New Caledonia: Tribal lessons on ancient land

By Sue Baxalle

New Caledonia's Napoemien tribe live a self-sufficient lifestyle under the leafy cover of their vast valley, writes Sue Baxalle.

Priscille, Kaaea and Djaoun Pwidja at the Napoemien tribal village. Photo / Sue Baxalle
Priscille, Kaaea and Djaoun Pwidja at the Napoemien tribal village. Photo / Sue Baxalle

To the uninformed passerby the valley stretches out in a vast, leafy, empty mass of forest. But secluded among the coconut palms, hibiscus and exotic plants lives the Napoemien tribe.

Like almost all the tribes in New Caledonia, the extended family take their name from the river running through the valley. And it is on the bank of the river, well off the main road and far from the nearest town of Poindimie, that we meet our guide for the day, Jehudit Pwidja.

The Melanesian tour guide lives with his wife, Priscille, daughter, Djaoun, 4, and sons Marcellin, 9, and Kaaea, 2 months.

Before heading to his house where we will have lunch, Jehudit takes us on a two-hour trek through tribal land.

Until 1946, the Napoemien, like all other tribes, were restricted by the French government to their "reserves" in valleys away from the roads. Jehudit shows us the creek that served as a boundary that they were forbidden to cross, even to visit other tribes.

Revolts against the system were rife before 1946 but Jehudit said the Kanaks' lances and slingshots were of little use against the French army's weapons.

Asked how much land the Napoemien own, Jehudit just laughs. It's not possible to measure in hectares, he says, waving an arm across the valley.

About 200 people live in the traditional way here, almost totally self-sufficient, each family group maintaining its own garden so that all their fruit and vegetables are home-grown.

Jehudit says the Napoemien are protected by nature with the abundant trees sheltering their tribal land, which provides the food they need. Meat is largely hunted - deer and wild pig - or found in the river - fish and abundant prawns - though chickens are raised by some families.

Given the amount of coffee trees growing wild in the valley it would even be possible for that to be home-dried and ground, too, although Jehudit says most people now go for the easy option of buying coffee.

Trips to the supermarket are purely for household items and staples such as rice, sugar, salt, milk, coffee and oil.

The Napoemien live mostly in modern-style houses, although Jehudit has rebuilt a traditional "case" or round hut, using skills he had to consult the older generation to learn.

His father's generation was keen to modernise and some of the old ways were lost, a problem which is increasing as many of the young are now moving to the towns, particularly Noumea, or to the mines in search of work.

Jehudit's four brothers work in Noumea and his sister works as a cook for a mine in the northern province.

He himself was trained as a hydraulic mechanic but abandoned this to return to tribal life.

Fiercely proud of his culture, Jehudit recognises the importance of keeping the traditions alive, and sees tourism as a way of achieving that while also boosting the New Caledonian economy. He trained as a guide to show off the richness of Napoemien life.

Until the 1980s, when water reticulation was installed in the valley, water was piped from the waterways using bamboo rods and in 1992 electricity came to the Napoemien, so television is now a standard accessory for families, although computers and PlayStations are rare.

So while some modernisation is happening, the old ways are still a vital part of life. Many plants, for example, have medicinal uses.

Jehudit says his grandmother instilled in him a great respect for the environment and he, in turn, is passing this on to his children.

While the Melanesian people I meet on my visit seem friendly, Jehudit says this may not have been the welcome for some of the original French missionaries. He said even as recently as his great-grandparents' generation, cannibalism was practised.

"My grandmother says the fingers were the most tender and were given to the children."

The Napoemien speak the Paici language, one of the four Kanak languages now taught in schools (the others are Nengone, Wailou and Dregus).

There are 28 languages in New Caledonia, each totally different. Once the children start school they must also learn French.

The Napoemien tribe has its own school for the younger children. After age 11 they go by bus to Poindimie. Young Marcellin and Djaoun must cross the river adjacent to their house twice a day to get to and from school. And if it floods that is no excuse, says Jehudit - he carries them across.

Our trek though Napoemien land culminates with a visit to the tribe's ancient treasure: petroglyphs dating from 1000-2000BC.

New Caledonia has many petroglyphs but unfortunately neither their origin nor their significance are known. But Jehudit believes one of these represents the sun.

More "living fossils" precious to the tribe include the kaori tree and the columnar pine, two of the 41 species endemic to New Caledonia. And the Napoemien also boast a variety of tree fern particular to their valley, which has three or four heads instead of the usual one.

And now it is time for lunch. Waiting back at the case are Priscille and the children, who along with Jehudit busy themselves to unveil the contents of the bougna (pronounced boon-ya).

Similar to a Maori hangi, the bougna is a traditional Kanak oven of red-hot stones.

The day before Jehudit and Marcellin had gathered wood to lay over the stones, which are heated. Once the wood has burnt away, the food, wrapped in banana leaves tied up with strips of coconut leaves, is placed on the stones and covered with sheets of niaouli bark, again held down by stones to keep the heat in.

Two hours later the bougna is ready. Inside the main banana leaf parcel are prawns, sweet potato, yams and cassava. A smaller parcel contains a leafy vegetable they call Kanak cabbage, mixed with grated coconut and coconut milk.

Jehudit explained that the whole family (except baby Kaaea, of course), had a role in preparing the meal; he and Marcellin had caught the prawns the day before.

On the table is rice with coconut milk, a salad of green papaya, chicken, pumpkin leaves, potatoes and taro - which had also been wrapped in leaves and cooked to the side of the bougna.

The fruit juice in the jug is a freshly squeezed mixture of passionfruit, papaya, banana, lemon and coconut juice, but first Jehudit lops the top off a coconut for each of us and the juice is the perfect cooling refreshment.

The bougna banquet is perfect. And all the better for knowing it is totally fresh and home-grown.


Getting there: Aircalin, the international airline of New Caledonia, has four departures a week to Noumea from Auckland and is the only airline with business class on the Auckland-Noumea route.

Tribal visits: Visiting a Kanak tribe is the best way to get a taste of the real New Caledonia. Some offer overnight accommodation and the chance to participate in fishing or food preparation. These visits should be organised through the tourist office, especially if you want to ensure a Kanak guide who can speak English.

Further information: Go online for more about visiting New Caledonia.

Sue Baxalle visited the Napoemien tribe with assistance from New Caledonia Tourism and Aircalin.

- NZ Herald

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