Mother’s Love: Meri nambis – Jeffrey

Mother’s Love: Meri nambis – Jeffrey

Jeffrey and his mother

She married a Highlander, was humiliated by her husband and family but bore the pain and raised her kids alone as her husband remarried other wives. She sent her kids to school and, finally, she passed on.

My mother was always called a meri nambis by my people ever since I was old enough to remember. Growing up, I started noticing how different she was from my aunties and Grandma. She had longer hair, was slimmer and was more fragile, I guess.

I started realising that, unlike all the other women who had married into our haus lain [family] she was the only one who seemed to have no relatives nearby. It was only when I was in Grade 5 that I understood that her family were far away, in a place called Port Moresby.

You see, she was still in school when Dad married her and stole her away to his village. She was beautiful, and I was always so proud of her because she had the longest hair and was the best cook in the village. There were times the village leaders or the church leaders would come asking her to cook during big gatherings at the village or at the church and, besides, she was the only woman in the village who could speak the white man’s language so the French Catholic Priest would always greet us and talk with Mum. In those moments, I remember, I was proud that Mama could speak their language.

Mama and Papa had five kids, three girls and two boys, but l was Mama’s favourite and her best friend. I was her first-born son. Years came and went. Dad’s business grew and soon he stopped coming home. We would sit in the kunai house, around the fire, and wait for him, me and Mama. I would see the pain in her eyes, but she would just smile and tell me Dad was really busy. A month later, we heard, Dad had married a woman from the neighbouring village, who had a well-connected family in the area.

But Mama just stayed. She made kaukau gardens with the other women in the village and would sell them on the roadside to buy our oil and salt or, occasionally, our school stuff, despite Dad being a businessman, because it seemed like Papa had forgotten us.

A couple of months later, my Dad’s sister came to the house and told us that Dad’s new wife had given birth to a son. I saw the pain in Mama’s eyes, but she smiled at me and said ‘Hurry, let’s go meet your new brother.’ So we went to the hospital, and there he was, an ugly looking baby lying in that other woman’s arms. Mama just went and took the baby from her and welcomed her to our home, where she became our second Mama. Soon after, Dad came back home too.

A few months later, he built two new houses, one for Mama and one for the other woman. Soon things were normal again, even though we now had two mothers and a new younger brother. But then things started changing. The more Dad’s business grew, he became a leader and was well respected. And, as a leader, he would kill pigs and make feasts for almost every little thing.

Every time Dad hosted a feast, Mama and I would just stand on the side, while Dad’s second wife and her family would bring pigs to support him. Soon Papa’s family started rejecting Mama because she could not support Papa with pigs; she had no uncles or brothers nearby to come and support her. I could see the pain in her eyes during those times, but she would just smile.

After that Papa stopped giving us money; he stopped coming to our house. Every time, his second wife and his sisters would accuse Mama of using marila [love charm] to lure him. Sometimes they would gang up and beat Mama. After several incidents, Papa stopped coming to us. He became a drunkard and a womanizer marrying three other women. Every time they would fight, the second wife and the other three, Mama would just watch and walk away.

She had no family there, but she would make gardens and sell the produce, she washed the local French priest’s clothes and cleaned his house, she sewed dresses for little girls and sold ice blocks at my school. Every day of her life, she worked to ensure I and my four siblings had food, clothes, and school supplies. And every night she would tell us of her village, of the dark blue sea and the white sandy beach. She would tell us to go to school so that we can work and, one day, purchase her ticket to return home.

When my sisters were older, being girls, they were taken care of by our uncles who paid for their school fees, bought their clothes, and gave them money because they would one day claim bride price payments from their husbands. My two sisters lived with our uncles. So, it was just Mama, me, my younger brother, and our youngest sister.

My younger brother dropped out of school in Grade 10, the same year I was accepted to Unitech (University of Technology) but, together, he and Mama raised funds to pay for my school fees. I was a Somalia, no room, no meal card. I used to sleep in the lecture halls.

Sometimes, I used to go hungry for days. When I was doing my fourth year, my little brother moved to Lae. He sold betel nuts on the roadside and every afternoon would buy me food. Then we were able to rent a little room. I continued my study and he continued to sell betel nut.

