Read time: 16 mins


by Baka Bina
20 September 2022

Translated from Tok Pisin to English by the author

What Happened to Ma?’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. 



The afternoon became cool as the sun slowly set in the west. Soon it would sink behind the mountains and go to sleep. I was very hungry when I looked down the slope to see where Mama might be. I didn’t know whether she would be nearby or at the far end of the garden. It was time to find out.  

‘Mama, Iyeno!’ I called out.  

I stood at the edge of the clearing going down to the garden and called out softly. I knew that you just needed to call softly and the call would float down the gully to where Mama would be, and she would hear my voice.     

There was no reply. My stomach was now growling.   

From where I stood on the path I could see the whole garden sitting in the depression below. I tried to think where I might find something to eat to fill my empty stomach.   

I thought about the red pear-shaped fruits on the laulau trees and the other types of fruits across the fence in my cousin’s garden. I did not want to get into trouble stealing any fruits and I knew Mama always got angry when we tried to go there to help ourselves to the ripe fruits. I looked towards where our guava trees grew. It wasn’t guava season but I knew there would be a few off-season ones out of sight among the leaves. I wondered whether it was worth looking for them.   

We also had lots of bananas trees but when Mama harvested them she would often hide the big bunches in the bush until they ripened. She knew that if we found them we would eat a large proportion of them so she kept moving these hiding places around. She wanted to market the bananas but she would find that if we got to them first she would not have enough to take to the market. I felt sorry for her, but we had plenty of banana trees and knew she would never run out of them  

I thought of the orange tree but there were not many fruits on the tree. I did count about fifteen fruits last week and I think Papa brought some home so I don’t think any would be ready now.  

At the bottom of the garden, there were some more guava trees and I will look them up with my pineapple plot. I did see some heads of pineapples but I am not sure if they would be ripe now.  

I moved down the track a bit more and I called out for mama again. This time I raised my voice a bit higher.  


I waited a little and stared down the garden. At the bottom of the garden I noticed a whiff of smoke go up.  

Ah, there now, mama must be making a garden at that bottom side of the garden. That was the area where dad had extended the fence for her to make the apa vegetable garden following the drain dip.  

When the school ended, the three of us went to the village and Ma was not there, we knew that she was still at the garden house where she also kept pigs. It is nearly a week now and she has not come to the village house. When she has a lot of garden work she stays at the garden house and tries to finish off all these gardening. If it is not garden work, she will be stringing a new bilum. She would stay up all night to make bilums.  

My name is Taluo and my two sisters are Dahne and Lottopesa. I am in grade four and Dahne in grade two and Lotto in grade one. We were all hungry as Ma did not send up our cooked kaukau in the morning. Dahne tried cooking out breakfast on the open fire but they were all half cooked which we ate for breakfast.  

I did not wait for my two sisters. They were looking for pitpit canes as firewood and when they have collected enough, they will bundle up and leave them by the side of the track and then follow me down. That is part of their work to look for firewood for our house.  

My job is to fetch water for the house. We have two twenty litre containers for that. I made a quick job of them from the stream where we collect water from a spring. I fetched water in both of them and have brought them to the house.  

I came past them and heard them talking in the bushes that were there on the way to our garden.  

I ran down to the guava as looked amongst the few there but they were not ripe yet.  

I cast my eyes towards Dad’s sugar cane garden but I was scared to go pull out one cane of sugar. Dad is always adamant that he will be the only one to cut any of his sugar canes.  That is his garden, and he is always angry with any of us children wandering around there.  

Pity me, I was famished but I must hold on.  

I walked and search amongst the marretta trunks and spindly legs. I checked the passion fruit vines to see if someone would have pulled on them to get at their fruits.   

I searched and collected five fruits that had ripened and fallen to the ground. There were a few more still on the vines and I left them there.  

I planted the passion fruit vine and made a law that we were not to get at the fruits still on the vine. Every ripe fruit had to fall to the ground and then we collect them. In this way the vines remained for a long time and bore many more fruits. The fruits tasted better if they had fallen off the vines. If they were harvested off the vines, they had a stinging pungent taste.  

I opened up one of the fruits and ate the contents. I wanted to get another one more, but I thought of the two girls and left them there. They will be pleased to see the fruits and won’t feel bad towards me. Besides they may be tempted to throw sticks at those ripe fruits still on the vines.  

