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What must have happened to Ma?

Baka  Daniel & Jimmy  Gembogl  2016
Baka Bina with fellow award-winning writers author Daniel Kumbon and poet Jimmy Drekore on an excursion to Gembogl from a literary convention in Kundiawa in the PNG Highlands, 2016


NOOSA – Yesterday Baka Bina was announced as one of five Pacific regional finalists in the prestigious Commonwealth short story prize, the first Papua New Guinean to be thus honoured and chosen from 6,730 entries before the international judging panel. The original story is in Tok Pisin and PNG Attitude is delighted to be able to present this English version, translated by Baka himself, for our readers - KJ



The afternoon chills followed the depression up and the sun was slowly setting to the west.  Soon it would sink behind the mountains to go to sleep.  I was very hungry when I looked down to see if I could find where mama would be.  I was wondering if she would be near here or at the far end of the garden. It was time to find out.

'Mama, Iyeno!' I also called out in Tok Ples.

I stood at the edge of break going down to the garden and called out softly.  I knew that you just needed to call softly and the call would float down the gully to where mama would be and she could discern my voice. 

There were no replies back up to me.  My stomach was now growling.

Where I was, it was the head of the garden and looked down the length of the garden in the depression.  I tried to think where will I find little things to eat to hold up my empty stomach.

I thought about the laulau trees and fruits across the fence in my cousin's garden.  I did not want to create any angst against me and Ma gets angry when we try to go there to help ourselves to the ripe laulau fruits.  I looked towards where the guava trees grew.  It was guava season but I knew there would be a few off seasonal ones out of sight amongst the leaves.  I will check out the tree.

There would be a lots of bananas trees and a lot of them would bear fruits but mum harvested and hid them in the bushes for them to ripen.  She kept of moving the spots she kept because I would get to them and each a good proportion of them.  I feel sorry for her.  When she wanted to market the bananas, she would find that she would not have enough to take them to the markets.  But we had plenty of banana trees and most times she would never run out of them.

I thought of the orange tree but there were not many on the tree.  I did count about fifteen fruits last week and I think Papa brought some home so I don't think any would be ready now.

At the bottom of the garden, there were some more guava trees and I will look them up with my pineapple plot.  I did see some heads of pineapples but I am not sure if they will be ripe now.

I moved down the track a bit more and I called out for mama again.  This time I raised my voice a bit higher.


I waited a little and stared down the garden.  At the bottom of the garden I noticed a whiff of smoke go up.

Ah, there now, mama must be making a garden at that bottom side of the garden.  That was the area where dad had extended the fence for her to make the apa vegetable garden following the drain dip.

When the school ended, the three of us went to the village and Ma was not there, we knew that she was still at the garden house where she also kept pigs.  It is nearly a week now and she has not come to the village house.  When she has a lot of garden work she stays at the hauspik and tries to finish off all these gardening.  If it is not garden work, she will be stringing a new bilum. She would stay up all night to make bilums.

My name is Taluo and my two sisters are Dahne and Lottopesa.  I am in grade four and Dahne in grade two and Lotto in grade one.  We were all hungry as Ma did not send up our cooked kaukau in the morning.  Dahne tried cooking out breakfast on the open fire but they were all half cooked which we ate for breakfast.

I did not wait for my two sisters.  They were looking for pitpit canes as firewood  and when they have collected enough, they will bundle up and leave them by the side of the track and then follow me down.  That is part of their work to look for firewood for our house.

My job is to fetch water for the house.  We have two twenty litre containers for that.  I made a quick job of them from the stream where we collect water from a spring.  I fetched water in both of them and have brought them to the house.

I came past them and heard them talking in the bushes that were there on the way to our garden.

I ran down to the guava as looked amongst the few there but they were not ripe yet.

I cast my eyes towards Dad's sugar cane garden but I was scared to go pull out one cane of sugar.  Dad is always adamant that he will be the only one to cut any of his sugar canes.  That is his garden and he is always angry with any of us children wandering around there.

Pity me, I was famished but I must hold on.

I walked and search amongst the marretta trunks and spindly legs.  I checked the passion fruit vines to see if someone would have pulled on them to get at their fruits. 

I searched and collected five fruits that had ripened and fallen to the ground.  There were a few more still on the vines and I left them there.

