So yesterday I was running an errand and stopped at a railroad crossing. To keep myself amused I was checking out a couple vanity plates on the cars in front of me. I saw one and thought “Awww, they love their mom.” and then after a few seconds I realized that either that person speaks some Onobasulu or their license plate means something different. I grabbed my phone and snapped a quick picture before the light turned green.
Let me explain my confusion. Even after 3+ years away from Papua New Guinea, away from Onobasulu speakers, away from Tok Pisin and all the cultural differences, some things are still stuck in my mind. Nae is the Onobasulu word for mother and it is also used in referring and speaking to people. Women are called by their firstborn child’s name plus mother. For example, my mother would be Benjaminnae. I spent time with, talked to and referred to women this way. Sarahnae, Elinae, Waganae, Famelanae, Ludinae and the list goes on. I heard kids call their mothers often, echoing across the house or the village depending on how loud they were calling. The cry of “nae-oooo” is still seared in my mind from the time we helped set a boys broken arm. Yes, the teenager was in so much pain that he was crying for his mother. Nae is just one of those unforgettable words.
I’m pretty certain that I don’t know the people in that car. The Onobasulu community is small enough that I would know personally or know of any Western people connected to the Onobasulu people community in some way. And by that same logic, i’m pretty certain that nae is being used here as a term of endearment for a grandma or someone else. But I’m glad that we had to stop at the railroad crossing yesterday. I look forward to the time when I get to head back out to Walagu and see the Onobasulu people again but for now I will cherish all the sweet memories and hold on to every reminder that comes my way, even from a random license plate.