An entry in the 2015 Rivers Award
for Writing on Peace & Harmony
WE sat in a crude semi-circle on the lawn in front of our house, our faces illuminated by the light coming from a neighbour’s house and the fire that burned nearby to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
The sun had gone and the chirping of the cicadas was a welcome sound after the angry shouting and screaming earlier in the day.
We were quiet, looking at our mother. Her head was bowed and face turned away as she tried to contain the tears we could see hanging on her lashes. Nobody said a word to comfort her; we did not know what to say.
After a long time, we she sighed and cleared her throat and started speaking softly, so the sound of her voice would not carry to my father. He had retired early, in a rage. He had kicked the wooden cross beams that supported the posts.
Our house was now a ship at sea. Every footstep, no matter how nimble, shook the floor planks and the roof. We were afraid to go to bed for fear that, if we made the house move, we would get shouted at or worse, a beating.
“When I was very young, your grandmother remarried,” mother began. “The husband was a bachelor and no woman in the village would have him because he had grille all over his body.
“My mother was a widow with two very young children to fend for and she needed someone to look after her. She could not go back to her family because they had already received the bride price.
“Her in-laws could have found her a young man or widower to marry her but no one wanted to because they said she had a big mouth and talked too much that’s why she got her husband killed.
“The new husband was a good man, yet we were afraid of him, afraid of his skin. She did not love him, but my mother grew fond of him and took care of him just as she had done for my late father.
“She prepared his meals; she repaired his clothes and made him new ones. She grew the best and biggest yams in his garden. She always had a cup of hot, sweet tea ready for him when he returned from his hunting and she lay with him and bore him three more children.”
We averted our gaze, uncomfortable with that piece of information.
“One day, a week before my Grade Six exams, my mother and step-father sat me down,” my mother continued. “The exams were a momentous event and they felt they had to talk to me about life, the meaning of it.
“I was at an age where rebellion had seeped into my nature. Your grandmother was very blunt and I got upset. I raised my voice in anger towards her and was surprised when I felt the sting of an open palm across my face.
“My step-father had never raised a hand against my mother and her children. This was the first time he had done so. He demanded I apologise to my mother but I was too stunned and ran away.
“Your grandmother later found me at my father’s grave and we both held each other and cried. I asked her why she married my step-father. She said her family had given her a new bilum, a sharp knife and a cooking pot, three essential items a woman must have when she goes to her new husband’s house. She was advised never to question his authority or decisions.
“She was advised to cook the best food, grow the best yams, sew the best so he would always look good and lie with him, even if she did not want too so she would bear strong sons for him.”
My mother looked at each of us and kept talking. “I have done the same with your father, I have followed my mother’s advice and looked after him, bore his children and gave him the best. And I have never questioned his decisions.
“But now we have no money. I cannot even buy new things for you girls. We have gone to bed some nights with nothing in our stomachs. I could not keep quiet anymore.
“Times are changing. We hear about women’s empowerment and equal rights. We hear that women work and men stay at home. Your time will be different from mine and your grandmother’s. But do not forget your knife, your pot and your bilum.”
That was 11 years ago. Today, as I sit here in my office in Manus, I am very nervous. My parents are meeting my boyfriend for the first time. It’s a meeting I am not present for.
I take account of myself. I am a university graduate with a good paying job which enables me to look after my family, but I do not know how to cook properly. My job does not even allow me to clean or sew.
I have met my boyfriend’s sisters and a few family members. Meeting my parents will now shift our relationship to a new level.
I will call my mother tonight. I will ask her what she thinks of him. And then I will ask her to tell me my grandmother’s story again.