I looked up my small garden. This was a small plot where I was practising my garden making skills. I planted a few sugar canes, taro kongkongs and ginger. At the edge of the few drains, I had lined them with apa vegetables.  

Ma did not weed my garden and the grass was growing plentifully and faster. I am thinking, come Saturday, I will not play in the village but come down to weed this garden. I realised the end of the drains were also waterlogged. It meant that I have to deepen the drains.  

It would be much better if I asked Pa to help me.  

I went down to the house. The back of the house was inside the garden and the door was set outside. I jumped over the fence to get out of the garden.  

I called out again for Ma.  


The banana leaves used as an outer door as curtains and called mehe were still in place.   

Mama had not yet come to the house. I looked up at the sun. It had gone past the time when Mama was usually there. When she is there, we know that she will be preparing dinner in her motona wooden drum oven.   

I could still see the smoke at the bottom of the garden. Mama must be there. I jumped back into the garden and then heard the two girls running down the incline inside the garden fence.   

As I went past the coffee garden I heard them call out for Mama and then me.   



‘Oi’, I replied.   

‘I am standing next to the fence and I am eating tree tomatoes. I’ve only got three, but I’ve left the rest on the tree for you two and I am waiting.’   

They knew where the tomato tree grew and ran towards it looking for me. They held their passion fruits in their hands.   

‘Who said you could eat your passion fruit first,’ one of them said. ‘When you do that, the tomatoes will taste sour and you will not like it. You see, we are still holding onto our passion fruits.’   

‘I know but I have a very hungry stomach and I forgot. I have left some tomatoes for you. Get them and then we will go looking for Mama.’   

The girls picked the ripe tomatoes off the tree and put them in their bilums before we went further down the garden.   

We went over to a cleared spot and looked around.   

There was no sign of Mama.   


We all called out at the same time. There was no reply. A lot of times Mama would not reply when we called. Instead, if she had a spade or her amuto digging stick, she would bang it against stones or whack the kaukau mounds. We called one more time and then kept quiet to see if we could hear her usual response.   

There were no banging sounds and Dahne went to check the tree stump where the smoke was coming from.   

Mama had piled all the roots and weeds she had dug out around the stump and had set fire to them. Dahne dug a stick into the ashes to see if Mama had put any kaukaus into the fire to cook.   

I went over to my pineapple plot and found a pineapple that was half ripe. I broke it off and held it in my hands.   

Little Lotto went up onto the ridge line next to the garden and in a loud voice called for Mama. It was the time of the year when the moson tree sent up new shoots and she could be there harvesting them.   

‘Mama! Mama O!’   

There was no reply. Lotto came back down to the garden.   

I stood with Dahne and watched her pull out eight kaukaus from the ashes. Two of them were burnt black like the bottom of a saucepan. There was no way we could eat them. Of the other six, one side was burnt but the other side was not too bad. Dahne gave Lotto and me two each.   

I was now quite worried that Mama was not there in the garden. It had been nearly a week that she was sleeping at the garden house.   

I remembered that she had said she wanted to finish off the new garden plot that we were now standing in. It looked like she must have pushed the kaukaus into the warm ashes but we could not tell if she had done it yesterday or this morning.   

The kaukau did not settle well in our stomachs. Half of it was burnt and the bit that remained tasted too smoky. I decided to give my burnt kaukau to the pigs.   

Mama would regularly dig out kaukau for us and give it to Papa to bring up to the village for us. Now, however, there was none left in the house. She must have been preparing some for us and had then gone walking off to someplace. I sent Dahne over to one kaukau plot and Lotto to the next; Mama has two kaukau plots where she harvests her kaukau. Sometimes when she harvests a lot she will store some under covers in the drains.   

While the girls looked at the kaukau plots I went back to the garden house.   

Dahne came back first to say there was no kaukaus stored in the drain. Lotto came back with the same result.   

I moved aside the banana leaf mehe and pulled out the door planks and entered the house.   

‘Eh. You two, it’s alright. Mama has left a bilum of kaukau here in the house for us.’   

We were glad but where was she?   

