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Tokis, masalais & other mysterious creatures


ONE OF THE CHARACTERS in Carolus Ketsimur’s short story, The Blackbirders, is a small, imperturbable man who is actually a Toki.

What on earth is a Toki? And has anyone really seen one?

Beatrice Blackwood, in her 1933 book, Both Sides of Buka Passage, describes Tokis as a sort of goblin.

On Buka and Bougainville there is also another, similar creature called a Pinari.

According to Charles Barrett, in his 1954 Isles of the Sun, Pinaris have white skin and very long legs while the Tokis are very dark skinned with shorter legs.

While Pinaris and Tokis are supposed to kill and eat people if they get the chance, they are more renowned for their mischief making; and people regard them with a mixture of fear and affection.

The belief in little people is widespread. It is common all over Papua New Guinea. And Aboriginal people in Australia have similar beliefs and, of course, my own mob [D’Oirish] has leprechauns.

We know they probably don’t exist, but wouldn’t it be great if they did?

Margaret Mead thought that Tokis and Pinaris were similar to Masalais, especially in their ability to change shape and form.

I had some personal experience with a troublesome Masalai when I was OIC Olsobip and had to enlist the help of the local Mamusi (village constable), Fiamnok, to deal with it.

But even with the venerable Fiamnok on side, the Masalai eventually beat us. My advice; don’t mess with a Masalai.

On Bougainville during the troubles there was a Toki Movement that preached a strange mixture of Christianity and mysticism. Ben Bohane talks about them in his master’s thesis, Blackfella armies – kastom and conflict in contemporary Melanesia 1994-2007.

I find the idea of a Toki inadvertently picked up by unsuspecting blackbirders and carted off to Queensland’s cane fields intriguing, and I am looking forward to reading Carolus’ full scale novel.

In the meantime, if anyone has regular contact with a friendly Toki or Masalai, there is a certain tall building in Waigani that could do with a bit beneficent mischief making.


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Laurie Meintjes

...dark skinned with shorter legs, and bent on mischief making?

He's already there.

Trevor Freestone.

Whilst teaching at Pagei I was privileged to watch a real masalai at work. No European before or since has had the privilede of watching this particular ceremony.

I used magic tricks to enhance my teaching. So the children knew I had a real interest in anything involving magic. I had also told the children that I believed that masalais were real and that, because of their amazing knowledge of the flora of the jungle, they really could heal the sick and sometimes cause harm.

Knowing that I did not condemn their beliefs they convinced the village people to allow me to attend their secret ceremony.

A man in the village had been murdered and the villagers invited a masalai to conduct this ceremony so that they could find out the killer.

The wife of the murdered man had cut off some of her husband's hair. The masalai cut a hole in a long length of bamboo and placed the hair inside. The bamboo was then placed on the ground.

Following a lot of chanting the masalai called the names of nearby villages. When he called the name of one of the villages the bamboo rose and started shaking. It finally settled back on the ground.

The masalai then started calling the names of the men in this village. When he called the name of one of the men the bamboo rose and started shaking violently. I tried to grab the bamboo but it was too strong for me to hold.

I guess the masalai may have known who the killer was, but in spite of being a magician I could not explain how the bamboo rose and shook so violently.

The patrol officer was away on patrol at the time, but when he returned I quietly told him about the ceremony. He sent a police patrol to pick up the man the bamboo had named.

As soon as the police arrived at the village the man confessed. He wanted to know how the patrol officer knew, for he had been careful not to be seen.

Since a certain gentleman actually comes from the Sepik, I am surprised he is not more careful how he treats his own people. I certainly would not tempt fate by ignoring the power of a masalai.

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