BEFORE THE LONG WALK

Junior’s father Michael pointing towards the horizon showing the two kids the path they would take for the last leg of their journey.
Picture by Free Documentary- Youtube

Story adapted from the documentary film “The Most Dangerous Ways to School- Papua New Guinea”

My name is Junior, I hail from the Kalilu Tribe in Southern Highlands. I was born and raised in the village, I have never set foot outside of the village boundaries nor have I traveled far beyond. My dad always said I would, when I was old enough. I’ve never been to another village, the closest village to us is probably a few hours walk away but I guess my dad didn’t want me to travel out until I was old enough. My village is rather small; we live in a closely knitted society. Everything is shared among our people, we celebrate everything, we rarely have quarrels within the tribe or with the nearest tribes. We live in longhouses without windows, we don’t need windows. Our houses are built above the ground, house posts are at least a meter above the ground, unlike other Highlands tribe who live in roundhouses built on earth.
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I am 12 years old; I don’t know the date of my birth. Definitely not the year or month, I only know that I’m 12 years because my parents told me so. You see I was born in the village and so was every other kid in the village, except for Sama. We heard he was born in a hospital in Moro, I’ve never been to a hospital and don’t know what it looks or feels like. They say that’s where the sick people go to get healing, including mothers who want to give birth. They have people there called Dokta (Doctor) and Nes (Nurse) to help them. But if I was to choose between the village and hospital, I would choose to be born in the village where I would be born in the presence of my ancestors and relatives, under the guidance and protection of the ancient spirits. I would rather have my umbilical cord cut on my own land where the spirits of my ancestors dwell.

Elders say that a person born outside of the village is a stranger to our ancestors and the spirit of the land because of the strange scent he carries. That is why Sama is cleansed by his father every new moon to rid him of the strange scent. He is taken to a creek that flows outside the village and bathed there. But they say it won’t go on forever, the cleansing can stop after he becomes a teen. Right now, we’re almost the same age.


We’re a tribal people, we hold our cultures, traditions and customs in high value. That is what keeps our society together says my father. We are one with nature, the land to us is sacred, this has been our way of life for generations. Everything mother nature provides, is just enough to sustain us like it did for our ancestors for thousands of years. We dare not anger the spirits or we may face calamities that will destroy us. We experience earthquakes quite often, when the earth shakes, the elders say the spirits have been disturb or are unhappy so we try to make amends and please the spirits.

My village is so remote, engulfed in thick tropical rainforests and surrounded by huge mountains. Far beyond lies the mighty Mount Bosavi, an extinct volcano almost thousands of years old, a place so sacred that no one dares venture into its open mouth. Our people hunt on foot of the mountain but are careful enough not to anger the spirits by entering into the volcanic pit. They say the spirits of the land guard the place so well that they didn’t leave an entrance for the humans to visit.


We have no access to government services, no schools or aid posts. A few years ago, few people came to the village to campaign for what is known as a National Election where we vote for a leader. A man promised to build a school and an aid post if we voted him so most of the villagers voted for him. He brought some cartons of lamb flaps which we did a mumu in the earth oven and a few carton of beer for the elderly men in the village. The villagers were pleased with him, the mothers said they have had enough of walking for days to Moro to receive medical care and if this man said he will build an aid post, they will gladly vote for him and they did.

Almost everyone in the village voted for him, even though the Election Officials said kids were not allowed to vote, our elders told us to vote anyway so we did, there was nothing the officials could do to restrain us from casting our votes. We were told to vote as many times as we wished, unfortunately, we ran out of ballot papers so the voting ceased. After the election, we heard that he had won the election and had gone to the big ples called Port Moresby to be in the haus tambaran so we, waited and waited to see when he would come back to us and give us what was promised. It’s been almost 3 years since and we haven’t heard from him.


The last time our elders visited his office, his office workers said they would look into it and ensured we got a school and an aid post, we’re still waiting for our school and aid post. My father said the man was a “con man” and was incapable of delivering his promises. If he ever returns, the villagers would chase him out and pour his beer into the earth, if he brings more beer when he comes.


It is tragic sometimes, trying to get to the hospital in Moro from my village is very difficult. Sometime ago, a boy named Gila was stricken by malaria, he was so sick that they made a stretcher from bush materials and took him to Moro, he died on the way. Many have lost their lives along the way while trying to get to Moro, the road is dangerous, the most dangerous part of the journey is crossing the mighty Kaluli river which rages on day and night, the river is most dangerous when it floods. Our people sometimes wait for days near the banks of the river for the swelling to go down before crossing over in dugout canoes with 40 horse power motors. They pay K10 to the boat masters to ferry them across. No one dares try to be a hero and swim like the fish across the river, for Kaluli is cunning and treacherous, the surface of the river may sometimes look calm but the gut of the river is always, growling, hungry and ready to snatch and swallow anyone and anything.

A week ago, my dad approached me and said he and my mother were considering sending me to school. That was the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I’ve never been to a school, none of the kids in the village ever went to school. Well not all, there’s only one person in here who has been to a school but not for long, we saw her back in the village after sometime. She said the teacher left or something like that but we didn’t care. We said she was just wasting her time in school when she should’ve been with us in the village having fun and such.

