PAMELA JOSEPHINE TOLIMAN
To my family and those who have gladly ‘eaten from my skin’ (kaikai long skin bilong mi)
DID YOU NOT SEE how I hung my head in embarrassment when you happily announced to the village that I had begun menstruating? You dressed me in magnificent plumes and soft fur. You oiled my skin and sang over me but I felt like a pig being groomed for exhibition.
“She is worth …” you announced what I would be expected for my bride price as I was led forth and presented no longer as a child but a woman. From that moment I learnt a painful truth: I would never be my own and my value, my worth, would be dictated by others.
You considered my education an expensive luxury. Cleaning the house, fetching water and firewood, cooking and watching over siblings were things you pushed on me in an effort to increase my value. “No husband wants a woman who cannot cook or keep a home.”
The increase in my domesticity value came at the price of missing out on a placement after grade ten. You were relieved that you would not have to waste any more money on school fees. Perhaps now you would see a return on your investment.
You would shamelessly appraise possible suitors in my presence. The fact that some candidates were already married or had fathered children was not considered impediments. Finally, one persistent suitor caught your attention and appetite.
He began calling regularly at our home and you showered him with respect because of the money and gifts that accompanied his visits. Did you not see how he repulsed me? Did you not sense how sick I felt when his eyes roamed over my body?
You pushed me that day to accompany him into town. He had generously offered to advance you store goods for a small canteen I was to keep. You pushed me to accept his invitation. But he did not take me directly into town. He stopped at a quietly concealed garden house within his coffee plot.
That day he took the last thing that was mine. Without my permission, he took and took again. I was battered, bruised and bleeding but nonchalantly he continued into town and bought me a Coke and a lunch pack to soften the blow.
I sat numb and silent as we waited for workers to load the store goods onto his vehicle. Finally we headed back and as our family home came into view hot tears burst forth from my eyes. Surely I was safe now? Surely you would not permit this man to ever come near me again?
When his vehicle pulled up, you happily greeted us and then called for tea to be brought for him. In the excitement of unloading the store goods you did not see me wince as I got out of the vehicle. You took no notice of how I walked stiffly into the house.
Later, when he had finally gone and after I had attempted to ease the discomfort of my torn flesh with water heated over the fire, I spoke to you of my ordeal. But the impression on your face churned what little there was in my stomach.
You did not appeal to God or to justice, you appealed to the value of the store goods this man had delivered to your doorstep. “Look at how much he has given us!” You pleaded for me to take him as a husband; my ruin dismissed by store goods that were only valuable within their expiry dates. Again, you dictated to me my value, my worth.
Then you went about your polite demand for compensation and bride price. Did you not think to ask whether I wanted to be married to that man? As you anticipated, he paid for what he had already taken and would continue to take by force every time he wanted to be with me.
All that you had ever hoped to receive for my “skin” was laid at your feet on the day of my bride price payment; live pigs, live goats, cartons of lamb and mutton, store goods, garden food and cash to sweeten it all. The “eating from my skin” reached its climax that day.
You told me how proud you were of me for bringing in such a valuable haul. You told me that no other girl in our family had achieved such a feat.
The prized pig had now earned her keep. She had been sold, not to the highest bidder, but to a monster that first stole then later paid.
Now my dear family and those who have gladly “eaten from my skin”, I would like to set the record straight regarding my value, my worth: 800 kina* and not a toea more.
This should cover the cost of an inexpensive plywood coffin, a white meriblaus, a laplap and a set of bed sheets. I have not included the value of tea, sugar and other items for the hauskrai because strictly speaking those things have nothing to do with my value, my worth but rather the size of your appetites.
* The approximate value of a medium-sized pig in the PNG highlands is K800. A pig of this size is suitable for cultural exchanges that occur during bride price payments, compensations and funerals