The People of the Bird excerpt 1

Chapter 2 - The Village

Our transport would be local Public Motor Vehicle (PMV) – a six ton flat top Toyota truck with a tarpaulin covered seating rack on the back. It was able to carry about thirty people sitting on benches lengthways down the vehicle. In fact we saw very few PMVs on the road with as few as thirty people on board. Most were overcrowded and had the centre section piled up with bags of produce, coconuts and root vegetables, sometimes livestock such as pigs, all bound for the markets in Port Moresby. Occasionally that produce overflowed onto the roof of the seating rack or behind the bull bar.

We were up at 5am waiting for the PMV. It was at least a five hour drive. We soon ran out of bitumen as we journeyed further along the coast and then started winding up into mountain country. The road became narrower and rougher, the bridges and river fords more precarious. But this was an adventure of a lifetime and our distaste for dust and gritty eyes were a small token price to pay. No one seriously complained.

The location had been chosen carefully to give us exposure to a more remote area away from the increasing urbanization of Port Moresby. The Moiaimba people of the area welcomed us like kings. Leis (necklaces) of frangipani flowers were placed around our necks and we seemed to shake everyone’s hand at least once as the procession of local native people eagerly pressed around us.

A group of women and girls were dancing nearby. Not nearly as elaborately dressed as their Hanuabaduan counterparts, they still exuberated such grace in their movement.  Shuffling their feet in unison, small kundu drums beating out a monotone rhythm as they chanted, grass skirts flipping left then right in time to their rhythm.  I noted that even in the mountain area we were now in, they wore necklaces of cowry shells and mother of pearl obviously not found locally. I would learn later of the trading routes that criss-crossed the country, and the high value of seashells for highlands people.

The game was scheduled for early in the afternoon, just after we had taken a short break from the road trip and eaten lunch. It seemed to me to be a great strategy for the other team! I don’t think anyone in our team felt ready to play after five hours sitting on wooden slats in the back of a PMV on winding dirt roads, and a meal!

It didn’t matter. The other team played courageously but seemed relatively untrained in the art of rugby.  I scored three of my five tries when we switched the direction of the ball halfway out along the back line, and caught their defenses short on the blind side wing. We won effortlessly again, though did so in a fun spirit of friendship and camaraderie with our opposing team. They responded enthusiastically, playing as if their lives depended on it, and losing as if their new friendship with us demanded it.

There were few buildings made of permanent materials in the village, just the school building and a small trade store that looked like it had been made from scraps left over from the school construction. The rest were of bush timber and kunai grass roof thatching. We were to lay out our sleeping bags on the floor of the two room school. There were no washrooms - we washed in the river and used bush pit latrines especially constructed behind the village for our visit.  Our evening meal was supplemented by local food – sweet potato, taro and some combinations of what they called sago wrapped in a banana leaf with pumpkin or banana.  I didn’t try everything on offer, but what I did, I enjoyed.

In the evening a large fire lit up the central area of the village and we sat round it while the villagers introduced us to some more of their culture. This time it was the men who danced. Elaborate costumes of feathers, shells, animal tusks and skins, and local vines that seemed to be held together with beeswax and bush twine. Yellow, red and orange ocres coloured their faces and bodies. The kundu drums continued their monotonous beat as some of the opposing rugby team members attempted to tell us the stories behind the dances.

“This is the dance we do before we go hunting magani, wallabies,” my opposite winger, Abu, explained. “See, it looks like we are stalking the wallaby until we have surrounded it.” Then suddenly the dancers leapt into the air, pretending to throw their spears at the wallaby.

Later, when another dance group began to entertain us, Abu interpreted the dance again. “When we’re hunting kuskus, tree possums,” he whispered, “we smell the air for their distinct aroma.” The dancers circled with their noses held high. “Then when we get their scent…. you’ll smell it one day…. we find which tree it’s in and cut down the tree with the kuskus in it. That way we can get the kuskus.”

Then came a much more intense and less jovial dance. The dancers look quite threatening, their costumes and choreography much more serious and intimidating. Abu briefed me once more. “This one is for chasing evil spirits from the gardens,” he said. “When our mothers go to the food gardens we need to protect them from any evil spirits.” This interaction of the earthly and the spiritual intrigued me, it seemed so natural to them.

Later, as we lay on our sleeping bags, the sound of rain as it moved down from the high mountains against the main ranges and consumed our valley soothed our weary bodies, and lulled us into dreamland. In my heart and mind I was in ecstasy as I thought back over the events of the day. But my body was in agony as it craved to shut down for the night.  My body won.

