A contribution to ‘My Walk to Equality’, the first anthology of PNG women’s
writing, to be published on International Women’s Day in March next year.
IT ALL starts at home: story times are precious.
Children are usually quick to point out what is fair and what is not.
When I was a kid, I would fight with my younger brother, Avdoh, about small things - who gets the single seat sofa or who holds the television remote. Being older, I felt it was my right to have things my way.
Also, I harboured a small fear that, if I didn’t fight for my rights, he would get his way as the only boy. Did my parents love him more? Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who understood a nine year old’s anguish.
My mother, Kekas Meki, is a Kafe woman from the Henganofi District of the Eastern Highlands. When Avdoh and I fought, she would pull us apart, sit us down on her bed and tell us about the special nature of the brother-sister relationship and the respect and good treatment given to women in her society.
She did this by telling us a tumbuna (legend) story from her village of Marikente. I called this story the ‘Cave Story’….
WHENEVER feasts or mumus are held, it is customary and important that brothers should first acknowledge their sisters and give them preferable treatment. This custom stemmed from a horrible incident and people guard against a repetition of the incident by honouring the custom.
A long time ago in the mountains around Henganofi there lived a man and his wife. One day there was a big feast in their village. The man was a leader in the village and was busy preparing for the feast and communing with his guests.
Amid all the commotion, he did not notice his younger sister, who had arrived from her husband’s faraway village and was sitting beside the fire with her baby.
The sister waited patiently for her brother to greet her and her baby but her brother was too busy attending to his guests who had come from nearby villages.
As night approached, the brother still had not greeted his sister. Soon the mumu was ready and he was busy distributing food to his guests. While doing so, he caught a glimpse of his dear sister sitting by the fire with her baby. Unable to greet her, he gave a piece of pig meat to his wife and told her to give it to his sister so that she could eat while waiting for him.
Instead of taking the pig meat to her sister-in -law, the wife went behind her house and ate it. The sister sat by the fire with her baby until night fell, at which point she decided it was time to go home.
Feeling upset and rejected, she stood up, gathered her belongings and started to walk away. As she neared the village fence, she heard her brother call out for her to come back and stay.
Upon hearing his voice, she began to cry, and started singing in her language: ‘Where do you think I came from? All this time I was sitting there, waiting, but you never came and greeted me so now I am going. If you want me to stay, you have to come and get me!’
While crying and chanting these words over and over, she ran from the village towards the peak of a mountain. At the mountain top was the entrance to a huge cave that went deep into the earth.
She placed her baby on the ground and threw herself headfirst into the depths of the cave. When her brother finally reached the top of the mountain, all he saw were bats, disturbed by the commotion, flying around the clouds of hot steam rising from the cave.
Heartbroken and furious with himself, he cut off both his ears and threw them into the cave. He then took his sister’s baby and returned to the village.
Back in the village, the brother learnt that his wife had eaten the pig meat instead of giving it to his sister. Driven by rage and anger, he killed every pig that he owned.
He then cooked the meat and locked it and his wife in an empty house, telling her to finish the meat because of her selfishness.
As each day passed, the grieving brother would go to the house and ask his wife how many pigs she had eaten so far and which part of the body she was consuming.
One day, she answered that she was eating the head of the very last pig. When her husband heard that he burned down the house with her inside.
After this tragic event, it became an important custom for brothers always to treat their sisters well, and especially those who had married men from faraway places.
Whenever there are feasts nowadays, sisters are always invited and treated with great respect.
At the end of the tale, Avdoh and I would look at our Mum wide-eyed and sad. While I knew the story was more for him than me, I always felt better after listening to it.
Avdoh and I stopped fighting and grew up, but both of us remember the story. My brother is respectful, thoughtful and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. His female friends and colleagues attest that he treats them well.
I know this isn’t due simply to the cave story, but one should never underestimate the importance of spending time with children and teaching them important lessons about life. Whether we tell tumbuna stories, or other stories, this time is so precious.
Theresa Meki, 29, is a PhD student studying at the Australian National University in Canberra. She is currently in Popondetta undertaking fieldwork. Her research is investigating PNG women’s political participation in the upcoming national elections.