Papua New Guinea: The big white man is crowned chief (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

Clearly, the spirits of the ancestors were not happy at a white man being involved in the ancient rituals of Papua New Guinea's Ramu people.

As Justin Friend - very large and very, very white - was invested as a chief of Watam village, the heavens were split with flashes of lightning, thunder roared angrily and torrential rain fell upon us.

The dancing and singing continued despite the storm, and Justin was duly presented with a necklace of dog's teeth, a headdress of pig tusks, shells and cassowary feathers, and a woven billum bag with a design only a chief may carry.

But although the villagers were obviously delighted with the occasion, the vile weather made it clear that someone higher up was displeased.

Watam village is at the mouth of the mighty Sepik River, a hot, wet, malarial spot where few foreigners have ventured.

Bob Foley, an American linguist who works out of Sydney University, was allowed to stay there a few years ago to study the language. His enduring contribution to village culture appears to be a special dish produced on festive occasions consisting of a slab of the staple fried sago bread with peanut butter and jam on top.

Now Justin was also being accepted into the village, and with him around 100 passengers from the cruise ship Orion.

An old PNG hand, Justin was given the task of organising an itinerary which would give the ship's passengers an insight into the country's extraordinary range of cultures.

Watam, where the ancient Ramu customs have been little changed by contact with the outside world, but which offered easy access to passengers landing from the Orion's fleet of zodiac boats, seemed ideal.

But, Justin explained to us, before that could happen he first had to make contact with the village, which he did via Foley.

Then he had to stay there for several days while the proposal and its implications for the village were discussed at length by each of the seven clans there.

And finally, when the village agreed, an "Orion Day" committee had to be set up representing each of the clans, agreements had to be reached on how to share the income and rules were drawn up - and posted in public - governing how everyone should behave.

As part of the arrangement the Orion even had to agree to pay for petrol so police officers could come from the nearest town, Angaram, to enforce the rules if necessary.

And, to seal the deal, Justin was declared an honorary chief of the village.

When the big day came, the Orion anchored off Watam and Justin went ashore first - "just to make sure they've remembered that today is the day we're coming," he said. "I'm sure they have - we gave them calendars and everything with the dates marked on them - but you never know."

Fortunately he was able to radio back that the locals had remembered and everything was set to go.

As we headed ashore in our flotilla of Zodiacs a large canoe full of warriors with drums came out to escort us to the black-sand beach.

The high chief of the village was there in his traditional costume to shake everyone by the hand and offer a smiling, "Welcome, welcome."

Then singing, dancing men and women escorted us along the path to the neutral territory of the local school.

There we were formally welcomed to Watam with more singing and dancing, some brief comments by the chief, the singing of the national anthem and the raising - upside down, someone noticed - of the flags of PNG and East Sepik Province.

After that we were free to enter the village proper, led in by an extraordinary dragon, with a traditional mask for a face, a 10m-long body, covered in grass, decorated with various fruits and flowers, and powered by around 20 locals.

The village centre consisted of a grassy rectangle surrounded by neat pandanus palm leaf huts and lined on this occasion by crafts people from all round the district selling their wares.

Before we could go shopping, however, Justin had to be made a chief.

First there was a series of traditional songs and dances which the village will perform every time the Orion visits. But then the women came forward, surrounded Justin, and performed a special ritual. And at that point the heavens made their protest known.

As the rain poured down, the women with their gleaming dark skins, grass skirts, garlands of flowers and beaming faces continued to dance around the bulky white shape of Justin, standing in their midst with an enigmatic smile on his face, clad only in a grass skirt - well, okay, he had shorts on underneath - a marvellously ornate ceremonial feather hat, masses of garlands and necklaces, and not one but two chiefly bags on his arms.

It was an extraordinary scene and one it's hard to imagine being repeated anywhere in the world.

Sadly, when the ceremony ended most of us left, the torrential rain posing a threat to cameras and making it difficult to see the crafts on display let alone buy them.

But, at the beach to farewell us, there was the high chief again. "Thank you for coming. Sorry about the rain. Welcome."

The most famous shipyard on the China Strait now produces only ghost ships. The huge sheds on tiny Kwato Island, which once turned out some of the most famous craft operating in the waters around Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and PNG, sit forlornly empty.

