Amid the steep Hills and forested valleys of the Eastern Highlands grows a tree which bears fruit that is soft to the touch, easily bruised, and very sweet to taste. It grows in the wild bush and is cultivated in the village gardens. The children who live in this region know that they must take special care of these trees and their fruit. This story tells how the tree first grew.
Long ago, in the village of Hiwaru, close by the Ramu River, there lived a girl called Papaya. Although she was not beautiful, she had a loving, sweet and gentle nature. The older people of the village knew this and praised Papaya, but the young men looked only at her ill-featured face and thin body, and none of them wanted her as a wife. One by one, all the other girls found husbands, but Papaya remained unmarried. Then, a young man who had recently come to live in Hiwaru with his father decided it was time he found himself a wife. He asked his father if he could find him one, and his father at once thought of the girl with the loving, sweet and gentle nature whom all the elders praised.
‘I have heard of just the wife for you, Maning my son,’ he said. ‘I will go to her parents to ask if you can marry their daughter.’
Papaya’s father and mother were very glad when Maning's father asked if his son could marry their daughter, for they had begun to think that she would never find a husband. The bride-price was settled, and the next day Maning's father came with the agreed number of pigs, pearl shells, green sea-snail shells, cowries, and bird-of-paradise feathers, all the precious things which were exchanged for a young girl. And then, according to custom, Papaya was invited to visit the House of Maning and his father.
Word soon spread around the village that papaya was to marry the handsome young Maning. The woman gossiped under the Ruga tree as they cooked in its shade, under its branches hung with baskets of food and oven stones, and the string hammocks where the babies slept out of harm's way. The young man gossiped as they sharpened their hunting weapons or helped to tend the village gardens. ‘Papaya is to marry Maning!’ they told each other. ‘Maning’s father has paid the bride price for the only girl in Hiwaru who could not find a husband!’
It wasn't long before Maning discovered that Papaya was indeed the only girl in the village that none of the other young men had wanted to marry. He felt ashamed and knew that the whole village - all the young people, at least - where mocking him for his choice.
‘I cannot marry Papaya!’ He told his father. ‘I do not like her. She will not make me a good wife. I do not want to be her husband.’
Maning's father was very angry and shouted. ‘You will marry Papaya! You will marry her whether you like her or not! Do you think I have unlimited numbers of pigs and shells and feathers to give away?’
And so it was: Maning married papaya, even though he had come to hate his bride. As for papaya, what did she feel? She was now the same as the other young woman of the village; she had a husband and she wanted to look after him. She hoped that in time he might grow fond of her and give her kind looks instead of scowls. But Maning was not a good husband to gentle papaya, even after she had borne him two fine sons. He was very strict with her, and would allow her to go to the village gardens only when there was hard work to be done, crops to sow or fruit and vegetables to gather. He forbade her to go at any other time, as the other woman did, to gather extra food or simply to enjoy themselves, singing and talking. Often papaya found that their food was all used up before she was allowed to go to the gardens to get more; This happened so often that their two sons grew thin and weak.
At last, even Papaya’s gentle and obedient nature rebelled. She made up her mind to go to the gardens to get more food in spite of her husband. But unluckily for her, she chose to visit the very garden where Maning himself had gone to work that day.
When Maning saw his wife and their sons approaching, he was furious. He hid himself in the bush, and watched papaya carefully. He saw her leave the two boys in the shade of a tree at the edge of the garden, telling Tiro, the eldest, to look after his young brother. Then, she came into the garden and bent down to dig some yams. No sooner had she done so when a spear flew from the Bush and took away her right breast. As she screamed, her husband threw a second spear which pierced her head. She fell dying to the ground. Then, her cruel husband came out from his hiding-place, dropped Papaya’s body into a pit at the end of the garden, and filled the pit with earth. Tiro and his brother, meanwhile, had seen nothing of all this.
‘Come, children,’ Maning said to his sons. ‘We are going home now.’
‘Where is our mother?’ Tiro asked.
‘She will come later,’ Maning replied.
In the evening, Tiro asked if he might go to meet his mother and help her carry home the yams. But Maning scowled and told him to go to bed.
As Tiro slept, he had a strange dream. His mother appeared before him and told him that no one would ever see her again. She said that he must go to the garden, to the place where she had tried to dig yams. There he would find a small plant growing. He was to look after the plant and see that no harm came to it.
Tiro went to the garden the next morning. There was the plant, just as his mother had described it in his dream, growing in the place where the spears had taken off her breast and pierced her head. Tiro knew that it was a completely strange plant, which no one had ever seen before. He got some sticks and built a little fence around it to protect it, and every day he went to the garden to look after it. The plant grew very fast. In seven days, it was higher than the boy himself. After one month, Tiro saw fruit growing on the tree, hard green fruit which after a few more weeks turned yellow.
‘Perhaps the fruit is right to eat now,’ the boy thought.
He plucked one: it felt cool and soft. ‘What shall I do with this fruit?’ he wondered. ‘Is it good to eat raw, or should it be cooked?’
As he sat there under the strange tree, suddenly he heard a voice say: ‘Eat!’ But he could see no one. Again, the mysterious voice spoke: ‘Eat the fruit, for it is your mother's breast, which gave you nourishment when she was alive.’
Then Tiro looked at the fruit again, and saw that in shape it indeed resembled the breast of a woman. He broke open its skin. Inside lay soft yellow flesh and a row of shiny seeds. He tasted the flesh; it was delicious, cool and sweet, much sweeter than any fruit he had eaten before.
Tiro picked more of the fruit and took it back to the village. He showed it to his father and gave a piece of it to his brother.
‘Be careful!’ His father warned as his younger son bit into the soft flesh.
‘It will not hurt him; it is our mother's breast, from which she nourished us when she was alive,’ Tiro told his father.
When Maning heard this, his face turned grey. He made Tiro tell him the exact place where the tree was growing. Then he knew that it had sprung from his wife's breast, after he had speared her.
Meanwhile, all the village had heard of the strange new fruit Tiro had found. Everyone came to taste it, and the oldest man got up and said that it was much sweeter than any other fruit he had ever known in his long life.
‘We must give this fruit a name,’ he said.
‘Let Tiro name the fruit!’ the villages said.
It was not difficult for Tiro to decide what the fruit should be called. He stood before the whole village and told all the people about the voice he had heard in the garden and the words it had spoken.
‘The name of the fruit is Papaya,’ he said proudly.
Each village was given a seed of the fruit to plant in the gardens, and that is how the papaya or pawpaw tree came to that place.
Papaya was contributed by Samira Unamba. Simira comes from Tapo village in the Eastern Highlands Province. He attended Asaroka High School, before going on to the University of Technology, Lae, to study electrical surveying. Collected by Donald S. Stokes and retold by Barbara Ker Wilson.