PAPUA NEW GUINEA

PAPUA NEW GUINEA VISIT - PART 4

         

SAC-SAC TEMPLE AND PUK-PUK RIVER

The big frog in the Melanesian pool is the island of New Guinea: here live over two million of the whole region's two and a half million people. Over two million has a hollow ring when you think of Japan's over eighty million or Java's over forty. But, in size, New Guinea is indeed the big frog of the whole Pacific, it is twice as big as the Japanese archipelago and six times the size of Java.

New Guinea is easily the most mountainous island, and these mountains beget what we do not usually associate with Pacific islands-big rivers. The Dutch half of New Guinea has its Idenburg, which I do not know at all; the Papuan quarter has its Fly, which I know about half-way up and do not find specially interesting; and the other quarter, the Australian trusteeship part called the Territory of New Guinea, has the Sepik. The Sepik is the longest-though not by much-and it is the big river in the sense that in New Guinea you think of the Sepik much as in south America you would of the Amazon or in Africa of the Congo.

I first saw the Sepik through the shimmer of the airscrew of a Qantas aircraft flying to Wewak in mid-1952, and it looked like an enormous flat snake twisting away across its plain lit with lakes and marshes, serpentining so much that some of its bends came near to forming islands. All rivers look moveless from the air if you fly high, even rushing torrents do, but you could feel the slowness of this great slack stream curling out of the haze so tortuously, as though it wanted to put off its meeting with the sea. Down there, the Sepik might give the impression of being very potent where it entered the ocean-the spill of its mudstained waters flooded right out to those little islands. but, from up here, you could see how vast was the stretch of unstained blue beyond the little islands, and you knew that the triumph belonged to the beautiful succubus sea.

For all that, the Sepik had achieved a good deal before it poured out its life - the life that was constantly being renewed by the perennial rains on the roof of the island away to the south-west, where if you flew for an hour or two into the haze it would blacken where if you flew for an hour or two into the haze it would blacken into mountains. The Sepik had managed to run a course of over seven hundred miles across a corner of the Territory only two hundred miles wide. I was to fly into those mountains and see, near Telefolmin patrol post, the Sepik newly born, a brat of a torrent spanned by a little cane bridge I would cross in four strides. And here it was voiding itself mightily between banks that had widened out to a mile apart. The Sepik being navigable by launches for about three hundred miles, it was part of my plan to fly to Ambunti and come down the river from thee. I was not to know that the Osprey, the big launch the Administration was kindly sending up to Ambunti to get me, would break down when it got there. Had I known this would happen I might not have gone to Ambunti-and that would have been a great pity because I should have missed meeting Sepik Robbie, and missed coming down the river with By-the-way Bill.

My first concern would be to get from Wewak to a place named Maprik, a short flight inland to the west and about thirty miles off the river. There, I knew, I would find a particular type of house-tamberan, sacred house, or temple: Margaret mead the anthropologist defines tamberan as "something the uninitiated must not see". Pictures I had seen of the exteriors of these structures were fascinating. I could find no pictures of what was inside. Well, here was Wewak coming up, with its big-place strip at Boram, and that must be the small-place strip in behind the town that scattered its few European houses out on to the brilliantly green round headland jutting into the royal-blue sea - Wewak where the Japanese in New Guinea had surrendered six years before, a hell-gate grown pretty with hibiscus again. Yet there were still the rusty bodies of landing barges on a foreshore, and those deep round ponds were bob-craters. There was no hotel yet, but I would stay with the District Commissioner, who would arrange to get me flown out on the supply planes to the places I wanted to go to - first of all to Maprik.

House-Temberan

Sitting up front beside the pilot of the single-engined Norseman with its cabin full of cargo, I got the best of views of a curious feature of the landscape as we headed out over the  low end of the Torricelli mountains. Along some of the jungled ridges the tres are cut out in deep oblongs so that the skyline of a ridge has a castellated look, like battlements. The natives cut down a patch of trees on a ridge-top and across the cutting they raise a net. When flying-foxes come over the ridge at night they hit the nets and fall down, and the hunters pounce on their tangled quarry. The black bockis as he is called in pidgin, is good kai-kai, good food. Perched on the smaller ridges of the broken, rich, volcanic country that is hung with viney jungle and flagged with coconut palms, are the villages. You spot them by the bright brown earth between the houses as much as by the pattern of their gardens of yams and taro, sugarcane and bananas and, in the lower watery places, the dark green gush of sac-sac, sago, palms.