Many of the craft produced here still ply the tropical waters but the yard has been silent for nearly half a century.

On the beach where we landed from the expedition ship Orion, a monument commemorates the arrival in 1891 of an idealistic Englishman, Charles W. Abel, who came to the Milne Bay area of PNG with the intention of creating a practical and non-hierarchical church settlement.

As those empty sheds demonstrate, he didn't just build a church on Kwato, he also taught the local men the skills of boatbuilding and local women how to do lacework so they could support themselves in the modern world.

The result was a largely self-contained Christian community which survived Abel's death in 1930 and didn't really disperse until the advent of cheaper fibreglass craft put the boatbuilding operation out of business around 1975.

These days the island is deserted apart from a pastor who lives there with his family, but the signs of its past prosperity are everywhere.

In the centre of a flat area by the landing beach is a concrete cricket pitch where Abel, as part of his campaign to prepare the locals for the outside world, taught them to play cricket.

Nearby are the remains of what was once a substantial wharf, where trading vessels would have called, its remaining beams being used by two tightrope-walking young men as a convenient place to fish.

In the two giant boatsheds, powerful woodworking machines sit as if abandoned only yesterday, the hull frames used to bend planking into shape lie against a wall and old plans flap in the breeze ... but these days instead of teams of busy workers there are just a few chickens pecking in the dust.

A broad track leads up the hill to Abel's most enduring legacy, a magnificent stone church which still attracts worshippers from other islands on Sundays and, special occasions. Round the back, in a spot with magnificent views out over the China Strait, is his grave and those of several family members and supporters.

"If my sister throws me out, I will go and live on my wife's land!" There is little rancour in this declaration from Coolie at the end of his brief explanation of the matriarchal society which exists in much of Papua New Guinea.

Women do most of the work but they also own the land, which is passed on through the female line, so a man who wants a bride has to pay her family a high price, including many pigs.

Coolie, a thirtysomething ex-tour guide, lives in Boitunum village a few miles outside Alotau, the provincial headquarters of Milne Bay, which was the final port of call for our PNG voyage on the Orion.

His mother is still alive, but when she dies the land his house stands on, reverts to his sister, Holly.

Of course Holly, a beautiful young woman who welcomes visitors to Boitunum with milk from young coconuts and assorted local fruits, has no intention of evicting her brother, but would be within her rights to do so once she becomes head of the family.

Jokes Coolie, "It doesn't matter anyway, the land given to my wife when we married is there when I need it." But for the present he is content to live with his four children and five other family members in the neat and tidy village.

Due to a shortage of guides and the arrival of two cruise ships Coolie returned to his old job for the day and drove us around Alotau to see the sights.

There wasn't much really, but Milne Bay, or Millen Bay as the locals pronounce it, was the site of a strategic airstrip and port in World War II.

There is a small memorial to the Australian troops who died securing the airstrip. It sits on the side of the road, in a mown open space with attractive shade trees, making it a popular play area for local children.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand is the only airline offering non-stop flights from Auckland to Cairns. Air New Zealand also offers several non-stop flights a day from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Brisbane. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz.

Air Niugini has daily flights from Brisbane and Cairns to Port Moresby.
See www.airniugini.com.pg.

ORION CRUISES
Orion will have three PNG and Melanesian Islands expeditions later this year.

The 11 Night PNG Highland Cultures cruise starting on September 22 in Cairns includes Milne Bay, Samarai and Kwato Islands, Fergusson Island, Tufi, Tami Island, Madang, Sepik River, and Rabaul.

The October 3 expedition visits the same destinations but runs from Rabaul to Cairns in the reverse order. Fares start at A$8315 per person twin share.

The 11 night Coral Sea, Louisiade & Trobriands Islands cruise starts on October 14 in Cairns and takes in Milne Bay, Kitava (the Trobriands), Fergusson Island, Dobu, Egum Atoll, the Louisiades, Doini Island, Samarai and Kwato Islands before arriving back in Cairns.

Fares start at A$8315. For further details see www.orioncruises.com.au.

FURTHER INFORMATION
For general information on Papua New Guinea see www.pngtourism.org.pg.

* Jim Eagles cruised around Papua New Guinea with help from Air New Zealand, Air Niugini and Orion Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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