A lost friend
Papua New Guinea’s ninth prime minister

Keng gele – the ancient first born initiation of the Nagovis


MANY parts of the traditional culture of Nagovis in Bougainville are slowly being lost including the initiation of the first born child, known as Keng gele in the Sibe language.

The last time Keng gele was practiced in from my own village was in the mid-1970s, when my first cousin from my mother’s side became the last to be initiated.

In writing this story I hope I can preserve this idea tradition for future generations who might not have an opportunity to witness our heritage.

Keng gele is performed on people who hold the clan chieftainship and the hierarchy of kinship sees the title of chief passed down to the first born daughter of the family.

My grandmother inherited the title of chief from her mother as the first born and she passed it down to my aunty, the eldest girl of the family.

My aunty gave birth to a baby girl, Agatha. She seemed to be healthy, but after some weeks she died and it was said that this was due to failure to follow the custom of Keng gele.

The following year she gave birth to another baby girl, Dorothy. This time the people followed the custom of initiating the first born.

It was in the early in the morning when my grandmother woke up and went to fetch women from all over the villages to witness the initiation of her first grandchild.

It is a must that elder women from all over the village must witness the initiation because that way the spirits will be happy and won’t bring a curse on the child.

Once all the people had gathered in the village, they took the mother and the baby, who were covered by a pandanus mat to prevent the baby from being seen by the evil spirits.

The elder women sang chants and took them to the clan’s sacred site where the good spirits of ancestors live. When they arrived at the place there was a big log laid in front of them.

The mother removed the mat and she held her daughter facing the log and started singing a chant. The chant was directed at the good spirits, telling them to take care of the baby until she grew up to be a woman and could take her mother’s place as the next chief of the clan.

Then the elderly women fetched water from the river which flows through this sacred place and washed the girl’s face to symbolise that she will become a wise thinker. Then they washed her feet to symbolise that she will grow to be a strong woman. Then her hands to symbolise that she will become a hardworking woman who will own great wealth.

After the initiation they took the baby home and made a big feast.


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