A celebration to remember

Normal, Weekender

LIAMA ABAIJAH takes part in a festival of canoes, kundus and tradition

ARRIVING at the canoe village at 5am, with black clouds darkening the sky, it did not seem like the best day to launch the National Canoe and Kundu Festival.
But the weather held up to give the opening ceremony its chance to shine.
It being my first time to attend the festival, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I was pretty sure there was going to be a lot of paddling and sailing.
I must confess that the opening was more than what I expected. I was thinking more along the lines of long speeches, a few dances and then the crowd would just wander around and take in the sights.
Was I ever wrong!
I was also wrong thinking that not too many people would turn up at 5am in bad weather to watch. But the crowd that was there even before I arrived, and those that made their way after, proved me wrong.
Even those tourists who made it in time for the first day of the festival made their way to the canoe village. Those who stayed close by even took a morning stroll.
Governor-General Sir Paulias Matane, Australian High Commissioner Chris Moraitis, Alotau Open Member and Minister for Culture and Tourism Charles Abel and other dignitaries were also up early to watch the opening.
Because of the death of the festival’s former chairman, John Kaniku, the opening of the festival had a different twist.
The men, dressed in traditional attire, took their war and sailing canoes and went out into the bay to await a special Bubuli ceremony to be conducted by the Kula chiefs to honour the memory of the late Mr Kaniku.
With the blowing of the conch shell, the scene was set.
The dark sky which looked like trouble, held off long enough and the mist was so heavy that you could not see the other side of the bay.
But it was the perfect backdrop for the canoes.
The sailing canoes watched from afar as the men on the war canoes paddled slowly towards the shore.
When the canoes were granted permission to step onto shore, a trade was made between the canoes and the host trader (a bagi, shell money, for food) and the festival was given the go-ahead.
After the ceremony, dancers from the Tawala cultural group welcomed the canoes and their crew on shore. The group also brought in five pigs in a spectacular display into the canoe village.
Every festival or special event would not be the same without speeches and this gathering was no different. The speakers included Sir Paulias and members of the provincial government.
But the highlight of the festival’s first day was not the traditional dancing or the early morning ceremony.
It was the arrival of Milne Bay’s very own Habona.
Every province has at least one person who stands out from the crowd, almost like a celebrity, and ours is Habona.
If you’re from Milne Bay but you don’t know Habona, you should be ashamed!
Habona had left the province for a while and rumours started to spread that the beloved provincial personality had passed away.
So when it was announced that he was back in town, the crowd went wild and eagerly kept a look out for him.
There was also a special mention and welcome for festival participants from other provinces.
The Kiwai group from Western, Oro province’s Tufi group and a group from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (ARB), who were accompanied by Lady Bernadette Temu, Deputy Prime Minister Sir Puka Temu’s wife, all participated during the three-day event.
The ARB group was a little anxious at the start of the festival because there was a hiccup with the transportation of their canoe.
The group’s canoe was being shipped over to Alotau but it was off-loaded in Lae.
The group was in a panic not knowing whether they would even be taking part in the festival.
But thanks to Nawaeb Construction management, the canoe was brought from Lae to Alotau. 
With the beautiful early morning ceremony, the great traditional performances, sailing and paddling exhibitions and the announcement of Habona’s arrival, it was a great start to the festival.
The festival’s first day ended with a cocktail night at Driftwood Resort.
Day two was just as jammed-packed with sailing exhibitions, enactments from traditional theatre groups, dancing and canoe races.
The canoe festival was just as busy at night, with activities by the provincial AIDS council and performances by a contemporary live band and a dinner ball at the Alotau International Hotel.
The final day of the festival was, for me, the best of the three-day event, starting with a combined mass at the canoe village.
The day’s activities were like on the previous days, with races, exhibitions and dancing, but the highlight was the traditional pig and food exchange and distribution.
Festival sponsors were given their share of food by the Goodenough cultural group. But it wasn’t your usual food-sharing ceremony.
Mr Abel and other guests put aside their fears when they were called to climb up a bush material-made tower that was almost 50m tall, accessed via a ladder that had rungs placed far apart. At the top, the guests would dance with the group, collect their share of pork and climb back down.
Tourists were also called to try out the tower.
Food distribution also took place for the traditional groups that performed and raced.
As the sun set on that third and final day, people walked away from the canoe village holding onto their very own memories of the event.
Each person with his or her own personal story and memorable moment to keep until the next festival.
Tourists also left with their own piece of the festival, be it an artifact, picture or memory.
The three-day event attracted hundreds of people from around Milne Bay, the country and overseas.
It was a time to celebrate tradition and embrace culture. It was a three-day reminder of the times when our ancestors travelled and traded by canoe and the beauty in the art of canoe-making.
The festival was also an eye-opener for tourists and first time festival-goers such as myself.
It was a three-day celebration of music, dancing, sailing, paddling and tradition.


* Liama Abaijah is a sub-editor with The National.