Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Family Matters

One thing that is designed to help prepare us for village living is the “Wasfemili” program (“was” = watch, “femili” = family). During Week 3 of our course we were introduced to the people who would be our watch family at a dinner we hosted for them. All students were asked to bring a couple of floor mats from their rooms to the meeting room (which we had emptied of all furniture) and then decorate the walls surrounding their chosen area with flowers and such. When the families arrived, they were paired off with their POC family (or pair of singles) to go to the meeting room to get to know one another. We talked (somewhat laboriously considering we had only two weeks of Tok Pisin behind us), shared pictures of home, and played Uno (which transcends language barriers, apparently.) Dinner of rice and stew was served by the POC staff, followed by banana kek and hot tea (the way they generally like it: made weak and mixed with milk).

Our WasPapa is a man named Papa Ganig. He is also one of the workmen at POC and is also a “Papa Graun” of the property on which it sits. He has worked for POC since the program began some 36 years ago. Papa mows the grass, fixes things, and goes as a national guide on many of our hikes. He is a short man in his 70s but he can walk these trails barefoot with 500 mL of water (from which he rarely drinks) at a pace that would make a horse sweat. Meanwhile we’re huffing and puffing in our deep-treaded walking shoes and trying to keep up with him.

On one particular hike he was trucking along at such a pace that we caught up with the children (who always leave about 15 minutes before the various adult groups. The goal is to keep the groups small and intimate, and separate.) The kitchen coordinator, Missy, frequently hikes with the kids and has a great rapport with Papa Ganig. When she saw us puffing and realized how fast he must have been walking, she gave him a tongue lashing. If he didn’t slow down he would not get any bread, she told him. As he smiled impishly, the twinkle in his eyes said it all.

He’s a very good natured, easy-going man who, though he has spent his life in comparative poverty, has a great love for Bikpela (the Lord). He told us the story of how he went to the island of Karkar (just off the coast and slightly North of Madang) to find a wife. I questioned whether that was the reason he went there or if it turned out to just be a good perk, but he insisted (at least I think that was what he said) that that was his purpose in going. The traditional custom of marriage in PNG involves parents finding and deciding on a spouse for their pikinini (child), and also the groom’s family providing quite a hefty dowry (called a “bride price”) to the bride’s family – rice, yams, chickens … and especially pigs. These days, however, most men are finding their own wives and bride prices, if paid, are often paid in Kina rather than goods. Papa told us that he only had to pay a liklik (small) bride price. (Though I wanted to say that I was sure Maib was worth a big price, I was not sure how to say it, so I just smiled.)

Maib told me yesterday that her mother died shortly after she was born, and her older brother raised her and her two sisters. After coming to Nobnob with her new husband, she had to learn a new Tok Ples (local language). As PNG has about 860 different “Tok Ples,” I imagine it is not uncommon for women to have to learn a new one when they marry. An exception would be some of the southernmost provinces which work on a matrilineal system rather than a patriarchal system – the women own the land and a man joins the woman’s family when he marries.

Papa Ganig and Mama Maib have several children and even more grandchildren. We have not yet met their children, but as we have small kids, several of their grandchildren are part of our “Wasfemili.” Keti is 10 and her younger sister, Loreta, is 7. Beven is 12 and there are several younger boys as well: Josua, ______.

On one evening during week 4 Papa Ganig came and escorted us to his village where we had dinner at their home. We took along a pot of stew and a pot of rice along with a box of tea, some powdered milk, and some banana kek. Mama Maib also had made kaukau (sweet potato) and tulip (a very bitter green that has nothing to do with pretty cup-shaped flowers). We have found that they tend to eat later than we do, preferring to use all of the light they have (until 6:30 or so) to be outside doing other things. Then, once evening has settled in and they can’t see to be outside, they settle down for dinner.

Ganig’s village actually has power, which in their home manifests as one single fluorescent tube light on the veranda where we had our meal. Of course, anticipating the common failure of PNG power, we took along our Coleman lantern, which, of course, we lit about halfway through dinner. After dinner we played more Uno and talked some more, or as they say, we “storied.” In keeping with a culture that traditionally handed down oral history and legends, and though these days there are many literate people, they still love to tell and hear stories, both true and fiction.

Around 8:30 we headed home, somewhat relieved to be returning to the familiar, but grateful, too, for a good evening.

During week 5 (on Thursday night, September 10) we packed up a large frame backpack full of everything a western family would need to survive for one night in a Papua New Guinean village – a deck of Uno cards, four self-inflating ground mats, four flat sheets, four compressible pillows, a change of underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, clean drinking water and dishes. In addition, the POC kitchen sent along a bag of rice, a tin of corned beef, some powdered milk, tea bags, coconut cookies, and the quintessential banana kek. Of course, compared to the sum of their possessions, we looked like kings entering the village. Gypsy kings, perhaps, but kings nonetheless.

