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A Mana for all seasons


FAMILIES are difficult and complicated the world over.

Auntie has a feud with Uncle, the children don't talk to their parents, mothers and fathers fall out with their loved ones, cliques are formed and gossip wreaks havoc.

But blood is thicker than mauswara. And the blood-ties of mother to daughter can grow stronger over generations.

So it is with the lapun meri I am privileged to call Mana, Rose's birth mother. She is no leader, she is no expert, she is no linguist – indeed Mana can barely speak English.

And she gave up her birth daughter Rose to relatives when Rose was just a baby.

But she is a mother and an auntie and a bubu and knows that her blood runs true. And her heart runs true.

Some people in the family call her lonlon, or crazy woman, and she has been put upon and robbed by relatives and outsiders, to their shame.

It is true she has some old beliefs that run counter to modern experience.

Trains are sinak, Ela Beach is a tsunami waiting to happen, a radio is spirits talking and so you must talk back and pray to them, the haus sik is a place where people go to die and Australia is a land of devils. Actually this one could well be true.

But Mana is a beautiful soul, and her heart is open to all.

My recent visit to Papua New Guinea reunited me with Mana. We had been trying unsuccessfully for many months to arrange her travel to Australia to be with Rose.

But, upon reflection, I don't think she would like it. To start with, four hours on a balus would be intolerable. Next, going into a train and a bus would be extremely difficult. I do not mean to be patronising or demeaning - it is just that this is not part of her experience having grown up as a girl in traditional Simbu culture.

Strangely, Mana is very Catholic in her faith (she was the church cleaner in Gembogl in her youth and crosses herself whenever she sees something new).

But she is also traditional in her cultural beliefs, having taken part in many old Simbu ceremonies. She boasts she was once a sexy young girl for tainim lek and all the handsome boys chased after her.

We cannot change Mana, nor should we. She is coming to terms with modern life, but still has her traditions. (Don't touch a frog! Don't point at a baby pumpkin! Don't spit on a tree!)

Mana is the living embodiment of an old Papua New Guinea coming to terms with the craziness of modern life. And I feel for her very much.

Why should Australians and other westerners impose their world-view on such people? Why should a white culture be seen as any better than what 60,000 years of tradition has given us?

I remember seeing Mana use a mobile phone for the first time. She took to it like a duck to water and used up all our credit talking from Kundiawa to her sons in Moresby.

Mana is timeless. And is a lesson for us. When I left PNG in November, she cried, kissed my feet then stood up straight and said, "Peter, you and I must be strong. You go and make a new life with Rose and help her get better, I will remember you always. Please don't forget me". Old Bill once said "age cannot wither her, not custom stale her infinite variety." So true of our Mana.

She may be a silly old bugger, but I love her and will never forget Mana, never.


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Arthur Williams

Peter, lovely tribute to the other woman in your life.

In 2011, when she died, I paid a similar tribute to my mum-in-law who was an important person of my life in PNG post-kiap. Lavongai being matrilineal I hadn't realised how important the ladies were.

Perhaps because as a Local Govt. Adviser when I attended village meetings at the start of the seventies if a lady wanted to walk past the meeting to get home with a huge bundle of firewood on her head over a heavy bilum of kaukau she was not allowed to walk across mine or other men's eye space even if she was 40 or 60 metres distant.

She either did a quick diversion around some huts or would painfully kneel and move across the open space.

In those early days female relatives would never think of walking up the few wooden steps onto the verandah where I was sitting so that dad-in-law would sit by me on a mat laid out on the limbung while his wife joined in the conversation through the slatted flooring.

Yet one day I heard from my wife that her mum and two aunties had really ripped into senior uncle for not respecting them when he gave a friend from another clan a mature sago palm to harvest without first asking his sisters.

As you say these old ladies too were founts of clan knowledge and even now after the turn of another century manage to maintain some of the customs and retell legends of their ancestors' days.

Having had 5 children in PNG one of many advice I never forget is you should never carry a baby looking over your shoulder. He or she must look to the front. Why? Because a masalai could evil eye or take over the spirit of the little child.

Oh tambu-mama you are still missed!

Peter Kranz

Thank you. I can relate two more anecdotes which say more about Mana than anything.

When I was a nine mile a few months ago, Mana nestled up to me, reached into her bra and brought out a gold watch. It was the very same one we had given to her in 2007.

She said "Peter, the rascols stole all my goods, but I kept this hidden, so they couldn't find it." It just needed a new battery, which she couldn't afford.

Then she gave me a bar of soap. "This is my gift to Rose. I'm sorry I can't give her anything more."

I cried with her.

Michael Dom

Thanks for sharing this great reflection, Peter.

Phil Fitzpatrick

On the other side of the coin it's strange what people like Mana do to you. Somehow they put a lot of things in perspective, a kind of bringing down to earth. Empathy is a great leveller.

I suppose we've all got eccentric or lame duck relatives and friends and most of us go out of our way to avoid them. You don't really know what you are missing when you do that.

I was in South Australia recently and stayed with someone who I would describe as my best friend - we go back a long way. He was introducing me around and took to describing me as eccentric. For some reason I felt chuffed by that description.

Robin Lillicrapp

Well said, Pete. You are privileged to enjoy a relationship amid divergent cultures that calls for mature considerations not often demanded of others.

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