THE GROANS of a woman in labour disturbed the peaceful afternoon. They came from inside the smoke-stained women’s house in an isolated area some distance away from the main family home.
“Please help! Please help me! I am dying,” came the desperate cries of a young woman, struggling to give birth to her first child.
The pain worsened and there was no relief. The elderly women tried to comfort her to no avail.
Otherwise, life in the village appeared normal that day. Women were in their gardens, the smoke from fires spiraling into the sky indicating intense activity.
Men gathered at the usual places to gossip and exchange rolls of homegrown tobacco to sample the bitter taste. The smoke they exhaled resembled the exhaust fumes of an engine.
The men talked about tribal issues - fights, compensation, feasts and other matters of interest. The serious discussions were interspersed with jokes on sex and polygamy. They laughed at their dirty jokes and continued with the serious stuff.
Men enjoyed the pleasure of lovemaking but women paid the price in childbearing. They also looked after pigs, cultivated gardens and cooked food every day to feed the family. The men helped once in a while to clear new land or erect some fences.
Meanwhile, the young woman suffered as labour pangs stabbed at her. She felt as if she was on a bed of a thousand needles and pierced by a blunt scalpel.
“Am I dying or will I survive?” she asked. “Is this what every woman goes through during childbirth? Why didn’t anybody tell me about this pain?” The fear of death mixed with regret haunted her. She felt she was being torn apart.
But she maneuvered all her strength to remain brave. She realised she would soon be a mother if she safely delivered this child. She had no choice but to fight on and win the battle.
The setting sun disappeared over the western ranges. Her first day of suffering was coming to an end. The evening sky was beautifully painted. But the atmosphere in the women’s house was tense. The young woman began to lose consciousness.
No matter how much men and boys wanted to be close when their loved ones suffered during childbirth, tradition forbade them from going anywhere near women’s houses. Menstrual blood, childbirth and labour were unclean and ritually impure for men.
Surrounded by rugged hills and steep gullies with waterfalls and fast-flowing rivers, the prospect of rescue for this dying woman seemed hopeless. There was no missionary with a vehicle nearby and Wabag Health Centre was 22 kilometers away.
Luke Luwai, the young woman’s husband, was a Pendend clansman of the major Tit tribe and lived in Yakandak village in the Aumbum Kompiam district of Enga Province.
His wife, Aipit Lyambian, was originally from a small hilly village called Goropip located not far from where she lay broken in the women’s house. Her clan, Pumain, was a sub-clan of the Tit tribe but clans were allowed to intermarry. She had married Luke, a close neighbour, whose baby she was now struggling to bring into the world.
Right in front of Yakandak village is the roaring Ambum River which, joined by tributaries, surges downstream to finally unite with the mighty Sepik River.
During the wet season, the Ambum can turn angry, its flow accelerating, the mud swirling. It can trigger unexpected landslides in the Ambum Valley, impeding vehicles from transiting the single snake-like road built by early missionaries and colonial kiaps.
Not many vehicles used the road. There seemed no hope for Aipit.
The night was taken over by the humming of insects. Fireflies flickered here and there and a breeze blew from the Ambum River, producing an eerie murmur.
Distant owls could be heard, hooting in the dark forest. These sounds seemed to send death wishes to the woman, signalling her ghost to be taken away. Fear gripped everybody present in the house. How they wished the day could break.
The elderly women kept vigil and added firewood to the dancing flames. The flames seemed to keep hope alive through their warmth and light, which also kept at bay the engulfing darkness.
Luke Luwai by this late hour had heard of the pain his wife was enduring. He feared she might die. But he could not go near the woman’s house. He could not comfort his dying wife. He wished and prayed everything would work out right in the morning.
Anxiety and sorrow robbed him of sleep. He sat quietly in the men’s house and puffed his home-grown tobacco deeply. He felt the nicotine’s powerful grip. He breathed out mouthfuls of smoke and glanced at his clansmen fast asleep.
“It is too soon to lose my wife and unborn child,” he said to himself.
Luke had seen a lot of women die in childbirth. There were no proper health facilities in his isolated valley. He felt certain his wife and unborn child would die. He felt like crying. But he was a tough Tit-raised Engan male who did not succumb to childish emotion.
So Like Luwai withheld his tears and made a plan to save his young wife and unborn child. He had to show how much he loved Aipit Lyambian. Memories of the struggles he had gone through to marry her flooded his mind.
He was many years older than Aipit, he had been well past marriageable age, but Aipit had not rejected him. She could have easily gone for younger men but had accepted his proposal and he loved her more so because of this.
He also did not want to disappoint his wife’s aunt, Leale. She had been a powerful influence in making it possible for him to marry Aipit. He had indeed been the victor to marry such a wonderful woman.
Luke decided that his wife had to be taken to Wabag Health Centre for immediate medical attention. There could be no waiting until dawn, and he discarded the traditional belief that men should never go near a woman in labour. This now seemed like nonsense to him.
He had to get the men sleeping in the hausman to help him carry his wife to Wabag. He had to try to save her life. He would not sit idly and have her die with their unborn child.
Luke’s brother Lalyo worked at the health centre as a medical officer. Once there, they would face no problems. So, in the dark morning, before the first rays of the sun touched the sleeping valley, the semi-conscious mother was lifted onto a stretcher.
They walked the 22 kilometers to the health centre. First they climbed over the Mokokam range to Lakolam and then followed the Lai River towards Wabag.
With two bearers on each end of the stretcher, they tramped through the mud, carrying her up and over the ridges, shrugging away the numbing cold of the deep gullies. They toiled on painfully hoping against hope that she would not die on the track.
This baby boy who would one day become a great businessman, indeed a tycoon, who would establish a major trucking company, Mapai Transport.
His name is Jacob Luke. The year was 1950.
Footnote: Mapai Transport commenced operations in 1985 with a single vehicle and now has depots in Lae, Mt Hagen and Goroka running a fleet of 70 prime movers and 170 trailers, 20 town delivery trucks and nearly 700 containers. Jacob Luke is pictured here with Enga governor, Sir Peter Ipatas.