I planted the passion fruit vine and made a law that we were not to get at the fruits still on the vine.  Every ripe fruit had to fall to the ground and then we collect them.  In this way the vines remained for a long time and bore many more fruits.  The fruits tasted better if they had fallen off the vines.  If they were harvested off the vines, they had a stinging pungent taste.

I opened up one of the fruits and ate the contents.  I wanted to get another one more but I thought of the two girls and left them there.  They will be pleased to see the fruits and won't feel bad towards me.  Besides they may be tempted to throw sticks at those ripe fruits still on the vines.

I looked up my small garden.  This was a small plot where I was practising my garden making skills.  I planted a few sugar canes, taro kongkongs and ginger.  At the edge of the few drains, I had lined them with apa vegetables.

Ma did not weed my garden and the grass was growing plentifully and faster.  I am thinking, come Saturday, I will not play in the village but come down to weed this garden.  I realised the end of the drains were also water logged.  It meant that I have to deepen the drains.

It would be much better if I asked Pa to help me.

I went down to the house.  The back of the house was inside the garden and the door was set outside.  I jumped over the fence to get out of the garden.

I called out again for Ma.


The banana leaves used as a secondary door and curtains and called mehe was still in place on the door.  Ma had not yet come to the house.  I looked up at the sun.  It has gone past the time when Ma is usually at the hauspik.  When she is there we know that she will be preparing dinner in her motona wooden drum oven.

I saw that whiff of smoke at the bottom of the garden.  Ma must be there.  I jumped back into the garden and I also heard the two girls run down the incline inside the garden.

I went past the coffee garden when I heard them call out for Ma and me.



'Oi', I replied

'I am standing next to the fence and was eating tree tomatoes.  I had three fruits only as they went sour on me so I left the rest on the trees for you two and am waiting.'

They knew where the tree tomato plants grew and ran towards it looking for me.  They held their passion fruits in the hands.

'Who said you could have a passion fruit first.  When you do that, the tree tomatoes will go sour and you will not like it.  You see, we are still holding onto our passion fruits.'

'I know but I have a very hungry stomach and I forgot.  I have left some fruits still on the tree for you two girls.  You two get them and then we go looking for Ma.'

The girls picked of the ripe fruits off the tree and put them in their bilums before we ran down.

We went over to the cleared spot and looked around.  There were no signs of Ma.


We all called out at the same time.

There were no replies.  Ma, a lot of times would not reply.  Instead if she had a spade or Amuto digging stick, she would bang them against stones or whack the kaukau mounds.  We called one more time and then kept quiet to see if we could hear her queer replies.

There were no noises and the bigger of the girls, Dahne left to check the tree stump where the smoke was coming out from.

Ma had piled on all the roots of trees and had burnt them.  Dahne dug a stick into the ashes and tried to see if Ma had put any kaukau into them.

I went over to my pineapple plot and found a pineapple head that was half ripe.  I broke this off and held it in my hands.

The little Lottopesa went up onto the ridge line next to the garden and in a loud voice call for Ma this side of the garden and over the ridge.  It was the time of the year when the moson tree sent up new shoots and she would be there harvesting these new shoots.

'Mama!  Mama O!'

There were no replies.

She slid down the incline.

I stood with Dahne and watched her pull out eight kaukau from the ashes.  Two of these were burnt black like the back of saucepans.  There is no way we could eat those kaukaus.  The other six, the other half of each of them, one side of them were burnt but the other side was a bit okay.  Dahne gave us two each to Lottopesa and me and we tried to have these.

I was worried a bit that Ma was not there in the garden. It has been nearly a week now that she was sleeping at the hauspik.  She said she wanted to put in some more effort in this new garden that we were standing at.  It looked like she must have pushed the kaukau into the warm hearth of the ashes.  We could not tell if she shoved the kaukau there yesterday or this morning.

The kaukau did not settle well in the stomach.  Half of it was burnt and the bit that remained tasted like fire smoke.  I did not like my burnt kaukau and held it to give to the pigs.

Ma regularly digs our kaukau and Pa brings them up for us at the village.  Currently we do not have any more in the house.  She must have prepared something for us and then went walking to someplace.  I sent Dahne over to one kaukau plot and Lottopesa to the next; Ma has two kaukau garden plots where she usually harvests her kaukau from.  Sometimes when she harvests a lot, she will have some of them covered in the drains.

