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Beliefs, superstitions & mind play: A Trobriand perspective

Vakuta island
Vakuta island

ROMNEY YOURIKU | Crocodile Prize |
An entry in the Cleland Award for Heritage Literature

Much has been written about the culture, traditions, ethnicity and socio economic and political aspects of Trobriand society.

Credit must be given to pioneers like Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and others from academia as well as missionaries.

I’d like to share with you some superstitions my people believe in, most of which I learnt as part of my heritage growing up in my home village of Vakuta, the smallest island in the Trobriand group and located to the south.

Myths, legends and superstitions form a strong pillar in Vakutan culture and society. Witchcraft, wizardry, sorcery and magic intertwine with these superstitions, whether they are associated with a crying child, barking dogs, a rooster crowing at midnight, the shrill noises of flying foxes and more.

Every happening is related to a done deed or is a sign of an upcoming event, be it good or bad.

When we were growing up, our parents forbade us from crying at dusk usually when there was a Kula expedition or if a male member of the family went out fishing. The belief was that witchcraft could echo the child's cries across the open sea and ruin the fishing trip or distract participants from doing well in the Kula trade.

Aligned to this superstition was the strict taboo against using mirrors at night. Just like the voice impersonation, witches were able to use a child’s or family member’s face to fool a father during a fishing trip or Kula expedition.

If at night, there is the sound of a large tree falling, this signals the death of a village elder: the louder the sound, the higher the man's status and wealth. The sound of flying foxes, flapping wings and circling a tree near a hamlet is a sign a woman is pregnant.

A rooster crowing at midnight signifies that a vessel is about to enter our waters or moor near our island. The owl, pigeon and other birds also carry a lot of messages. If pigs enter a newly built fence and go into a garden, it is a sign young couples have been intimate in this area. And white or grey hair on a young man is believed to be the result of excessive use of love charms.

At night, if crickets and grasshoppers are found within a house or on the veranda, it means a sorcerer nearby or approaching. Strong coral odour on a bush track is linked to witches returning from the sea. It is believed some witches feed on corpses while others love coral.

The crimson evening sky signifies the coming ashore of a female turtle to lay eggs. So is the ripening of the leaves of the okari tree and the blooming of a few flowering plants that indicate the abundance of a species of fish or crustacean.

Most of these beliefs and the practises associated with them are slowly dying. For example, every girl or woman who walks pass her brothers or male kinsmen is expected to make a dignified bow or walk a few feet away.

Our sisters are not supposed to stand while we are sitting, nor are they allowed to walk past. If a women or girl wishes to walk by, she asks her brothers who are sitting or her male kinsmen to rise before she proceeds. This gesture is basically driven by respect, dignity, honour and humility.

A woman who does not observe this practise brings disgrace to her mother for her upbringing. The result, we have been told, is that women who disrespectfully walk past their brothers or male kinsmen without bowing or stooping low will cease or hinder the men’s growth.

Young females are forbidden from eating fruit which have been half eaten by birds for fear of bearing children with disability or experiencing a still birth. Young males are not allowed to drink the juice of a young coconut that has just fallen as this may cause weak ankles and knees.

Males also are not allowed to eat certain species of fish and crabs and certain garden crops. We also believe that burning coconuts in the night summons witches.

Some strict food taboos are related to initiation whilst others are connected to superstition. Males are not allowed to eat vegetables with raw coconut, as it is said to weaken them.

There are four clans in Trobriand society represented by four birds: Pigeon – Malasi Clan, Eagle – Lukuba Clan, Parrot – Lukwasisiga Clan and Lorikeet – Lukulabuta clan.

Every clan member of these specific clans is forbidden to catch, cook or consume their clan birds. We believe this may result in the person suffering boils or ulcers. Similarly, every sub-clan, has its spirit animal or fish to which the same principle applies.

Courtship within a clan or tribe is strictly forbidden. It is a taboo and any parties, male or female, who engage in same-clan relationships are likely to get sick and die or may have children with abnormalities. (This belief is also scientifically acknowledged with regards to incestuous relationships.)

In the adult world and belief system, it is thought that once the appearance of a woman glows when her husband looks depressed, stressed or frail, it means the woman is having an affair. The opposite situation of a radiant man and a wretched woman is also believed.

A non-Trobriand islander will probably not understand many parts of our culture, however I know there are other parts of Papua New Guinea which have similar superstitions and beliefs passed down from generation to generation. I am sure Papua New Guinean readers can relate to what I am writing.

