The strength of a woman

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday, May 6, 2011

JAMES D AIWA salutes his mother for her unique strength and courage to overcome breast cancer


MY mother, Monica, was in her 30s, the most fulfilling phase of her life and the mother of three children (myself, and two elder sisters), when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1964.
She was an immensely brave woman at the time and has fought it ever since. She remains strong and very positive to this day. I was told that I was about three months old when she developed breast cancer so it was a difficult time for the family.
Today, information and improved breast cancer treatment is available in major hospitals throughout the country but in those days, no one in my Minigauma sub clan  or my mother’s clan Berigale, sub clan is Borikipa, had any knowledge of what actually caused the lump on her right breast which was eventually diagnosed as cancer. Both my father and mother, being illiterate, had no idea either.
When there is a problem in the village, it is usually cultural practice for our village chief to sort it out. He called together relatives from both sides of my father’s and mother’s families to try to establish the cause.
Traditional beliefs always concentrated on supernatural explanations, a transfer of the responsibility from human to spirits and ancestors. These beliefs and practices also point to witchcraft (sanguma) and sorcery as the main causes of illness, and involve a real human being turning into a supernatural or spiritual entity that harms or kill another person by inflicting sickness or diseases.
These beliefs can not be proved scientifically. However, they are held strongly within the minds and hearts of almost every member of my clan who believe that witchcraft exists.
The village chief’s explanations focused mainly on my mother’s failure to follow prescribed dietary practice; my parents not respecting or making offerings to ancestors; breaking local taboo and upsetting the spirit of the land; that a spirit not happy because of certain actions by my parents; and relatives from mother’s side being upset with the family.
Christianity, on the other hand, had been recently introduced to our area when almost everyone believed in traditional ways of worship and healing sickness. Christians mainly have a common belief in the written word of God our creator. They believe in miracles and mystical powers, and observe spiritual healings.  The nearest Catholic Church was at Dirima, half a day’s walk from my village.
Despite following the village chief’s advice and use of traditional medicine, my mother’s condition continued to deteriorate. There was no medical service in our village. The nearest health centre was at Gumine station, half a day’s walk from Oldale. The village chief, maternal relatives and my father eventually decided that it was time to take her to Gumine. At that time and even today, there is no proper medical service in Gumine and the nearest hospital was at Kundiawa, a day’s walk from our village.
My mother was admitted and treated at the Gumine district health centre. It was not easy, living alone and away from our village with no social support from maternal relatives. While mother was going through physical pain, her love and affection for me was so deep and this somehow kept her strong. The time at Gumine seem to go quickly, without any improvement in her condition.  There are traditional ways of telling the days but I will not discuss at this time.
According to my mother, the people at that time did not have names for the days, and so she cannot remember how long we were at Gumine. But, because she was not improving, the officer-in-charge decided that she would be transferred to Kundiawa.
At that time my mother was not sure whether there was a road connection between Gumine and Kundiawa; we made the trip to Kundiawa by a small single-engine aeroplane. That was the first time for mother and I to travel by plane (the Omkolai airstrip is now closed) and indeed be exposed to the outside world.
Our trip took us to Minj in Western Highland province, now Jiwaka province, before we landed at Kundiawa. She recalled that while in the plane, she closed her eyes for the entire journey and held tightly onto the handle of the string bag in which I was sleeping. To make matters worse, the noise of the plane made it impossible for her to hear. Now I can imagine what was going on in her mind: it was for the good of her health, but equally, her love and affection for me must have been greater than her own life.
Mother was admitted to Kundiawa hospital where she faced many challenges including no carer to look after me and the fact that she could not speak either Tok Pisin, English or local Kuman dialect spoken around Kundiawa area.
Most importantly, my father was not there yet to discuss the medical problem and comfort her. Fortunately, one of my distant uncles from Berigale, the late chief Kape Amos, was working at Kundiawa general hospital so he offered some assistance. We were at the hospital for a long time but her condition continued to deteriorate.  According to my mother, late one night she felt itchy on her sore breast. Early the next morning around 9 am she lined up to be checked by the doctor. She told the doctor that she felt different and that her breast was heavy. That was unusual, she recalled. When the doctor took off the bandage, my mother’s breast came off. That was the day my mother lost one of her breasts. She cried and cried and other patients and hospital staff could not help but weep with her. She has never forgotten that day.
When mother was going through the cancer, my father’s worst fear was how he would cope with me – only three months old – and my two older sisters. 
He couldn’t do anything to help but hoped only for God’s intervention.
According to mother, other family members were frightened, as they had never witnessed this situation before. My mother said when she was first diagnosed she was quite depressed, and it took her a lot of courage to come out of it. There were other questions like: what did I do wrong? Can I breast feed my son? Could he get cancer through the milk?
My mother is now over 80 years old (we have no accurate record of date of birth), has seven children (four more children were born after the cancer), twenty two grand children and seventeen great-grandchildren.
She is always a happy person. In our village, she is referred in our local Yuri dialect as ‘han kole lu pangua’ (a woman with one breast). My mother lived with me throughout my entire working life. I feel this is one way I can pay her back for the pain she went through to raise me, apart from her own physical pain. Before coming to Townsville for my doctoral study in 2009, I arranged for her to stay with my sisters back in village. Before I left, she told me that when I returned after four years she would be there waiting for me. It was for her sake that I worked so hard at school to repay the pain she went through to raise me to where I am now.
Her physical pain, and her inner strength to raise me, and my brothers and sisters, has made me see her differently to other mothers. My mother’s unique strength and courage to overcome her tragedy has taught me the art of patience, kindness, and of course, love, traits that many people seem to forget or take for granted these days.
On this Mother’s Day, I want to say I love you so much mum. Words can not express enough, the love you have for me.  God bless you!


The writer is a lecturer at University of Goroka. He is currently doing a Doctor of Education degree at James Cook University in Australia.