We broke up and I left to return to the hauspik.

Dahne came back first to say there was no dug up kaukau there in the drains.  Lottopesa came back with the same result.

I removed aside the banana leaves mehe and pulled out the planks and entered the house.

'Eh, you twos, that is alright.  Ma has left a bilum of kaukau here in the house for us.'

We were glad but where was she?

Lottopesa said she was still hungry and Dahne quickly collected some dried sticks for her to start up a fire.

They threw in some raw kaukau over the fire.

And I heard the pig call out.

Dahne went out to call for the pig and it called her back.  She found her and called up to the house.

'Taluo! The pig's rope is all twisted and the pig is in a sorry state.  You find a knife and come cut the bush that has the pig's leash embroiled in.'

I looked for a bush knife inside the house and found one behind the centre post.  Lottopesa knew where Ma kept her knife and pulled out another knife.  I compared them for their sharpness, selected one and took that outside.

Ma keeps three sows.  One, she tied near to the marshes but it lacked shade and the sun had beaten down strongly there.  The pig must have suffered the heat and it was panting terribly.  It lay down with froth foaming over its mouth and it was really gasping for air.  I did a quick work of the bushes and Dahne pulled the pig down to the small creek for a bath. It however wanted just to drink the water.

I made grunting noises again for the other two pigs and another sow made some noises.  I went down to it and saw another twisted leash.  This pig was a bit lucky as it was in the shade of moson tree so it was a bit okay.  But it was frothing heavily at the mouth too and it was panting terribly.  I cut down all the grass that had tangled the leash and when it was free, pulled it down to the creek.

Dahne held onto both of them at the creek whilst I went to look for the third sow. 

I called out for a while and did not hear any return wail or grunt.  I nearly gave up and listened out.  It was then I heard a meek grunt.  I felt sorry for this pig.  Ma had tied it at the edge of the pitpit cane shrubs way back down there.  It was a bit far into the bushes.  I waded through.

It was then I remembered where I had harvested and stored some bananas.


'What is it?'  she replied from inside the house.

'You go to the stinging nettle salat bush cluster and you will see a lone one growing on the side.  Underneath it, you will find some bananas.   Bring a brunch or two for us to eat.  I forgot about these bananas.'

I walked past a spot where there were a lot of blue flies and there was a strong smell.  I looked and thought that perhaps they were buzzing around pig's excreta and I walked past it.

I found the pig and it too was tangled up on its leash and was lying there sorrowfully and panting.

I looked down on its front legs.  The knot looped around the wrists and had eaten into the skin to the bones.  The white of the bones were very clear.  I was scared but I tried to remember what Pa would do in such situations.  I was thinking that he would cut the leash around that hand.

I tried to cut the leash right beside the hand of the pig but it screamed it loudest and it made me scared.

I tried to calm the pig down.  I played with the mane whilst I talked to it.  I rubbed its cheeks and its stomach.  A little while later, it was calm enough to breathe slowly.

I tried unravelling the tangled leash but it was very much tangled in the many grass, sticks and small tree branches.  It was also covered over by soil the pig had dug them over.

I heard Dahne call for me.  I looked up and I watched her come looking for me.  She must have brought the two pigs up to the house.

'Dahne,’ I called out to her.

'Where did you leave the two pigs?'

'Both of them are at the house.  Lotto is giving them kaukau and is getting them some kaukau leaves too for them.'

'Okay, tell her to leave some for this pig too.  The leash has eaten into the hands of the pig and I have had to cut the leash.'

'You must know that Pa will be very angry with you about cutting the leash.'

'I know but the leash was all tangled up and I will have a hard time.  Besides I felt sorry for the cut flesh of the pig.'

'It was my fortune that she did not scream much when I cut the leash next to that hand.'

'The pig is standing on its three wheels and is trying to come out of this place where she was in jail.'

I looked up Dahne who was standing at the spot where the blue flies were teeming.

'Dahne, do you not see the flies and you don't smell the excreta, do you?'

I called out to her but she does not reply.  She was standing there, leaning against a piece of stick and was looking with some fixed stare up into the clouds at the mountains.

I scrambled up to her.

'Dahne, Dahne!'   I shook her but she does not move.

I looked down at the end of the stick and immediately I jerked my head up.

The stick was resting on Ma's blouse.  And it was all covered in blood.

