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Praying to ‘Gote’ at a time of coronavirus

Daniel in Manus
Author Daniel Kumbon in Manus before his failed attempt to return to his family in Wabag. He is now in Port Moresby

DANIEL KUMBON

PORT MORESBY - The woman next door continues to pray day and night pleading with God to take this pestilence away from Papua New Guinea because the people are innocent, they did nothing to bring the virus into the country.

Alone in her house, she prays and sings worship songs in both Tok Pisin and the Enga language.

She wakes me around three every morning when she prays aloud.

Her voice is clear and the other neighbours across the street must hear her too.

I don’t know what they are thinking but there is some truth in her prayers when she pleads with God that the people are innocent.

She asks God for his mercy because they don’t deserve to be afraid of coronavirus and die from it if it spreads.

They are innocent in the sense that coronavirus is a foreign disease as is the AIDS virus, tuberculosis, SARS, sexually transmitted infections and many other such diseases.

These diseases are foreign imports. Corruption is foreign. The innocent people continue to suffer. They can’t do much but hope and pray that the disease will be contained.

I too have discovered the limitations of simple human beings. I can’t do much against the forces of nature.

I managed to get on the last plane to Mt Hagen at about 5 pm on Monday but it could not land at Kagamuga Airport because the cloud cover was too thick.

I was in a window seat and saw nothing. The plane is white and it disappeared into white emptiness. And it was raining. I had family members waiting to receive me but I couldn’t tell the pilot to land.

When the captain pumped the engines to full throttle and aimed the plane towards heaven after many attempts to land I knew we were returning to Port Moresby.

And I prayed in my heart, ‘God now we are in your hands. Take us back safely.’ I don’t pray often but I prayed on Monday.

It was also raining in Moresby but we arrived safely around 7 pm. I asked a friend to come pick me up.

I gave him a cool box full of fish from Manus Island that I had intended to take home to my family.

Right now, I am now holed up in a small lodge at Rainbo Estate in Port Moresby.

I will continue to join in the prayers of this lady next door. I admire her for her courage and faith in God. She has a rich cultural background. Our ancestors too believed in a ‘Gote’ in the heavens.

In fact, Engans knew there were good spirits who helped us and mischievous ones that made us suffer. And the people would offer pig sacrifices to both these spirits.

Among the amazing discoveries of the early government patrols that came to Enga in the late 1930s and early 1940s was that the people had strong spiritual beliefs that included a realm where bad and good spirits existed to control their daily lives.

Without hesitation, they shared aspects of their culture, handiwork, legends and beliefs in a kind spirit called Gote or Tai with those early kiaps and missionaries.

It was Gote to which the tribal leader Joseph Kurai Tapus offered pig sacrifices his very first wife died soon after they married, before she even gave him children.

He burnt a pig's kidneys in a specially erected platform dedicated to the kind spirit, probably hoping the new wife or wives he would marry in place would be blessed with children.

Engans were aware of good and bad spirits which often manifested in their daily lives. They offered pig sacrifices to both types as the need arose.

Bad spirits impersonated dead relatives and these had to be appeased. Good spirits like Gote were offered sacrifices to receive favour and blessings.

This strong cultural belief system was exercised in the form of rituals, songs and dance.

It was expressed in written form too by Engan seminarians when they trained to become priests at Holy Spirit Seminary at Bomana in Port Moresby.

A government patrol in 1949, led by assistant district officer Peter K Moloney, was shown amazing handmade steel axes by the people who lived at the head of the Sau and Wali rivers in what is now Kompiam District.

Moloney reported that during World War II an American plane had crashed into the eastern side of Mt Embi. The wreck had supplied well over a hundred axes to those people who possessed hunting rights in the forest where the crash occurred.

“Some of these are real works of art and are modelled on the ordinary stone working axe,” Moloney reported after he visited the area in mid-May 1949.

“When one considers that the only tools used were flint stones and an occasional trade axe and that heavy armourplate steel was used in several cases, one can’t help but admire the ingenuity and the patience of the craftsman,” Moloney wrote.

One man told Moloney that it had taken nine months to make his masterwork, which was a razor edged, highly polished piece of the aircraft’s engine block. The man said it would be impossible for him to sharpen a trade axe to the same degree as this axe.

