PORT MOREBY - IF you come home in the afternoon and if you see no smoke coming from the roof of the house, you must feel sorry for your stomach.
As a little boy at Kotiyufa Village, Iufi-Iufa, that was my father’s rant every time I failed to do my household duties.
It was written in the wall somewhere that my duty as a kid was to ensure there were two things in the house at all times.
There must firewood and water for the house in the house, never mind if the sun shined or the clouds rained. When these two things were present, it was guaranteed there would be smoke in the house and everyone would be happy.
My father would be happy, Ma would be happy, I would be happy.
If I did not find firewood, Ma did not cook. If there was no water in the plastic containers, Ma did not cook using pots. Instead she roasted kaukau over the open fire. That was not ideal and only lazy people with no ingenuity did that.
We weren’t allowed to do that and Pa never spared the rod or belt or salat (stinging nettle leaves) - whichever was at hand to ensure strict compliance.
My parents kept three houses and I always wondered which house my father meant. We had a house in the village, another hut in the garden and one on the opposite side of the village, the pigs’ hut.
At any given time, my mother would keep house in one of these properties, and for extended periods too.
I usually slept in the village and on the weekends joined my mother wherever she had decided to keep house.
The best times were in the pigs’ hut at the side of a mountain called Goposalo. This was near the Mapemo River and I’d spend the weekend on the river stones fishing, swimming or sun bathing on the huge boulders.
Sometimes the pigs had a new litter and Pa would cull the piglets. Ma would then do her trick mumu and the children could have a whole meal of stuffed succulent meat. If the other children were not there, I would overstuff myself with her special cooking.
I also liked the house at the garden at Sogomolalo (which we now stylise as Sogopex) because you were never hungry with all manner of things and fruits to harvest from the garden. Ma would also do her specialty cooking in the cut-out wooden oven.
My favourite meal was kidney beans sprinkled with cut ginger leaves and wrapped on the inside part of cut pumpkin which stuck to the heated stones. The burnt pumpkin tasted yummy and Ma used it to reward me for the chores I did for her.
Pa said again and again that in the evening there must be smoke in the house and I took it for granted that there must be smoke in all people’s houses.
If, during the week, Ma was not in the main village, then it was my big sister who kept house. I was not to avoid my responsibility even if Ma decided to stay at either of the other two houses.
Fortunately I was required to do my chores only for the village house as the other two were built near a spring and also firewood was plentiful in the nearby bushes.
I grew up doing that. Every afternoon after school; I scoured Mitega Hill and other places collecting dry pitpit sticks and dead branches for firewood. I’d bring a bundle to the village house then get the four gallon plastic container and rush to one of the fountains.
There were three places to fetch water depending on the season. Paketo, which flowed forever, was the furthest - nearly a kilometre at the foot of Mitega Hill. Nosa Gopato, which flowed during and immediately after the rainy season, was east of the village and about 200 metres away.
The sweetest tasting water was from the creek behind the village that sprung through greyish black mud. But it was a small spring and my four gallon container took a long time to fill so I foot-slogged it to either Nosa Gopato or Paketo for a quicker return.
When I had completed the two chores, I would join the children’s game in the village or go look for Ma wherever she kept house. I could determine where she’d be by looking in the house.
If she was at the garden, there would be no fresh food in the house. If she was at the pigs’ hut at Goposalo, there would be food in the house. So I would set off to find her.
The adage that ‘the house must have smoke coming out of it in the evenings’ had other meanings that passed over me as a child.
I once heard Pa berate a young fellow because there was no smoke coming from his house and wondered why he was taking the admonitions meant for me and giving them to this young man.
It seems the fellow had fought with his wife who had upped and gone back to her village. The young man was walking around aimlessly as though he had lost the will to live. It was imperative that he bring back his woman and the villagers discussed the matter and set a date when he should do so.
Some years later, when I brought my woman home, he admonished me: “Eheq! Watch out, You must remember when you see smoke coming out of the house in the evening your stomach will be settled. Keep that in mind.”
Was he suggesting I continue with my childhood chores? Surely I was bringing home a woman to vest me of that demand. That was work for the woman now.
One day I fought with my wife. I gave her a black eye. She walked out of the house and went to her village.
The euphoric feeling I had as I fought with her vanished when I returned in the evening to an empty house. Well, no, I spied from afar whether there was any smoke rising.