I'd now like to share a few encounters I had growing up in the village. They were one way or the other part of the supernatural events that take place around us in the spirit and the physical world.

In 2004, my father took his elder brother to Alotau for medical checks. Whilst in Alotau, doctors ran their tests and my uncle was given medication. The word was he was recovering and the medical personnel certified his discharge. A day later, while Dad was arranging transport home, our dear uncle passed away in his sickbed.

In Kiriwina culture, death plays a significant role in society and since our uncle was a bigman, a person of traditional status and wealth, news quickly reached the older generation of family members at home.

Mobile phones were not present and the only mode of communication was through the Aid Post VHF radio. On this day, the family members who had received the news were trying to work out how best to break the news the immediate children – my cousins – and to us nephews and nieces.

I remember that day well since I was in school. Around midday, a blackbird flew and landed right above where I was sitting. The class was shocked and some of the boys wanted to shoot it.

It was a strange sight but every time they tried this bird would fly away only to return and land at the same spot. Everyone was giggling and screaming.

The teacher, who was an uncle, must have picked up the message behind this strange behaviour. After silencing us, he walked towards the door to meet someone who seemed to be signalling him.

Eventually he dismissed us for lunch and, since the village was nearby, we walked home. It was there that mum broke the news about the death of our uncle and what had taken place at school made sense.

While I was attending Kiriwina High School, a similar incident occurred.  But this time the bird was a pigeon.

I was in class when this gentle bird flew lower than usual and landed on the window next to my desk. At first, everyone thought it was a pet of one of the teachers. But then it flapped its wings and flew to the tallest tree in the middle of the school. After school, this pigeon followed me all the way home.

I was a day student then and living with an uncle. Upon arriving home, I was welcomed by cousins from home who told me that Dad's elder brother had died that morning. This phenomenon might have been pure coincidence or simply nature, however it added substance to the superstitions and beliefs we held on to.

A baby's first outing to the gardens ends with the mother using ash to draw a human stick figure at every junction that leads back to the hamlet. Some say this keeps the spirits of the garden away while other say it acts like a mirror by confusing the spirits.

The spirits follow the infant and the parents but stop upon reaching the figures drawn on the ground, which act like a mirror. It is believed the spirits see their own reflection and retreat. Thus the infant sleeps peacefully all night. Failure to keep the spirits away mean the infant will be disturbed for the whole night.

The most famous and widely known superstition of my people is that of Tuma Island – the home of the dead. Every Trobriand islander knows this island although most have never set foot on it.

We believe that after death a person's body is buried while the soul or spirit travels straight to Tuma Island. That is why, if you go the Trobriand Islands, you will notice that all graves are dug bearing in mind that the legs of a corpse are directed towards Tuma island.

The idea is that after burial the soul will rise and head towards Tuma. If the legs point in the opposite direction, the soul will be confused and remain in the land of the living.

Due to modernisation and Christianity, most graves no longer adhere to this old practise.

These superstitions I believe have existed for many generations. The more we believe in something, the more realistic it gets.

Napoleon Hill, one of the richest men of his time, famously said, ''If you believe you can, you will; if you believe you cannot, you won't. Either way, you are right.''

Some motivational speakers, positive thinking gurus, sages and philosophers who have written and published works all talk about the power of the mind and how it can be harnessed to our advantage or may ruin us depending on what type of mindset we are cultivating.

My people can never explain the results and consequences of superstitions and traditional beliefs although careful study drawn from culture, science and modernity may assist us to explain these phenomena and their effectiveness.

If we focus on an idea, a dream, a goal and hold onto it without doubt, it will eventually come to pass. Most positive thinking and motivational speakers talk about the technique called visualization. The idea is similar to how superstitions come to be - and it is all in the mind. The Bible also touches on the mind and I believe faith, belief, vision, dream, goals are all related to the mind.

The main idea of this short discourse was to give the reader an insight into the power and the wonders of the mind. That is why it is wise to think positive thoughts over and over until positivity is engraved so deeply into our hearts and minds that it becomes default.

The more we think about something, believe in it, and hold onto it, it will eventually become a reality.

This universal secret to mind conditioning has been practised by our forefathers in the Melanesian context. Our forefathers were thinkers and believers of their own destinies and we are born through a legacy of thinkers.



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Joseph Kaidoga

Wow, I just read this and brother your writing is amazing. Keep it up bro.

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