Crocodile Prize winning entry – Short Story Award

A song for camels

Jeffrey Febi

 

 

There was an abrupt scream. And Mihi stopped in his track. He turned slowly with his heavy load and there was no one in sight.

 

His heart jumped! And beat faster. Then his body started shaking in panic. The sudden rush of blood forced out sweat and compelled him to do something.

 

He quickly but carefully lowered his sun-dried coffee beans in a tightly packed, used white 20kg flour bag on the ground and ran downhill calling loudly.

 

“Somolieeeeee! Somolieeeee!” He didn’t hear his quivered voice echoed across the jungle yonder.

 

Somolie, a short and thin but tough guy with really strong arms hanging from broad shoulders that defined his physique, could easily be hidden from his view by tall grasses; but he was not certain.

 

He stopped at a spot where some Kunai grasses have been bent under the weight of something. He stepped forward, carefully, and called out.

 

A desperate voice responded and he moved closer to the edge of a cliff. Then peered over and saw Somolie hanging desperately onto some vines and small branches.

 

Mihi breathed a deep sigh. And for the first time ever saw Somolie’s bald head. It was smooth and shiny, even under the cliff’s shadow. Mihi called down and asked if Somolie was alright. The response was positive.

 

Somolie’s cap was missing and he dreaded the thought of losing it. He looked down and spotted his coffee bag. Fortunately, it had landed on a cluster of wild tiny species of bamboo that were growing there. And realised it was safe where it had landed than himself.

 

Somolie carefully climbed down, then retrieved his coffee bag. He managed to drag his bag back up to where a vine which Mihi threw down had landed.

 

When Somolie and his coffee bag were safely up on the track, they sat down to rest.

 

It wasn’t the first time for such to have occurred. Many others have lost stuff including store goods such as cartons of SP Brown beer to the fast flowing river below. Men, women and children have all had their share of experiences on this steep stretch of Kuipi track; a shortcut over the Kuipi Mountain which constitute one half of a rather unforgiving gorge.

 

It is a major track and its users call it their highway. Upon it tones of garden food, coffee beans, store goods, building materials, and even coffins with corpses have been transported for years – after their only road became impassable to vehicles due to continuing neglect.

 

Mihi broke the silence. “You’re lucky!” And pointed to a spot further down and remarked. “If it had been there; it’s a plummet to certain death”.

 

Somolie agreed with a weary nod as a vivid recollection of a recent fatal fall he had witnessed flashed across his mind.

 

Then he slowly stood up and caressed his bottom. “It hurts”, he groaned. “Something had scratched my bottom”, he continued, then jokingly checked his private parts to ensure their wellbeing. “All intact!” he declared with a grin, and ensured his cap sat well on his head.

 

Mihi let out a stifled laugh. He didn’t want to offend Somolie, but he really wanted to laugh. The sight of Somolie hanging like a bald cuscus was funny. He bowed his head to conceal his beaming face.

 

Then Somolie started laughing. Mihi burst into laughter and they laughed. Somolie managed to explain between laughs that he stepped aside to urinate and lost his balance. Then he threw his coffee bag and jumped after it.

 

After a good long laugh, Somolie shouldered his bag and followed Mihi up the track. They have to reach the top which seem further still before the sun gathers all its strength.

 

As he was slowly climbing, Somolie began to sing a song; with a voice that seemed devoid of shock.

 

They call us camels. They call us white horses.

They call us semi-trailers. They call us many names.

Names of things we don’t know much of.

 

We’re they who walk with the strength of our fathers.

Those bygone men who had tamed angry rivers,

Appeased bellowing clouds and walked with mists.

 

Our coffee beans shall not go to waste!

Our coffee beans shall not go to waste!

O no – no – no; shall not go to waste!

 

Mihi joined and they sang with a certain pride that sent the song speeding downhill on the wings of a determined breeze.

 

Far below, an army of white bags in a long and winding line resembling a herd of camels on a journey came into view. When the song reached them, hearts were touched and moved. Many repeated the chorus and the gorge reverberated with their inspiration.

 

It is their song and they loved it. It inspires strength which they need in order to climb Kuipi; and confidence to walk shamelessly with their loads through villages (whose inhabitants ridicule and call them names) along the road.

