BOOK REVIEW: Survivor, Alive in Mum’s Loving Arms by Daniel Kumbon


In Survivor, Alive in Mum’s Loving Arms, Daniel Kumbon has skillfully presented the separate lives of three Papua New Guinean women; Tuman Kende Apuulu, Julie Kumbon and ‘Delisa Ingirum’. The fictional ‘Delisa’s’ life is as separate as the real-life accounts of the two women. However, all are connected (via ancestral or marriage) to the province of Enga.

An initiative of Keith Jackson AM (Editor and Publisher, PNG Attitude blog), the 2016 McKinnon-Paga Hill Fellowship Scheme facilitated the book’s publication, and so; it is fitting that readers are introduced to the trio of stories by his Foreword.

Culminating as a two-week Australian literary tour, dear friends met with Kumbon and two fellow PNG writers (Francis Nii and Martyn Namorong) in Noosa and Sydney. I was delighted to meet the Fellowship writers, along with book identity, Julie Kumbon, upon their arrival in Brisbane. The scheduled stop-over coinciding with our presentation at Brisbane Writers Festival 2016 (BWF16). A first for contemporary Papua New Guinean writers.

It is perhaps the author’s well-considered question for the BWF16 audience “What do you want to read about Papua New Guinea” that led to this publication. Responding to the audience’s demand to hear more positive stories about Papua New Guinean women, Kumbon has diligently conveyed the traits and characteristics of the nation’s womenfolk, that deserves ongoing amplification.

In an overly saturated narrative that emphasises Papua New Guinea’s trajectory of gender inequality, domestic violence, polygamy, tribal warfare, revenge (payback) killing and customary bride price, it is (disappointingly) easy to overlook the strong-will and self-initiative of the population. As evidenced through the lives of Tuman, Julie and Delisa, today’s women of developing nations come from a line of individuals, whose daily tasks includes that navigating the friction of desire for individual progress and expectations to adhere to embedded societal culture and traditions. It is a perspective that is imperative in delivery and, so crucial to understanding the people-community dynamics in countries like Papua New Guinea.

An experienced and well-travelled journalist, Daniel Kumbon has elected a front-cover colour portrait image of his book’s first biographical subject, Tuman Kende Apuulu.

Developed around email correspondence, readers are familiarised with Kumbon’s compassion, thoughtful questioning and fatherly wisdom to the 22-year old, Papua New Guinean-born, New Zealand resident. Although strangers at the outset, both were united in 2016 through a tragic, most horrendous crime that occurred twenty-one years earlier.

In 1995, prominent Engan man (Leo Kende) his Samoan wife (Fa’ala’ula’u Kende Apulu) and a son from Kende’s first wife were ambushed and slain as they travelled along the highway, leading out of Wabag town, Enga Province. At two months old, Tuman was the daughter and sole-survivor of that roadside family massacre.

Witnessing the Kende family driving past the town’s main market just minutes prior that fateful day, Kumbon would go on to file newspaper reports about the incident. Immediate relocation to New Zealand under the guardianship of her matrilineal relatives, Tuman’s connection to Papua New Guinea has been sustained over the years through online searches, second-hand opinions and speculative information about her family’s tragedy. It is an ongoing journey that Kumbon has selflessly assigned himself, speaking much truth, to support a fellow countrywoman to reconnect with a nation from which she was extracted, two decades ago.

In line with what society deems acceptable, four people were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Mt Hagen National Court. Yet other incidents may not necessarily receive the same measures, are interspersed in Tuman’s story. Events that occurred in Wabag, subsequent to the Kende murders but continue to impinge nation-wide progress in PNG; instances of atrocious violence against women and the shifting trends in the traditional rules of engagement in tribal warfare.

However, most significant to that of Tuman’s story is that of, revenge killings. Kumbon’s in-depth narration of this most complex and intricate process are, equally, unfathomable and chilling as its’ continued practice. For the Papua New Guinean reader with a lifetime connection to nation and people struggling to comprehend this form of ‘payback, it is unnerving to consider how Tumans view such vigilantism.

A Woman’s Prayer from a Polygamous Household is the story of Julie Kumbon; her childhood and eventual marriage to the author. It is a life that has been lived predominantly in rural PNG, exit early from formal education and strict adherence to custom and traditions. A childhood marked with sorrow, moving swiftly from adolescence to marriage then motherhood, it is Julie’s delicate balancing of selflessness, genuine humility and self-awareness of unprovoked capabilities that exemplifies the Papua New Guinean woman, the individual, that I am in most awe and admiration.

To be raised in, then join a household in which traditional polygamy is a conscious choice that Julie and many other women throughout Papua New Guinea have made and, continue to make. And yet, it is apparent that Kumbon has reservations about this age-old practice continuing into the future. “From my experience, I feel that the practice is not suited in this modern cash economy. It has certainly been hard and challenging to maintain my own family” Kumbon wrote to the young woman Tuman, early on in their correspondence.

Kumbon reiterates this stance, highlighting his advocacy for gender equality, in his short story, The Old Man, his Wife and the Young Girl. Akali and Rosemary Wakane’s unexpected encounter with the primary school-aged Delisa Ingirum leads to sequence of death, the importance of girls’ completion of formal education whilst aligning personal conduct with traditional practice and cultural obligations. Wakane, a well-known lawyer, diplomat, entrepreneur and charity-founder is portrayed as a man whom whilst influential, upholds integrity, not succumbing to the exploitation of the vulnerable. It is a wonderful demonstration of the use of fiction to address the gaps society requires increased, individual effort, particularly by that of the nation’s menfolk.

Coupled with Kumbon’s candid language, Survivor, Alive in Mum’s Loving Arms includes a brief glossary that enlists terms in Tok Pisin as well his region’s dialect. Dialogue translation of whole sentences (Tok Pisin –English) appear throughout the book which may prove as useful to the vernacular speaking and non-speaking reader. -

Survivor, Alive in Mum’s Loving Arms is Daniel Kumbon’s fifth book, of which four have been published under Pukpuk Publications. July 2017, 172 pages, ISBN-10:1973724979, ISBN-13:978-1973724979 .

An edited version of this book review was first published in 2017 on the blog 'PNG Attitude'.

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