April 15, 2013 Leave a comment
One advantage of working for ambitious oil and gas explorers is you’ll be taken to places. Some of which are quite remote, slow pace of change of mindsets, helps keep age old practices alive. And if fortunate, one might just witness the tail-end of some weird and ugly practices and therefore get a glimpse into an ugly world of old.
After four weeks on a job and a really good time breathing real fresh air and observing arguably unrivalled glory and beauty of flora and fauna of which I still vividly remember after five years, my time was up.
A short helicopter ride to remote Wabo airstrip in the Gulf province gave me another chance to observe the Purari from above. This river did quite a majestic job – silently painting its meandering path a glittering murky brown. And in this seemingly endless evergreen jungle, its path into the belly of the Coral Sea stood out.
A small gathering of mostly excited children and a couple of adults under shade trees around the strip watched as we stepped out of the chopper and made our way to a temporary shelter that served as checking and boarding lounge.
Here, this simple setup represents the gateway to civilization. So we gathered around and sat close by. Others ventured beyond and found themselves chatting with the excited children.
After a little while the sun’s heat forced me to seek shelter under the shade trees too. As I approached the children, I passed by a little old man who had grey hair all over. He was puffing rigorously on a bamboo pipe. I noticed him struggling to get the fresh tobacco leaves he just fed his pipe to catch fire from his cigarette lighter. As he puffed harder, his cheeks bulged in and out more – the inward motion revealing the absence of molars. More could be missing.
I caught up with the men who went ahead and we watched the children play – some with shirts only barely hanging by a thread on their little bodies. Most of them had shorts with two huge holes at the rear.
After a while the old man with his pipe in hand walked past us. Closely behind, a girl of around 15 or 16; she could easily be 14, with a child inside a cloth (laplap) hanging diagonally across her chest followed.
I heard someone speak after the couple had gone a fair distance and I realized a local was amongst us. He must have sneaked in to catch a conversation with us and perhaps obtain some information in relation to the drilling project we’ve just come from. He was younger than me, I observed.
“Lapun man yah i wokabaut wantaim meri bilong em”, I heard him say softly but clearly.
We all turned and stared at him with eyes wide opened.
“Ah?” “Yu tok women?” “Aiyo!” “Turu ah?” I heard several enquiring voices.
We surrounded him quickly and after a couple of sincerely disbelieving moments where continuous head shakes and ‘tst tst tst’ expressed our disapproval, we returned to the boarding lounge to await our flight.
The light plane climbed into the clouds and we were on our way to Port Moresby.
I haven’t told this story to an audience until now. While I was reading an article on types of leadership in PNG, I happened upon ‘gerontocracy’. And this story nudged me from the dusts of my memory.
We further heard, until recently, only the old men have been allowed to take local young girls as wives through the practice of pre-arranged marriage.
When a baby girl is born, she is marked for marriage to a much older man – who might be greying at the time of the ceremony. The older man presents the parents gifts of prized food and an animal in exchange.
In the course of the child’s rearing until she sees her first menstruation, the older man continues his visits with food and other stuff. She then is handed over and becomes a wife.
An aspect of this tradition that disturbed me was the way the older man maintained a stranglehold or power over much younger and physically stronger lads. As boys come of age, their hormones kick in and the urge to seek a girl becomes a burden in this society as every girl is attached.
We were told that many young men commit adultery with the wives of the old men. And sometimes these young men pay the ultimate prize – death by sorcery. Other young men, being scared of the powerful older men – who usually are sorcerers, wait until their time comes. And by then they would’ve learned sorcery; how to make gardens, and hunt in the jungles and perhaps are ready for a wife, a young wife.
Older men’s power over younger men in this society is backed by their ability to use sorcery to threaten and maintain order in their favour. Governance in such societies revolves around maintaining this tradition that older men continue to reign superior over younger men and therefore subjecting them to craving and waiting for long years.
We learned that as the outside world opened up to them and the younger men traveled out to other places, they’ve brought back wives. Many young men continued to find wives outside when we were told this story.
I sincerely hope that much have changed now as more and more outsiders migrate into Wabo to find work and other opportunities that the project might offer.
NB: Gerontocracy – is a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population (Wikipedia).