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The bonds that become stronger


FICTION - Delisa broke the news of her pregnancy to Japheth, sounding anxious as she spoke to her mother about her duties in the maternity ward of the over-stretched general hospital.

Japheth assured her everything would be fine. She didn’t have to worry. Delisa was strong and healthy. She was a sensible young woman. And she was married to a clever man.

Then she told Delisa of her relationship with The Old Man’s wantok from Bumbu plantation - and the secret behind her small brother.

This was immense news to Delisa. Yes, she realised, her brother did resemble The Old Man’s wantok.

“If you want to be with him, mum, well, it’s really up to you to decide. What a story that is. It’s so good th e two of you are sorting it out.”

Then Delisa changed tack and decided to lighten the conversation.

“I don’t know what to call him. Is he my stepfather or should I call him tambu?”

“Call him tambu,” Japheth giggled.

The more the wantok visited her house, the more secure she and the children felt. The Old Man and Delisa were far away in Moresby and Japheth now knew she could rely on this man.

And he wasn’t a stranger in her life. She’d had a one-night fling with him, maybe more – she’d been drinking too much to remember. But her son belonged to him.

She had feared she might cross-paths with her ex-husband, he had already been a threat. The Old Man’s wantok had been strong and devoted. This had increased her emotional attachment to him.

Both had lived recklessly. Both regretted their past behaviour. Both had transformed their lives. Both were now yukupaes, free-roaming spirits.

They sensed that this was the time to realign their lives, to settle down and be responsible people.

They felt the aura of The Old Man, the important man in whose house they sat. And now he was related to both of them.

The wantok was spending some nights in a spare room in the house. He had started buying food. He gave cash to Japheth each fortnight.

One night they were watching TV alone. The children were asleep. The wantok gently tried to nudge Japheth towards an empty bedroom. Japheth pulled away and said in a calm voice.

“Mi laikim yu tasol mi laik kisim tok orait bilong man bilong Delisa pastaim.”

[I like you but first I wish to seek the view of Delisa’s husband first.]

The wantok agreed.

“Olsem orait mi ringim em nao tasol na yumi tupela wantain ken toktok long em. Mi save em bai ino inap tok nogat.”

[That’s fine, let’s call him now and talk with him. I don’t think he’ll object.]

“Nogat, mi bai ringim em mi iet. Na yu tu mas ringim em yu iet. Nogut em bai ting mitupela holim pas pinis sapos em harim nek bilong mitupela wantaim.”

[No, I will ring him separately. And you do the same. Otherwise he might think we’re already living together.]

They both knew that The Old Man had probably guessed what was happening. But she had to do things properly. She didn’t want to feel used. It had to be straight. She had seen enough of men.

She had fallen in love with her first husband as many young girls did for young men who went to work at these big projects around the country – gold mines, oil and gas fields, coffee and oil palm plantations.

The men earned good money and the girls mostly never checked if they were married or not. Too many of these relationships ended up with all sorts of problems. Some girlfriends were killed by first wives.

Other estranged women, like the wantok’s wife, decided to remarry instead of travelling down the highway to fight with a new wife in a part of the country she wasn’t familiar with. That could be risky.

Japheth’s own husband had run away with a new lover to an obscure corner of Lae city. How many more girlfriends he had, Japheth didn’t know. Some men were not to be trusted; maybe most men. Girls had to choose properly. They must not jump like a frog into water. It might be boiling hot.

Her ex-husband demanding a share of the bride price irritated her. He was just a greedy nobody who was willing to use violence to get some money only to spend on beer or some village girl he had run off with.

It was true that Delisa was his daughter, but did he deserve part of the bride price? If he was a true man, he would ring The Old Man in Port Moresby, introduce himself and ask for his share. She doubted he had the courage to this. A stern lecture from an important man might be part of his reward.

Japheth felt she needed to get The Old Man’s approval. He was now head of her family and perhaps seen as such among her relatives. Everybody would look up to him at times of trouble or challenge.

The Old Man’s wantok knew he would not object. He had seen that the boy was his exact copy.

After they had both spoken to him, as they had expected, The Old Man said it was up to them to decide their future together.

But he wanted them to get married in church like he and Delisa had done in Port Moresby the Sunday after arriving from Lae.

Japheth and the wantok were happy and beamed with excitement. They agreed they would marry in church. The man vowed to look after Japheth and the two children.

“Tasol mi tupela mas noken hariap hariap. Mi tupelo mas go lotu pastaim. Toksave long padre olsem mitupela laik marit na senism laip, konfeseo long ol pekato o sin mitupela wokim.”

[We need not rush into marriage. We must go to church. We must repent, tell the priest we want to change our lives, confess our sins and marry.]

“Bai yumi mekim olsem. Em gutpela tingting,” Japheth agreed.

[We will do that. It’s a perfect thought.]

But before they got married in church, the wantok wanted to pay some bride price. He told his wantoks of his intention.

Those who lived away from Lae, like his sisters, cousins and nephews, paid their contributions into his bank account. It added up to K7,000.

The wantok had K10,000 of his own. His wantoks in Lae city and fellow plantation workers gave him an additional K6,000.

“That’s good. We must earn respect from her relatives,” The Old Man said when he heard of what was happening. “Girls don’t grow on trees like fruit. Only animals copulate as they wish.”

The Old Man sent him K5,000 as a contribution. It was tradition, he had to help his wantok. The two of them had come together when he had married Delisa. He wanted to secure Japheth’s future and that of her children.

