Old man, young wife and sorcery: a peek into gerontocracy of old

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).


The death of a warrior

Short Story

By Jeffrey Mane Febi


Alone, Ooamie struggled against death’s cold embrace until he died a terrible death in his bed.

A strange spell immobilized Ooamie’s body and only his heart and lungs fought while everything froze. Doses of pain and suffering were slowly administered until he succumbed. What remained of him was a body stiff as a dry wood with a cold stare; and the tip of his tongue vaguely visible from behind the back of a half opened mouth.

It was only three days ago when Ooamie suddenly fell ill. His unusual symptoms could not be connected to any type of sorcery, so he was taken to his haus-pik just outside the village. Hidden from prying eyes and ears, he would to be monitored closely by his wife Onekayai with assistance from Fetapa the orphan.

The haus-pik was typical; round with a low roof and a door barely a meter tall. It was big enough though, and could accommodate both his family and the pigs.

His brothers began seeking people who might have a cure. A couple of days had passed and Ooamie’s condition worsened, observed Onekayai; but she could do nothing, so she did her best to nurse her husband. Fetapa couldn’t care less, and went about doing his daily chores.

Often Fetapa, a pre-teenager, wonders where his parents are, and why they have deserted him. He didn’t know his parents had both died: his mother while giving birth to him and his father from acute dysentery a few months later. No one had talked to him about his parents and he misses them.

Onekayai returned from a garden nearby. Over a huge kaukau bilum on her back, rested a bunch of bananas; and slung around her neck, a brown laplap held her sleeping child. As she jumped over the fence, she saw Fetapa with his small bow and arrows chasing lizards. He didn’t see her until she spoke from behind. Fetapa froze then quickly turned and retort; “His sleeping!”

Inside the haus-pik, Onekayai saw her husband’s motionless figure on the bed. It’s been like this for the last two days. She removed her load and breathed deeply; then carefully hung her child’s laplap near her husband and instructed Fetapa to fetch water. She rested a little, and then drank from a bamboo Fetapa brought, and started the fire to bake kaukaus for the evening.

Meanwhile, Ooamie’s brothers returned from their journeys. In the haus-man they reported their findings. When finished, a long silence ensued; broken only by an occasional distant bark from a dog. All eyes were set on the fire as its flaming tails danced mockingly. Smokes reluctantly rose from tobacco pipes and no one was heard breathing in the frozen silence that engulfed them. Even the chief’s two dogs lay under their master’s bed silently.

The chief pondered intensely over the inevitable: who is responsible; how many will he order to be killed; who should execute his orders? Everyone realized their chief’s deep concentration and no one dared interrupt him.

Then the dogs barked all at once. Startled, the chief dropped his pipe and burnt himself. Furious, he jumped off his bed, grabbed a piece of wood and started hitting at the dogs haphazardly. Those quick enough, got out of the way; others were unlucky. Someone was hit by a wood that slipped out of the chief’s hand and he crashed into another person nearby. Then much confusion erupted and the flames almost died out, if not for a weak flicker.

Standing outside, Fetapa heard much noise and commotion; but no light seeped through the gaps in the door. He heard dogs growled in pain as men shouting profanities continued beating them.

He cleared a lump in his throat and softly called out a name he was instructed to report to. “Ba-ua-ti!” No response came. He called louder; “Bauati!” No response again. There was still much noise when a voice called for calm and anyone to attend to the fire. He called again at the top of his voice; “Bauati!” Then voices ordered each other to stop talking, and there was silence.

Fetapa trembled, but he mustered some courage to call again. After what seemed like eternity, a deep and hoarse voice demanded; “Who’s there?” He responded quickly and the door opened. He felt warm air brush against his face; it felt good. Then he peered into the dimly lit house and saw figures with unblinking stares. The chief, Bauati, knew what Fetapa’s unexpected appearance means. Then Fetapa broke the news, but anger deafened them, even Bauati wasn’t listening.

