The old world order is dying, but what will replace it?
Women’s rugby league's power for change in PNG

Dead was alive: My faith in an old custom worked


KUNDIAWA - Some old customs can be just as effective today if we strongly believe them and put them into practice.

I had just arrived at the office from one of my regular cocoa development extension field work in the northern Gazelle area of the East New Britain Province.

John Tebin had already cleaned the office and was waiting for me when I arrived. John, from East Sepik, was the office cleaner and teaboy.

I rushed into the office to drop off my brief case full of farmers’ files and head for home.

As soon as I reached my desk, a bombshell that had been waiting for me the whole day blew up tearing my mind to shreds. The briefcase dropped from my grip and I sank into a chair like a drunkard.

John was immediately at my side. “I am so sorry about the news, Wara,” he said in an attempt to comfort me. It was then I realised all the staff knew the story.

The bombshell came from the might of a pen stroke on the sheet of A4 lying on my desk. It was a message from my cousin Bony Kaupa back home in Kundiawa which had been transcribed by Winnie, the branch manager’s secretary.

“A call came from Kundiawa this morning,” I read, “that your mother Erkina had died. You are wanted back home immediately. Message came from your brother Bony Kaupa.” Winnie had signed her name.

Winnie was the only authorised person to receive incoming calls on the subscriber trunk dialling line. There were no mobile phones back then.

I had not seen my mother and father in the four years since I had started working with the Rural Development Bank’s Rabaul branch. I was deeply aggrieved. My being was paralysed and tears fell freely from my eyes.

In the midst of my grief, I picked up the paper and looked at it again, closely digesting every single word. Surprisingly, I felt a kind of hidden peace spring up in me. The grief vanished and the tears stopped.

My mind was preoccupied with the message as I reached home, a rented flat near Rabaul Market where I lived with my wife Cathy and daughter Cheryl. They were watching television.

I had a shower, ate my dinner and went to sleep.

In the morning, I went to the office early and waited for the manager.

As soon as he arrived, I showed him the note from Winnie and requested plane tickets Rabaul-Port Moresby-Kundiawa and return and some advance money.

He approved and in an hour the plane tickets and the money were ready.

Two hours later I was airborne courtesy of Air Niugini heading for Port Moresby via Nadzab.

The worst thing I did was not telling my wife about the death of her mother in-law and not taking her with me for the haus krai, breaking one of the very important customary tenets for which she would never forgive me. Nor did I take her and my little girl with me.

Around three o’clock the plane arrived at Jacksons Airport. I hadn’t brought luggage so I didn’t waste time. I walked straight out of the terminal, got a taxi and went to Two Mile Hill Settlement near Hugo’s Building where my relatives live.

My uncles and aunties were there. I expected them to cry for me because my mother had died. It is our custom to grief and show sorrow for the loss of a relative.

But no one cried. They greeted me normally. Maybe they don’t know, I thought. I decided not to tell them.

Early next day, I boarded Air Niugini’s Dash 7 aircraft bound for Kundiawa.

Just before midday I arrived.

I met some relatives in town but no one showed sorrow. They greeted me normally.

Some of them had just arrived from my village but I decided not to ask them about my mother. I got on a PMV bound for Salt Nomane.

Late in the afternoon I arrived in my village, Diani. The first person I met was aunty Mariana, my father’s brother’s wife.

Mariana shouted my name and cried loudly. I hugged her but tears refused to come.

Mariana amidst her crying said, “Kina was right here but she left for Yobai (our other home on the mountain)” and she started calling my mother.

It wasn’t a surprise. I already knew the dead would be alive before I left Rabaul.

My mother was not so far away so she heard Mariana’s call and called back.

Mariana yelled repeatedly, “Prans is here, come back”.

My mother rushed back crying and we hugged each other. At that very instant, I felt tears streaming down my cheeks. Tears of joy.

“Where is Daddy?” I asked.

“Your Daddy went to Koge yesterday with other people to receive bride price payment for one of our daughters who got married there,” Mum replied.

Koge is in Sinesine and far away, a day’s walk from Yobai.

I really wanted to see my father but it was impossible.

I felt bad that I was going to go back to Rabaul without seeing my father but there was nothing I could do.

I gave some money to my aunty and instructed Mum, “You pack your clothes in the night. Early in the morning wait for me at the PMV stop.”

Then I went and slept on my father’s bed in the men’s house.

Early in the morning I met Mum waiting for me at the rendezvous spot. We got on the first PMV leaving for Kundiawa.

As soon as we reached town, we went to the Air Niugini office and registered our tickets for next day’s Port Moresby’s flight.

Around three the next afternoon, Erkina and I disembarked the Dash 7 at Jackson’s Airport.

We walked into Gateway Hotel, booked two adjoining rooms towards the western side, one for Mum and the other for myself.

I led Erkina to her room and orientated her to all the facilities. I told her I would get her for dinner and switched on the TV and went to my room.

I stretched out on the bed, not realising how tired I was until that moment. I was fast asleep when the alarm on my wristwatch triggered and I woke up. It was dinner time.

