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How can we address the ethnic tensions in our nation?

Fonde the kaspar

Playing cards in YanderaJOHN KAUPA KAMASUA

An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Government Award for Short Stories

SATURDAYS are usually full of activities in my village. But this morning it is unusually deserted, except for a handful of noisy children playing a marble game. The day is still young.

I am carting water in plastic containers from the creek to our house on the hill. My father was going to take the fermented coffee beans to the creek but I convinced him otherwise.

I am doing this for a promise that I can go to town. Father is a proud owner of many coffee trees. He needs water to wash the beans that come out of the coffee pulping machine then put them in the sun to dry.

Mondul, who is somewhat of a houseboy to the family, will keep watch in case of rain. My parents are going to Kundiawa town today to sell bags of the coffee.

I am on my way to the creek again. Further down the road, Swaire the village mid-wife emerges from her house with cooked kaukau wrapped in banana leaves. The aroma from kaukau baked in earth oven is tantalising.

Swaire, I was told, assisted mother to deliver me in the village. Labour came quickly and there was no time to rush to the health centre.

She greets me with her moon smile.  The children in the village have a theory that goes: people with unusually white teeth had no blemish at birth and are good natured. Someone needs to ask the pastor.

Swaire nods in the direction of the creek. I nod back. I am quite timid for a child my age, and dread the thought of offending her.

“Is your mother in the house?” she asks.

“Yes” I reply softly.

Swaire wants to borrow my mother’s big spade as she will make new kaukau mounds for the pastor’s garden.

“You can go now she is in the house,” I advise, a bit confident.

“No, I’ll wait for you. Will give you a hand.”

I hurry towards the creek, taking a short cut along a path where the card players gather. I begin to hear voices, indistinct at first but as I draw closer I can make out familiar faces.

There are several groups – those crouched low, engrossed in admiring the colours and numbers, and those standing, unofficial coaches or onlookers, some appearing ready to replace those who have exhausted their money.

Players’ voices also come from inside an old kunai house, built for pigs but not used for a long time. Suddenly there’s a shout:  “The house is collapsing!”  Outside, many hands shake the house to create the effect.

There is a mad rush to get out of the house before disaster strikes. Mothers with babies clinging to their breasts, and those with cards still in their hands bolt out.

Everyone is outside but many are shaken.

“Mother of eklekoke, my bilum is still on the mat inside!” wails Fonde the kaspar.

“Forget the bilum, your life is important!” says a fellow card player.

“My husband will kill me; it was a gift from his mother.” Fonde shakes, almost in tears.

“Let him beat you, you won’t die,” assures another.

The commotion lasts a few minutes to the amusement of the youths and some of the onlookers.

“Pah! This is not a laughing game. You should go and find something useful to do!” shouts Fonde. The card players agree.

“Let’s go to a place where we can enjoy our game in peace,” a player suggests. The players agree again.

I watch the scene with trepidation, expecting more drama to unfold.

The dislocated group decides to climb over a high fence, to a secluded spot where they can continue their game. Some go over the fence with ease. Two women with babies toss them over like rugby balls.  One or two are find it difficult to navigate.

“Some of us cannot climb over. We are not wearing the…what do you call those undergarments?” says Fonde.

This draws hilarious laughter, contagious and uncontrollable.

“It’s underpants, you stupid!” shouts a high school dropout in perfect English.

“Eh, you failed Grade 10 so shut up and go plant coffee!” Fonde shoots back.

She somehow finds her way over the fence and the card game resumes in earnest. Fonde’s bilum has been retrieved by a youth who wants to be paid but is scolded by the gamblers.

I am curious and observe the group through an opening in the fence.

The bet money is put in the centre and the cards dealt and distributed. After several rounds of rituals pertaining to this particular game, Fonde appears to be calculating. Her mouth is moving and creating strange shapes, and her eye balls are rolling in opposite directions as if ready to leave their sockets.

“The total bet money does not look right. Count the money,” she orders.

None of the gamblers wish to detach fingers from cards. Their eyes are fixed on them.

“Yoke, you are a good with numbers, please count the bet money,” Kewa begs.

Yoke separates the money into two kina groups, then counts aloud.

“K2, K4, K6, K8, K10. Ten kina.”

“Count the money again, there should be K12. Kewa and I have a side bet of K2.”

“K2, K4, K6, K8, K10. All here, ten kina.”

“No, mother of eklekoke, it should be K12!”

“I am good at counting and I am telling you, the bet money is K10,” says Yoke, sounding aggrieved.

“It’s the K2 side bet that’s missing!” shouts a player.

The discovery is confirmed. Yoke, who has just handled the bet money, is embarrassed.

“Count the money yourselves, I am not your fool,” he snarls and walks away.

Now everyone is animated and joins the discussion. Someone suggests the K2 was affected by the rapture and is scorned for being blasphemous.

The voices are getting louder. This entices the youths and drug bodies to climb over the fence, and wait with expectant eyes for the next drama to unfold. The youths chip in with their opinions.

The village magistrate, himself a compulsive gambler, appears angry to be playing among women who can so easily derail a serious card game.

“What other crevices has the K2 crawled into, for my anus is blocked from constipation!” he yells.

“Maybe we should all take our clothes off for Fonde to check us thoroughly,” suggests another player.

“Don’t be ridiculous, we can’t stare at each other’s shame,” Fonde enters the contest again.

“Cut out the obscenities, we have children here,” shouts an unimpressed bystander.

“Cover their ears before their growth is permanently stunted,” orders the village magistrate sarcastically. “You should leave your children at home.”

“Their fathers are looking for new wives,” the women say as if in a choir.

The youths, with silly grins and scheming eyes, are enjoying the spectacle.

“The one kina was from my mother-in-law to buy salt from the trade store,” moans Fonde.

“What will the old woman do?” queries another player who wants to sound comforting.

“She is going to tell her son to divorce me!” cries Fonde.

Then above the cacophony, a warning: “The Councillor is coming with policemen!” Everyone disperses in a frantic rush to escape the law. The place is quickly deserted, even Fonde is nowhere to be seen. No one wants to spend cold nights in the local lock-up.

I run all the way to the creek and fill the two containers and hurry back. True to her word, Swaire is waiting for me. She presses freshly baked kaukau into my hand and grabs a water container. When we reach our house my parents are ready.

Mondul is helping to carry the coffee bags to the main road. My father is concerned, and wants to know why it has taken me unusually long. I mumble some words but he is assured when he sees Swaire with me.

A PMV truck soon arrives, and everyone who wants to go to town makes a mad scramble for space. Being small and agile, I easily find a spot in front close to the driver. I can watch him drive through the rear glass.

My parents are also safe on board with all the coffee bags. Some passengers hang onto the rails. The driver brings the truck to life. It labours forward under the load, then slowly gains momentum. We are on our way to town.

Then, amidst the crushed bodies, strong odour and noise, I can clearly make out Fonde’s voice. She has managed to get aboard.

As we get closer to Kundiawa, I hope soon to get a glimpse of her face and a sense of her role in the drama of the morning.

The word kaspar is a local construct from my area and derives from the root word cards. If people are referred to as a kaspar, it means they are obsessive and compulsive card players. Many people in the villages and settlements in towns in PNG are hooked on playing cards for money. It is a favourite pastime and sometimes a serious means f deriving extra income


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John Kamasua

Thanks Jimmy. Glad you can draw something from it.

Jimmy Awagl

A great piece, Angra! Caspers are subject to laziness and become thieves and prostitutes nowadays after losing enough for the day.

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