House-Tambaran

As we near Maprik the houses change. See them from behind, flying low, and they are triangular wedges. The roof and walls are one razor-backed thatch of dry sac-sac palmleaf, and they peak up to a front like a forward-leaning tent; the front is open. Suddenly, there is the father-and-mother of all these houses, a giant-size version with a great arch to its sharp back, risen up out of a cluster of those dwarfed wedges and thrust forward like the beak of some enormous bird. We are over it before I can see more than that its front is closed, and that this facade has some kind of patterning on it, in colours. In that first glimpse of a big house-tamberan, from the air, I did not get any real impression of the artistry of the structure or of its height. Maprik appeared then, its green carpet of airstrip rolled out, like the fairway of some lush golf-course. The Screw River wriggled out of the jungled hills, picking its way between grey boulders and almost losing the flash of its stream in the luxuriant greens that banked it. Soon I was to regard Maprik as one of earth's most attractive green places, to share the affection for it Rupe Haviland evidenced when he said that some people waiting on his veranda for a plane to come in had begun to count the shades of green in the view, and they had counted seventeen different greens. 

Rupert Haviland-Senior since young Rupe has followed his father into Native Affairs as a patrol Officer-was the Assistant District Officer, the Kiap. who was down at the airstrip to meet me. He was close to fifty, lean and dark, and with my kind of moustache (the resemblance was to come in handy); and a cheerful air went with the competency that would move him before very long into the job of a District commissioner. Nowadays there is  no District Officer title' A.D.Os run sub-districts, Rupe Haviland, with his Patrol Officers and Cadets, ran the Maprik one. We went up on his wide-verandaed bungalow, the house-kiap. There were few other houses-the patrol Officer's, the Medical Assistant's over near the native hospital, the missionary's back on a hill, the couple by the airstrip where two traders and a recruiter lived. Even before he pointed out Adam in Ochre in his bookshelf, said "make yourself at home" and opened a bottle of Negrita Rhum, I was liking rube Haviland, and his wife.

"We can take a walk up to one of the villages before kai, if you want to," he said; and the three of us did that. I liked the way every native we passed along the narrow climbing track got a word from the Kiap.

"Apinoon," he said, the pidgin for "Good afternoon"
"Apinoon, two-fella masta. Apinoon, missus," came back, or they said it first.

Most of the shy-eyd women we passed on the track were bare-breasted above their swinging fibre skirts, but all the men had calico lap-laps round their loins. so it was slightly a shock to walk into a village, in company with a newly met white woman, and see most of the men there stark naked. Mrsl Haviland was quite used to that but, up to this time, all the New Guinea and Papuan people I had seen had had some sort of pubic covering, even if it was, at Lake Murray, only a shell like the cap of an acorn. However, we did not walk straight into this village when we entered through its bamboo palisade. The houses stood away on the other side of a steep dip-except one. This open-fronted triangular house contained nothing but a huge cylindrical log, about two feet through and twice as long as a man and, leaning against the log, what looked like a big wooden hardwood club. As the Kiap picked this up I could see that the log had a long slit in it, that it was hollow inside; and I knew it for the log-drum or log-gong called a garamut. Using the beater end-on, he gave the garamut four slow, solid, resounding thumps, then he hit it four times more, quick and close-together.  

"Four long, four short-that's my call-sign," he said. Now that the Kiap had announced himself, we went down the dip and up the other side into the village proper. From the outside the palisade I had seen the great peaked top of the sac-sac temple, the house-tamberan, and from the garamut house more of it could be seen over the tops of the other houses, and even from down in the dip it was still there, overtopping everything, three times the height of the tallest coconut palm. It was hooded at the top and the sides projected forward of the leaning facade, to shield from the weather its still-indistinct design of colours. When we emerged through the houses and out into the bare-earth square in front of it, I could see the whole facade, the whole art and front architecture of the most impressive structure I have ever seen or hope to see in New Guinea. 