Lotto said she was still hungry and Dahne quickly collected some dried sticks to start the fire. They put some kaukau in the fire to cook.   

Then I heard a pig call out.   

Dahne went out to call to the pig and it called her back. She went to find it and called up to the house.   

‘Taluo! The pig’s rope is all twisted and the pig is in a sorry state. You find a knife and come cut the bush that the pig’s rope is tangled up in.’   

I looked for a bush knife inside the house and found one behind the centre post. Lotto knew where Mama kept her knives and pulled out another one. I compared them for their sharpness, selected one and took that outside.   

Mama had three sows. She had tied this one near a swampy area but there was no shade there and the sun had beaten down strongly on it. The pig must have suffered in the heat, and it was panting terribly. It had laid down with froth foaming from its mouth and it was gasping for air. I did a quick job cutting away the bushes and Dahne pulled it down to the nearby creek to cool it off. It just wanted to drink water however.   

I made grunting noises trying to find the other two pigs and another sow made some noise. I went down to it and saw another twisted rope. This pig was a bit luckier because it was in the shade of a moson tree. Nevertheless, it was frothing heavily at the mouth too and it was panting terribly. I cut all the grass that had tangled in its rope and when it was free pulled it down to the creek.   

Dahne held onto both of them in the creek while I went to look for the third pig.   

I called out for a while and did not hear any return grunting. I had nearly given up when I heard a weak grunt. I felt sorry for this pig. Ma had tied it further away down at the edge of a patch of pitpit and it had gone in there to get out of the sun. I would have to wade through some rough cane grass to get it.   

It was then that I remembered where I had harvested and stored some bananas a week ago.   


‘What is it?’ she called from the house.   

‘You go to the stinging nettle salat bushes you will see a lone one growing on one side. Underneath it, you will find some bananas. Bring a bunch or two for us to eat. I forgot about those bananas.’   

As I worked my way into the pitpit towards the sow I noticed there were a lot of blue bottle flies and there was a strong smell. I thought that perhaps they were buzzing around the pig’s droppings.   

I found the pig and it too was tangled up in its rope and was lying there looking sorrowful and panting.   

I looked down at its front legs. The rope had looped around and around one of its legs and had eaten into the skin, right to the bone. The white of the bone was very clear. I was scared but I tried to remember what Papa would do in such a situation. I was thinking that he would cut the rope off first.   

I tried to cut the rope right beside the wound but the pig screamed loudly and it made me even more scared.   

I tried to calm the pig down. I patted the mane on its neck while I talked to it. I rubbed its cheeks and its stomach. A little while later, it was calm enough to breathe slowly.   

I tried unravelling the tangled rope but it was very much caught in the pitpit and some small saplings growing there. It was also covered over with soil that the pig had dug over.  

I heard Dahne call me. I looked up and I watched her come. She must have taken the other two pigs up to the house.   

‘Dahne’, I called out to her. ‘Where did you leave the two pigs?’   

‘Both of them are at the house. Lotto is giving them kaukau and is getting them some kaukau leaves too.’   

‘Okay, tell her to leave some for this pig too. The rope has eaten into one of its front legs and I will have to cut it.’   

‘You know that Papa will be very angry with you about cutting the rope.’   

‘I know but the rope is all tangled up and I can’t free it. Besides I feel sorry for the pig.’   

It was fortunate that the pig only screamed a little bit when I cut the rope next to its wound.   

The pig stood up on its three other legs and tried to get out of the pitpit where it had been trapped.   

I looked up Dahne who was standing at the spot where the blue bottle flies were teeming.   

‘Dahne, can’t you see the flies, and don’t you smell something bad?’   

I called out to her but she did not reply. She was standing there, leaning against a stick looking with a fixed stare at the clouds on the mountains.   

I scrambled up to her.   

‘Dahne, Dahne!’ I shook her but she did not move. I looked down at the ground and immediately jerked my head up.   

The stick she was leaning on was resting on Mama’s blouse. And it was all covered in blood. I felt nauseous and held my nose at the terrible smell. I quickly cut some bushes and tree branches and leaves and covered up the blouse.   

Dahne was standing transfixed at the clouds and tears were now rolling down her cheeks.   

Delicately, I held Dahne and turned her around and pulling her by her hands, we returned to the house.   