When tears started to flow, a tirade of obscenities from Bauati quickly forced them dry. Then with a calm but stern voice gave out precise instructions, and everyone knew exactly what to do. He had planned these thoroughly prior to the dogs’ sudden barks. It was a simple plan; a plan to avenge Ooamie’s death. It must be done or their inaction will bring shame to their clan.

Bauati quickly dispatched some men to secure and guard Ooamie’s haus-pik, with instructions to talk to no one regarding the death. Fetapa scurried behind to catch up with the fast walking men. The risk of potential contamination from his killers who can sneak into the haus-pik using spells was great; and this would make it impossible to find out those responsible for Ooamie’s death.

After much deliberation, four strong men stepped out of the haus-man; followed closely by Bauati, and two older men. Armed with bamboo torches, bows and arrows and knives, they hurried to the haus-pik. A few meters behind, three women trailed. Malufovi, Bauati’s wife and two elderly women kept their distance from the men.

Bauati and his men entered the haus-pik and closed the door behind them. The women gathered around a fire under a temporary shelter Onekayai had erected. Fetapa was there too, but no one took notice of him. After a while the door squeaked open and figures stepped out and disappeared into the dark.

The women entered the haus-pik and eyed the corpse sorrowfully. They looked at the eyes; fierce warrior eyes that lights up with love and compassion for his family; they caressed the cold hands; strong hands that many times brought them food and meat. The legs felt soft and fragile; not the ones they’ve relied on for swiftness and power. They didn’t see a warrior tonight, rather, a husband and son they would miss dearly.

Their hearts broke and they sobbed into the night. Their heads ached but still they sobbed. Ooamie’s wife wanted to cry out loud but she can’t. She wanted to sing to her husband’s ghost in the rocks yonder; to tell him he will be missed; their child would be fatherless; and his kaukau is still by the fire place. She wept bitterly. The others were strong and wise women; the very reason they were asked to come. They ensured she did not make sobbing sounds. If she did, the guards around the fence didn’t hear any. And this was to be the order of things; silently grieve until Ooamie’s death is avenged. So far it was good.

They heard the first insect chirp as dawn approaches. More insects joined and early dawn reverberated with chaotic sounds. Their hearts heaved with anxiety as a bamboo-pot was pushed further into the heart of the fire and watched closely. Malufovi ensured the pot did not burn, but it steamed violently as droplets of liquid hissed into vapours.

Then they heard a faint sound; a pleasant tune amidst much noise. They listened hard and only heard; “two for Ooamie and one for Bauati!” It seemed distant still, but Malufovi removed the bamboo from the fire; emptied its contents on banana leaves and they gathered around to eat.

As he stepped over the fence, Bauati called out to his wife exhaustedly; “Women can cry aloud now! Women can cry aloud now!”

Fetapa was woken from his sleep by joyful singing and weeping. But he felt hungry and moved to the fireplace to search for leftovers. He felt a soft and round thing on a stone by the fireplace. It was fleshy so he sniffed it. It felt like meat and he tasted it. Then placed it in his mouth and bit into it. It was food alright, and he started chewing it.

Word reached other clan members in the village and soon they all gathered at the haus-pik. Many cried openly and sang old songs about warriors who flew with cockatoos on the rocks yonder.

Suddenly Malufovi realized she had left the testes on a rock by the fireplace. She rushed into the house and searched but to no avail. She went out and saw Fetapa chewing on something nearby. She enquired and Fetapa told her what he was chewing. Malufovi angrily ordered him to spit it out into her hands and he reluctantly obliged.

Two days of mourning had passed, and Bauati realized Ooamie’s corpse was missing its sex organ. Further checks revealed a piece from the left inner thigh missing too. He knew the mothers loved and would miss Ooamie dearly. Then with a chuckle and a slight nod, ordered the corpse be buried.

Copyright © 2012 Jeffrey Febi


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