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Courtship past & present: we lost something

The day the crocodile god walked

Korogu haus tambaran
The Korogu haus tambaran

| My Land, My Country | Edited

MADANG - On Wednesday 16 December, 2020, the Save the Sepik team of volunteers departed Wewak to begin a one-week patrol to the upper Sepik river to talk to the people about Frieda mine.

We arrived at Pagwi waterfront at about 3pm and from there took a 20 meter dugout motor canoe and headed down river towards Korogu, a village built on the banks of the Sepik.

The Korogu people speak Niyaura and, like the other Sepik River tribes, hold onto many of the old ways of their ancestors, honour the haus tambaran (spirit house), the gods and the initiation practice of scarification.

It was 5pm when we arrived at Korogu. Some village elders came running towards us as we stopped beside the big logs used as a wharf. They hurriedly ushered us to Collis Pinga’s house without explanation.

The atmosphere was tense. I asked one the elders to tell me what was going on. He looked at me and said, “Lukluk go lo haus tambaran”. I looked, and saw that the haus tambaran was fenced.

“Something terrible has happened in the haus tambaran and the village. This has angered the elders of the village so they fenced the haus tambaran and in about 30 or so minutes, they will call upon Sukundimi to walk through the village,” the elder said.

I gulped and I wanted to know more. What had happened? What did they do wrong that made the elders want to call upon the river God to walk through the village? For Sukundimi to walk among men in the village is bad for the village.

These days the haus tambaran is usually only fenced on two occasions, when the young men undergo the initiation ceremony and when the haus tambaran has been desecrated.

This time, the haus tambaran had been desecrated by two rogues.

Other elders joined us. They said that a couple of days before, two young village men, heavily intoxicated with alcohol, walked into the haus tambaran and removed the sticks for beating the garamut drum.

The sticks for beating the garamut are among the most sacred objects in the spirit house. The garamut drum in Melanesia speaks: it is used to communicate with people in and between villages.

The garamut is not just a hollowed-out tree trunk; it is personified - given the attributes of a living person. It can speak, but not without its tongue. That is how the objects of the spiritual house are revered.

“The tongue of the garamut was removed, without its tongue, it cannot speak,” one of the elders said. “They no longer respect and revere the haus tambaran.

I could hear the dismay and frustration in his voice. He chewed on his betel nut. “They have broken the laws our ancestors followed, the laws that keep peace and order in our society.

“Where are our values?” he concluded. “Young people no longer value and respect our cultures and traditions.”

What I heard took me back 60 years to the late Sir Ignatius Kilage described and painted a sad state of Melanesian society in the highlands of PNG in words.

I remembered by heart the words he spoke in his book, My Mother Calls me Yaltep: “Moral decadence has swept over mountainous Simbu and is driving our gallant youths into mire and misery”.

As a result of civilisation, Kilage said, the young men had lost their way. He described moral decay in Simbu in the pre-independence era. But it was happening everywhere. It is still happening today.

Young men no longer respect the elders and the sacred spirit houses and objects. They no longer respect the laws of the land.

Alcohol has numbed our young men into misery, they no longer had a moral compass, they had lost the values.

The elders try to talk to them and teach them the old ways but, as Kilage said, “With shining faces and clean clothes, the result of civilisation, the young, both educated and non-educated, become proud” and thus think they can do whatever they want without accountability.

They have forgotten that, even in the civilised modern Melanesia with everyone professing to be Christians and worshipping foreign gods, the gods of the old still walk among men.

The Korogu elders said compensation had to be paid by the rogues who had desecrated the spirit house, a pig had to be given to the haus tambaran before the fourth call of Sukundimi, the river god. Only a pig could appease the angry river deity.

Normally the punishment would have been far worse but the elders took a more diplomatic approach to the problem and gave the rogues ample time to get a pig and have it slaughtered in the haus tambaran before the crocodile walked.

The first call was made for the River God to rise. The elders said it was the call of the crocodile. It was like nothing I have ever heard, not even a foreigner with his complex and high-tech audio devices could duplicate that sound.

I had no idea from what kind of instrument made the sound, nor did I. The sound came from the haus tambaran. The sound was out of this world. It gave me goosebumps and made my skin crawl.

