Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Marriage in Paradise

August 2007  - Travels to Papua New Guinea 

Perhaps one of the most defining moments, on my travels around PNG thus far, was to bear witness to a traditional, multi-cultural Melanesian wedding. Set up by Peter and through his wife’s extended family, we assembled at the home of one of the clan leaders where the groom and his bridal party put the finishing touches to their preparations prior to proceeding to the Vabukori Village, a short drive north of Port Moresby. The groom, an elderly Australian expat, had a large contingent from a previous marriage – obviously to a white Australian - in attendance ……..  two grown sons, a daughter and a son-in-law. All seemed slightly bemused and amused with their respective roles and responsibilities (clearly there had not been an opportunity to rehearse much at all) and their newly adorned attire……. head dresses, handbags and painted faces.

Groom (middle) flanked by sons

Not to be out done, the women were dressed in colourful Mary blouses – seemingly a throw back to the missionary days and the female part of the congregation could easily have taken for matronly matriarchs attending a choral competition. In essence, the women were loud yet charming and dignified. They were certainly filled with every kind of spirit other than the alcoholic one and there was much banter, merriment and chomping of buai (betel nut). The men were, typically, less effusive but the warmth and caring was there nevertheless. As white, non-related guests Kerry and I were treated like royalty and I took to this very quickly…… determined to not only accept the adoration but outwardly demonstrated my pleasure, pride and honour at being part of such an auspicious event. To say that we were accepted with open arms is an understatement.

During the final preparations we were able to get a close look at the lobola or bridal price – approximately 20 fathoms of ancient shell money, neatly coiled in carefully measured lengths spanning mid-chest extended to full arm length. This ancient currency is still used throughout Melanesian (PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji etc…) and a specific kina shell, slightly bigger than a match head, is threaded through with a natural fibre to produce metres and metres (fathoms) of shell money …….similar to threaded beads. Producing the money requires painstakingly slow, labour intensive work ……but then again that’s one of the unique features of the south Pacific……..  talk about more is nog n dag or African time!!

Bride price – betel nut and shell money
Bunches of betel nut fruit, stacked along side the shell money, were also due to play an important part of the festivities. After the customary introductions, photographs and chitchat we piled into an odd assortment of private vehicles, a separate hired bus for the women and proceeded, in convey, to the Vabukori Village.

The union between Laurie and Mai is due to span a number of ethnic, cultural,  country and worldly divides ….. all in the name of love. From notes, hastily scribbled on the backside of the A4 program, I’m desperately trying to re-live every moment, nuance, and sentiment of the totally enthralling and moving event. I was struck by the amazing levels of tolerance and acceptance …….. the Tolai and Motu tribal groups from the bride’s family totally accepting and celebrating a ‘foreign’ Australian tribe and culture. All this in the face of a planet where tolerance and all its trappings have gone out the window – yet one can find this in an impoverished, unsophisticated developing country.  

I was also completely taken with the spontaneity of the guests…… both direct and extended families …. The real sense of place, purpose, belonging and connectedness…. This left me yearning / searching for the meaning in my own life, questioning the fine, tenuous familial links that can be snapped in an instant.

I was also enveloped in a veil of absolute serenity, harmony and goodwill…..I was part of an age old custom that has been fiercely protected and retained. I was constantly drawn to the expression on the bride’s face – as a middle-aged woman it told so many stories …. but the pivotal one was one of utmost certainty. The eyes and smile confirmed it…. there was no doubt, no questions, no regrets ………. When I was introduced to the bride some time later I was dwarfed by this knowledge – made to feel lost, small and insignificant.

The Bride

As the rest of the ceremony unfolded, the exchange of buai between the respective families; the hand over, counting and acceptance of the bridal price – shell money, cooked food, 5 and 10kg packages of rice, flour, bananas, coconuts; the ritualistic stripping down of the bride, dressing her in new clothes and handing back her bridal outfit to her family …… I was left deeply moved.

Moved, as much as I was, when getting into Nash’s car, together with Peter and Kerry, the strains of John Clegg’s ‘Scatterlings of Africa CD came through very clearly on the car’s sound system. This was quite a wrench and just seemed to add to the surreal circumstances I found myself.

