As mentioned in the previous blog, polygamy was practiced in the tribe I lived in, but according to what I understood it was not an ideal. Men that took more than one wife we typically “stronger” than other men and therefore did it because they were able. But under the surface, the practice was viewed as selfish and greedy.

The strong man from the previous blog had taken seven wives; the four younger of whom were sisters, and daughters of a distant cousin. The younger two sisters of the four did not want to be married to the strong man. He was old and there were plenty of young men looking for wives. They had to break away somehow, but in a culture dominated by men, that wasn’t an easy task to accomplish.

During this time, I was well into language and culture acquisition. Daily I was growing in my grasp of the language and understanding of how things worked in the minds of the tribal people. I was working away one morning when I heard a commotion outside my makeshift office. I went out to investigate and the air was electric with tension and excitement. “What’s going on?” I asked the group of young men that had assembled. “Two of the strong man’s wives have run away to Lakami”, they informed me pointing across the river to a hunting area where no people lived. “And two fellows from here have gone after them!” They added with a cheering excitement.

I thought about this for a second and then asked, “Why are they going after them?” “Because they are going to claim them as wives!!” they declared stating the obvious. “Okay”, I thought to myself perplexed that this is how it was done. “How is this going to work out? Would this annul the “marriage” to the strong man? Was it who ever was stronger wins? What does the community think about all this? At this point it seemed like the young men giving me the play by play were cheering on their buddies that were in pursuit of the two sisters hoping to lay claim to them as brides! Wow! Better get a good seat for this action as it develops.”

The two young men found the sisters and each one claimed a bride for themselves. How they even knew the two girls had runaway is still a mystery to me. The jungle grapevine or gigazone is amazing, I guess. Anyway, the two couples lived out in the jungle and initially weren’t pursued by the strongman.

Several months went by and one Saturday morning the village gathered for a morning of “court”, a practice introduced by the Aussies back in the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s as a time to settle differences and disputes. I always tried to participate and observe these courts as a community member. This particular morning looked like a normal village court until I observed that the two “newlywed” couples showed up! I figured it was cause for celebration until observation number two: the strongman showed up as well! Suddenly all court matters were cast aside, and discussion began about the two sisters and who had claim to them.

The air became thick and tense. The center of the village area suddenly cleared. I heard someone yell, “Don’t fight! The white man is here!” I told them to not worry about me as I didn’t ever want to be a deterrent to anything. I was just an observer and observing true to life culture was very important for understanding the people. I did have a red line I wouldn’t cross – if someone was going to die, I would intervene.

All a sudden the strong man with fighting stick in hand shot toward the young man who took the older of the two sisters. Somehow the young man also acquired a fighting stick. Everything happened so fast. The younger man allowed the older to give him two blows to the back. The thud of the heavy palm stick was deep, but the younger didn’t flinch. The older was going for a third strike but the younger was too quick and dealt a single blow just under the ribs of the older sending him to the ground in a heap.

I wasn’t sure what to do other than run to the strong man. I could see he was winded and couldn’t get his breath. I knelt beside him and cradled him in my arms positioning him so that he could breath. I was certain he would die. But then behind me I heard a voice, “Red (my tribal name), let him die.” I turned my head and looked up to see who would say such a thing. To my horror it was the strong man’s son. But he wasn’t looking at me when he said it, he was looking at the younger man. If his father died, then he would have the right and obligation of killing the young man in revenge for his father’s death. “He’s not going to die!” I stated emphatically. “I won’t let him die!” Just then the strong man coughed slightly and began taking shallow breaths.

As it turned out that day, the younger man stood up to the strong man and kept his new bride. The community got behind both the younger sisters being married to the two young men. The strong man returned to his home upriver and subsequently didn’t challenge the two couple again.

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