"Isn't it a beauty!" Rupe Haviland said, and, "it's all of a hundred feet high!"

It must have been thirty feet wide at the base, and for twenty feet up it was plain basket weave cane. Then there was a row of round, carved and brightly painted wooden faces right across. Above that, and all the way to the peak, were flat sewn-together sheets of smooth sago-palm bark, and these were painted in the way that makes the native art of the Sepik region the most dramatic and dynamic in the whole south Seas. The designs were of faces, long and vivid faces with staring ringed eyes, each with a scarlet peak of head-dress over an ochre-yellow band and a cleft, black forehead that had its design repeated in the open mouth. That was the lower row, all the same. There were variations in the other rows that went up one above the other on this soaring facade, but in those, too, the design was very good and the placement of the colour was strong and beautiful. And it was all lit with the blaze of the sun going down behind us. The signal on the garamut that the Kiap had come had brought out the luluai, the chief who was also the Administration-recognized headman of the village. he was about forty, lean but muscular, very dark, and he had the hooekd nose which these people regard as handsome. His hair was shaved back and made his forehead look high. His name was Surunjui. On his left arm Surunjui wore a plaited fibre armlet. Apart from that he was naked.  

"Apinoon, Surunjui," the Kiap said, and again we got "Apinoon, two-fella masta. Apinoon, missus." Rube Haviland explained in pidgin that I was man bilong Australia who had come to lookim goodfella house-tamberan bilong place bilong Surunjui.
"You should see them building one of these houses," Rupe Haviland said. "A great scaffolding first, of bush timber lashed with vines-they clamber and swing round up there like a pack of squirrels. It's amazing."
He sketched in the air how big central uprights are put in to hold the ridgepole that leans at an angle of about sixty degrees.
Sometimes I catch myself calling this my house-tamberan," he went on and added firmly, "No missionary is going to touch it while I'm at Maprik!"

I said that, surely, no missionary would want to tear down such art and architecture, a thing erect with so much native pride, even if it was pagan and did stand fairly in the road of Christianity. It had values of its own. You have to go round such things: you don't knock them over.

"Some missionaries are quite all right - and they've got my fullest respect for what they're trying to do," the Kiap said. "Others - they look at a thing like this and all they see is heathenism and an affront to the Lord and a personal challenge to them to get rid of it."

(Afterwards I learnt that Rupe Haviland had had a run-in with a missionary who had told the natives that some of their carved figures were quite indecent, and had put calico lap-laps on the carvings. The A.D.O. had taken the calico off. And I heard about the game Patrol Officer over at Drekikir who had put a Catholic missionary on an arson charge over the burning down of some initiation houses.) I couldn't take my eyes off the house-tamberan. In one corner of the base was a small round hooded entrance. A man would have to bend double to go in.

"What are the chances, Rupe, of getting inside?"
He considered this, then said, "It's supposed to be tambu. I doubt if he'll let you. But we'll see."
He added, "Not now. You'll be here for a while. D oesn't do to rush these things." He paused. "A couple of tins of meat might help. ..." Then he looked at me squarely and said, "It's up to Surunjui. Of course I could order him to take you in. He'd be shocked - still, I doubt if he'd refuse. But it doesn't do to work that way."
I said to Surunjui, "Kiap e brother bilong you, eh?" The headman nodded and smiled. Then he looked from one to the other of us, touched his upper-lip as he noted our similar moustaches, and pointed to me as he said to Rube Haviland, "Brother bilong you?"

The Kiap explained that I was no brother true, but he left an impression that a kind of brotherly relationship existed as it did between himself and Surunjui. This, I pointed out, made me a sort of brother of Surunjui's also, but I did not press it too hard because Surunjui, though he seemed pleased at the idea, was nobody's fool. The week before I arrived at Maprik a number of initiated boys had been taken inside this temple. They had been picked up and handed in through the small doorhole and men waiting inside had taken the boys in their arms and passed them from one to another, face up, and when they had been set down it was in front of the sacred glaxy of the tamberans. It was, once again, a case of hearing, "You should have been here last week." But the final dances of initiation time and of yam-harvest time were still going on. And what I did not see I learnt from John Neve.

