An entry in the Crocodile Prize
PNG Government Award for Short Stories
This story is based on a true experience and is dedicated to my mother who passed away in January 1990
“YOUR elders will be here soon,” said my mother. “They have agreed with your father to meet here tonight.”
“Yes … tonight. We met today and resolved to convene here tonight to finalise discussions on the ambu-di-kungugl. They should be well on their way by now,” said my father from his corner.
It was a night in December 1989, about two weeks before Christmas. I had just returned home after a terrible year at Unitech in Lae in portending danger of discontinuation of my studies.
I had sustained pellet wounds from Police gunfire during the students’ strike of 1989 and then performed poorly in the final semester exams. These were enough disasters at hand to worry any young man.
With no immediate plans for the future, I felt doomed when I arrived back in Simbu. I was not at all of a mind to think clearly about or participate in activities that were taking place at home.
It began six months earlier in June 1989 on the morning I was about to return to university after a week at home for mid-semester break. My mother, a sprightly lady in her early sixties, had returned from the pig’s house after feeding and dismissing the animals into a field.
I had just woken up from a peaceful sleep and was getting myself ready to farewell her before proceeding to the roadside to catch an early PMV to Kundiawa for the return trip to Lae.
“Son, I feel too old to tend to the pigs now,” she said as she entered our house. “I think your father is old too,” she added after she settled in her usual corner.
“Well, what is it then, Mama? I’m just preparing to leave,” I said.
“We are not the same as we were 20 years ago. With many herds come the many tedious tasks of looking after them. We need to get rid of these pigs to liberate us from the bondage,” she replied.
I had grown up in a rural setting where pigs were part of everyday life. I knew well the hardships associated with rearing these animals. The daily routine and manual labour required to provide food and shelter to keep the animals in good health was a laborious job.
My mother, who was about seven or eight years old when the first aeroplane flew over the Upper Simbu valley closely followed by the arrival of first Europeans in November 1933, had now complained and proposed to dispose off some of our pigs. Age had finally caught up with her and so with my father.
“You both need a break…yes, a permanent break,” I said and, without giving my words much thought, I added, “Why don’t we sell some of them and bring the number to a minimum?”
She did not answer immediately. Instead she threw the empty kaukau bilum into its usual place and said, “You can’t say that”, with a tinge of concern in her tone.
“Oh! Why?” I asked with surprise.
“You must be out of your mind.”
“Oh…what is it then?” I asked.
“We reared these pigs and laboured for your cause, son. You can’t talk like that.” She spoke as if I had committed a cardinal sin.
It stopped me in my tracks. It was as if a veil was pulled aside. I found my lips could not to utter words and there was an eerie silence as I blankly stared at the fireplace.
Then, in a gentle and caring mother’s voice, she said, “You can’t live a bachelor’s life forever. You will have to get married someday and that was the whole purpose of rearing these pigs, son ... to pay for your future bride.”
My head dropped low as the words sank in. “We can’t go on anymore,” she continued. “I and your father do not have the strength to continue caring for these animals. We have to do something with them.
“How are you getting along with that Siako girl?”
I lifted my head and stared at my mother in disbelief. “Mama, are you proposing marriage?” I asked.
“Mama, you must be kidding.”
“This is no joke. I heard many good stories about the Siako girl lately. She’s a tireless worker. She does everything for her mother while she relaxes and I like this kind of girl. She is sure to be a perfect wife in the future.
“And I was just thinking we can get her across to us this Christmas while the pigs are in peak form.”
I shook my head. I was only 24 and struggling to pass some of the toughest exams in university and here was my mother, a one-time stone-age kid, already making up her mind that it was time I get married.
“No! Marriage for me is still far away yet, Mama. I have not given the slightest thought to it.”
“But you are grown up,” she cut in quickly. “You’ve grown into a fine young man. Look at your colleagues. They are all married and you? You want to be left behind?”