When we arrived I asked Mama if she would be able to lainim me how to kuk antap long paia. She said she had already made dinner, but I could help her with breakfast. Pretty soon, the boys and Papa began helping Evan learn how to make a banara (bow and arrow). He very much enjoyed widdling the bamboo into sharp-pointed spea (arrows) and would end up taking home eleven arrows and two bows the next day.

I took the kids to the liklik haus (pit toilet), but we realized, after we had traversed the steep, muddy downhill to the thatched-roofed, woven-walled outhouse, that I had left the toilet paper behind. One of my children decided that he did not need it, and went ahead and used the facility while I went to retrieve the paper. As we heard during debriefs the next day, ours wasn’t the best, but it also wasn’t the worst liklik haus the students encountered. While one family had built their students their own, new, sheet-metal enclosed haus, others were wildly unproportional (read: the holes were large enough that it would have been easy to fall through and land in the creek 10 meters below. Though ours stood 10 meters above, not a creek but a swampy mess that I, at least, would not want to fall into, at least it was proportional and had an old toilet seat. And it had a great view. Seriously.

After dinner, while the kids played Uno and the men talked, Mama tried to teach me how to make a bilum (string bag very common in PNG). Bilums are the bags they carry all of their market produce in, as well as their babies. Frequently they carry these bags with the strap over their foreheads and the bag hanging down their backs. From the time they are small children, the girls are trained in carrying these bags so that by the time they are adults, they are carrying ridiculous amounts of weight with very little trouble. While I wanted to learn, her teaching method involved her doing it and me watching. I think I needed a bit more explanation, and I struggled to get it down. Mama had to straighten out my mess time after time, but she was very patient. Finally, I got the basic stitch figured out, but I still do not know how to start a new one or finish one, or move to the next row … you know, minor stuff like that. We still have one more evening meal with them next week, so maybe she can stretim me on the rest of it then.

They had an empty room ready for us to sleep in, but they did not show us until after dinner when, other than a small kerosene hurricane lamp we had brought along, it was pitch dark. It took me a while to help set up the mats and a large mosquito net over them. As I was tying up the mosquito net, I looked up and saw a pair of beady eyes looking at me. I gasped and stepped back to see a 14” lizard perched on the upright beam of the wall. This sucker was beautiful, but I was not really interested in finding out where he might go. Had the mosquito net been up already, I probably would have left him (one additional benefit of using the nets and keeping them well tucked in is they also keep out other critters!), but since I couldn’t keep my eye on him while I worked, and I really needed to tie up one part of the net to the pole he was on, I decided he needed to go. First I took some pictures of him, and then I told the boys so they could come rausim him from the room.

The kids went to bed close to ten and the adults stayed up a while longer. Papa said he typically stays up late, but I caught Mama dozing off while we talked. We joked with Papa about the roosters and how they begin calling out well before dawn. Just then, as if to chastise us for talking about him, a village rooster crowed. It was 11:30PM.

We slept pretty well, but woke off and on with the various noises. Mama let me help her make breakfast. She showed me how to get the meat out of a coconut and let me try it myself. I was more successful with that than the bilum-making. She put the coconut shreds in water and squeezed the water through the coconut making a coconut-flavored liquid. Then she showed me how they wash their rice and then use the coconut water to boil it. She had previously cooked bananas, kaukau, yams, and taro together in one pot. With the banana kek we had brought, breakfast was on.

After breakfast, they walked us over to their liklik garden – their larger garden being quite far away. They talked to us about the different plants, how long they took to grow, and how they would know when they were ready to reap.

After we went back to the house, Mama and I worked on bilums for a few minutes before it was time for us to head back to POC and the joy of a cool shower. Fortunately, in some ways, living in the village for five weeks will be easier. We will have our own home, and thus will not constantly feel the need to be social and engaged. If one gets bored, as Andie expressed several times, one can retreat to the shade around our own house with a book or a game.

Oh, and we will have our own, freshly dug and newly constructed liklik haus. :-)


  1. In Pajal, I much preferred the soru (liklik haus) with a view instead of the ones that were enclosed. You never knew what was going to come out of that hole at you!
    J is completely enthralled with all of the Tok Ples that you are including--keep it coming!

    Praying for you all!

  2. This is a truly delightful blog. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  3. Just trying to picture you eyeing the lizard eyeing you....praying for you!

  4. As usual, I am amazed that one so logical and task oriented can be such a great writer!! Sounds like you need foam ear plugs too! :)


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