 

And they continued singing their hearts out – husbands, wives and their children.

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What’s missing?

PNG will turn 36 years come September 16th, and it is only a few days away. When Independence Day arrives, will every citizen of this country know the words of the PNG National Pledge and the National Anthem by heart?

 

Honestly, I have struggled to memorise the Pledge and would certainly fail should I be asked to recite it from heart. By extension, I can safely assume many are in the same boat and even more cannot sing the anthem without pausing to check if they are singing the right words. Don’t you think all educated PNGeans (all who have gone to school) should know them by heart?

 

This is not surprising as many of us do not think highly of our country PNG. We think only in terms of our regions or provinces or districts or clans. And there is very little evidence of patriotism for PNG. This compartmentalization, if you will, has unfortunately kept us from creating fruitful people to people relationships that may otherwise have set the foundation for a truly national force.

 

On this note I’d like to post below the PNG National Pledge. Please learn this and find a place in your crowded hearts to keep its words – words that are powerful enough to inspire the patriot in each of us to wake from an all conquering slumber.

 

The Pledge

 

WE, THE PEOPLE OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA—

•united in one nation

•pay homage to the memory of our ancestors—the source of our strength and origin of our combined heritage acknowledge the worthy customs and traditional wisdoms of our people—which have come down to us from generation to generation

•pledge ourselves to guard and pass on to those who come after us our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours now.

By authority of our inherent right as ancient, free and independent peoples

WE, THE PEOPLE, do now establish this sovereign nation and declare ourselves, under the guiding hand of God, to be the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.

AND WE ASSERT, by virtue of that authority

•that all power belongs to the people—acting through their duly elected representatives

•that respect for the dignity of the individual and community interdependence are basic principles of our society

•that we guard with our lives our national identity, integrity and self respect

•that we reject violence and seek consensus as a means of solving our common problems

•that our national wealth, won by honest, hard work be equitably shared by all

 

Now PNG has been politically independent for almost 36 years. During this time, we have witnessed upheavals that threatened our democracy; others harshly demanded an abrupt change in the course PNG was taking; while others tested the patriots in each of us. In our diversity and at the most trying of times we continued to hold on as one nation. This fortunately is testament of our resilience and determination to remain one nation, one country and one people. And this may well be the only shining achievement thus far.

 

Upheavals and many setbacks PNG experienced were unfortunately internally caused. And many would have been easily avoided if it were not for our Melanesian, or rather PNG way of doing things. For instance, PNG Time, Wantokism, the over rated Big Men system, cargo cult mentality/free handout mentality and etc. These are demons that have combined together to keep us from achieving bigger things.

 

We quite often preached education would liberate us from the stranglehold of our way-back ways, but the opposite is happening. In fact we use education to fine tune and utilize in smarter ways these demons, then, stand prepared to defend ourselves if the results are undesirable.

 

The conducts of our political and public service leaders are classic examples. Many commentators, especially foreigners, use the cliché ‘the land of the unexpected’ to mock us but we seem perfectly alright with the way things are going and seldom come together as one people to fight for what is right. Thus we’re all guilty of making this country whatever it is right now.

 

With a huge pool of educated leaders and public servants, successful business men and women, big multinationals and the massive potential we have in terms of untapped natural resources; so far nothing has gone according to plan every time we embark on what initially may seem promising. So what is wrong with us? Have we overlooked something?

 

I, in all honesty will not subscribe to any thought that may remotely or otherwise suggest lack of experience, knowledge, resources, or plain guts. In fact we have all but something seem to be lacking still. What might this be? I would like to think that it is wisdom that is missing.

 

It appears , as Wikipedia puts it; ‘a deep understanding and realizing of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act or inspire to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time, energy or thought’ is glaringly lacking or non-existent in this country. Furthermore, ‘wisdom often requires control of one’s emotional reactions (the passions) so that one’s principles, reason and knowledge prevail to determine one’s actions’ is again almost missing.