The bodies of the crew of the plane had been collected some years back but Moloney asked the people if there were any bones still around the plane.

“They told me that they had collected and buried all that had not been taken to Wabag.

“When I complimented them on their action, they told me, somewhat shamefacedly, that they only did it to keep the spirits of the two aircrew away from the plane whilst they were collecting the steel,” Moloney wrote in his report.

The year before, in 1948, another patrol conducted by acting Assistant District Commissioner R I Macilwain went south of Wabag to Yokonda where traditional salt was made. Macilwain noted that the people who owned the natural salt springs were fortunate to have a monopoly, except for the imported commodity.

Here in the salt spring area, like in the Sau Valley where axes had been made from a crashed war plane, a peculiar shaped knife was spotted by Macilwain. He was told that it had come from Kundip (Kandep), the Enga name for a large area to the south noted for its tree oils.

“Apparently, these people are so badly in need of salt that they pay in oil and trade for the privilege of working the salt springs,” Macilwain wrote. “This particular knife must have found its way up from the Papua coast.”

Macilwain was told there were four sets of springs owned by different peoples. The process of obtaining the salt is simple in that wood is saturated in the brine and later burned to a fine ash which is then wrapped using dried pandanus nut leaves ready for trade or for storage.

The colonial kiaps were interested in every aspect of the people’s lives. They tried to understand the people the best they could. They were even interested in creation stories.

Here is one legend Peter Moloney recorded as told to him by some elderly men from the Lagain valley during his patrol of May 1949.

____________

There is a creator of all things including the sun and the moon. His name is Tai and lives somewhere in the heavens. He is known throughout the whole of the Wabag peoples but stories about him differ among the different language groups. The one presented here is from the Taru people around the Chirunki (Sirunki) and Lagain river areas.

Tai’s ‘heaven’ is peopled by the children of the sun and the moon who mate upon Tai’s instigation. These people are known as Yelya.

There were two men both named Puia in the family who were always fighting and disbelieving the social codes so Tai threw them out of paradise and they landed on earth: one on Mt Tongabibi which is south of Yok at the eastern end of the Kokicoll mountains and the other on Mt Kiwa (Mt Giluwe) south of it.

They both found they were unhurt and after resting for a few days decided to have a look around their respective areas. Each met a spirit who appeared to them from out of a large limestone boulder (kana). They eventually married these spirits and in time became fathers.

Puia from Kiva had a daughter and Puia from Tongabibi had a son. When these children were grown up they would go into the forests looking for food and game.

One day, they met in the bush now known as the Kandip area south of Wabag. The man was very taken by the young woman and encouraged her to return to his home at Tongabibi.

This she did and in time they were blessed with a large family, known as Yumbagin and they in turn spread in all directions and peopled the whole area.

Tai and the Yela are still living a life of happiness and the moon is still giving birth to children. Because of a supposed similarity between the skies on a dark night and a deep muddy swamp, much as the one surrounding lake Ivaia both are called Tai and all large white (limestone) stones are called Kana (the moon).

Engan Seminararians at Bomana (Cr Paul Kurai in orange shirt)
Engan Seminararians at Bomana (Cr Paul Kurai in orange shirt is a descendant of the great leader, Joseph Kurai Tapus)

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Joseph Kurai Tapus had offered pig sacrifices to this good spirit Tai Kurai on a specially made altar where he burnt the kidneys while the pork cooked in a separate mumu.

Legends tell of good spirits constantly at war against bad ones. This next legend was written by late Fr Lawrence Kambao as part of his theological seminary thesis, 'From Gentile Revelation to Engan Christology', completed in 1990 at the then Holy Spirit Seminary, Bomana.

This copy was supplied by Fr Gary Roche, who was one of Fr Lawrence Kambao’s teachers.

____________

There lived a household of young bachelors. The oldest was the Sombo (custodian and guardian). The bachelors depended on the bounty of the surrounding jungle for their food. One day, as usual, the first five men set out in search of food, especially cuscus which was a special delicacy. They never came back.

In consternation, the next five set out in pursuit of the missing five. These five followed them to oblivion. Five by five, the rest went out only to meet the same fate. Finally, all the men were gone, leaving the Sombo and a young brother, Tiri Akali Puio.