John Neve was the tall, pale, quietly-spoken, earnestly intelligent Area Education Officer who ran the Government school at Balapwine, three miles out (and who had studied anthropology at the University of Sydney). Never have I seen a better-functioning school, or one wehre the teaching made more sense. He had seventy boys, and some adults who came part-time in the day and were mostly naked. He also ran a night school that brought ninety adults down from the villages, which is nearly incredible because a native thinks of night-time as haunted with dangerous maselai, spirits, and he does not go out at night unless he wants something badly. The night school had begun with an old man asking Neve to teach him to read and write, so that he could write letters in pidgin to his son who had gone away to work on a plantation. Neve had said, "All right, you come down on Thursday nights and I'll teach you." The old man came and others came with him and now ninety were coming, because they wanted badly to learn to read and write.   

The boys learnt pidgin English first, but now half of them had gone on to learning proper English. They learnt arithmetic, so that they could keep account of money when they came to earn it. They learnt hygiene, and they learnt about the outside world, mainly from film strips, some of which John Neve made himself. They learnt improved methods of agriculture, in the big gardens that stretched right round the school and fed they day-boys and the boarders. Everything was related as far as possible to their own environment: yam (not cat or Jesus) was the first word they learnt to spell. No available schoolbooks gave Neve what he wanted to teach, so he wrote his own. He printed them on a duplicating machine, in up to seven colours. It was a forerunner school, an experiment that allowed the zealous teacher to alter old techniques of education and formulate new ones as he saw fit. An article had already appeared about it in a UNESCO bulletin, calling it one of the most interesting experiments in the world in fundamental education.

A local missionary gave a half-hour Scripture lesson a week, to all boys who wanted to attend. The rest of the teaching was education for life, not education for religion, and the results this Government school was getting male some of the Mission schools look pretty silly. John Neve's initial difficulty had been to convince the natives that he was not a missionary, and that he was not in the least concerned about changing their beliefs - which he had proceeded to study. So he knew when the yam festival would be and when the boys would be initiated, and he arranged his school vacations to coincide with these important events in the tribal life. At these times the boys would not have come to school anyway, or if they had come they would have felt badly about missing the ceremonies, and conflict would have been created that would have been bad for them and bad for the school. Yam festivals are held every year, but years may elapse between initiations, which require great preparation and arrangements that involve other villages, and the carving and painting of a whole new set of tamberans. When the time comes, some of the initiates may be youngsters and others, who were too young at the last ceremonies, may be in their teens.

The boys who are to be initiated live apart in special houses in the bush for several months. Each boy is in charge of a sponsor, usually his father's tribal "mate", called a chambera. The boys are forbidden to eat certain foods, they are not allowed to wash, and they are secluded from all contact with women, as part of the preparation for putting behind them the son-and-mother relationship of carefree childhood and taking their places in the tribal life of the men. They learn the tribal lore and responsibilities in what is like a school or a seminary, with a monitor to each boy and the old men coming to give them instruction. Here they learn the unwritten bible of myths that are to them the great male-secret truths of the spirit life, the testaments of the ancestors. They are given commandments of obligation and taboo. And they are made ready for the magical communion when they will see the sacred images, the tamberans. Tribal convention is that the occasion of initiation must be branded indelibly on the boys' minds, and their fortitude must be tested now on the threshold of becoming men - which in the past meant becoming warriors on whose courage the very existence of the tribe depended. so there is the ordeal of the beatings.

