West Papua – still suffering under ‘the big wink’
Tweeting the decay in the South Fly

Malah’s initiation to womanhood


This story is from real life but the people’s names have been changed

MALAH WAS BORN TO KENYA AND PREMONG, hailing from Sembi village near Wewak on the west coast of East Sepik Province along the highway to the Papua New Guinea - Indonesia border.

Unlike in other parts of the Province, famous for boy’s initiations in the haus tambaran (spirit house), here girls not boys are initiated because of their important role as future mothers.

”Malah! Wake up, your mother has gone to the beach and the sun is up, you never sleep-in,” Malah’s father Kenya yelled,

Malah hesitated. She was not sleeping; she had been awake before dawn.  Kenya knew his daughter was not like the other village girls; she was up before the rest of the household and doing her chores for the day.

Being a community leader, people come to discuss community issues, so Kenya makes sure his house is in order. Premong had taught her only daughter everything expected of a girl in the family.

Malah was unusually quiet; she was in her room in the house she shared with her parents. She had panicked when she woke up in the night and found her bed soiled. Frightened by her situation she was confused and did not know how to tell her father.

Soon after Kenya left, she quickly crept to the rear end of the house and signalled her cousin Wagha.  Seeing the fear in Malah’s face, Wagha hurried over. Nervously she broke the news, whispering to Malah that she was having her first menstruation.

Wagha was older and comforted Malah and explained what she should do next.  At that instant Malah realised that the most memorable and eventful chapter of her life history had begun.

Because of her father’s status in the community, her mother had prepared her in advance and encouraged her to be brave.

A girl’s initiation always arouses great excitement in the village so news spread fast. Garamut drums were beating continuously, sending messages throughout the communities. Quickly, a cone shaped hut called a popongah (moon house) was built from coconut fronds for her to stay in for the next two weeks.

Normally, the timeframe would depend on childhood behaviour. If she had been naughty and disobedient; she would remain for a longer period while the elderly womenfolk imposed tough rules and guidelines on her.

Malah had been good, so she stayed only two weeks. She was allowed only food cooked in charcoal with tea and no protein (she must learn to sacrifice).

Villagers were invited to a night of singing and feasting on the last night before she was let out of the popongah. Kenya was famous so many people had come with contributions of food, money and gifts. That evening the villagers gathered and scattered into groups of their favourite singing partners.

The singing started. Terek-Masisia (poetic songs) were sung with no musical instruments; specially composed with rhyming words depicting fond memories of meaningful events or descriptions of someone’s behaviour or silly attitudes.

The songs were sung in segments of time: early hours, midnight and dawn. Food and drink were served in the same manner during intervals.

Toward morning, Malah prepared herself for her most threatening hour. She had to show confidence and be brave to make her family proud and boast about her. Within her temporary shelter, she could tell from the songs what was happening outside.

Before sunrise a group of men joined hands together singing and swaying while a little boy imitating a cuscus jumped on their hands over the popongah and tore the sides down to frighten out Malah.

The crowd quickly made two long lines starting from the entrance of the hut towards the beach. She slowly removed her blouse and wearing only short jeans came out.

Her mothers’ brother, a strong and solidly built man, hauled her over his back started running between the lines. Everyone had sticks and swung them whipping at them from both sides to scare her childhood spirit away.

It was an emotional moment for her brothers and cousins so they ran alongside her to help share the whipping. At the end of the lines she ran into the sea with bruises all over her and washed herself off before rinsing in fresh water.

Back at the ceremonial ground, an elderly woman made four deep cuts in Malah’s hips then dressed the cuts with herbs and shaved her childhood hair so she could carry heavy loads on her head and back in future.

Then Malah was dressed in a colourful grass-skirt and necklaces and she sat on a mat as people came with gifts of all sorts to present to her - cloths, necklaces, money, string bags.

Kenya, proud of his daughter and a man of traditional values, called out the names of those who had shared the whipping with his daughter and compensated them with money.

The uncle who carried her was paid more according to custom.

For the next stage of Malah’s rituals, Wagha was appointed her maid for the next five months. Relatives supplied food for them and Wagha did their cooking and washing. Malah was not allowed to do much work; she was to eat plenty of good food and rest while the elderly women would teach her their customs, culture and traditions.

Watchful eyes kept Malah company throughout those days making sure she complied with the rules. 

Most importantly she must never complain of any mistreatment during the period. It is believed that complaining is a bad habit that will not make a good wife in the future.

She should learn to submit to her husband, be hardworking and self-reliant, providing for her future family and taking good care of her husband’s parents.

At the end of the fifth month, Kenya compensated Wagha with food and money for taking care of his daughter. Malah’s childhood appearance had disappeared; she had changed into a very beautiful model of her native culture; living a legend in her fast changing society as the legacy continues.

Kenya now has the dignity to demand a higher bride-price payment from Malah’s future husband.

Hilda Fromai Yerive (48) was born at Boiken, near Wewak in East Sepik Province.  She is a library technician by profession and works as a Senior Library Officer at the Michael Somare Library at the University of Papua New Guinea.  She hopes to write more stories but feels that she needs a short course to be able to write better


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Susan Merrell

Very colourful and interesting but to each his own...

Peter McGlynn

A wonderful story, Hilda, thank you. I would love to read more of your stories.

Educating others about your culture is such a valuable resource for all of us. Much appreciated.

Mrs Barbara Short

Thank you Hilda, for this excellent story from your village on the traditional custom of initiating a young girl when she starts menstruating.

Back in the 1970s I remember visiting a village up near Maprik and meeting a young girl who was going through something similar. But she had small cuts from a razor blade all over her body.

She was quite proud of her new status. I was just a bit concerned about the cuts.

From what we have read on PNG Attitude lately, it appears that the higher bride-price payments could work against Malah's future happiness.

I hope that Malah will have a loving relationship with her future husband and that while she will work hard to look after him and their children, he will also work hard to provide for and care for her and their children.

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