After a quick shower, I went to collect Mum for dinner. I knocked on the door and there was no answer.

I turned the door knob and the door opened. I went inside and Mum was not there. I checked the toilet and the shower and there was no sign anyone had used them.

I looked for her outside the car park and there was no sign of her.  

I went back to her room. It was cold and unnerving.

I thought, was my mother really dead and the person I came with her spirit? Goose bumps rose and I felt afraid. I locked the door and rushed to the bus stop.

I saw a taxi and I waved it back. We fought through the afternoon rush hour traffic and eventually made it to Two Mile Hill.

To my surprise, my mother was sitting on the side of the road surrounded by our relatives. They were chewing betel nut and chatting.

“How dare you not tell me and just disappear like you were in the village?” I scolded Mum.

“You expected me to be lonely and miserable in that big room like I had no relatives to talk to,” Mum retorted.

“Suit yourself but I want you to be at the airport by 11 am. We are taking the 12 o’clock flight.”

“Don’t worry, John will bring me there,” Mum replied proudly. John is my uncle and he was driving a PMV bus at that time.

Mum had left the hotel and gone to the road looking for betel nut when John spotted her from is bus and took her to Two Mile without informing me.

I rushed back to the hotel for dinner with one of my cousins. We arrived just before the restaurant closed.

I told my cousin to sleep in the other room which I had already paid for.

Around noon next day, Mum and I left Port Moresby aboard Air Niugini’s Fokker 100 bound for Rabaul.

After a short stopover at Nadzab, we arrived at Matupit Airport just before sunset.

We caught a PMV which dropped us off at Rabaul Market.

“You see that brick house with the blue paint,” I pointed at the rented duplex. Yes, said my mother.

“There are two doors. You go first and knock at the one on your left. You will see a familiar face there. I will follow you later,” and I watched.

Mum went and knocked on the door, which opened and immediately shut. After a short time it opened again and there was much hugging and crying. While this happened, I sneaked into the house.

After they stopped crying, Cathy and Cheryl burst into laughter.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

They couldn’t control themselves. They laughed their hearts out.

“Our neighbour told us that Mamma died and you went to bury her. So we didn’t expect her to be alive and come here.

“When she stood at the door alone, we got so scared. We thought it was her spirit so we locked the door and ran into the bedroom. But she cried out loud so we realised it was her,” Cathy explained.

“You see this stick. This was meant for breaking your head but lucky Mamma is alive and you brought her,” Cathy said.

Wow, it was a branch of a rain tree. “I believed Mum was alive,” I said, “so I went to bring her. Had I believed she was dead, I would have brought you and Cheryl with me.”

“How did you know Mamma was alive?”

“In my custom, if someone dies and an immediate family member is in a faraway place, we are not allowed to tell him or her directly that his or her father, mother, sister or brother is dead.

“The custom commands that we tell him or her that the relative is sick and is in a critical condition so you must come home immediately and see him or her before anything happens.

“The reason for not telling directly is to avoid them committing suicide or harming themselves.

“After I read the message carefully, I understood what it meant. So I went to bring Mum and she is here.”

Cathy concurred that my belief in the old custom was justified.

It also saved money. Otherwise we would have all gone home unnecessarily.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Francis Nii

Thank you my good friends and wonderful contributors of Attitude for your comments.

I always treasure this story.

What my father did when he he was told by my aunty Mariana that I took his wife away to Rabaul is also an interesting part. I will share when I find time.

Jordan Dean

Wonder whether this guy's agent will be asked to recoup the costs incurred for a false alarm.

John K Kamasua

Great story Francis. Nice read.

But almost choked somewhere in the middle where you hugged your mum after finding out she is alive.

I lost my dad, but you raised an alarm in us to be good to our parents while they are alive!

Arnold Mundua

You just raised my 2 lapuns from their resting place with this story, bro. I wish I could chat with them right now. Brings back great memories. Thanks.

Garry Roche

Francis, some years ago the late Robert Lak (former MP) told me that when he was living in POM he got an urgent message to return to Hagen because a close relative was dying.

Robert replied that he would not go, because if he went the relative would die, but if he stayed in POM the relative would not die yet. Sure enough, he did not go and the relative lived a few more years.

Robin Lillicrapp

An eventful journey in your life. Thankfully it had a happy outcome.

Barbara Short

Thanks, Francis, for that story. It is amazing how the PNG mind thinks. A strange logic... But I still wonder what your father thought about it all!

Daniel Kumbon

Francis, our parents held a special place in our hearts when we grew up, went to school and began to work.

Every Christmas, I always hoped my parents would be well when I went home after being away, cut off completely for a whole year.

In 1975, after my Form 4 (Grade 10) national examinations, I asked my parents to come outside from our kunai house at Kondo village so I could take a photo of them with a camera I had bought in Port Moresby.

I wanted to keep their picture close to me if I was selected to do further studies or job training the following year.

I published that very picture together with my brothers and my uncle in my book 'I Can See My Country Clearly Now.'

Now, their grandchildren and their children will see how they looked like - my parents whom I loved so much and longed to see their happy welcoming faces every christmas.

Thank you Francis for this story.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)