Sunday, January 24, 2010

In Memory: Sarah Watson of the Trobriand Islands, Papua New Guinea

There has been a death in our far-flung family – my sister's mother-in-law Sarah Watson passed away in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, where she lived all of her life. My sister relayed the news:

The day started off normally for her but by early afternoon she was feeling unwell.. She was carried to the health centre where she rested. We're not sure what treatment was provided, likely none but perhaps a saline drip (the extent of available interventions), and then she slipped away peacefully. The health officer said it was heart failure. It's rather sad that she wasn't at home but I think the relatives (Nimoa and others) would have held out hope that something could have been done for her at the health centre. Her body is back at home now and many, many people have congregated in mourning. She will be buried this afternoon before sunset in front of her house--not in the church cemetery, not in Vakuta next to her husband, [Lepani Watson] but in the ground that was her home for so many of her long years and very public and generous life. As you know, there is no morgue in Trobs and custom and commonsense require quick burial. The flights to Trobriands are on Sundays and Wednesdays. Andrew and Aggrey (Charles's cousin brother whom Sarah raised) will travel on Sunday and clear the immediate mourning. We are planning to make a trip in June for her sagali and to put up her gravestone. Sarah would have turned 81 on February 15. It is just short of a year ago that she was with us here in Canberra.

This is a day of quiet reflection, celebrating her remarkable life, and fun and playfulness, celebrating Thierry's 8th birthday. 

Thierry is the son of Andrew Lepani, one of Sarah's grandsons. Thierry is on the edge of the boat carrying Sarah, above, along with two other boys from the village. My sister says, "The person poling the boat is a young village boy. I believe it's most likely Justin, son of Wilson, Charles's cousin brother, but I can't quite make him out. The little guy with Thierry is Kennedy, also one of Wilson's sons, named after our father!" Andreas keeps this photo as the wallpaper on his computer. Sarah didn't use a computer, but she lived close to the sea all of her life. Even in old age, she was often barefoot.

The family has been collecting photos of Sarah; here are a few. In many photos she has a child in her lap. Besides her own son and daughter, she raised many other children, and she was a grandmother and great-grandmother. Below, she is with my sister's three children when they were young. And there's a photo of Nimoa, about whom Kathy says: "Nimoa is the first born son of Julie, Charles's sister. Sarah raised him from the time he was a baby, so they are very close. Nimoa always lived in the village with her and he built his house next to hers." There's a photo of Thierry here, too, in traditional dress. The final picture is one of Sarah last year visiting her son Charles's family in Canberra, Australia, standing on Mount Ainslie. (I love the sweater she is wearing there!)

Here in Indiana, far far away, we are also thinking about Sarah, wishing we had met her, and wishing we could be there to participate in the mourning. She had a huge impact on the life in her village, and led a life of great simplicity, complexity, and dignity. Our hearts go out to all of those whose lives she helped stabilize and enrich with her loving attention, day after day.

1 comment:

Joyce said...

Thank you for this posting, Elena! I've been thinking about Sarah a great deal since we heard the news of her death. We feel privileged to have met her and to have spent some time with her at her home in the Trobriand Islands.