I felt nauseas and held my nose at the terrible smell.

I quickly cut some bushes and tree branches and leaves and covered up the blouse.

Dahne was standing transfixed at the clouds and tears were now rolling down her cheeks.

Delicately, I held Dahne and turned her around and pulling her by her hands, we returned to the house.

Lotto saw the tears on her sister and berated me for it.

'Why did you hit her?'

I did not reply.  I too was on the verge of tears.  I went and sat down Dahne on the bed in the house and called the pigs into the house.  I got each of them into their pens and blocked off the entrance to them.  I then threw in a few kaukaus each.  I let the three legged pig in last and put in a few more extra kaukau into its pen. It can feast on these extra kaukau and forget about the nasty cut on its hand.

Lotto tried to distribute her cooked kaukau to each of us.  Dahne did not speak but indicated with her nose she would not want them.

I took both our kaukaus and put them into Dahne's bilum.

I then distributed the raw kaukau in the bilum and measured it up to something that I could easily carry.  It was a bit heavy and I took some out and placed them in a spot where the pigs could not get to them.  During other times, Dahne could easily carry a bigger loa  but I assessed that she was in no condition to carry any big bilum today.

I put outside the kaukau bilum.  I then fixed up the fire with a few more sticks that were cut to size.  The fire flared up to warm up the house.  I found two pieces of stronger wood that I threw into the fire.  These would burn slowly through the night.

We were now ready to move.

Lotto readied her bilum with the pineapple and one brunch of banana.  I took the other brunch and filled it inside Dahne's bilum.

I went and sat down with Dahne and held her tight.  Lotto was glad that I was apologising to Dahne.  Dahne said nothing.  She saw her mother's blouse and she must be worried.  I too am very worried.  At this time, we had no clue where Ma would be.  Also I have not told Lotto what Dahne saw.

The fire had burnt through and I fixed and threw in the end pieces in case rats moved the end sticks and start a house fire.  When the fire was fixed, I told the two girls we were leaving now.

Lotto then asked.

'How are we trying to leave when Ma has not come yet.  And where is Pa too?'

I did not reply.   My throat was going to break soon.  My tears were ready to fall.  I looked out the door and replied in a soft voice.

'I do not know where they went but we must return to the village.  Otherwise the rains will come or darkness will find us.'

'Why are you forcing us to go back.  You are not the boss and also darkness will not rush in on us.  Can we wait for a little while?'

I felt like crying.  I pulled at Dahne's hand to make her stand.  I slowly coaxed her to go outside.  While she was standing, I took her bilum and placed it on her back and swung the handles onto her head.

Lotto got her bilum onto her back and turned to the road.  When she did that I saw the tears come streaming down her cheeks.  I am not sure, if she is sorry about her sister or is she angry about me forcing them to return to the village or is she sorry about Ma and Dad.  I was having the same problems; I was finding it difficult to hold back my tears.

The two girls started walking and I turned back to the house.  I checked the fire again to see if it was burning right.  I then took to the planks for the house door and fixed them into place just like Ma does and they fitted into place.  I then pulled over the banana leaves mehe.  I then made criss-crosses with pitpit sticks to keep the mehe in place.

I was glad with my little handiwork on the door to the house.  I hoisted my bilum of kaukaus onto my shoulder.  I followed the track up the mountain.

I started up the pathway and I noticed some red soil on the ground on the path way.  I went a little bit more and noticed that the red soil moved off the track to one side of the garden.  I followed the traces on the leaves and garden debris.  I knew the area was Ma's special for raising her pumpkins there.  She trailed the runners over this red patch as nothing grew there.  The end of the pumpkin grew at an end of a tree stump where the soil was black and she trailed the runners over the dry patch

I went over to the end of the pumpkin vines and saw somebody had done some work digging up the red soil.  The soil was broken.

Now the hairs on my skin were all standing.  My thoughts are all in a jumbled mess. 

I tried thinking.

Ma is not here.

Pa came down last night looking for her.

Both of them are not here.

The kaukau in the fire ashes were all burnt through and through.

The pigs must have slept outside last night for them to be all knotted up.

There is Ma's blouse covered with blood in the bush.

I now see this turned red soil.

I turned with my head down.  My tears started falling down slowly as I left. 


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Michael Dom

On Baka Bina's 'What must have happened to Ma':


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