Should the two dare to forget the missing brothers? This was a luxury they could not afford. The only choice was for the younger brother to risk himself following their footsteps even at the cost of his own disappearance.

Tiri Akali Puio dressed himself in the best of Engan finery and set out. On arrival at the top of the mountain, he looked down. To his surprise, he saw angelic young women, their youth unadulterated by the passage of time. The Virgin Queen appeared crystal clear.  She was the right candidate for Tiri Akali Puio's mother.

He undressed himself, put his ornaments under a hollow of a tree and changed himself into a mosquito. When the Virgin Queen came for a drink, he jumped into the jet of running water. Tiri Akali Puio entered the womb of the virgin through her mouth like a mosquito. 

Kepal Wana Lyokandimi, the Virgin Queen, became pregnant. When other young girls saw her they asked, "Please tell us where you went. We want to go too."

"You know the bare facts. Where did I go?" she replied.

Tiri Akali Puio was born before his time and he grew in wisdom and knowledge.

One day, his mother took him to a distant land. On their way, they came upon a formidable stone wall. With the mother's magic walking stick, the stone wall opened in two. They entered a dark valley.

They came into a grandfather's house. This grandfather happened to be the Pututuli (cannibal thief). Tiri Akali Puio begged his mother to stay on for some time. His curiosity for learning earned him access to every secret plot set by the grandfather. 

In no time, he discovered the household of dry bones. The flesh and blood of his brothers had been sucked out leaving behind the fleshless bones to eternal meaninglessness.

Under cover of secrecy, Tiri Akali Puio out-did the grandfather cannibal. He fed his dry-boned brothers, who in time grew flesh. It didn't take them long before Tiri Akali Puio restored them to their original state.

He knew it was time for the final assault on the cannibal. They fought from dawn to dusk to dawn again and nobody claimed victory.

With all strength gnawed away, Tiri Akali Puio pulled the lepewai (source of life plant) growing under the armpit of the cannibal grandfather. It was the end of the cannibal.

Tiri Akali Puio dressed his brothers. They were rejuvenated more than ever. He led them through the valley of the virgin girls. Then marriage took place between the virgins and the young bachelors.

Finally, he brought the newlyweds home where the old Sombo was waiting hopefully for their return. They lived happily thereafter. What a great man was Tiri Akali Puio.

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The narrator ends the myth by stating: “This is the story, the myth. If it weren't for the bravery of this young brother, there would be no redemption, no marriage, no new life. "Endakali pepeta" (all people) would be eaten by this Pututuli. We are happy Tiri Akali Puio lived to save.”

Who can be that Tiri Akali Puio to save the world now from the Pututuli of coronavirus, this highly contagious and deadly pestilence spreading in the world like an out of control bushfire?

To Engans, its Tiri Akali Puio himself of course who can save them and their island paradise which has continued to suffer from introduced diseases. And now coronavirus.

It is no wonder my Engan neuighbour in Port Moresby is praying to God in heaven to take this pestilence away from the innocent people of PNG. They have surely done nothing to deserve this.

And in my heart I am praying with her every morning.

Comments

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Arthur Williams

Thanks for sharing those cultural stories with us Daniel. Hope you stay safe in your lodge in the capital.

I have always found such tales of interest and tried encourage the members of our NGO on Lavongai to try and get their own clan stories recorded for posterity.

It was partially pragmatic as several of us felt if only we could record the location of important cultural history sites and their accompanying legend, story or myth whatever you want to call them then that would be a hindrance to the rapacious destruction of the rainforest of the island who would have to protect such sites from their Caterpillar machinery.

Sadly the 2007/8 advent of three illegal clear felling SABLs; allegedly for so-called agro-commercial projects that circumvented the rules of sustainable logging practices, led to the startling blatant horrendous results pictured in ‘Stained Trade’ booklet produced by Global Witness.

The shocking aerial photos of the Min River of North Lavongai made me cry.

In any event I believe that most anthropologists belive that these legends are important to the history of any community.

Having had oversight of the Mougulu trade store for Pasuwe in the Biami tribal area I was interested to read APCM missionary Tom Hoey’s account of the Biami Creation & Flood stories.

It is found at https://answersingenesis.org/creationism/creation-myths/the-biami-legends-of-creation-and-noahs-flood/

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