Surfing an Earthquake

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The news came on the wind, yodeled from one hilltop to the next. Fearsome new beings had come to the lands of the Sina Sina people, men so pale and strange they could only be ghosts. They carried sticks that, without being thrown or shot from a bow, could make a man fall down dead. They had thin, flat objects covered with marks that sent messages without a word being spoken. The coming of these "spirits of different skin" - Australians who were building a road through the remote New Guinea Highlands during World War II - filled the people of the Masul area, in today's Chimbu province, with wonder and alarm.

The men who explored New Guinea left many accounts of "first contact," telling how the natives menaced or attacked them, ran away or made peace. In her marvelous, moving biography Mama Kuma (University of Queensland Press), Deborah Carlyon shows us, through the recollections of her Chimbu relatives, the view from the other side. And she goes further, recording how the resulting cultural guria, or earthquake, shook the lives of all those involved - none more profoundly than her grandmother's.

Kuma Kelage was about 12 years old at the time the strangers appeared. But when she came face to face with one of them, she did not shake or sob or run. Instead, she did something she would remember all her life. "I went and held his hand," she told Carlyon, "and I was not afraid." With that trusting gesture, Kuma took her first step into an unknown world. Later, her people followed, placing their feet in her footprints. Kuma's father was a chief; in her own way, she became one too. "She was a woman and was called a woman," said her brother. "But she had the spirit of a man. She was our leader."

Kuma's curiosity, and her tightrope-walker's courage, took her far beyond the cloud-shrouded edges of her people's mountain world. Defying her father, who feared she might die if she entered the spirit men's domain, she went with the patrol officer and his carriers to their base near Goroka, riding on the "amazingly large pig" they called a horse. Later, Kuma became the first of her tribe to enter the stomach of a balus, a great metal bird whose roaring made her relatives wet themselves in fear. While they wondered if she would be spat out or brought back with white skin, Kuma flew past Mount Elimbari, the abode of the dead, to the coastal town of Lae. When she returned, writes Carlyon, the villagers listened spellbound to her tales, the blood "pounding through their veins like a kundu drum."

Kuma would notch up many firsts in her life: living in a town, working for money, driving a car (she favored a stately first gear). But nothing she did was more astounding than her marriage, in a splendid tribal ceremony, to Malcolm Warrick, the man whose hand she had grasped. When he went off to fight the Japanese and Kuma returned to the village to have his baby, some people worried that it "would be born with two separate skin colors [divided] by an invisible line." But Kuma's was a "golden child," with milky-tea skin and wavy brown hair. She was named Ba, or Moon, and the villagers treated her like a miracle, passing her from one embrace to the next and guarding her fiercely from crowds of gawking strangers.

To Kuma's people, this "daughter of a ghost" was still one of them, entitled to their love and protection. Strangers, even those with dark brown skin, were another matter. On a visit to her grandmother's village, Carlyon, 32 - the daughter of Ba and her Australian husband - was told of a man who had been axed to death. Hearing the story, one of Kuma's sisters laughed merrily. "He is not from our village," she explained. In the world Kuma came from, Carlyon writes, "compassion was often reserved for members of the tribe. Kuma was different; her compassion extended far beyond her tribal boundaries." That she took care of the relatives who followed her to Goroka and stayed, 20 or 30 at a time, in her small home was only proper. But Kuma's fierce affection took in friends from tribes her people feared as cannibals; the Chinese couple who taught her to sew; the Australians who helped her after Warrick died; the American missionary family to whom she entrusted Ba's education.

Carlyon, whose dried umbilical cord Kuma preserved like a holy relic, is a worthy heir to her beloved grandmother. Painting her story in the bold colors of Papua New Guinean metaphor, she reveals, without reverence or condescension, a world as strange to us as ours once was to Kuma and her people: a place where women breastfeed piglets; where amputated fingers tally the deaths of loved ones; where magic is an everyday reality and rooftops bristle with sharp sticks to keep evil at bay. Having grown up in P.N.G. and returned often after her family moved to Australia, Carlyon tells her grandmother's story as Kuma might have done, in the voice of a woman who held her fate in her own hands and knew nothing of noble savages or colonial oppressors - only of people.