Her name is Ruth, she’s my cousin from my father’s side. She once showed me a book and gave me a pencil to write on a blank page, my heart skipped a beat and my fingers were trembling like the tremors, when the earth dances during an earthquake. She told me to write or draw something but instead I drew a straight-line right across the page. She said it was better than nothing and the line was beautifully drawn. I knew she was lying, she just wanted to make me feel good. The “handling a pencil” experience was a terrible one, I felt like a baby bird learning to fly for the first time. Instead of flapping its wings and flying, it drops down face first into the puddle of mud. I got the hang of it after sometime and now draw trees on the red clay.
My people are natural born artists and carvers. They draw figures of animals or spirits on shields and carve our spirits on totem poles. I hope to be an skilled artisan someday, like my grandfather who is a master craftsman in the village.

Anyway, Ruth is closer to me than any of my cousins. She even tried teaching me to write but it wasn’t on her own freewill though, my mother asked her to teach me. I knew my mother had plans for my future. She always said I would be a great person one day, I also knew I would be a great person one day, as the son of the son of the chief of the village, I would one day lead my tribe but that’s not what my mom meant. I could see the expression on her face when I tell that about my ambitions and what I would do when I become a tribal leader. But after my dad told me they were sending me away to school, I knew it was my mom’s idea for me to get educated. My dad never wanted me far from him, as the son, I should be close to my father and learn from him as much as I can about the ways of the Kaluli people.

My mom is a tough woman, I heard her and my dad arguing a few nights ago. My dad said I was too young to leave home, my mom said, for education, I had to leave home. Her mind was made up; dad couldn’t change it even if he tried to. But in the public before the villagers, he said it was his decision to send me away to school, He couldn’t say it was my mom’s because women were not allowed to make decisions in our society.
When my dad told me about getting a Western education and the importance of being educated, at first, I didn’t think it was necessary.

I didn’t need Western knowledge and education, I already had traditional knowledge passed down from my ancestors who have preserved it from generation to generation, and by the way, my dad was a great teacher of traditional knowledge, why should I go look for another teacher? He taught me everything. From our folklores, legends, traditional songs and dances, how and what to hunt, which snake was for eating, etc. I doubt there is nothing these people in classroom can teach me. Was it necessary for me to get educated, I thought to myself? Just then one of my uncles pulled up close to me. He heard I was leaving for Moro so he came to give me some money for my school fee and some clothes.

He took out all his money and started counting it before me. There were what he called notes and coins. The notes were like new green leaves and dried leaves, the coins made sounds when put together. He said the notes were higher in value than the coins. It’s kind of funny, money is useless back here in the village but my people keep walking around with money carefully tied up in small dirty handkerchiefs and placed in their small bilums. It is useful only when our people go to the town, there they buy town things and bring them back home. I love sugar, it is sweet. That’s only if you put plenty into your mouth and swallow it quickly without your mom finding out. These things from the town are rare and harder to come by, and are only used during important occasions. Like we only eat rice only in a while when we have families from nearby villages visiting us or drink tea when someone important comes.

My uncle said if you want to have plenty money, you have to get an education in Moro, after you finish school, you get a job, live in the city, drive around in cars fully loaded with cash, you can also marry as many wives as you wish.

I didn’t know where he got the money from or how, he said he sold some things at Moro which I didn’t bother asking what. He kept blabbering about the town and city but I had no idea what he was talking about. All these new concepts were strange and rather new to me and was quite difficult for my poor village mind to grasp. Maybe I should go to Moro and see for myself, I thought.

Now that my dad had informed the entire village of his intention of sending me off to school, everywhere I went, they would stop me and give me a one-minute lecture on the importance of education. These people have never been to school, they don’t know how to read or write but they somehow knew the importance of education. Maybe it’s because they’ve been to Moro. My uncle has also decided to send Ruth along with me, that was a huge relief for me. I didn’t want to be in a place without having any familiar faces around. At least in a strange land, I still would have my cousin sister. The funny thing about her is that she tries to act all grown up but she’s only 14 years old. We would make fun of her by calling her mama because she liked giving us chores. She is a hard worker and also a smart girl.
In our society, a female’s job is to tend the pigs, look after her garden and kids and please her husband. Ruth was the first female in my village to go to a school, even though most people in our village were against the idea of her getting educated, her parents went ahead and sent her to school.

The walk to school would take about 5 days, that was a long way. I’ve never walked that far in my life before. The longest I’ve walked is from the village to the garden which is about less than a mile and to the jungle looking for snakes. I wasn’t ready, I needed someone to comfort me and give me a peace of mind so I went over to check on Ruth to see how she was doing. She seemed pretty hyped, it’s been nearly 4 years since the school she attended was shut down, she had been home for 4 years now. I could tell she missed school, she would talk endlessly about school and what they learnt and stuff. When she was alone, she would sing some strange songs like “ABCDEFG” and say some strange things and start counting her fingers and toes, she even spoke a strange language, she called it the white men’s tongue. We thought she was probably going mad, talking to herself like that. She was quite excited for the journey, she so badly wanted to get back in the classroom, she said she missed the learning environment. I didn’t know what that meant but for me as a first timer, I wasn’t that keen, even though I wished I was. I didn’t know what to expect so for a few days, Ruth had been telling me about everything that happens in the classroom. Oh, how I wish I was paying attention and listening to her when she talking endlessly about school some years back.
Even though Ruth has been to school, she has never been to Moro.

I could see she was anxious and so was everybody. We have a 1 day left before our departure from the village. Our tribesmen have slaughtered some pigs for a feast tonight and the dancers are getting ready, tonight will be a long night of dancing and feasting.
We had a farewell feast for me and Ruth and late that night, I left the feast and went home to pack my baggage, the only property I own is a pair of shorts and 3 shirts. The shirt I’m currently wearing is torn and dirty, hope I can purchase a new one when I get to Moro.

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