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Lady in mourning captivates me at the Enga show

Kumbon - Engan woman in mourning
"The mourning woman brought back vivid memories of my own mother dressed exactly the same when my baby brother, Nuamb, died nearly 60 years ago"


WABAG – It’s too easy to forget and slowly lose some of Papua New Guinea’s authentic traditional practices.

This realisation came to me at the recent 25th Enga Cultural Show as I stood intrigued by a lady covered from head to foot in white clay who was sitting with four other women in a booth at the far end of the showground.

She was wearing many white necklaces made with ripe seeds - or Jobs Tears - harvested from a plant called waku that grows wild in old abandoned gardens.

In our culture, this was always how women expressed deep sorrow when they lost a loved one.

I realised how neglectful I had in not noticing the danger in our acceptance of the disappearance of important aspects of Engan culture.

The mourning woman brought back vivid memories of my own mother dressed exactly the same when my baby brother, Nuamb, died nearly 60 years ago.

I remember many people coming to our house and wailing at the top of their voices in great grief.

They sat around the stiff body, which appeared to me to be sleeping peacefully in a partially open bilum lying on the ground.

At the time I worried they might poke Nuamb’s eyes or wake him up as they touched his face, arms and legs.

I guess, like all children, I did not understand death.

A couple of days later, I realised my mother was no longer breast feeding or holding my baby brother.

I hadn’t noticed my brother taken away and buried on the edge of our garden with the mighty Lai River slowly flowing nearby, making its way to the coast.

Indeed, I felt happy when I was told Nuamb would never come home. I would now have my mother all to myself.

That evening, I screamed in terror and fled when I saw a ghostly figure covered from head to foot in white clay sitting there in the semi-darkness in the mid-section of our house.

My mother had turned into a white ghost.

“Don’t be afraid, my son, it is only me, your mum,” my mother said to me in a husky whisper. She had lost her voice in all the crying and wailing for the loss of Nuamb.

Friends and relatives brought firewood, food and Job’s Tear necklaces for my mother to wear.

As the days went by, my mother kept applying mud on her body and continued to wear the ugly necklaces which made hideous sounds when the seeds collided when she moved.

At times my mother picked me up in her arms, held me tight and quietly sobbed. I screamed and kicked like a small piglet to escape, but her grip was as firm as her love for me.

She must have wept for me because I was too young to understand that I had lost a brother with whom I could have formed a pair in adult life. Two close men to support each other and to defend clan territory in times of attack.

I recalled all this as I watched the lady daubed in white. It was such a long time ago that I had seen my own mother clad like her.

Nowadays, it is more common to see mourning women dressed in a black blouse and matching skirt. Women today do not spend long periods of time in the hauskrai either.

In past times, women mourned for weeks on end. They continued to rub white clay on their bodies until the funeral feast concluded. Only then were they free to resume a normal life.

The four other women sitting with the lady in mourning at the show all were elaborately dressed in authentic the authentic attire of those days now gone.

At their feet were three pairs of just completed Job’s Tears necklaces, two gourds filled to the brim with fresh drinking water, cooked sweet potatoes, wooden digging sticks and other memorabilia from the past.

Kumbon - Margaret Potane poses with tourist with Engan dress and bilum
Margaret Potane and tourist pose with Engan-made  dress and bilum

These days, people still contribute something at a hauskrai but lots of cash and cartons of Coke are involved.

Even so, it was encouraging to see people still embracing and keeping alive aspects of traditional culture.

One woman was making a traditional umbrella using young leaves harvested from a pandanus nut tree.

Another was assembling grass skirts while a fourth was making string from bush vines to make a bilum.

At another part of the showgrounds, two men chopped a log using stone axes, demonstrating their effectiveness. A video recording of this event has since gone viral on the internet.

Other men built model homes, erected fences and made stone axes and human hair wigs as children ran around free and naked as was common in the village.

Once activity that attracted a lot of attention was the re-enactment of a fertility ritual called Mara Karenge involving the slaughter of a pig.

The pig was led to its slaughter by several men and then lifted up to another man standing on the platform.

Then the nemogol (ritual leader) climbed on the platform and slaughtered the poor animal with one blow as the other man propped it up. The two men then threw the carcass to the ground and jumped down to cook it in a mumu (earthen oven using hot stones) offering it to the spirits.

A popular attraction in the area is the Yokonda ancestral salt ponds near Sirunki, 2,000 meters above sea level.

Visitors go there by the bus load to see the ingenious traditional salt extraction methods. They taste the rare salt as they sprinkle it on food cooked for them in a mumu.

When I was a child, I saw my father twice travel all the way from Kandep to Yokonda on bush tracks to bring back a couple of round parcels of salt wrapped in pandanus leaves.

He went with other men from my tribe taking with them trade items like kina shells and tree oil from the Foi people of Lake Kutubu in the Southern Highlands.

The oil gourds changed hands from one person to another until they finally reached Kandep.

Some kept the oil for their own use or took it to Yokonda to barter for the precious salt.

To re-establish this ancient trade link, a cultural group from Enga went to Lake Kutubu in 2018 to take part in the Degasa Festival. A group from Kutubu was anticipated to attend this year’s show in Wabag but did not come.

Kumbon - Governor Ipatas and Torres Strait islanders
Governor Peter Ipatas and Torres Strait islands dance troupe

For the first time, an Australian indigenous cultural dance troupe from the Torres Straits Islands attended the show, made possible by the Australian High Commissioner.

High commissioner Bruce Davis officially opened the show and a member of the troupe picked up the microphone to introduced them to the Enga people. The group then performed some elaborate dances to everybody’s amazement. It was a sight to behold.

Two new cultural activities included were Enga Fashion Week and a Tasting Enga banquet featuring local dishes.  Both proved to be big hits.

Fashion Week featured unique textile designs created by Stanley Peasero of Wabag and he and a model were selected to go to Port Moresby to take part in the prestigious PNG Fashion Week festivities scheduled for 7–12 October.

“That’s a big plus for Enga in our first attempt at such an event,” said an excited Stanley Peasero.

The other blockbuster event featured local dishes created by top chef Julz Henao, who declared there was enough rich organic food in Enga to make dishes of international renown.

The show demonstrated that Enga has everything the world might want – authentic cultural practises, exquisite local dishes, unique sand paintings, brilliant textile design and more.

Tickets for the show were sold on-line for the first time resulting in nearly 200 tourists from many parts of the world attending.

Enga needs to brace itself to receive more visitors. Proper hotel facilities must be provided and Grade 10, 11 and 12 school leavers should be trained to cook food that is palatable for visitors.

Enga must prepare itself to gain more of PNG’s K700 million tourism industry.


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Diane Bohlen

Its great that traditions are being kept. Keep it up.

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