Two Parents and Several Children

Amansilitolu was, uncharacteristically, in a fair stink. The father of six—it was actually ten, four having died in infancy—had returned to the hut that he had recently completed in the new area, the “proyek” area of the village financed from government coffers, only to find that one of his young sons, caught up in a passion of creativity, had helped himself to his fathers’ tools and some other items as he set about a modest proyek of his own.

Amansilitolu was the model handyman, like most men in the settlement. He was always coming and going, always engaged in building activities of some sort or carrying out repairs, or simply on his way from one job to another. It was both a way of keeping occupied and making extra money which afforded him the luxury of smoking his favoured “Surya” brand of manufactured cigarettes. At Rp.1500 a packet these occupied the upper end of the market.

Most of his male peers could only afford the semi-processed “Panorama” brand of tobacco, which they rolled into fat, stumpy cigars substituting paper for dried taro leaf that were more often extinguished than lit, taro leaf not being the most combustible material even when reasonably dry. Another good thing about keeping incessantly busy was that a man obtained some relief from the rigours of a houseful of young children, which was an issue for some, like Amansilitolu. One came home when one had to, such as to eat, or pick up one’s tools.

Anyhow when Amansilitolu returned home briefly on this day to seek out the exact tools he needed for a job that required just the right touch, he found that they were not there. The normally softly spoken, very laid-back father of six exploded into a paroxysm of range. The resident anthropologist happened to be ambling past at the time and quickened his stride a little, although still managing to bear witness to the incident, which continued after he was out of range.

Ranting and shouting Amansilitolu began flinging things about inside the hut, pots and containers and assorted items sailing out of the doorway into the yard. And those that did not make it that far collided with the hut’s planks with sickening percussive force, the sound echoing the length and breadth of the settlement.

Reflecting on this later it struck me that this outburst may have had something to do with an incident some weeks before. Being the handyman that he was, Amansilitolu owned two other huts in the older, original area of the settlement one of which was occupied by myself. The other was often used by Amansilitolu as a work-place, where he would work often until late into the night under the bright glare of a pressure-lantern. Occasionally, and possibly to the chagrin of the handy-man, the rest of the family would lob in for the night or for a period of several days, which made sense since it was much more spacious than the recently completed hut in the proyek.

On this occasion they had been there almost a week. Amansilitolu had been out processing sago not far away across the river for a couple of days and would briefly return home during the hottest part of the day, upon which time it was his expectation that certain things would be ready for him, like his lunch.

Today no such luck. Amansilitolu asked his wife where his lunch was. She said she had cooked sago and bananas in the morning, but she and the children had already finished them. He asked her why she had not put any aside for him adding the followup, rhetorical, question: “Do you think I can eat rocks?”. No big deal really, although the cumulative effect of incidents like these may explain the normally mild mannered Amansilitolu’s outburst a few weeks later.

Both Amansilitolu and his wife had their fair share of difficulty with their children. The family’s second youngest, Lajokunen, was developing an early aptitude for obtaining people’s attention and successfully keeping it, more so, it seemed to me, than the other two-year olds of which there was no shortage in the settlement. Never a day passed without Silajo holding either his mother, or his older brothers and sisters to ransom in some shape or form.

Or rather, the pattern was the same; it was just the trigger that varied. It usually began with a loud ‘thud!’ resonating into the huts either side of the one that little Lajo was currently occupying. That was the sound of Lajo throwing himself onto the floor, indicating the commencement of a tantrum. For those not in the know the convulsed thrashing that Lajo subsequently, consistently, turned on could be perhaps mistaken for epilepsy. One would also be amazed at the ability of the child to put so much passion and energy into the accompanying screams.

But like the intense thunder storms which roared through the settlement every other day, these outbursts gradually fizzled out, Lajo eventually picking himself up and getting on with his life, which usually meant being entertained and pampered by his mother and/or siblings. Occasionally they would ignore him and all set off down the path whereupon an alarmed Lajo, thinking he was going to be left behind, would stagger to his feet, follow them a short way only to throw himself down again on the ground thrashing, kicking and screaming, until they got too far away from him at which point he would stagger after them and repeat the exercise. I did think he would grow out of it, and fairly quickly. But a year later it was still one of Lajo’s preferred modes of interaction with his siblings and the world at large.

Young boys, such as Amansilitolu’s son, the one who had triggered the violent outburst, love going down to the river during the hottest part of the day. They often do this when school gets out, although they also often skip that part of the day completely and go straight to the river where they spend several hours doing what they much prefer. Parents understand the river and its various moods where it can turn from a mere trickle some three meters wide and one meter deep, to a fast-flowing torrent some 30 meters wide and ten deep should a torrential downpour eventuate.

Many are less than keen for their children to go near this potentially lethal source of fun, some parents making quite an issue of it with their errant children. The frequent sight of children scooting in the direction of the river is often accompanied by parents calling after them “Bai ei ka keru” [don’t go to the deep part], located downstream from the shallow section where the slender canoes are tied up, and village residents can cross, the place where to parents’ relief their kids spend most of their river hours.

Lajo’s older brother, Pakokkerei made his way down to this area with his friends one overcast day in the middle of the morning, a great day for some river fun particularly because it had been drizzling off and on, resulting in a very greasy bank, wonderful for slippery-sliding given the 40 or so degree angle down to the river, which was a mere trickle on this day.

I was languidly tapping at my typewriter when I felt her presence some seconds prior to seeing her striding past on the way to the river. Pakokkerei’s mother, Baimanai, was heading towards the river with a definite sense of purpose. A short time later a strident wailing drifted through the air up towards the proyek, immediately followed by mother and child coming into view from the direction of the river. The boy’s mother had his arm in an iron grip, with him putting up token resistance. Well, he was coming, but he was not walking.

Baimanai was dragging the boy along the greasy track, resulting in Pakokkerei becoming plastered in a thick layer of mud, head to foot. His shrill wailing complemented his mother’s comments, which were somewhat shocking in the context. “Toga simamatei”[child of the dead ones], she spat, “Toga tinigeilat”[child of the tinigeilat], this latter creature being a very nasty spirit being, a meeting with which one would be reluctant to wish upon one’s most despised enemy.

Several people looked on impassively from the verandas of their huts. By this time an old man from a hut across the way had settled himself on my veranda, prior to looking into the chances of scoring some Panorama tobacco. I looked at Silalabit making the comment that this treatment of the child seemed a bit over the top. The old man grinned toothlessly, “Tatoga” [Kids!] Kutnalek[no problem].” And that was good enough for me.

Post-script 2000
On my arrival in the village after an absence of several years I end up walking past Amansilitolu’s house which he has now expanded to the degree that it encompasses twice the volume of neighboring unimproved houses. His children, parents-in-law, brothers and some sisters are in residence to provide moral and practical support for his wife who is gravely ill following the birth of yet another child. Thin weak and wasted. She looks close to death. Why would you put yourself in this sort of situation I muse, somewhat ethnocentrically, to myself? Yet I do understand some thing of why the unrestrained fertility. The irascible little character Lajokunen died a few years ago one morning. Woke up, throwing up. Gone. Writing this afterword a few years after receiving this news, I am still shocked.

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