08 December 2007

To Save or Not Save a Wife

From Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), pp. 96-97 (NYT book review here):
On our last evening in Yominbip we were working restlessly in our hut, packing and repacking the equipment, when Maria, Oblankep's wife, paid an unexpected visit. As she spoke her voice was low and desperate, and hatred and fear mingled as she told her story in Pidgin.

She had grown up in a small village just outside of Madang; although her family was poor, she was used to the city life and loved it. She met Oblankep in the market at Madang while he was living there. She thought him handsome and took him home to meet her family. He told stories about Yominbip—describing it as a large village not far from a great town and the coast.

Maria' s parents accepted the marriage offer. Knowing that she was unlikely to see her parents again, she bade them a tearful farewell.

Oblankep's manner changed when they arrived at Telefomin. He assaulted her and forced her to walk, pregnant, to Yominbip. The journey almost killed her. Since then, alone among strangers, she had borne him a child. She worked daily in the remote gardens. She had grown to hate Yominbip. Those stories about this place—he had told her lies.

She whispered hoarsely, 'Please take me with you. When the helicopter comes, please take me with you.'

'But what about your child?'

'Leave it,' she said savagely.

When she slipped away I felt a great sense of unease. Should we steal Maria from Yominbip (for that is how Oblankep would doubtless see it), or should we refuse her request? I dared not mention her visit, for she might be severely beaten for what she had done thus far. A failed escape attempt might even result in death.

Most murders in Papua New Guinea result from the theft of women, pigs or land. We would be compromising our own safety were we to attempt to help her escape. And there were other more complex issues to consider. Virtually the entire community of Yominbip had come together as a result of kidnappings. Oblankep had kidnapped his wife, but he himself had been taken by force from his original family. In such a situation it would be useless to try to explain the rights and wrongs of Maria's case. Morality as I knew it would simply not be understood.

I worried at the problem all morning until a faint mechanical sound announced the imminent arrival of the helicopter. I ran to Oblankep's hut, and found Maria seated firmly in a corner, her father-in-law standing near her. I could not see her face. With forced jocularity I asked if there were any messages I could take out for anyone. No response. I filled the awkward silence by asking Oblankep to come to my hut so that I could give him some gifts. Everything I was leaving behind I then put in his and his father's care, to be used by the entire community.

The chopper drew nearer. When it had almost touched down on the new pad I saw Maria crying at the door of Oblankep's hut. In the din of the rotor blades Lester began loading our specimens and equipment into the cargo hold, unaware of what was going on. I turned back to Maria, her face contorted with tears.

Behind her Oblankep watched, his eyes hard and angry.
The strange title of this book is an anglicized rendition of the Tok Pisin phrase otherwise spelled toromoi lek or tromwe lek, meaning 'to shake a leg, to get going'.

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