Where is She Now?

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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.

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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.

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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 heavyย 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.

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24 thoughts on “Where is She Now?

  1. Oh wow, this is amazing. And your words are so delicately peppered with truth and hope. Growing up in a household full of females and being the only boy gives one a different perspective I believe. How I am hopeful for these women and would love to meet them and talk to them. And let them ride in the front of my truck! Over here, as you know, it’s accepted that us fellows ride in the back, expected (a rite of manhood say you). I’d love to take a bunch of good ‘ol boys over there and make sure those women got to sit up front while the boys all rode in the back, like we’re supposed to. Sheesh, sorry, gettin’ kinda worked up.
    I’ve been caught up in a new project so I haven’t been around much, I’m procrastinating as I speak/type. How I want to go back through and catch up, maybe a little right now…….. argggh! I have to work. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Well, hello there. Long time no see. Your comments always make me laugh. I can just imagine a truck load of rednecks (I don’t mean that in a derogatory way) taking on those bullies. I think that just might be the solution. Best of luck with your new project.

  2. Just want to say what a great post this is. I agree with you in wondering where are those people now. Thoroughly interesting, honest and also heart breaking in many ways. Thanks for sharing this fabulous post. All the best, Bex

  3. Not a pleasant read but important to be aware of. Much of the time, I hope remote cultures can survive the new world invasion, but then when I read something like this, this is so wrong and we should try to do something about it.

    • I’m usually against meddling in other cultures, but this is a special case. I also used to be contemptuous of missionaries, but this trip changed my mind. In PNG, they are risking their lives trying to make a positive change. There aren’t any glamorous movie stars jetting in for photo ops, adopting babies, or building schools in PNG, so the rest of the world doesn’t hear about what’s going on.

      • If there is anything positive to be said about that wretched culture, it is that Christian missionaries might have an influence. I have never read anything positive about missionaries and always have thought about W. Somerset Maugham’s classic story RAIN whenever I think of these Christian gypsies. I pray that the beastly conduct of these savages might be eliminated. Great Story, La Vagabonde! You are the bravest person I know.

        • Visiting PNG is really like going back in time. There’s an ambiance that hits you even as you fly over the terrain. It is mesmerizing and humbling. When I went to the Goroka Show, I could only stare at the elaborate costumes and hypnotic dances. It was like I’d stepped into another dimension. Not all of the people are violent – many that I met were very gentle. But in many of the tribes, women are literally worth less than pigs. This is a tradition that has been around since forever.

          What surprised me about that article is that the missionaries weren’t portrayed in a negative way. If you read the comments on that article, most of them insult the missionaries. But of course they offer no alternative. They certainly wouldn’t put themselves in any discomfort to help out.

    • I believe that governments, all governments, couldn’t care less about their citizens. Maybe certain rare individuals in the governement try to help, but they’re blocked by stronger forces. Politicians are paid off to let the corporations have their way. PNG is full of mineral wealth, but it doesn’t get to the people. It’s the same problem all over the world.

  4. Sad and cruel. Your words go straight to my heart, along with your pictures. Where are they now – maybe too hard to think about. Many young people today, and elderly people too, find it too difficult to take in what’s happening in the world. When I was younger i was very depressed about life and mankind. I believe we all try to survive the way we can – and many by ways of creating a world of their own. A bubble. Sometimes that’s the only way. I try to focus on the beauty of nature and on positive people and stories I find about generous and helping people. Trying to be generous and helping, warmhearted and good is essential. Gandhi always said to start with your own self. I think that’s something we all can do. But for PNG this seems hopeless.

    • I also used to be very depressed about the depths to which humanity has sunk. It helps a lot to stop reading the news. I still don’t like humans very much, but I’m not constantly upset like I used to be.Now I do like you and focus on good things, while also trying to help good people. I know that a blog post won’t do much to help the women of PNG, but I hope it at least brought some awareness to those who hadn’t heard that this horror goes on, mostly unpunished.

  5. Where ever there is ignorance, hate, fear, you will find aberrant behaviour. You have captured a moment in the life of a young woman which speaks to all of us. While I cannot change something that is happening in PNG, I can make a stand where I am. The power of one is always underestimated, but I believe it is the catalyst of transformation. Consider this remarkable post – you have reminded us that the fight for human rights is far from over. It is a battle that must be fought one day at a time! Together, everything is possible.