I found the collision of cultures, worlds, emotions so overwhelming yet I was ‘comforted’ by how simple and easy things were made by the village folk. The wealth and immense riches that I observed was not in materialism…. Not in fancy cars / homes or flashy clothes……. But in culture, family & friends, extended family and relationships………

The absence of alcohol at the event was also particularly noticeably …. Proved the point that you don’t need alcohol to have a good time and everything progressed well, in good humour and spirits although there was much chewing and gnashing of buai………

Nash demonstrated, in close and personal terms, the ritualistic process of betel nut chewing. With aplomb and a strange savagery she tore, with her teeth, into the hard outer covering of the betel nut fruit. In quick time she removed the outer husk to reveal the kernel. This was placed at the back of the mouth and masticated, molars and all, into a fine paste. Out came the white powered lime into which a finger digit of mustard seed plant was dipped. The lime coated mustard seed stick was popped into the mouth and chewed together with the nut paste to produce the narcotic like hit and the customary thick, bright red salivary gob which is partly swallowed, partly splattered everywhere.

There was food in abundance although it was difficult, in the darkness, to really appreciate the traditional fare. The village dogs had an absolute field day.

Later the same week..... 

Yet another jumble of thoughts and emotions that need to be deciphered and put into some form of order to make sense…..  I’ve just returned from an early morning spin – brisk walk - around the precincts of Port Moresby POM – beach front area, CBD, harbour and hill top areas with some really pleasant scenic views of the city and coastline. I’ve evaded the raskols or skabangas and survived all the other perils that POM has to offer….. my NZAID and AusAID colleagues would be freaking out in true paranoid, hyper-vigilant security fashion. I figured that most of the raskols were still sleeping it off at 7 on a Sunday morning. Instead, I was greeted by throngs of young, fit healthy kids (little sign of obesity here) out to have some fun at the beach….. playing touch rugby, footy, football, volleyball, cards etc…Note…. No ipods, walkmans, MP3 players … everyone just so keen to engage with one another and the physical environment on a beautiful morning.

I found this all so invigorating…… I greeted everyone I came across and they all responded with an enthusiastic Good morning Sir, Masta, Boss and this takes the cake….. Father …. Must have been my beaming halo ….. quite appropriate for a Sunday morning, I thought. POM can be a pretty depressing place…… heavily polluted, little or no public amenities or services, urban decay and dereliction, much spoken about crime levels etc…. but I guess sometimes… perhaps most times (if at all possible) we need to look beyond the obvious, in-your-face stuff and, if you look hard enough, you will find a wealth of admirable qualities and values in a society.

PNG and Australian societies are the antithesis of one another and although I guess deep down, most local people aspire to being like the Aussies (heaven help them…. Big mistake) the PNG way is so different and because we (as South Africans) are in no mans land, its interesting to think about this / make the observations.

PNG appears to be extremely community, clan / tribe and family oriented – operating off a system of wantoks  - probably similar to SA’s ubuntu concept which is an ancient social security system or net where people of the same ethnic group or clan (speaking ‘one talk’ or the same language) provide for one another…. You cannot refuse or say no to your wantok …. In this way, what little wealth there is, is spread around.  Seemingly this breeds a society that is caring, warm ……. It, potentially, also breeds a society that is corrupt, where nepotism is the rule rather than the exception and you constantly have a bunch of freeloaders waiting for hand-outs from family or donor countries aka Afrique de Suid.

On the other hand we have our big cousin – Australia…. Super efficient & effective; cold, hard and calculating; impersonal & selfish; arrogant and condescending …….. with both admirable and less admirable qualities. Then we have Africa….. where the white man is clearly not welcome. Despite PNG’s many similarities with Africa, the one distinction is that PNG society does not appear to be racist in any way. Tribalism appears to be a huge issue, what with over 800 different tribes you would not except anything less. I have yet to encounter any black white tension or animosity – which is actually very refreshing. There appears to be lots of good will and mutual respect between the race groups although I have some reservations around some of the expat community……I’m beginning to discover that the expats are a breed on their own.   

I shall try to remain objective on this one…. I’m sure there are many expats who make incredible sacrifices and contributions the world over but, equally, there are also the less than desirable expats who rape, gryp and escape.

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