Lotto saw her sister’s tears and berated me. ‘Why did you hit her?’   

I did not reply. I too was on the verge of tears. I went and sat Dahne down on the bed in the house and called the pigs into the house. I got each of them into their stalls and blocked off the entrances. I then threw in a few kaukau for each of them. I let the injured pig in last and put extra kaukau into its pen. It would hopefully feast on the extra kaukau and forget about the nasty cut on its leg.   

Lotto held out some cooked kaukaus for us. Dahne did not speak but indicated with her nose she did not want any. I took the kaukaus and put them into her bilum.   

I then put the remaining uncooked kaukau in another bilum and tried lifting it up to see if I could easily carry it. It was a bit heavy, and I took some out and placed them in a spot where the pigs could not get to them. At any other time, Dahne could easily carry a bigger load than me but I assessed that she was in no condition to carry any big bilums today.   

I put the kaukau bilum outside. I then loaded up the fire with a few more pieces of wood. The fire flared up to warm up the house. I found two bigger pieces of wood that I threw into the fire. These would burn slowly through the night and keep the pigs warm.   

We were now ready to move.   

Lotto readied her bilum with the pineapple and a bunch of bananas. I took the other bunch and put it inside Dahne’s bilum.   

I went and sat down with Dahne and held her tight. She said nothing. She had seen her mother’s blouse and was very worried. I too was very worried. We still had no clue where Mama could be. I did not tell Lotto what Dahne had seen.   

The fire had caught well, and I pushed in the end pieces of the heavier wood in case rats moved them and started a house fire. When the fire was going well, I told the two girls we were leaving.   

Lotto then asked:   

‘Why are we going to leave when Mama has not come yet. And where is Papa?’   

I did not reply. My throat was going to break soon. My tears were ready to fall.   

I looked out the door and replied in a soft voice. ‘I do not know where they went but we must return to the village. Otherwise, the rains will come or darkness will find us.’   

‘Why are you forcing us to go back? You are not the boss and also darkness will not rush in on us. Can’t we wait for a little while?’   

I felt like crying. I pulled at Dahne’s hand to make her stand. I slowly coaxed her outside. While she was standing, I took her bilum and placed it on her back and looped the handles onto her head.   

Lotto got her bilum onto her back and turned to the path. When she did that I saw tears on her cheeks. I was not sure if she felt sorry for her sister or was angry at me for forcing them to return to the village. Maybe she was sorry about not finding Mama and Papa. I was having the same problems; I was finding it difficult to hold back my tears too.   

The two girls started walking and I turned back to the house. I checked the fire again to see if it was burning properly. I then took the planks for the house door and fixed them in place just like Mama does. I then put the banana leaf mehe into place and crisscrossed it with pitpit canes to keep it there.   

Satisfied with my handiwork, I hoisted my bilum of kaukau onto my shoulder and followed the path up the slope towards the village.   

As I started up the path, I noticed some red soil on the ground. A bit further on I saw that the trail of red soil left the path and went into one side of the garden. I followed it beneath the leaves and garden debris. I knew the area was Mama’s special spot for raising her pumpkins. She trailed the runners over the dry red soil patch because nothing else grew there. The start of the pumpkin vine began at the base of a nearby tree stump where the soil was black.  

I examined the pumpkin vines and saw that somebody had been digging up the red soil beneath them.   

Now the hairs on my neck were all standing up. My thoughts were all in a jumbled mess.   

I tried thinking.   

Mama is not here.   

Papa came down from the village last night looking for her.   

Both of them are not here.   

The kaukau in the ashes were all burnt through and through.   

The pigs must have slept outside last night for them to be all knotted up in their lead ropes.   

There is Mama’s blouse covered with blood in the bush.   

I now see this turned red soil.   

I turned with my head down.   

My tears started slowly as I left. 

Image ‘house at Frigano, Kotiyufa village, Iufi- Iufa near Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea’ © Baka Bina

About the Author

Baka Bina

Baka Barakove Bina, or Baka Bina, is 60 years old and works at the Waigani National Court in the capital city of Port Moresby as a Registry Clerk. He has submitted to the Commonwealth Short Story Prize a few times and was shortlisted for the first time in 2022. He translated ‘What Happened to Mama?’ from […]