 

Though this world isn’t a perfect one, when have we heard or seen something done in this country that consistently produce optimum results with a minimum of time, energy or thought? Or when have we heard or seen something done without producing half baked results or none at all? We as a country have been inconsistent thus far and the future seems unlikely to change. As another author, Martyn Namorong, correctly puts it; ‘the only thing consistent in PNG is the absence of justice.’ And sadly we excel in this regard.

 

We suppose to make the best use of our knowledge to achieve optimum results however, to our detriment, we have consistently failed and the state of this country is a testament to this. And this should send us all to the dens of shame and wailing. But why do we continue to maintain this status quo? Why do we still not react and be alarmed that in all these confusions and tragedies we live each day, we’re slowly drowning?

The illusion of wealth

The illusion of wealth

 

Have you ever seen a landowner whose land has been dug up or drilled into for resource extraction? I mean have you unconsciously taken a second look at one? And see how he/she carries himself/herself? Then mumbled something that isn’t a gasp of jealousy or a sigh of admiration but something that reminds you of a truth and that puts you at ease?

 

Have you ever seen a landowner who goes on a drinking spree as if tomorrow’s purse will always be full? And hear them brag about their reckless adventures? Then wear a smile akin to that of a person who has just achieved a milestone?

 

Seriously, do you sometimes ask yourself what drives the so called landowners mad with intoxicating confidence buttered with recklessness?

 

These landowners have a valid reason to be cheerful. They seem to have what it takes to pump up their adrenalin levels and maintained them at a certain high level for long periods. And sometimes it appears as though it is their nature to be cheerful.

 

The reason for their cheerfulness is basically their potential for wealth accumulation due to the impending or ongoing extraction of natural resources under or on their traditional land. Actually it is the thought of pockets full of money and owning expensive toys that is the basis for their cheerfulness.

 

Money, savings, investments, homes or other forms of “financial capital” Is what we almost always associate with wealth.  By wealth accumulation we all will think of accumulation of these and in PNG include number of wives. But wait a minute; is wealth really what we automatically perceive?

 

Wealth takes on different definitions, context-dependent, and there is no universally agreed upon definition. The word wealth comes from the Old English words “weal” (well-being) and “th” (condition) which taken together means “the condition of well-being”? And it is this that concerns me.

 

I’d like to talk about wealth in terms of well-being –happiness, joy and contentment one finds in the relationship with fellow human beings; in watching the sun sets; in listening to the orchestra of nature; in reading the poetry of nature as it is being written anew each new day; and in deciphering the mysteries of life as one grows older. I mean the things that make life worthwhile!

 

Do you sometimes find yourself really enjoying the company of your children, or your siblings, or your parents or spouse? And sighed; ‘wow’ then proceed to scribble these moments in your memory so that you’d retrieve them at an appropriate time in the future?

 

The satisfaction and joy derived from such social interaction with less material wealth is real wealth. It is wealth that can’t be purchased nor stolen or diminished in value with time. This is the wealth that landowners of PNG need; the things that make life worthwhile. The little things found only when a fruitful relationship with neighbours, family members, children or nature is established.

 

Unfortunately, a lot of the so called landowners appear to have no real wealth. A majority seem to suffer from bad marital relationships; alienation from their own children; bad debts; addictive behaviours; and spending very little time appreciating the glory of nature as it is splashed across the skies and space within our reach.

 

The potential of wealth (properties and money) accumulation has deceived many landowners into believing in the illusion that material wealth will certainly make life more meaningful and satisfying. In the process of acquiring this wealth many have fallen into a trap of their own making. And it is hard for them to escape from it.

 

There are many landowners who reside in the squatter settlements in and around Port Moresby; and live in impoverished conditions. Yet they behave as if they have material wealth, let alone real wealth; and make no attempt whatsoever to improve their livelihoods. Their lifestyles are actually tragedies; tragic tales that reek of recklessness, and unrealistic expectations.

 

All these landowners need is a pause and re-evaluation of their lives. Then start all over again by reestablishing broken relationships, spending more time with their children, appreciate nature and all that is provided for free by their neighbours and nature. Then map out a new path in peace and calm and proceed with life.

 

The illusion of wealth that is created when one’s land is been explored for resources or when resources are been extracted from one’s land lead many to be less aware of the real wealth-the little things that make life worthwhile.

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