The rain persisted all night. We woke to the sound of drizzle on the corrugated iron roof of the school, and zero visibility outside in thick fog. It created an aura of mystery as it cocooned the village, the fog forming a shroud that could be seen but not felt.

Copyright © 2014 Michael A Jelliffe


Our plan to be back in Port Moresby by 3 pm for our last night in this amazing country was now looking uncertain. Word had arrived that swollen rivers had made some of the river crossings impassible, so we would need to wait. I didn’t mind, I had already fallen in love with the place and would gladly stay here longer.

While the others in our team splashed around with the football outside, I was eager to find out more about life here for the Moiaimba people. A couple of the opposition team members, former high school students, and the local teacher, a middle aged man named David Umbare, were the best at English and were keen to answer my questions. They seemed glad that someone was interested enough in them.

I gathered that few of the villagers spoke much English, but rather a rough bush English they referred to as Pidgin English, as well as their own local language dialect. Some of the older men had apparently learned Pidgin during the war when they were active in helping allied troops in various places around the country. I recognized a few words, like “morning” for good morning, and some pronouns like “you” and “me”, but the rest seemed to be a massive corruption of English, often by just adding “-im” or “-pela” at the end of the word. They spoke it so fast I really couldn’t understand anything in conversation though.

Their local language, Moiaimbamatu (I found it easier to break it up to pronounce, Moi-aim-ba-matu), was completely unique to the five or six thousand people in the area who had really only been introduced to the outside world in the late 1920s.

“We had a few years of intrusion by some itinerant gold diggers,” David Umbare told me, “seeking alluvial gold in the mountain streams, they said. We had no value for gold so we didn’t mind. Apart from occasional government patrol officers, the only others who had shown any interest in us were missionaries. They made a walking visit into the area every two years, stayed for a few weeks to preach around the villages, and left again.” A couple of villages had built churches that suddenly filled with faithful parishioners again every two years.

“How long have your people lived here in this valley?” I asked.

“Well it’s hard to tell,” replied David, “we don’t measure time like you do, and we didn’t keep records of births and deaths because no one counted the years. But our traditional stories seem to indicate that our forebears settled here about eight generations ago.” I did a quick count. Based on forty year generations I estimated about three hundred years ago.

“Do you know where they came from?” I asked.

“You are a very inquisitive young man, Justin,” David responded. “We appreciate you showing so much interest in us though. Our traditional stories, which is our history, tell us that they came from further along the coast. Perhaps they were running away from something, or perhaps they were looking for new land for farming, our stories tell us the answer to those questions.”

I was surprised that while David knew the answer, he was not prepared to tell me. He saw the look on my face and continued.

“Our ancient stories are sacred to us. They are part of our identity, who we are, so unless you become part of our tribe, we cannot disclose these stories to you.”

I nodded to show that I understood. But really I didn’t. We westerners share our history so freely. So I continued my questioning about more recent events.

Construction of the road in 1967 had been a landmark achievement that had finally allowed 4WD vehicle access to the area. With it came the importing of trade store goods, and a route to the coast and the capital, Port Moresby, to sell produce. This also allowed a freedom of people movement that encouraged teachers to come to the area. It also saved high school students a three day walk to the coast to attend boarding school.

There was still no high school in the area, and only one small primary school at the main village of Mambusu, where we stayed. David Umbare was one of the first Moiaimba to be able to complete Primary and limited High School and be trained as a teacher, preferring to return to his home area rather than teach in the city.

Most intriguing though was the political dilemma faced by these people - what to do with Underpants! At first I was, naturally, extremely puzzled by the term. Many of these villagers still wore more traditional clothing – grass skirts for the women and bark, shells and leaves tucked under a rattan belt for the men – and I could bet they didn’t even have a word for underpants in their vocabulary!!

With a little more coaxing I discovered from my new friends that “Underpants” was a gross corruption, and misunderstanding, of the word Independence! The Australian Government had committed to fast tracking the hand over of administration of the Territory to the people of Papua and New Guinea. Self-government was to be granted next year, 1973, and full Independence in 1975. It was clear the Moiaimba people had little understanding of what was happening in the greater scenario of the emergence of their country into the wider global community.

It was all over too quickly. The rivers had subsided enough by late morning and we set out for Port Moresby. As the village disappeared behind the first corner, once again hidden from the world, I felt a tinge of sadness, of loneliness, like I had just left a good friend behind and didn’t know how long before I would see him again.

I realized that in actual fact I had left part of my heart behind at Mambusu.

Copyright © 2014 Michael A Jelliffe

Comments