PORT MORESBY – While Papua New Guinea has a couple of matrilineal societies, the majority of our many cultures are patrilineal, meaning the heirs to the land are male.
If a woman gives birth to sons, she is respected by her husband’s family, although this does not mean she is always safe.
There are chances of her being pushed out of public life by an incoming young wife.
However, essentially a son is a mother’s social safety net when everything else falls apart because the son is entitled to land.
That said, many first wives get parked on the side as by incoming younger wives.
PNG society has coined a phrase for this: ‘marit antap long marit’ [‘jumping on to an existing marriage’].
In the 16th century, King Henry the Eighth of England desperately sought a son but one never came.
Of his many marriages, two ended in annulment, two in natural deaths and two of his wives were beheaded for claimed adultery and treason.
These innocent wives were victims, to an extent, of an important man’s desire for a son to be his heir, the next King of England.
My tribesmen are Henry-like and desire sons to carry their name forward.
If that doesn’t eventuate they marry again, although thankfully the divorced wives are not murdered.
But there are some men who treat their wives very badly.
They will divorce or demote the first wife from public life and marry again and hand the new wife the family assets.
In addition, she becomes the so-called ‘battery of the car’, if the husband owns one. When the car is on the road, the new wife sits in front, alongside her husband at the steering wheel.
In the present-day, getting divorced or eloping with a married man who promises wealth is a daily occurrence helped along by pimps and mobile phones.
I am reminded of a family feud in my tribal land in which two girls from the same family jumped into the same bed with a particular polygamist.
Some 20 years ago, Wemin was an ordinary man who married a Yuri woman and the couple toiled the soil until they had earned enough money to buy a trucking business.
Wemin ferried our Galkope people to and from Kundiawa town.
As the business grew, Wemin ventured into trade stores and the purchase of coffee beans.
Talk abounded in the village that Wemin was so rich the BSP Bank in Kundiawa kept his money in the vault.
As this cooked up story spread, girls melted like butter in the sun when they saw him.
Yes, with success came women, and Wemin married six girls at about two-year intervals.
He parked his first wife on the side to mother their kids and thereafter she lived a life of celibacy.
Each of the six girls Wemin married over the years conceived and had one or two children with him.
When he was done with each, he parked them and some would tire of this and elope and remarry, sometimes leaving their children behind.
In 2016, Wemin poached a Josephine from Grade 6 and married her. She was aged about 15.
Her parents, although being well aware of Wemin’s character, wanted their daughter to marry him, his wealth being a great attraction.
They seemed not to care about the imminent risk Josephine faced against the mob of parked wives whose jealousy towards the interloper would be unbridled.
Wemin speedily built a store for Josephine’s parents and had it packed with cargo for them to operate it on their tribal land. They were over the moon and overwhelmed by their good luck.
Josephine soon bore Wemin a child with and things looked rosy in that first year. Before long a second child was born but, as Josephine was nursing it, Wemin, being Wemin, started again looking around for girls.
Pimps swiftly netted Wemin a beautiful girl and they were paid with cartons of SP beer.
Trouble was that the new girl, Apai, was Josephine’s blood cousin - Josephine’s maternal uncle’s daughter.
Anyway, Apai became the battery of the car and Josephine was parked at home.
But Josephine was having none of this and, on two occasions, injured Wemin with a knife.
Moreover, Apai had to be heavily guarded by Wemin’s henchmen.
After a long struggle, Josephine gave up, took her daughters and returned to her parents.
Her father had, on two previous occasions, armed himself with a gun and chased Wemin, who had escaped in his car.
When Apai had Wemin’s child, he committed to pay – after the next coffee season - K10,000, 30 pigs and some whitemen’s goods as bride price.
Of course, Apai’s family celebrated at hearing this.
Meanwhile, Josephine, her family, and Wemin’s previous wives and children were squatting in the dirt listening to this talk of the imminent bride price.
Apai conceived again and was expecting a second child. With gratitude, Wemin established a trade store in Apai’s tribal land with her parents as store keepers.
Just recently, word reached me that Apai was experiencing acute abdominal pain.
Her family, practicing Catholics, cooked up the idea that some sanguma [evil spirits] were jealous and had twisted the infant’s legs, hands and head in Apai’s womb in order to kill both mother and child.
One of them related this tale as if he had actually witnessed it.
Wemin and Apai’s father hired a witch doctor who claimed to have seven spirits under his armpit to come to the village.
The plan was to summon the village folk to converge, sit in a group and allow the witch doctor to scan them and single out those village folk complicit in twisting the infant’s limbs.
In fact, the witch doctor’s plan was to look around the mob and select the feeble and the pathetic as the culprits, collect his money and head quickly for home.
If he had picked out the younger, stronger ones they would immediately have attacked him with great violence.
I got a call from home that this was happening and rang the village leaders, all of whom I know well, to stop this insanity.
I said the witch doctor had no extra-terrestrial powers under his armpit but was trying to cook up some tricks to satisfy their misery and make some money.
Speaking very sternly, I stated that if sanguma did exist, then they were all sanguma because they had defied the blessedness of family and the sacraments of the Catholic church in giving away Apai to a lustful man who already married Josephine, also a daughter of the clan.
I concluded saying that Apai must now go to Kundiawa General hospital for a diagnosis by a real doctor.
So on Wednesday, the village folk rang me to say they had not brought the witch doctor to the village but instead had a community conversation.
The nub of the discussion was that they wanted to discourage jealousy and sanguma.
The leaders implored the sanguma to feed on excreta and spare Apai or any other person they planned to kill. Then they fetched water and bananas for Apai to drink, eat and be cleansed.
Yesterday, Apai was to go to Kundiawa hospital for a checkup. I have not yet heard the outcome.
All that said, Wemin is a completely insane man. A number of women he married bore him sons but he continued to park them and marry new ones.
Essentially, he did not care if the women bore him mighty sons or beautiful daughters. He just liked getting new batteries for the car.
He had also created a division with Josephine and Apai’s family, who had been hostile since their first skirmish. And all the other wives he had parked, and their children, were anguishing back at home with angry parents and clan members.
Papua New Guinea really needs to implement a national strategy to prevent gender based violence which includes building a social safety net for divorced and parked mothers, especially as the overwhelming majority do not own land.
At present, these women rely on their parents as social safety nets but, when the parents die, the women and children fall into horrific poverty.
Girls who intentionally elope with a woman’s husband should be penalised for undermining the first wife’s livelihood. And parents who allow underage girls to get married must be fined or imprisoned.
In addition all men who serially marry women must feel the full weight of the law. Their abhorrent behaviour is a threat to our people and society.
And I need hardly add that the whole practice of witch doctoring and its evil practices must be erased by those authorities we elect and appoint to govern our country.