    โ€œI did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.โ€ Maya Angelou

    • I’m not sure that we need to be reminded that the fight for human rights is still raging. It seems that’s all we hear about from every direction. “Raising awareness” and education are supposed to make things better, but somehow it isn’t working. It’s not.

      The ferociousness of the violence is getting worse not only in PNG. I’ve seen blog posts by personal bloggers, young women, that I still can’t get over. Sadistic, gleeful, and with the help of social media, public sexual assault done by groups of boys. Did this happen when we were growing up?

      By sharing stories, are we giving bad people ideas? Are good people becoming so upset that they shut off completely and retreat to their own bubbles? I don’t know what the solution is, but screaming at the top of our lungs only seems to be making people deaf.

      • Your comments are profoundly insightful. There is a lot of noise in this world, with many voices vying for our attention. After a while, we normalize what is unacceptable simply because of the repetition.

        Humanity needs a story, one that contains the thread of love, hope and compassion. You are an amazing storyteller. And I think it is because you listen to your inner voice, which is keenly empathetic. I listen, as do many who join in on the dialogue.

        I have been reading a little May Angelou lately – this is a quote that I think you will appreciate:

        โ€œI love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.โ€ Maya Angelou

  6. sometimes there are no words for this. You make me think about how many girls, women, are in this kind of situation nowadays. Always too many. I read in their eyes resignation.

  7. I have my doubts about the action of religious groups in these countries but I suppose you saw that they did good things, trying to change a difficult situation. When I think of the condition of women in countries of the Gulf region, I’m also horrified. Religion and traditions cause these things unfortunately and it’s not easy to change mentalities. But sometimes you just want to impose something occidental to societies who don’t need it – the question is where to draw the line.
    But even here, in Belgium, I find that society becomes more violent. Sometimes I’m afraid just to walk in the streets with a no so short skirt…. You talked already about those things too, like the episode in Lisbon.

    • I used to be critical of missionaries until I went to PNG. Of those that I saw, some (Catholics) took an active part in the community as teachers, doctors, etc. The religion part was pretty low key. Then I saw some others (I’ll refrain from saying what denomination they were) who barricaded themselves behind large gates. They had local people as servants. They were all about the religion.

      In the follow up article (http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/what-to-do-about-witchcraft/563/index.html), it says that Evangelical groups are becoming stronger there, and that it’s worrisome, because of the “hellfire and brimstone” sermons and the emphasis on Satan. The locals get worked up very easily and this type of belief reinforces their superstitions. Even the most faithful local that I encountered still believed in the power of the nature spirits.

      I know what you mean about feeling unsafe in Western Europe. I feel it when I’m there. There were a couple of times in Brussels when I had to change seats on the metro, and I was only there for 3 days. That’s one of the reasons why I like Eastern Europe so much. I rarely get harassed here.

  8. I really love your writing so much, and apologize for not being around more. Too many updates, so I am scaling down today and writing out all the people I follow so I can underline the names of the blogs I really like and make notes. I love this piece, I love seeing the women of this part of the world via your writing. But I hope that the magnificence of these people some how begins to allow such to be everywhere. I am fascinated with their culture and give an eye to anything that comes across my eyes, but it’s a shame the women are dismissed and condescended to so. Much like here, just in a different way. :-[

    • Hello there. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks so much for dropping in again. PNG is so fascinating, but if the treatment of women continues to deteriorate, there will be irreparable damage to the culture. And, yes, the same thing in America, but in a different way. We really can’t wag our fingers at anyone else until we get our own house in order.

      • Hi there! ๐Ÿ™‚ Absolutely.

        What you’ve said about PNG concerns me, because where men are dismissive and disrespectful about the contributions/worth of their female neighbors/daughters/wives/sisters, lives tremendous violence either in a mental way (continuously) or mental-verbal-physical manner. And you’re right oppressive attitudes and practices that follow mar the whole thing.

        And I agree, we can be compassionate but we certainly can’t wag our fingers with a different version of this still bubbling up – in our respective cultures.

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