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The rapid unravelling of PNG's political stability

Gag-gauamo: The baby cleansing ritual of the Upper Simbu


An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for Heritage Writing

Gag-gauamo, or baby cleansing, in Kuman dialect, was one of many obligatory rituals performed on new born babies in the Upper Simbu and other parts of Simbu Province in pre-modern times.

Gag-gauamo was performed by elderly wometo prepare the infant for healthy and trouble-free growth into adulthood. It was the first ritual performed on a new born baby immediately after birth.

The ritual used the leaves of dodon, a waterside shrub with a soft, moist sponge-like leaf, and moro-kiglaua, a deep forest piper plant with huge ovate leaves that emit a cool, sweet menthol fragrance when pressed or squashed.

In the modern context, gag-gauamo can be likened to the modern day immunisation clinic conducted by the doctors and nurses in hospitals and health centres.

It was part of the natal process, beginning at about the eighth month of pregnancy when the mother started experiencing occasional movements and kicks in her abdomen.

A temporary hut, likened to the maternity ward, was quickly constructed, usually by the husband. The hut was constructed in a secluded site away from the family home and kept warm by constant fires in readiness for the new ‘tenant’.

As soon as the early labour pains hit the mother, she isolated herself by moving into the hut with midwives, two or three elderly women. Along with her went all the items she needed for labour and for the new infant.

The latter would include a nursery bilum for the baby, a freshly stitched baby mat made out of pandanus leaves, and sun-dried dagle-muno leaves to keep the infant warm inside the bilum.

As soon as the baby was safely delivered, the umbilical cord was cut with a sharp object, often a bamboo knife. The cord was taken outside with the placenta and buried. A tanget (cordilyne) cutting was planted over the burial ground to mark the spot.

When the infant matured, the spot would be indicated to him and, if the tanget survived the test of time, there would often be a good story to tell about the significance of this historical plant and the ‘sacred’ spot on which the plant was growing.

After the severed umbilical cord was buried, the natal mess and rubbish were thoroughly swept out before anyone would visit the maternity hut.

The rubbish was piled in a heap outside the hut and burnt. It was the belief of the Upper Simbus that the trail of smoke from the burnt natal rubbish indicated the infant’s destiny.

If the baby was a girl and the smoke trailed south, it was forecast that the girl would one day marry someone from the tribes in the south. If the smoke trailed north over the Bismarck Range, the handsome bridegroom would come from the Ramu Valley (Geregl or Gende). Through him all the good things of that area like marita, cassowaries and cuscus would come.

The same predictions occurred for male infants. Brides, riches and wealth from the locations where the smoke trailed would be forecast for the male child. If the smoke trailed towards the forest, it would be forecast that the infant would be a great hunter.

News of the birth would fan out into the community. Words of praise and appreciation would fill every household. Amidst the excitement, the women would prepare to visit the new baby. Men were not allowed into the maternity hut still.

Mothers and girls who lived near the forest searched for fresh dodon and moro-kiglaua leaves for the gag-gauamo ritual. They would wander off and return with the best leaves these plants could produce. If the infant was a boy, the search for a praying mantis’ nest also got underway to make sure sufficient quantity was amassed.

Satisfied with their collecting, the women would make courtesy visits to the labour hut, where the infant would be sleeping peacefully on the pandanus mat amongst the sun-dried dagle-muno leaves in the nursery bilum. The visiting women would pile their presents of dodon and moro-kiglaua leaves, including the praying mantis nest if the baby was a male.

The nursery bilum would be passed around amongst the excited women, and for the first time the day-old infant would be viewed and greeted.

Specially prepared delicacies would be presented to the mother to enjoy and to assist recuperation from her labour ordeal. The gag-gauamo ritual would be performed during this visitation.

The honour of performing gag-gauamo often rested with the infant’s grandmother, but if she had no experience the job would be performed by another elderly woman who knew the ritual and the associated incantations.

The first part began with the formal cleansing using the dodon leaves. The day old infant would be gently lifted from the nursery bilum and the cleansing began.

The soft and spongy cotton-like leaf was used to cleanse the baby.

As the woman did this, she would chant the incantations: let this area shine…let this area be dirt free…let no dirt settle in this area and so on.

A new leaf was used as required until every surface was thoroughly cleaned.

This was the first phase of the cleansing ritual.

The second part of gag-gauamo followed with the cleaner used moro-kiglaua leaves.

The moro-kiglaua is a gigantic piper plant that grows in deep forest beneath the tall trees. Unlike other piper species, moro-kiglaua grows fast and gracefully tall without any hint of defect or deformity.

The fascinating and widely spaced internodes along the smooth bole make this species unique amongst piper plants and very attractive. It stands rigid during its entire lifespan until it reaches senescence and dies out, allowing new suckers to take over.

Because of these unique characteristics of the plant, the ancient Upper Simbus believed that the use and application of moro-kiglaua leaves during gag-gauamo would make the baby grow fast, tall, big, strong and healthy without any deformity.

Hence, the application of moro-kiglaua leaves in this second phase of cleansing was specifically to enhance and prepare the infant for speedy, healthy and trouble-free growth.

The moro-kiglaua leaves were first warmed over the fire, allowing just enough heat to avoid burning the infant. Then, accompanied by chanting for goodwill, fortune and health, the infant’s tiny body was stretched and the muscles massaged and rubbed with moro-kiglaua leaves.

The infant’s face, front, back, ears, scalp, torso, buttocks, limbs and ten tiny fingers were then massaged and rubbed.