Redfern AdventuresAs a young person born in the age of technology, I had developed a habit of recording and documenting everything I came across, so I whipped out my phone to record what was happening. The elders told me to put it away.

I felt excitement. To be in a village on the Sepik River and experience something I had never heard of. I cannot express my feelings in words.

All I know is that I was a proud Melanesian that afternoon, to see gods and men holding rogues accountable for breaking the ancient laws of the land.

The laws of Melanesia are not written on paper and passed by parliament. They are not written in ink. They are written in the hearts and minds of the people.

Melanesian laws are carved on totem poles and sung in poetic songs. Without documentation, these laws have survived because of the sacred haus tambaran, the gods and the men who stand to enforce the laws and so maintain order in society.

The haus tambaran is not just a spirit house, it is a system of government.

It is older than the Western systems. It is the place where ancient laws were enacted, issues debated and problems resolved.

The haus tambaran is the place where young men are brought to learn the ways of their fathers and where they are taught philosophy.

The haus tambaran is a place of worship, a governing body and a school.

It houses the ancient gods, it is the three arms of government, it is a library and a university of Melanesian wisdom - politics, philosophy, wizardry and magic, and fine art.

It is an established system that has served us well for many centuries.

While still pondering this, I heard the squealing of a pig in the distance.

I could hear reluctance in the pig’s squeal. If pigs could talk, that pig was saying, “Why do I have to die? Why do I have to sacrifice my life for someone’s stupidity? Why should I pay the ultimate price for someone breaking the laws on the land?”

By then, three calls had been made. The fourth call would be final. After the final call, every women and child including the young men and a few adults who had not been initiated, would have to be in their houses.

None of these people are allowed to even spy through their windows to see what was happening outside after the last call was made. By then, the river god had left the river and was walking on the land.

Before the last call was made, we rushed into a house and waited for the crocodile to walk.

If the compensation or fine for breaking the law is not made before the final call, the god walks in the village.

The initiated men find everything that is valuable and take the items to the haus tambaran. They will never be brought out again.

In the distance, I heard the last squeal of the pig. After its slaughter, the spirit god would come, feast on the flesh and leave appeased. The spirit did not actually eat the pig; it was symbolic. The village was safe.

We were allowed to come out of the house, and everything was back to normal. That afternoon, we discussed what had taken place an hour ago.

In the midst of our discussion, an elder invited us to go to the haus tambaran and eat flesh of the pig. Zephaniah kindly refused the offer and said we were fine.

The ‘custom pig’ offered to the god is not to be eaten by women and children, and those who have not been ‘bitten by the crocodile’, that is not been initiated and do not bear the marks of the crocodile.

The pig meat is never brought outside the haus tambaran, it has to be eaten and finished inside.

So, respecting the old age customs and laws of the haus tambaran, we declined the offer to join the initiated men in the sacred house. A few minutes later, another elder was sent to invite us again. When he spoke, he sounded frustrated that we had declined the offer.

So as not to disrespect them, we said we would be there in a few minutes. That was, we would wait until they had finished eating, then we would sit down and talk with them.

Our work as volunteers fighting to protect the Sepik River has earned us respect among the village elders.

Even though we had not been initiated, we were invited into the sacred house to stand and speak among the elders.

I am young and come from another province, but out of respect for my reverence for the Sepik River, I was invited to the haus tambaran. There is also talk of me being initiated so I can bear the mark of the crocodile, but I do not think this is a good idea.

After an hour, we went to the haus tambaran and the elders welcomed us. I shared some buai (betel nut) with them and we chatted for a while before going to our house. That night, I lay and bed and, while battling mosquitoes, tried to analyse what I had witnessed.

The colonisers came and told us we had no proper systems of governance and laws. They imposed on us their systems of government and laws which only benefited them and the elites.

Duncan gabi
Duncan Gabi

They imposed their Christian religion on us and cursed and doomed our traditional religions. They told us to abandon our gods and deities and embrace a Jewish god who looks like an American.

White Jesus, the powerful image of white superiority; the image of colonisation and subordination.

The more I thought of this, the angrier I got, so I closed my eyes and thanked the ancestors who watch over us, the gods who still walk among men to maintain law and order in society.


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