“Yeah but marriage comes with a lot of responsibilities and I’m still a student,” I argued.
Mama was adamant. “I don’t have the strength and energy anymore to care for the pigs.”
“I hear that you and the Siako girl are deep into your relationship. We must cement that at the coming Christmas while the animals are in good form.”
There was authority in her voice. She sounded very serious. My lips closed tight.
The sun was up and I had to be on my way. I realised that any further protest would drag the conversation on all day.
“Look, I don’t want to be late to catching the PMV. Just let everything go until until I come back.”
Then I quickly stepped out of the house. “Tell Papa I’m gone,” I said bidding my farewell and heading for the roadside.
The long PMV ride to Lae was the toughest journey I ever made. The morning’s dialogue with my mother kept raging through my mind.
Mama had never before talked or discussed my marriage in front of me. What made her to come up with that while I was still a student? Did she want me to get married in order to get rid of the burdensome pigs? Or was it because she wanted to see me married like my friends in the village?
The questions hovered in my mind for the next five months and into the final weeks of semester which were marred by the students’ strike that affected my studies and the amount of pellets in my body.
It was also to result in my discontinuation from university for failing to score the required pass mark.
But, far from my knowledge, much had happened back home during my absence.
My mother, usually a silent woman, became vocal about her decision to see me married during the coming Christmas period.
Without my knowledge or consent she made known her decision to my clansmen and, indeed, to the community. She got my father involved to make sure the message was authenticated in the ears of all their creditors.
By our custom, the marriage of the young involves three phases: ambu-yana (engagement), ambu-di-kungugl (contribution of cash and kind for the bride price) and ambu-di (payment and exchange of the bride).
The first phase, the engagement, is finalised through ambu-yana where the bride is formally approached in her home and, in front of her family, asked for her hand by the groom’s family and relatives.
The future bride either accepts or declines during that meeting. If she accepts, the groom’s family walks away mulling over the price tag put forward by the bride’s family.
Ambu-di-kungugl then immediately begins followed by the bride price payment and handover of the bride in a matrimonial ceremony known as ambu-di. The date is agreed between the two parties.
My mother pushed for a delegation comprising senior clansmen to approach the Siako girl on an ambu-yana mission to formalise the engagement. But unfortunately for some reason, the Siako girl refused my clansmen’s offer for her hand.
This was a great blow to my mother’s efforts (and surprised me too when I learnt of the refusal). But the rebuff did not deter my mother’s resolve to see me married at Christmas. She kept her eye out for a potential bride.
She involved my clansmen in this too, and all without my knowledge or consent.
When I came home in December after that disastrous year, I walked into the thick of things and was shocked at the sight of the preparations taking place at my home.
“The Siako girl refused us at ambu-yana so we have settled with someone else,” my mother announced perkily when I settled down with her.
“All your mothers are gathering here every night for the giglange rehearsals. It’s going well,” she said proudly.
Although I disagreed with what had happened, I found myself in no position to openly dispute, argue or protest. Or even refuse.
The intensity and magnitude of the preparations were vast and it was my mother who was behind this hectic rush.
Katrina, the new girl, was from the neighbouring clan. I had never known her before but she was a pretty face in her late teens and came from a reputed family.
Even though I feared a failed marriage, I felt I had no choice but to go with the tide and accept this girl as my wife.
On a night in December 1989, exactly three days after my arrival from university, my core clansmen met together in my house to plan to launch ambu-di-kungugl the following day.
Kua, William, Kamuna, Gende, Thomas and his wife Clara; the key players who would oversee and take charge of my marriage planning.
In her usual corner was my mother and, directly opposite her, my father, also in his usual place. Umba, my elder brother, was forced to sit near the doorway. His wife was also there. Every important person was present that night.
After a light meal of rice with hot coffee, the session began with a brief summary of what had happened over the last five months while I was away at Unitech.
It was Thomas who spoke, taking over the role of chairman for the occasion, and it was comforting to hear from someone else’s lips other than mother whom I had been arguing with for some time.
