By CRAIG ALAN VOLKER
BIRTHDAYS are important in German culture, especially ones ending in a zero, so it wasn’t unusual when Dr Dieter Heintze held a celebration in Bremen, Germany to celebrate his 80th birthday last month.
But what made this celebration unusual was celebrating among New Ireland malagan carvings and following New Ireland custom in honouring those who have passed away and giving back to the people who have been important in his life since his time as a student.
Dr Heintze first came to New Ireland in the 1960s to learn about New Ireland malagans, living for a year in Fisoa Village among the Nalik people. From this and subsequent trips, he wrote a number of books and many articles in both German and English about malagans, New Ireland culture, bride price in the Bismarck Archipelago, and, in later years, the colonial interaction between his two homes, Germany and Papua New Guinea.
Until his retirement, he was curator of the Pacific collection at the famous Übersee Museum in Bremen, Germany, which has a rich collection of New Ireland, New Britain, and Sepik art bought by German business people and ethnographers during the German colonial administration before World War I.
In this position he taught generations of Germans about South Pacific culture and their ancestors’ colonial engagement with the South Pacific, and acted as a guardian of Papua New Guinean cultural heritage in that north German port. Even after retirement he has continued to give public talks at the museum about New Ireland studies and issues related to Papua New Guinea and other South Pacific countries.
It was therefore fitting that instead of inviting his family and friends to celebrate his birthday at his own home, he celebrated at his second home, among the precious malagans at the museum. The event was organised according to New Ireland principles: honouring ancestors, gift-giving, speeches, and lots of good food.
Whereas most Germans accept gifts on their birthdays, Dr Heintze asked that his guests bring money to give back to the Nalik people from whom he had learned so much.
Speaking in Tok Pisin, Dr Heintze spoke about his New Ireland teachers, most of whom have now passed on. He then picked up a bilum and directed his guests to the glass containers protecting the New Ireland malagans.
Dr Heintze said; “Tingting bilong mi i tok: Mipela mas kamap pastaim long dispela bikpela boks glas na lukim ol gutpela samting bilong Nu Ailan, olsem sampela malagan, na mi mas stori liklik long gutpela taim bilong mi long Fisoa, na Luaupul, na Madina. Na mi kolim sampela nem bilong ol man mi bin stap klostu long ol long dispela taim. Bihain yumi sindaun pinis long kaikai. Na, bihain mi toktok gen na stretim mining bilong dispela buk ol i wokim pinis long Madina. Na ol olgeta i tingting em dispela wok i gutpela tru, na ol i laik halivim na ol i putim makmak insait long wanpela bilum.”
By the end of the event, the guests had filled up the bilum with “makmak”, euro banknotes totalling the equivalent of over K4500, which Dr Heintze then publicly gave to a crowd-funding campaign to print and distribute a children’s book about birds in Nalik culture, A Maani: Birds and Nalik Culture.
The book A Maani: Birds and Nalik Culture was a project that grew out of research in the Nalik area by Cláudio da Silva, a social education researcher from the University of Coimbra in Portugal.
The book was edited from texts written by students at Madina Primary School themselves during workshops with da Silva who said that his preparation before coming to New Ireland was greatly aided by reading Dr Heintze’s explanations about New Ireland culture.
He said giving back to the community in this way was a good example of “poxaai”, the Nalik custom of reciprocal gift-giving.
Together with other donations, he hopes the book can be printed this year and distributed to New Ireland schools at the beginning of the 2019 school year.
New Irelanders have learned much from Europeans over the past century-and-a-half. As Dr Heintze’s birthday celebration has shown, some Europeans have also learned from their New Ireland wantoks on the other side of the globe.
- The writer is a columnist of The National