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Female initiation rites in the Simbu culture


Rose I WRITE ABOUT an amazing tradition [kastom] still practiced by Simbu communities.

If a girl starts her first menstruation she is consigned to a small hut with a friend - all symbolic. If she has been a good girl she is released early.

Two pots are placed outside the hut - one filled with water, one not. If she has been a good girl, she will be allowed to drink from the full pot. If not she will be offered the empty pot and will be returned to the hut.

The elders will ask her questions about whether she has been a good girl or not. On successful completion of the interrogation, she will jump out the door of the hut over some sugar cane.

Then, in front of a big fire, the elders will further interrogate her. If her answers are good (for example, 'Yes I helped my aunties in the garden. Yes, I gave water to father when he was thirsty'), she will be offered more water and mumu food.

If not - she goes back into the hut and the process is repeated. It can take several months until she learns the right answers.

After this, the relatives make a big feast, tell stories and accept the girl as a young woman. Then everyone celebrates.

By the way, if after the ceremony a young Simbu girl wears a tight necklace of little shells ('beads nungo'), it is a sign that she is a virgin. 

Photo: Rose Kranz


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Peter Kranz

Phil - Happy to stand corrected. And Rose was right - it's the Trobs (and she had no knowledge of the film!).

But it does look like Ambai Ingogl Pamgwa.

Sori tru.

Peter Kranz

Rose has more info. She says the scene from "In a Savage Land" is not traditional Simbu or Highlands, but maybe Trobriands.

In Simbu a sister accompanies the girl at all times. (Rose did this for her sister Elise.) Men are not allowed to touch her, and the women supervise at all times. And at the end of the ritual there is a big mumu and the girl is introduced to the world as a woman and becomes valuable as a potential mother.

It is much more complex and important than the film represents.

Phil Fitzpatrick

'In a Savage Land' is set in the Trobriands Peter and the scene in the clip is part of a mourning ceremony.

Peter Kranz

Does this show Ambai Ingugl Pangwa?

Clip is from "In a Savage Land" which according to Rose is quite inaccurate. The ritual is not violent or cruel.

And no men are allowed near, as it is women's business. And the girl is allowed food.

Peter Kranz

Maybe too much anthropology has been written by men.

And perhaps they are scared of such things as a females' first menstruation being celebrated.

I bet Freud had something to say about this.

Rose and Peter Kranz

A clarification - and a bit of further information. We think this is of historical importance, as it does not seem to have been well-documented before.

After she is first allowed out of the hut, the young girl initiate will be seated in front of the fire, and further interrogated and given things to learn from the elder ladies.

If her answers are good - she will be allowd to move back from the hot fire. If not, she will be moved closer - and get more uncomfortable, or locked back in the hut if she is really useless.

Many of the Elder's questions are in the form of tricks, riddles or jokes. So a girl with a good sense of humour and a clever wit manages to escape sooner.

By the way - this is all taken in good-heart and no one is hurt - and all is supervised by the 'Aunties'.

But it is seen to be an important learning process.

Rose says - this is part of the way I was brought up, and it taught me many important things. It should be preserved.

Peter says - this tradition seems a bit rough and I have trouble understanding it fully as a wait man, but it obviously has important cultural significance, and if we lose this tradition we are poorer as human beings.

We'd like some more Simbus and anthropologists to comment on this.

Rose & Peter Kranz

Rose says there is a sad misconnect between such ancient and important traditions and modern culture. Many young Simbu women know nothing of such ceremonies. And white women are completely ignorant and have no equivalent.

Rose has amazingly experienced both and thus is in a position to comment. She remembers this, as well as other traditions such as tainim lek being commonplace when she was a girl.

The value of Ambai Ingugl Pangwa - as Sil correctly notes - is the transmission of wisdom and knowledge from older women to younger.

Female initiation ceremonies such as this have been overlooked in many anthropological and cultural studies - which seem to concentrate on male rites.

Such things can preserve female knowledge and can help cement their important roles in society and better inform their modern sisters about the role of women in traditional societies.

We feel a research study forthcoming for someone interested.

Kela Kapkora Sil Bolkin

Angra Peter - Ambai Ingugl Panga, or first monthly period initiation, was an act that imparted wisdom and knowledge to the young lass who is now ready to venture into womanhood.

The young girl, who is confined to the rear of the hut during the process of her first monthly period, is visited by the very outstanding women in the clan in the evenings.

These women impart values and ethics. They talked all night about toiling the earth for sustenance, importance of looking after pigs, children and husband.

All that is found in the Book of Proverbs was all in the brains of these women. If she is feminine and can perform her chores well in the eyes of everyone in the neighbourhood, after her first period her market value will surely increase should she courted and eventually tie a knot with a boy from the other clan.

Well, vicissitudes of time corroded this important informal education in the life of a Simbu girl. It all fades into oblivion.

Now, we can’t tell whether she saw her first period or not, whether she is young or married, disciplined or ill-disciplined, etc.

There is no informal institution to impart discipline and good morals at the inception to adulthood.

The fading of this initiation brought a lot of social ills that only a through research will give us the depth of the dent.

The formal education’s sexuality education is no way near to what the Simbu mother’s impart to their daughter’s in those nostalgic days.

Wakai wo…

Peter Kranz

I've just realised that one of the paintings by Simon Tagai shown in the story "Under-recognised artists of PNG" is of the 'jumping over the sugar cane ceremony' as described by Rose.

It's the fourth picture down -

There are some exciting developments on the horizon for PNG art in Australia. Keep watching this space!

Reginald Renagi

Rose - Thank you for sharing this interesting story with us, and a belated Happy Birthday to you.

Ah, Peter, I do envy you and what a lucky guy you are...

Peter Kranz

Thank you Kisere. The amazing thing is that this tradition is still widely practised - even in expat Simbu communities.

By the way - it is Rose's birthday today, and this is her first article after a year of AMEP English classes. Wish her all the best!

Embanum Rose mockwa! Rose wagai kaninga!


Hi Rose and Peter - It's good to read about the rich diversity of our PNG heritage. Good stuff. But what do educated modern women think about these ancient traditions and what they mean to them today. I'd be interested to read about them too.

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