Thomas broached the subject of bride price. “They demanded K4,000 cash and 15 live pigs,” he said and then ran through other minor items stipulated.
“So tonight we’ll discuss what we already have and see what is lacking. Tomorrow we launch ambu-di-kungugl openly to take in contributions from outside friends,” Thomas said finally.
Mother immediately talked of the number of pigs in her custody. “We will kill three and give away nine,” she said. The others did not mention anything as they wanted to surprise me with their contributions during the week.
So ambu-di-kungugl was officially launched in my house there and then. Pigs and money were discussed and it was resolved that ambu-di-kungugl would run for a week to be followed by ambu-di (payment) the week after. The meeting ended late in the night on a high note.
As planned ambu-di-kungugl was publicly launched the next morning. Friends, relatives and wantoks from far and near flocked to my place with their contributions in cash and kind.
As customary, my mother was always there with resonating aglange to greet, applaud and accept every visitor coming in their contribution.
She made sure meals were provided before they departed and thanked them with hugs as they left. She also kept an eye on every one who came to make sure none of her past creditors stayed out of this important event.
Such a communal matrimonial occasion takes place only once for every male child in my clan and now it was my turn. In spite of my earlier protests, I surrendered and participated, my interest growing as events unfolded.
At the end of the week, ambu-di-kungugl closed and my elders gathered again and tallied the contributions. The cash exceeded K5,000 and the pigs numbered 23.
My mother produced nine pigs for the give-away and three huge ones for the pork exchange. She and Papa contributed K500 in cash for the final phase of ambu-di.
Mama was the driving force behind this entire move for my early marriage. And I realised she had meant every word she had spoken. The pigs were too many for her to look after at her age. But they were in superb form. When they were brought out in public they were eye-catching and earned much praise.
Ambu-di finally took place on a fine afternoon in a ceremonial event at Katrina’s village. My clansmen and women publicly delivered the cash by displaying the notes on three tall bamboo poles. They were attached with twine and sticky tape.
Katrina’s family and relatives were equally prepared to receive us. According to custom, Katrina was decorated in full traditional attire.
The cooked pork for the exchange was piled in a heap in the centre of the ceremonial ground.
After a round of speeches by orators from both sides, Katrina was officially handed over to us in marriage. Men cheered and applauded with the popular mangra and the womenfolk echoed with their aglange.
I could hear Mama’s aglange rising well over the others. This was the moment she had waited and worked for and she seemed to exhaust her lungs in that final scene. It was the proudest moment in her life.
Katrina was led away to our village in a huge procession and I was now a husband.
The aftermath of the two week event included the distribution of food and dismissal of distant friends and relatives. The cooked pork provided by Katrina’s family was cut up and shared amongst the bride price contributors who left for their homes. The final act of an Upper Simbu marriage had taken place.
When everyone had left, I was left alone with Katrina to start our lives as couple.
On the second week of January 1990, only three weeks after ambu-di, I left my young wife and made a trip to the university to check on my exam results. I felt certain I hadn’t done well.
As expected, I failed two courses, Maths and Chemistry. I had also failed them in the first semester and, as a result, was discontinued from the university.
Not knowing what to do next with a young wife back home, I aimlessly roamed the streets of Lae looking for some meagre jobs. I was unsuccessful.
After spending three and half weeks in Lae, I returned home. It was dark by the time I got there.
I found everyone at home except my mother. She was missing and her usual spot in the house was empty. Before I asked or said anything, everyone started crying. I discovered my mother had died two weeks ago before, when I was in Lae.
I wept all night.
In the morning, as I stood beside her grave with swollen eyes, I reflected on her final moments. She had desperately wanted to see me get married.
It finally dawned on me that it was not because she wanted to get rid of the pigs or that she was getting old or because she didn’t want to see me left behind. She knew what was coming.
And as I write this story, I can picture her smiling with the angels in heaven.