Doug Robbins dies - ex kiap & contributor to PNG Attitude
When a society feels threatened

‘Nuba Towa’: Death & compensation on Fergusson Island


PORT MORESBY - When the conch shell was blown to announce my grandfather’s death in 2015, everyone in Lyaupolo village stopped what they were doing and returned to the village to mourn.

All day and night, friends, relatives and church members from other villages arrived on foot and by canoe and dinghy to mourn for my grandfather.

Some of them expressed their grief by chopping down several betel nut, coconut and breadfruit trees that grandfather had planted.

One of my uncles wrote down the names of all the mourners. In the past, before formal education, when my ancestors had no knowledge about pen or paper, they would memorise every mourner for the nuba towa (‘sitting in the cold’), it being a customary obligation to compensate everyone who leaves the comfort of their homes to mourn for a deceased family member.

The next day, my grandfather’s body was laid to rest. My uncles announced that his headstone, nuba towa and bwabwale would be done on Christmas Eve of 2017. Bwabwale is a feast held in honour of a deceased family member.

Two years was enough time for the people at home to make huge gardens to fill the storage houses with yams, giant taros and bananas. They also had to raise lots of pigs.

The number of pigs depends on the number of mourners and status of the deceased. Grandfather was a chief and so 20 pigs had to be raised by his children and grandchildren.

Only a handful of us were working so we had to contribute money to buy rice, coffee, sugar and flour. My sister and I paid for a granite headstone to be airfreighted from Port Moresby to Alotau then transported by dinghy to the village.

I also arranged with an aunty in the village to raise a pig on my behalf. Of course, I had to buy cooking utensils, rice and give some money to make her happy.

On Christmas Eve 2017, everyone was busy. A platform was built in the middle of the village for the food and pigs. One group of men worked on the headstone. I followed the other group of men who were tasked to catch the pigs, including the pig that was raised for me.

The pigs were brought to the platform, slaughtered and cut into pieces to distribute to the mourners. Two pigs were set aside for the bwabwale.

The women cooked the pork with giant taro, banana and yams. Smoke rose from their fires. Friends and relatives from the other villages started arriving.

The elderly men greeted each other and sat around the platform telling stories, smoking tobacco and chewing betelnut. Everyone in the village was excited.

That evening, a conch shell was blown and the nuba towa ceremony began. My eldest uncle stood on the platform and called the people on his list to step forward to receive their yams, taro, bananas and pork. We had also included bales of rice, sugar and second-hand clothing.

This went on until the mountain of yams, pork and bales of rice was all distributed. I am pretty sure all the mourners were well compensated.

Finally, the nuba towa ceremony was over and everyone was invited to the bwabwale.

Three very long tables were built for the children, ladies and men to feast separately. The food tasted delicious with the pork meat. Everyone ate until they couldn’t eat anymore. They still couldn’t finish all the food.


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