Much of the Kovol people’s work is out in their gardens and so we should often be making the hike out to see them. Well that’s ideally. In reality because the hike takes an hour and it’s tough to make an appointment we only get out there occasionally. I also need to work myself up for the trip and wake up knowing that’s what I’m going to be doing. Perhaps I’m lazy (well not perhaps, I am) but I find it too hard to drop everything and hike off on an adventure of unknown duration!
While I sat with a friend practising language I managed to find out that the next day a work day had been called. It’s once again fence-building season, and since it’s such a massive job work days are organised to tackle the task as a group.
“Tomorrow we’re going to build a fence” I said, “I wanna do it!” Unfortunately people are so used to us mangling sentences and talking just for the sake of talking (language practice) my intention to go the next day didn’t come across.
The next day I get up and I’m not quite sure where I’m going, but I reason that I’ll be able to ask people where the work gathering is and head over there. I get to the guy’s house – no one there. On to the hamlet where the gathering is taking place then… he’s not there either. Turns out the name of the village and the garden area are the same – Ogomam ulum (the village) and Ogomam eb (the mountainside): everyone is at Ogomam eb.
Right I’ll go look for them… and I head off in the wrong direction. I’m quickly stopped and a guy says “come on I’ll take you”. He was planning on a day resting in the village because he has a boil on his leg, but he’s willing to hike me down. I can see him wincing as he goes along… oops. “No one is there yet though” he says, “we’ll get there and we’ll wait for everyone to arrive for the work”.
Hmm. The day before I’d tried to ask about the time and I got that it would be 7 or 8am…It turns out that I misunderstood (or asked the wrong question!). We roll in at 8:30 after 40 minutes of hiking down the mountain (lots of “don’t stand there, you’re too heavy and you’ll fall down”), and the guy who called the work day is both delighted and surprised that I’m there. They had no idea I was coming. So much for trying to set up an appointment.
I’ve had an encouraging few days of language study. I’m saying more, I’m figuring out how dependent and independent clauses interact and I’ve been feeling that I’m getting it. Sitting with the guys waiting for everyone I realise though that I have no idea what they’re talking about! Sometimes guys throw me a little Tok Pisin “we’re talking about the yams over there” or something, and even then I can’t follow!
With the sun beating down I need to pull out some sunscreen lotion. I show the guys my mild sunburn from the day before “I’ve got weak skin, the sun cooks it and this medicine stops that”. Shortly after, someone has cut down a leafy tree and planted it in the ground in front of me so that I have some shade.
At about 11am there are around 14 guys gathered to work. First things first, they all munch on some sugar cane to refresh themselves after the hike and then it’s time to gather logs for the fence.
I’m not much help here as it’s a steep slope down to the logs. I reckon I’m as strong as some of the guys here, but I can’t walk up that slope without slipping normally, let alone carrying a log on my shoulder. I put my feet in the same places the other guys do, but when I do it the slope gives way and I slide down!
This being my 3rd time fence building, I know what’s coming and I’m able to chip in placing logs into the fence and tying the supporting sticks with a vine. It’s nice to contribute, and it’s super nice to be part of a work day. This isn’t something put on for my benefit, they would be doing this without me. Meanwhile I’m taking pictures, asking questions and noticing things such as how long people work before resting and that the ladies don’t help with the fence building even once their food-prep role is done (strict gender work divisions). Hopefully that’s helpful.. I don’t know. I’m starting to feel a bit overwhelmed.
I do need to remember to double the amount of water I take with me so I can guzzle it down and keep chugging away. Rationing your water whilst sweating in the hot tropical sun isn’t a great recipe for peak mental performance!
I’m once again struck by just how much work it is to plant food in the jungle. The fence is there to keep pigs out. It needs to do that for a year or two and a single weak point makes the whole thing pointless. Needless to say the fence gets built very well. Every little crack is filled (so the pigs don’t ‘smell’ the food) and supporting stakes tied with vines every 30cm or so. 14 guys spent 4 hours or so to build a 50m section today.
Around 3pm I see the clouds coming in and the rain threatening, so I make my farewells (I’ve got babies to go take care of :)). I try to insist that I know the road and so people don’t need to stop working (I expect they would work for another 30 mins to finish up and then it would be an hour or so waiting for the meal, but I don’t want to wait that long), but they assign a group of kids to baby sit me. “It’s going to rain!” they say, but I assure them we’ll beat the rain. The kids and I set off at a good pace and I’m determined to keep up. I’m a full grown man and they’re just little kids – I’m not going to slow them down…
I almost didn’t slow them down, I did need to take some 20 second breathers every now and then though! and we didn’t beat the rain either.
The whole experience makes me realise what an oddity we are. I turn up unexpected, fall over a lot, am less capable than their children and then leave unexpectedly into a heavy rain rather than staying and enjoying the pot of food that is a reward for a day’s work! What a weirdo they’ve invited to come and live with them!