By TABITHA NERO
SAD, but true that many young Papua New Guineans who have grown up away from their province of origin are losing touch with their traditional culture and language.
As Sir Bernard Narokobi said in his book The Melanesian Way, “whilst acknowledging our beautiful past along with its constraints, we also recognise the good in the new ways, and mindful too of the bad ways of today. With the freedom we have, we can make conscious decisions to opt for what is best in both worlds”.
This is a story of a girl, who has in a way tried to experience the best of both worlds and reconnect with her people from Ponam Island in Manus.
Bridgette Mirio whose father is from East Sepik, tells of her first journey to her mum’s island after 24 years.
“I used to hear stories from my grandmother, when she was alive, and from my mother about how our ancestors came to be on Ponam Island. According to our legends we came from mermaids.
“When I first went to the place it took my breath away, the sea was so perfect. It was aquamarine. The air was fresh, it tasted a bit salty. It was one of the many places in Papua New Guinea that defines paradise,” Mirio described.
Travelling from Lorengau town, Mirio, her mother, her younger siblings and cousins got into an uncle’s dinghy and after some minutes of skillful maneuvering, they arrived at Ponam.
Relatives who were waiting for them on the beach welcomed them with tears and hugs.
“Our trip to Ponam Island was to erect my grandmother’s headstone and thank our relatives. It was a customary obligation and it was a first time for me and my sibling to learn about such customs. Similarly to many parts of PNG, I was told of other customary obligations in our village, in relation to death, burial, marriage, fishing, gardening, menstrual cycles, first birth and a lot more.
“That was a lot to take in in one trip, but one that stuck in my mind was a custom done to people who are from Ponam taking their first trip to the island, or when they visit another place for the first time and return to the island. This is done to the men of the island. Since it was my cousin brother’s first trip, he was taken a metre or two into the sea by his great aunt, aunts, and his aunts’ children and ‘washed’.
“They then spoke blessings and welcomed him to the island. He was told to choose an uncle he disliked, and he did, and they spoke curses and bad things upon that uncle. I found that very interesting.”
She reflected on her days growing up in the highlands and in West New Britain and she said she never got the chance to go canoe paddling out at sea.
“I go canoeing at my dads’ place (East Sepik) when we go there once in a while, but this time I was privileged to paddle myself out at sea.
“One of the worst and a new experience for was when I took a ride from Ponam Island to Tulu (mainland) during rough weather. My heart was pumping wildly, I thought it would jump out of my throat when I saw the sea swell up.
“The boat was unbalanced on the waves. We would hit the waves and come crashing hard on the dip the waves made, we were holding on tightly to our seats and to the sides of the dinghy. Rain and wind was heavy that morning but we had to get food supplies from Tulu.
“I have to hand it to the boat skipper (my uncle) as he knew how to navigate in such circumstances.”
She also recalled certain cultural taboos and certain standing that women had in the society.
“There are certain things from the sea which we are prohibited to eat. It is a belief that if we eat it, or if it touches us, bad things will happen to us. It is also taboo for my uncle’s wives to walk in front or be near our bubus (grandparents), their inlaws or be in a men house, unless they have bloodlines to our clans.
“My mother has certain powers to curse her brothers or her nieces and nephews. And because I am female, I learnt that these powers are passed on to me and my sisters. I joke to my brothers that if they make me angry, I will curse them and their children.”
Taking a break from the fast-paced life in the city, Mirio says life on the island is challenging but quiet. The weather can be fine in the morning and change so suddenly during the day.
“One morning we experienced a small cyclone on the island. The wind blew fiercely and the waves crashed on the reef, it was like a jumbo jet taking off every minute. We had to close all the windows and then I heard my uncle scream kapa, and all of a sudden, there were loud bangs coming from old corrugated roofing iron lying beside the house on every corner.
“The myth on the island is that, when the cyclones hear the loud bangs they will slow down and turn back to the sea. So my small cousins go looking for sticks and old roofing irons to beat during those times, instead of singing the song Rain, rain go away.”
People depend on the sea and as most Papua New Guineans would know, Manusians are very skilled basket and bracelet-makers – those famous beads and shells that rattle when young men and women adorned with baskets made from dyed hibiscus fiber and other plants, dance to the beat of the garamut.
“Life on the island is quiet and challenging. My uncles go out to the sea and fish for their families.
“Coconut oil is very important on the island. Most times, children live on sago that’s fried with coconut oil, when there’s a storm and the men cannot fish.
“My bubus and aunties are very skilled, they create all sorts of crafts from beads, coral shells, leaves, dead trees seeds and much more. They weave those beautiful Manus baskets to earn income for school fees, clothes, food and for customary obligations. Small girls in primary school can also weave and make necklaces, armbands and headbands. I must add the sea has taught them to be more self-reliant with their hands.
“I noticed that all the children speak in their local vernacular, and most find it a challenge to speak Tok Pisin. I wished I knew the language so I could speak to them. But I’d say after a few weeks there I did pick up a bit on the language.”
Mirio says she can lay off a few of her regrets of not knowing her relatives, their way of living and her language and now truly and proudly say that she is part Manus.
“Heavily laden with gifts of baskets and necklaces. We said tearful goodbyes and left Ponam Island. As the plane took off from Lorengau Airport, I looked out the window at the aquasea and I knew that I will return to Ponam.”
By TABITHA NERO