From island to sea – River spirit, volcanoes and a grand chief

A collection of Aibom pottery on display.

IN 1996 two men from the Sepik River (the late Anton Aliman and Joel of Aibom )brought an Aibom pottery collection to the Port Moresby Show, on the invitation of the show committee and with funding from the East Sepik Provincial Government.
The collection won first prize at the show in the pottery category.
These two figures are from the Chambri Lakes area of East Sepik. They represent two sisters of the Chambri Island who were chased away by their brother, who was a deity, for stealing from his fruit trees. The two men; Anton Aliman – an elder from Angoram and Joel a renown Aibom potter, thought that the show committee would acquire the collection, but they did not.
They tried to get the provincial government to bring the collection of pottery back to East Sepik but they did not. So they put it up for sale. On hearing of their plight, I bought the collection and proudly displayed it in front of my office at the National Cultural Commission (NCC) for a number of years.
Shortly after I had bought the collection, my staff were alarmed when the late Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare walked into the NCC office, accompanied by Aliman and Joel. The three went straight to my office for Somare to inspect the collection.
The chief was incensed when told about the plight of the two men and their collection, but commended me for acquiring it. Before he left my office the Grand Chief pointed to two wooden figures amongst the collection and told me that one day he would tell me a story about them and their connection to the two rocks (the Beehives) in the middle of Simpson Harbour in Rabaul.
We never talked about his story again until around 2003.
In 2008, the Grand Chief was invited to open a haus tambaran in Aibom village, in Chambri Lakes. He advised me of this occasion and invited me to accompany him to the occasion. I missed the chopper at Wewak so had to get to the Lakes area by river boat a few hours later.
On arriving at Chambri, I was told that he had left a message that I be told the story, which he had said to tell me in 1997. So I was told that story by an elder of the village.
LONG, long ago, what is now Chambri Island, was a much bigger landmass which was in the middle of a big lake, and there was no Sepik River as we know it today. The local deity, Eamasui, and his two sisters, Suangunak and Kamapinsoi, lived on the top of a mountain in the middle of Chambri Island.
For a number of nights the two sisters, would get limbum (a part of a palm tree) and flap them under their brother’s fruit trees, to pretend that they were flying foxes eating the fruits in the trees. The two sisters did this successfully for a long time, all the time robbing their brother of his fruits. But after some time their brother, Eamasui, found out.
On discovering his two sisters’ deceit, Emasui scolded them, cursed them and then banished them from Chambri Island. The two sisters left the island and were floating around in the lake for some time. He cursed them again so hard they had to leave the lake. They had nowhere to go. So they broke the bank of the huge lake and headed for the ocean. The water from the lake followed them on their journey to the coast. This was then the creation of what is now the Sepik River.
On reaching the coast and the ocean, they headed for the island of Manam and wanted to rest there. But their brother’s curse was so strong it forced them off the island and back into the ocean. Their brother’s curse drove them around the oceans for many days until one day they entered Simpson Harbour in Rabaul, East New Britain.
The deity of the Blanche Bay and Rabaul area, ToLagulagul, saw the two sisters and asked them where they had come from. The two sisters told him their story. ToLagulagu heard their story and felt sorry for them. He said he would break their brother’s curse and they could stay in Simpson Harbour if they wanted to. The two sisters thanked ToLagulagu and agreed to stay in Simpson Harbour.
So the two sisters, Suangunak and Kamapinasoi, stayed in Simpson Harbour until today. You can still see them in the middle of the form of two rocks. They are called Davapia in Kuanua, and the Beehives in English.
Meanwhile the two sister’s brother, the deity Eamasui, remained on the mountain top of Chambri Island and turned into a rock. Today you can see this rock from the lake surrounding the island.

A set of carvings of the ‘two sisters.’

On the morning of the day after I returned to Wewak from Chambri Lakes, the Grand Chief called me to say that he was coming to have breakfast at my hotel. He came with Lady Veronica.
Before we got into breakfast though, the Grand Chief told the lady and I that we would have some noni juice. His wife and I agreed to it and presently three cups of noni juice were brought to the table and put before us, by the hotel manager.
Just as we were about to drink the beverage before us, the hotel manager began to tell us how he had made the drink himself by squeezing them with his hands. The Grand Chief’s wife and looked at the man’s hands and in a way agreed that they that were not so clean. We both hesitated to drink the juice and the Grand Chief noticed. He looked at us and frowned, as if to scold us for being rude.
I asked the Grand Chief in Kuanua (which I sometimes did so others would not understand), if what the man had said was true. He replied in that male coded language to say that he was fibbing. Although the Grand Chief’s reply was male-coded, Lady Veronica smiled and we joined the chief in the noni juice.
During breakfast he asked if I had been told the story at Chambri Lakes, to which I said yes. After retracing some parts of the story for me, he told me that while the people of the river knew about this story and its connection to the Beehives in the middle of Rabaul Harbour, they did not know the name of the spirit who stopped the two sisters.
“Do you know the name of this kaia (deity)?” he asked me.
“No, I don’t.” I replied quite truthfully.
“It’s the Kaia ToLagulagu,” he continued.
There are a number of deities, known as kaia, on New Britain whose spheres of influence cover particular districts. The Grand Chief knew the names of some of these, including ToMorobong, the kaia of Vunamami in Kokopo, where he grew up as a boy. ToLagulagu is the kaia of the string of volcanoes which starts with Mt Tavurvur near Matupit through to Vunakokor (Varzine) in the Toma Valley and all the way down to Mt Ulawun in West New Britain.
The Grand Chief was keen to tell me that the spot where he was born at Rapindik was only a few hundred meters from the niche or home of the kaia of the volcano, ToLagulagu (which I knew anyway).
He pointed out that the Murik Lakes area, his parents’ home, was a long way from the home of Emasui and his two sisters in Chambri Lakes. But that the place of his birth at Rapindik, near Matupit was closer to the home of the kaia of the volcanoes ToLagulagu.
As if he thought or believed that the actions of the deity Emasui and his two sisters of Chambri Lakes and the intervention of the kaia of the volcanoes of New Britain, had something to do with his birth at Rapindik, near the home of ToLagulagu.