style. The driver said he didn’t want to take him because he was drunk and would only stir up others along the road. But he only had two white cans, Frank very apparently lied, and ‘I won't drink any more!’ ‘ Not this time, mate’, and this went back and forth for a while with the engine off. The driver was tactful beyond measure even when Frank blew up and yelled at back in a drunken rage. Finally, as I sat between the two like the net of a tennis match until the door popped, Frank jumped down, another man jumped in, and we were off.
Seven and a half hours later we were in Wewak. We fell off the truck at Kurukum lodge, the motel with occasional running water that’s owned by a Karawari man and is club to all wantoks in Wewak. Not to be found in Lonely Planet, it is nevertheless paradise after the long ride. We spent two nights waiting for flights and ships and restocking the team to return to Awim. The second night we had run so short of money that we all bunged in one room, and I was given the queenly privilege of sleeping on the bed. Not far away some of us attended a haus krai for yet another Karawari woman’s death. She was 22 years old and had waiting at the Boram outpatient clinic for a checkup when she keeled over and died.
Her mother and siblings were on a PMV back from Angoram when they got the call. They had just celebrated the end of mourning for her father in the village, and now this. It reminded Bonny of the story of how ‘triage’ was introduced to these clinics. People still wait hours on broken plastic chairs to be seen, but now they’re sometimes ranked by urgency. Apparently years ago a man came in with his young son in need of urgent attention, and the nurses all told him to get to the back of the queue. Every time he got up to ask again, to try to get someone’s attention, he was barked back to his place. Finally, the boy died then and there in his seat. His father went on a rampage in the clinic—throwing chairs and breaking counters, he was so angry the nurses had to hide. I can absolutely understand.
We’d heard of so many women dying on this trip---young women, dying quickly of mystery illnesses. Vomiting one day, dead the next. Children being left motherless, young men crying for their wives. No St Michael’s exorcism for them. The villages cope by attributing everything to sanguma, ‘samting blo peles’---even when they agree superficially that medical services could have saved lives. Blame the government I say! Stop blaming all these young women. Do you really think all the young women of the Karawari are cursed? (Better that, I suppose, than the malicious sorcery accusations against women in the highlands.) In both cases, a major factor is the complete absence of medical services for women in PNG, at last outside major towns. They may well be dying of untreated infections and uterine cancers. But we’ll never know, as the business of ‘samting blong peles’ grows more sexist every day. And imprecise. I often think if I had those powers I'd direct them at a few choice men instead.
Standing in line for the ANZ the next day who bounds up to hug me but Kamindimbit Cyril, crazy Cyril. He wants to kiss, shake, hug, calling me ‘mummy’---but instead of taking that useful passive-aggressive route everyone has always recommended in PNG (smile and bare your teeth), I’m exhausted and too dense to equivocate. So I launch my own harangue. And I do it so surprisingly, so erratically, that I appear to prove to everyone on the street that a) white women are completely antisocial, and/or b) I am schizophrenic. Or just a bitch. 'You exploitative arsehole! The Meakambut are NOT a tourist attraction you eejit!' My kids jump back and let me go for it, broad smiles everywhere. But of course Cyril is mortified and lies about his junket ---saying how they are his relatives, they love to see him, etc etc---before admitting Lawrence D had told him of the camps and how to get there. But of course the women had read the Nat Geo article and asked to be taken there? Yes yes Mummy. And they paid you? Yes, yes, that is my job. His obsequy soothes me and I give up. You’re Iatmul, by the way, I tell him. Not even distantly related to them.
Walking back to the lodge we bump into Markus, from Moinene. Having been flown to town and treated to ‘investor’ meetings, he's now stranded and seeking help to get home. Why Markus, didn't Lawrence give you a round-trip ticket?