We would build an open fire in the house and the smoke filtered up and through the kunai thatched roof. There was no such thing and the door was closed. My stomach turned a bit.
Then I looked to see if I could see my small son playing outside. There was no movement. No movement. My stomach revolved faster.
I rushed to the house to find a locked door and looked in the place where we usually hide the key. I was hoping it would not be there. It was there.
Now I was very anxious. The key implied she could not care less if I let myself into the house or not. It was my house and not hers.
I checked the house and found nothing was missing except the people. She and my boy were not around.
I was splitting wood when Pa came around and said, young one, how come you are splitting wood this late in the afternoon. The time for smoke to be coming out of the house is long past.
I looked up at him and said: “Shut up old man, don’t you see that I’m trying to create smoke by splitting wood for the fire?”
“Young one, my admonition was never for you to make smoke. It was your position as a man of the house to see smoke coming out. Go figure that out.”
I had just about forgotten that I had collected water and firewood for 20 years of my life. These tasks I had offloaded to my woman. She was responsible for them. I turned up to eat only. How she found the firewood and water was her problem not mine.
Well I tried to cook a meal and there was no water. I did not want to embarrass myself to go to the creek to fetch it. So I had to contend with roasting kaukau on the fire. In two years since the woman moved in with me, I could not remember having kaukau from the open fire.
I was about to smash the pot in anger when I realised that I did not buy the pot. The pot was bought for her by her brother. The half cooked kaukau that I had burnt on the fire did not go down well.
OK, if there was smoke in the house when I returned from my daily travail, it meant there was a woman in the house and that there was food and water.
The house was strangely quiet and Pa again came over from his house and said, “Young man, the rats are having a field day in your house. I can hear them walking in gay abandon on the rafters and sides of the house.”
I rolled my eyes in my head. “Old man, sure the woman of the house is not home and the rats are out.”
It was odd. I wanted to talk to somebody but, in the two years since the woman moved in with me, I had not gone to another’s house for a yarn and tea. I‘d have to cope with it for tonight and talk to myself. But the knot now in my stomach tightened a notch.
I kept the fire going and kept glancing out of the house and hoping that any noise from human, dog, pig or wind was the voice of the woman or the squirm of my boy. They would have done me wonders now and I felt terribly lonely.
The mattress was cold, even the two big tiger blankets were cold. I tossed and turned all night and eventually got up, moved the blanket and mattress next to the fireplace, built a bonfire and spent a woeful night.
I left early for the garden and attempted to plant the coffee seedlings and banana suckers I had prepared holes for.
I tried to think what the reason was for me losing my temper when we were arguing. I couldn’t. It didn’t matter anymore. What mattered was that I had unleashed anger I thought I was never capable of.
So I didn’t plant new coffee seedlings or banana suckers. Instead I roamed the length of the garden looking at all the spots where we had made shelter to keep out the sun and to sit in while we talked and planned or while she nursed the baby.
The cucumbers she planted had borne fruit and there were several ready to be harvested. I was hungry and I walked amongst them but then my stomach turned again. I could not spoil the fun she would have had harvesting the fruits of her labour.
Sitting down to a breakfast of ripe bananas, it hit me. Stomach in the Tokano language that I speak has a primary meaning of heart and affairs of the heart.
Going to school and learning the different functions of the innards of the body was different from local understanding. The word for heart and affairs of the heart was therefore lost to the business of the stomach.
Pa had been teaching me that the smoke in the evening was a strong picture of a good house, inclusive of the skills to love and respect the woman of the house.
The woman of the house when I was small was my mother and now that I had a woman in my own house, it was my wife’s house. It gave out a powerful message.
Seeing smoke coming from your house in the evening meant there was a woman there. It also meant she was loved and was comfortable and that she could exercise her chores as woman of the house.
When you saw smoke coming from your house in the afternoon, it means the woman of the house was home. The woman who meant everything. She meant food, warmth, a garden, children, companionship.
There were a million, a myriad of other things she represented. And my Pa, in his simplicity, said only seeing smoke coming out of your house in the evening will settle your stomach. How true.
For a highlander, it is a powerful message scaling a hillside, deep down in the valley, high up on a ridge or across a river to see, in the evening, smoke coming from a house. It surely warms the heart