Occasionally our uncle and aunty used to send us money. Sometimes Mama would send us money. But it seemed Papa had completely forgotten us. After completing my education, we went back up to the village to see Mama as she and my younger sister had been living alone for a long time.

A few months later, Mama sent me back to Lae a week before graduation. She was crying that morning at the bus stop as she could only afford to buy me a red shirt, which I still keep, even today. She could not come as she could not afford the bus fare and the accommodation fee in Lae.

On graduation day, I was embarrassed to see my father come with his latest wife. I was angry, and thought to myself, ‘Why didn’t he bring Mama?’ But I am a Highlander, I was raised to respect my father, to love him no matter what and to know that he is the law and everything he does is right. So, l swallowed the anger.

When the Chancellor called me to receive my award, Papa beamed with pride and, later that evening, he bought us beer to celebrate, and his new wife cooked a feast for us. The next day I was offered a job in Port Moresby and father sent me down to Port Moresby to take up the job. I did not get to see Mama or say goodbye to her.

Two years I worked, every pay day I sent money for my mother and my little brother who chose to stay in Lae. I would ask her, should I buy her ticket? She would tell me, ‘Wait, the girls haven’t left the nest yet.’

One day, I got a call from the Catholic priest. In those days there was no mobile phone, so he called me at my workplace and said that Mama had collapsed and that she did not have much time left. The last two years, whilst I was working in Port Moresby, Mama had had cancer. And she never told us. She never told me and my brother.

I flew up to Lae, and my younger brother and I drove up all night. We got home, just when dawn was breaking. Whilst driving I could see Mt Giluwe was still covered in mist and I had this feeling, somehow, I knew that Mama would be gone with the mist, and I had to hurry.

When I arrived in our home, Mama was lying next to the fire. She was so thin, so small, I could not recognise her. I picked her up like a child, just like she used to pick me up, and I could see the pain in her eyes but, just like always, she smiled.

She told us, one very last time again, of her home, where the sea was dark blue and the sand so white. I kept crying, asking why she did not come when I wanted to send her the ticket. Why didn’t she go home and see her people? ‘All those years, when Papa started bringing new wives home, why didn’t you go home?’

The sun was starting to rise by then. Papa came running in, and tried to take her from me, but I held my Mama. I was ready to defy culture and beat him up and he saw it in my eyes and took a step back.

But then I heard Mama’s hoarse whisper. My brother and I held her; carried her in our arms and she told us that she will be gone. She also told us:

When you were young, I did leave, I wanted to go back to my home. I went as far as Goroka, but I could not get on the plane. I could not leave you behind. So, I came back. Many times, I thought of leaving, but you five needed me.

Though my heart was broken, and I was in a place where I had no family to lean on, I could not leave my babies. My husband cheated on me, but I am still a mother. He beat me, he humiliated me, he brought more women into our marriage, but I am still a mother and, son, I have no regrets. Because I have raised you all and can now go in peace knowing that you all will be fine. Love your Papa, love your stepmothers, and remember their children are your siblings too.

I was sobbing by then. I was losing my mind. I carried her out and tried to will my life into her, my strength into her, but the mist started to clear as the sun rose and Mama asked us to recite Psalm 23 but, in the middle of the recital my beautiful Mama, ‘meri nambis’ left to be with the Lord.

We buried her in our village, where the wild sunflowers grew. And every year, when I visit her grave, I bring a bottle of sand with me to pour on her grave. She left her dark blue sea and white sandy beach and, despite the hardship, chose to stay in the cold mountains to raise us. I am who l am today because of a meri nambis who chose to stay.

Today, Jeffrey and his wife have helped repatriate close to 12 meri nambis who were trapped in violent, polygamous marriages back to their home provinces. Being the down-to-earth person he is, both Jeffrey and his wife have done all this alone and without media coverage. Jeff’s youngest sister is a nurse, and his brother is a businessman in Lae, employing over 200 Papua New Guineans. The two older sisters have since married and have their own families. Both reside in the village. Jeff’s father died two years after his mum and is buried next to her in their village up on the blue misty mountains.

Source: Rebecca Kuku on Facebook. Rebecca is a journalist based in Port Moresby, covering politics, security, and social issues.

This story is reproduced with thanks to Freelance Journalism, a voluntary group of journalists who wish to shine a light on some practices in their communities which have existed for decades and which they feel could be improved.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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