It was the sixth funeral in the village of Sakalem since the drought began, said the clan leader, and the biggest of them all - more than 100 people had gathered from all over the district, dressed in cheap colourful clothes and the distinctive knitted hats of the New Guinea Highlands.
The first one to perish had been a 15-year-old boy; then there was an old man and an old woman. But the two who died after that were grown men, followed by a baby whose mother couldn't produce enough milk. The most recent victim was Kaup Kauga, a chieftain of the Aika clan and a man popular throughout the district, although he died in much the same way as all of them.
Shortly after the bitter frost, which froze soil already singed from months of drought, Kaup Kauga ate a sweet potato which had been lying in the ground. The tuber was bad; the chief, who was only in his forties, became ill. There was nothing good to feed him, and he grew worse. By the time they took him down to the little clinic in the village of Tambul, he was dying. "His stomach was all shrunk, because he had eaten so little," said Nitson Kupe, who works for the Tambul district office. "If they had brought him in earlier, maybe they could have helped him."
They took the chief to the nearest doctor in the town of Mount Hagen, a bone-rattling two-hour journey in a four-wheel drive, through knee-deep streams and along rocky unsealed roads. A week ago he died there, and yesterday they buried him in Sakalem.
There wasn't much visible grief, although there isn't much energy for grief in the Highlands these days. Four more people are dying of food poisoning, according to the new clan chieftain; he was quite confident of more funerals.
Many of the children were listless; nearly all of them have diarrhoea and recently specks of blood have been appearing in it. At the Tambul clinic, the nurses have treated five or six times as many malnutrition cases than usual, and last month 41 children under five were treated for pneumonia. There has been one death from suspected typhus and most alarming of all, emergency first aid cases are up - people who have stabbed or beaten one another up in fights over food.
As many as 600 have died in neighbouring West Papua, part of Indonesia. So far as anyone knows, nobody in Papua New Guinea itself has literally died of hunger. It is too early to call this a famine, although time may turn it into one. But the situation in Tambul is a reminder that you do not need outright starvation to kill people, that droughts and crop failures have many different ways of stealing lives, and that disasters of this kind rarely happen evenly.
In many parts of Papua New Guinea, life is continuing almost as normal, despite the hardship caused by the long dry spell. But in Tambul, an area of the Western Highlands with a population of some 50,000, people are already dying as a result of the food shortages.
No one on the ground is in any doubt that the next two weeks will be critical: either merciful weather and effective relief will bring the situation under control; or Tambul faces a disaster in which the individual fate of Chief Kaup will soon become a distant memory.
If the Highlands of Papua New Guinea are remembered at all by the world at large it is, ironically, as Gardens of Plenty. Of all the world's tribal people, those who live here remained undisturbed by modernity the longest - until 1933, decades after the coastal areas were settled by Dutch, British and eventually German colonists. The tribes who lived here used stone tools, wore ceremonial tattoos and face paint and fought one another in vicious feuds which could carry on for generations. They had not discovered glass, or even the wheel. But they had perfected a beautiful form of garden agriculture - mounds of tilled earth containing beans, sugar cane, yams and sweet potatoes, carefully drained and fenced off from domesticated hogs.
Today these gardens are a waste land. Throughout South and East Asia, as a result of the atmospheric phenomenon known as El Nino, the usual cycles of heavy tropical rain have been delayed. In Tambul, local people say that there has been no heavy rain since January. Fleshy produce like tomatoes quickly dried up, and cabbages are withered and leathery, leaving only the sweet potatoes.
But a second disaster struck in August - hard frost, which killed even the potato plants. In the last week there have been rain showers, but this has made things worse. The streams are no longer dried out, but the moisture has speeded up the decomposition of the tubers in the earth and stimulated pests without quenching the soil.
"Even if rain fell tomorrow, the situation would still be serious," said Merlly Kuruma, director of the government agricultural agency in Tambul. "These people need food to eat, but they also need things to plant for next year. But here things grow slowly and it will be months before their new crops are ready, so they need to be fed throughout that period as well."
People walking home from the funeral said that they have not eaten since Monday. The school is open only in the mornings, and even then fewer than half its pupils are turning up. Children can be seen sitting in the fields hunting for insects to eat, and in other areas, people are eating ferns, as well as possums and rats. It is a sign of how serious things have become that many families have started selling their only form of capital - their pigs - to raise cash to go shopping in the inflated markets.
The concept of "living memory" is a limited one in these parts, where few people live past 60. But the only year comparable to this was in 1942, nine years after the Highlands emerged from the Stone Age. "That was when I was a small boy," said one old man yesterday, "and there was a second frost, even worse than the first. It drove all the people out, it was two years before they came back. We expect that big frost any day, but this time I will not escape. I just want to die and be buried here on my land."Reuse content