The boys are taken back to the village and the men of another village come, dressed in all their finery. The beating is always done by men from another village. They do not beat too hard because next time it will be their own boys who are being beaten by the men of this village. In the square in front of the house-tamberan they form a narrow line of, say, forty men in two close lines and each holds behind his back a stick, not a very thick stick but not a wand either. round the stick they used to wind a stinging nettle or thorny vine, but now the Administration has stepped in and put a tambu on the use of nettles and vines. some Missions want the Kiaps to stop the beatings altogether. Administration policy says that native custom will be respected 'except where it is in conflict with the principles of humanity or contrary to the laws of the Territory". The Kiap here says he knows the beatings are painful but he does not consider them inhuman or illegal. They are an integral part of the socio-religious culture and he is not going to use the force of law to make the people give up such customs and accept Christianity - it is the job of the Missions to convince them that Christianity is better than what they have and to get them to become Christians voluntarily. Also, he says, if he forbids the beatings these will still go on, secretly, in the bush, and the nettles and thorns will be used. He will never be able to police such a law, and much bad feeling with the natives will be created. it is better that the custom continues in its "humanized" form, openly, where he can keep an eye on it.   

The missionary may argue that the beating is, still, inhuman, that the basis of law in a Christian society is the Ten commandments, the first of which proscribes heathenism. Tribal existence no longer depends on the fortitude of its warriors and so, he says, with pacification of the area, there is no social necessary for the practice. And the missionary knows well that, once a boy is initiated, it is ten times as hard to make a Christian of him. Christianity has everything to gain if the practice is stopped. Administration stands to lose much in good relations with the natives if it precipitates the stoppage. One can see both sides of the question. As to the actual beating, the boys climb on the backs of their chamberas, and these men run down the line of the men with the sticks, run as hard as they can and, as they run the gauntlet with the boys on their backs, the men with the sticks whack the boys on the backs and the buttocks. I have not seen it: John Neve, who has, says that the blows may break the skin and draw blood but that the boys are not "lacerated", that smaller boys are let off lightly, that a very small boy is not beaten at all, his father running the gauntlet and taking the blows for him (which would appear to defeat the purpose of the rite), and that few boys cry out or shed tears from this pain. Neve does not regard it as "inhuman".

All this time the sacred flutes are blowing, the tamberan flutes made of seed-pods with two holes. The sounds of the flutes are supposed to be the voices of the spirits calling. The boys, who have never seen the flutes, are taken aside and each is presented with a flute, placed in his hands by his chambera, who probably made the flute himself. Then the men sing, and the song is about all that is being done for the boys and how they must be worthy and not forget their obligations to their elders and sponsors. Each boy is expected to pay his chambers a pig, after the ceremonies. He is expected to catch a wild pit himself, by setting one of the nets used to trap pigs. He is not supposed to be allowed to drink ordinary water until he does so: He is expected to subsist, for fluids, on juices such as sugarcane and on soup. But sometimes his relatives buy a pig for a boy to give to his chambera. The man take the boys down to the river, and there the penis glans is is nicked so that a little blood flows. This is done by many tribes, as a symbolic cleansing of their boys' bodies of the mothers' blood, the weak feminine blood-in pidgin the practice is called loosim blut bilong mamma - so that their bodies will grow firm and male and strong.

Then the boys are taken into the house-tamberan. All that part had just passed when I got to Maprik. The boys were back in the village, but they were still in a house apart, still under food taboos and living mainly on yam soup, and having to avoid all contact with women. The dances for them were still going on and these merged with the dances of the yam-harvest festival, for initiation are always held at the main "fertility" time of the year, the time of the yams. Lat one afternoon I went, with John Neve, up to a village of Minje where the headman is Karungarel, and where we knew there would be big dancing that night. Headmen are usually forceful personalities even when they are old, and Karungarel, who wouldn't have been more than forty, was particularly so. Naked except for a shell necklet, with two small bright orange flowers in his black woolly hair, his stocky broad-shouldered body was packed with a vitality that jutted to his mobile lips, flashed in his rather large eyes and thrust out in his throaty voice when he gave a command. He took us to see the "line of the village yams.