The ritual performer would chant: Let no injuries touch this area, let this area be protected, let this hand grow big and strong, let these eyes see properly, let this leg grow tall and strong like the moro-kiglaua and walk many miles, let these fingers be free of harm and injuries, let this ear hear properly, let this head be wise as she continued with the moro-kiglaua leaf.

For the male child, the praying mantis’ nest would be used to rub and massage the tiny penis and testicles of the infant for a reduced testicle size when the baby grew up.

The specialist would make sure that every surface on the baby’s skin was attended to. Then she would carefully place the infant, who by now would be signalling discomfort from the unusual things that were happening, into the nursery bilum and hand it back to the mother to comfort him with breast milk.

The used leaves and the used praying mantis’ nest were gathered and taken to a river where they were disposed of with the words: ‘Let all the misfortunes on the baby be washed away forever’. The formal gag-gauamo ritual then ended.

The unused gag-gauamo materials would be left with the mother. The remaining praying mantis’ nests would be used by the mother in her own time to continue massaging the testicles until the stock was depleted.

For the dodon and moro-kiglaua leaves, the mother would need them for as long as the baby remained in the nursery bilum. They were substitutes for the modern day diapers and baby blanket.

On the pandanus baby mat in the nursery bilum, the dodon leaves would be nicely arranged in the area where the infant’s buttocks lay to absorb wetting and waste matter.

The moro-kiglaua leaves, on the other hand, would be used as covers to keep the infant warm in the nursery bilum.

Mother and infant would remain in isolation in the labour hut for about a week before moving back into the family home.

The gag-kambe-gaiglkwa or the naming ceremony would follow, including a feast.

The gag-gauamo ritual died out in the early 1970s but it was performed with such great faith that elderly Upper Simbus of today still boast of the wonders caused by this ancient cultural practice.

At a time when soap, daily showers (or full baths), hospitals, doctors, nurses, blankets and medicines were unknown, Upper Simbu babies of the past defied all odds under the spell of the gag-gaumo to become towering men and women, filled with bulging muscles to tackle the rugged terrain of the Upper Simbu, unlike the Simbus of today.

Equally, at a time when underpants were unavailable to the Upper Simbu men, who were only clothed with kondai (apron) in the front to cover the genital areas and arbuglo (tanget or cordyline leaves) to cover the buttocks, the invisible powers of the praying mantis’ nest - that looked like an infant’s testicles - kept the men’s testicles small and avoided miserable inconvenience in the routine of life.

Perhaps the gag-gauamo ritual could hold the secret to the creation, survival and existence of those gigantic Upper Simbus of the past.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Since your grandmothers put some of you guys through the ritual you might be able to tell me whether the praying mantis nest works.

I must admit that the problem was something I wondered about in the 1960s seeing guys charging through the scrub in traditional gear during clan fighting.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Kuman appears to be the main language that all Simbus generally can understand. And the others appear to be dialects or strands but then again I am not a Linguist, but I can get clarification from my colleagues here at UPNG.

And true Peter, while you and Rose are debating on that I am just thinking aloud about how we are going to get our students who are from the different districts in Simbu to pronounce that.

We are likely going to get different versions definitely.

Peter Kranz

We are having a debate about the correct pronunciation of 'Gag-gauamo' and it's provenance.

The problem is that Kuman spelling and transliteration is not standardised. And English cannot cope.

Rose offers (to the best of my phonetic understanding)-

"gaarg gawaamo errikqua" (Engish - clean up the babies body)

"gaarg dem gyqua" (English - burn the babies bottom stuff)

But maybe these are different Kuman dialects?

John Kaupa Kamasua

Arnold great account of that ritual. That is, or should I say was, common throughout Simbu.

I have said in another discussion on this forum that the young generation and children of villages and communities are learning to speak Tok Pisin first then later their mother tongue.

All dialects in Simbu except the Karamui language and few others probably originate from the Kuman language. Because if you can speak your own dialect well you are sure to pick up the Kuman dialect. I may be wrong.

I bet that not many young mothers in Simbu know how to perform that ritual now! I use to see my grandmother perform that on my younger siblings. My mother told me that my maternal grandmother performed the ritual on me.

My point is that the number of speakers of our dialects are getting fewer and fewer. Even one cannot speak one's language first, then he or she is likely to lose all the knowledge that is associated with that language.

Thanks for capturing that. and well written too.

Peter Kranz

Arnold - thank you for this very interesting and moving piece.

My wife Ambai Rose remembers such ceremonies well and was told by the manas that at her Gag-gauamo the smoke trailed to the south!

And please contribute some more.

Arnold Mundua

Thank you Jimmy and William for your nice comments. In fact I'm a newcomer to this blog and your comments are encouraging for someone like me.

I hope to contribute to this blog in the future. Thanks again.

William Saleu | Bomai Cruz

Nice peace and thanks to Arnold,

I have always been fond of the way Arnold can captivate his audiences with his use of words.

I remember his book "Brides Price" very well. It's one of those books that you always want to pick up and read again each time you see it. It's unfortunate I don't own a copy.

Anyways, thanks again and I look forward to more beautiful pieces by Mr Mundua.

Jimmy Awagl

This are the typical Simbu plants that improved the well-being of a child in the good old days. Now they have been substituted by many manufactured products. Your prescription is well said.

I hope it will draw much attention from the Simbu community.

Finally, it comes off well from the Simbu Writers Association as a new beginning.

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