A fleeting exchange of glances, a momentary affinity, is often more enduring and profound than long conversations. I’ve reached the point where it’s impossible to remember all of the faces and names of the individuals that I’ve encountered on my travels. Even the most vivid slip to the back of my memory until rekindled, usually by something external and random. Photographs, journal entries, information that flashes across my computer screen.
Back in September of 1995, almost nineteen years ago now, I was walking through a crowded market in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. My traveling companion and I were gathering provisions for our journey to the Upper Sepik. Out of the corner of my eye, I sensed movement. I turned to look. A little girl was waving at me from the back of an empty PMV. Her smile had a glow of untainted happiness. I was hot and tired and frazzled. My legs moved towards her on instinct. A tall, elegant woman stood beside the vehicle. She had that same look of innocence, though hers was a little sad.
During my short time in PNG, I had learned that bad things befall most women in PNG. I had witnessed women being beaten by men, some of them police. My traveling companion and I were too afraid for ourselves to be shocked by it. Over ninety percent of women in PNG experience gender-based violence. Somehow this lovely woman had managed to keep her gentle spirit. I looked at her, then at her daughter, and pointed at my camera. She bowed her head in a nod and said something to the girl. The smile vanished as the girl leaned her head against a post. I took the photo and lowered my camera. Somehow I had killed the magic.
Before I visited PNG, I had never seen such listless resignation. On our way back from the Highlands to the coast, I stopped to pick up a party of three that was walking in the heavy rain – two men and a woman. The men promptly got in the front of the truck, while the woman climbed in the back. She didn’t bother to huddle under her shawl. All light was extinguished from her eyes. My friend and I exchanged a look. I felt my face flush.
“There’s room for her in here,” I said.
The older man shook his head. “She belongs back there.”
I gripped the wheel and bit my tongue. I was in their country, not mine. I had to accept it.
About a year ago, I came across an article about sorcery killings in PNG. If someone in a tribe dies, it isn’t the fault of an accident or a tiny germ. It’s the fault of a witch, sometimes a man, but usually a women. The family seeks out the culprit, someone on the perimeter of the tribe. A widow or some other woman who has no husband or sons to protect her. Easy targets. Such killings have been around since forever, but what’s new is the sadistic glee with which they are carried out. In the past the witches were simply killed and that was the end of it. Nowadays, it seems that such killings have become brutal spectacles that are watched by everyone, including children.
Things are supposed to get better with time, education, and technology. Here, in the First World, I’m not sure that the trend is going in a positive direction, either.
The Highlands of PNG are the epicenter of the atrocities, but the trend is creeping across the landscape into other regions. When I arrived in the Upper Sepik region, I felt I could relax a little. The people were gentler, calmer. The women still did all of the chores, but there was no threat hanging in the air. The woman in the photo above was washing sago palm, the main part of their diet. I can still hear the rasp of the hollowed out coconut as she brushed it against the hollowed out tree. Back and forth over and over again. It was too much effort for her to raise her head to look at us, the rare strangers.
During our walk through the jungle to search for birds of paradise, a woman emerged from the thick foliage. A feral, intelligent light shone in her eyes. This was a place of death adder vipers and trapdoor spiders with fangs that are long and strong enough to penetrate hiking boots, yet she wore only rags on her feet. When the guide asked her if I could take her photo, she pulled herself as upright as she could with the heavy billum on her head and smiled.
After she passed, the guide told us, “She’s more than thirty years old!” He shook his head in admiration.
In 1995, the missionary presence was strong in that area. But I fear for her now. Is she still moving through the jungle, silent and purposeful? A respected presence on the periphery of her tribe.
And what about the little girl? She would be in her twenties now. Did she somehow manage to get out of there on a scholarship or other opportunity? Did she marry a gentle man? For they do exist, their voices as yet unheard behind the roar.