When it came to distributing the bride price, The Old Man would get his share. He was Delisa’s husband, Japheth’s son-in-law. He would accept any amount given to him.

When The Old Man’s wantok paid the money just before the marriage, the bride price amounted to K28,000.

“Pasin bilong ples em yumi mas bihainim. Ol pik na dok tasol save poroman nating nating. Mipela mas lus tingting long ol samting mipela mekim bipo. Dispela em nupela laip mitupela laik statim,” he said.

[The old rules must be followed. Only wild animals copulate as they wish. What we did before must be forgotten. This is a new life we are beginning.]

Japheth quickly reminded him of their past lives.

“Bipo mitupela dring bia na kamap olsem pik na dok na mekim rong. Mi sem ken yah.”

[You and I drank beer and behaved like pigs and dogs once. I am ashamed of that.]

“No yumi noken sem. Planti man meri save pundaon tu. Ol save mekim rong tasol ol save stretim laip bilong ol ken. Na nao mi tupela mekim olsem tu bai ol pikinini iken stap gut bihain.”

[We don’t have to be ashamed of anything. I think many people fall. They make mistakes all the time. But they change. That is what we have to do. We must change and look after our children properly.]

The Old Man was happy about the couple’s decision. He asked when they would get married and sent his wantok more money to cover the costs of the wedding.

He wanted this marriage to work. He wanted his wantok to look after Japheth and her two children properly and take charge of the new house and the family. Not ignore or abuse them as some men did.

The Old Man arrived in Lae late in the afternoon before the wedding and booked into his favourite hotel, the Lae International. Delisa was not with him; she was rostered to work at the hospital that weekend.

Next morning, he drove to St Mary’s cathedral in Top-Town. He timed his arrival to enter after everyone had settled down. He found a seat in the back row from where he could see them all - Japheth’s Bumbu people, his wantok Nathan Awain and the Enga community and other friends and relatives.

The usual Sunday congregation was there too. The hall was filled. The sight warmed his heart.

How can a promise made in front of this many people later in life be broken?

The couple stood in front of the altar and recited their marriage vows. At last the priest said, “I declare you, Nathan Awain and Japheth Ingirum man and wife.”

There was much clapping and applause. When the couple looked around the congregation to appreciate the ovation, they noticed The Old Man sitting in the back row joining in the excitement.

They could hardly believe he was really there. His mere presence blessed their union. That afternoon, there was again feasting at Bumbu village. Two Engans were now permanently married into this coastal community in Morobe Province.

When a tree is felled on the forest slope, other trees on the same side of a mountain fall in the same direction. Japheth had followed her daughter Delisa into the same highlands tribal group.

This view was expressed by The Old Man when he addressed the people before the feast at Bumbu. He was happy to be here a second time to witness another marriage. He was happy to see his wantok and mother-in-law marry.

The institution of marriage was respected in traditional times. Sex before marriage was tabu. Tribal wars were fought if a girl or another man’s wife was raped. Nowadays, women seemed cheap. Men were treating women as if they had no feelings at all, no hopes and no ambitions of their own.

Many women continued to suffer horribly at the hands of man. He asked why women were accused of sorcery and witchcraft even in modern cities like Lae and Port Moresby. Why were men mistreating women, abandoning them after marriage? What was the cause of family breakdown?

The Old Man stared hard at the assembled people as he asked these questions.

Then he said he wished the government would address these problems but government institutions were breaking down too. He knew many of these men and women, people in responsible positions. They could do better and he had told them so.

He encouraged Japheth and Nathan Awain and every other couple there to be honest with each other. There had to be trust in the family. And they had to communicate properly and discuss the issues calmly and find answers together.

If they weren’t sure, they must seek help from the church – go to a priest, a sister, a deacon or social worker if they had relationship issues. The church had good programs. The church understood.

People had to be vigilant, stay on guard and ensure their children did not fall into social traps – alcohol, drugs, pornography, gambling joints and other evils creeping into communities. Parents had to talk with their children about these pitfalls.

He said Japheth and Nahan had done the right thing to get married in church. It was a brave act on their part. People must own up, admit guilt – not hide and pretend they were clean. People make mistakes everywhere. But they can change, make amends and move on with life.

He was particularly happy his wantok had married his mother-in-law. He didn’t ask him to marry her but the plan was there from the start. It was now apparent that this was how it had to be.

Could people see that? The crowd nodded and murmured that they did.

It had been decreed that when a girl wrote to a stranger for help, he would marry her. And their marriage would bring together other people whose lives had been torn apart.

The story would be told in future that they made amends, accepted each other and settled down. This was the moment they were there for. This was a story to learn from.

Now it was time for a party. He was sure the food would taste good and that people would be happy. He was sure they would go home satisfied and sleep well. Everything would work out well for his wantok and his mother-in-law.

And the bond between the two different groups of people – one from the coast, one from the mountain valleys – had become stronger, just as their country would become stronger.

In Port Moresby the next day, The Old Man opened the envelope Japheth had pushed into his hands saying ‘dispela em pei mipela putim bilong yu’. It was the share of the bride price set aside for him.

It was K5,000 exactly, the same amount he’d sent to Nathan to help him towards the bride price payment. Now, he was receiving his share.

The Old Man burst into laughter. It was as if he had never seen paper money before.

The money, like an Australian boomerang, had done its job and come back to him.

Little did he know that soon some of the money would go back to Lae and an unlikely person.


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