I had seen yams that looked like enormous, lumpy sweet-potatoes, but never yams like these before. They were smooth and round and tapered at the ends, the average would have been four or five inches through, most were as long or longer than I am, and one of them was about nine feet. The pride of the harvest, these yams were decorated, bound round with garlands of grasses and flowers. They were displayed by being tied to poles that leant up against a bamboo palisade that ran off from one end of the big house-tamberan. (Minje had two: a big one not as big as Surunjui's and a smaller one that was Karungarel's private temple.) Yams are so important to these people that the only anthropologist who has studied them, Dr Phyllis Kaberry, speaks of their "yam cult" as being on a par with the "tamberan cult". She says that for their other staple, taro, they have a term that dismisses it as "mere food". for yams there is ritual and magic. When a man is planting his yams he makes an invocation to the sun and the moon and to his ancestors to prosper their growth. At this time he abstains from intercourse with his wife and will not even touch her sexually. Women (says Dr Kaberry) are inimical to the yams and are forbidden to enter the large yam gardens for the whole time the yams are in the ground. Food offerings are made to the tamberan images to promote the yams' growth. There are special names for the great yams, the ones that are eight feet or longer.

The biggest yams we saw at Minje would not be eaten. Some would be cut up for seed. Others would be given away, usually to man's special "mate" in another clan. some would, later, go to Surunjui's village, whose people were coming to dance that night. The yams would be paraded through the square to the thumping of garamuts, the beating of drums, the blowing of conch shells. Visitors would come from other clans to admire them. some yams would even be decorated further with masks and plumes and shells as well as the grasses and flowers. In the procession the growers would walk beside their yams chanting about how they grew them. If he had a great yam, a jagulait or a tabmanero, a man would call himself by that name. In the eyes of the people, a man took on the stature of his yam. The anthropologist says that, "Often the yams are spoken of as being 'like' men, since they also have spirits", and that they are associated with male strength and status, with self-discipline and hard labour in the gardens, with long nights of vigil spent in protecting them from the pigs. yams also had sex: the kind with the bifurcated tip was always spoken of as female.

Some of the Minje yams had already been presented to the initiated boys, who were in a special house that faced on to the village square. Their yams hung suspended by vine ropes from the sloping ceiling, hung level over their heads like round tapering rafters, or, I thought, like a row of thin dirty torpedoes. The boys, when we came, were all sitting on the floor of the hut round two fires, with their chamberas. Their bodies were charcoaled and their faces marked with paint. I did not notice any wounds on their backs from the beatings. Clay pots of white yam soup were being passed round-the only form of water they were allowed. It was odd to see a group of native boys so solemn, showing none of the merriment that usually bubbles through, none of the perky curiosity that ordinarily centres on a white stranger who is hung with mysterious camera-gear. They were grave and tense, their eyes rolled nervously but they barely looked at us and, feeling like intruders, we went away.

Darkness came down as, seated on a sago-palm trunk Karungarel had ordered to be carried in for us, John Neve and I ate some food we had brought. The villagers are, too, and the fires from their huts threw a thin glow out on to the square in front of the house-tamberfan. Then a man came out with a flaring torch of dry palm fronds, and we could see by this light the long painted faces on the temple facade staring down with their target eyes. John said these face-figures are called walesagi, they represent ancestral spirit-beings, the ones who made the land and taught the tribe its rites. They are there in front of the people all the time as reminders that the ceremonies that fulfil the life of the tribe and honour its "gods" must always be performed. He had asked about these designs, going over them feature by feature with the natives. They told him that what we take to be just a nose in a face is also the chest of the body that what I described as a mouth is a mouth, yes, but is also represents the belly; but the schoolteacher could not yet understand, from what the natives said, why this should be so. Religions are so complex; faith makes a montage not a clear image; beliefs do not articulate themselves as reasons, I thought, as we looked at the walesagi faces, their shapes and colours moving in the torch-light on the great peaked facade leaning out of the night with its ever-present, ever-watching Holy Ghosts of the tribe. We were waiting for the dancers. 

Papua New Guinea Visit - Part 5

Papua New Guinea Home Page
Papua New Guinea Tribal Art - Sepik Region
Papua New Guinea Tribal Art Home Page
Papua New Guinea Tribal Art
Papua Home Page
Oceania Postcards and Picture Galleries
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page

   
Pacific Islands Radio Stations
 
 
 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 23rd March 2009)
      
yahoo.gif (465 bytes)

eXTReMe Tracker