Sat. 10 Sept., 2011
Seems to be a day when I’m thinking about weddings. My nephew Andrew Cameron is marrying Kim Brooks next weekend in Canada. Last weekend I went with other VSOs to a Brideprice Exchange Celebration at the village of Onkalai, near Gumine in Simbu Province. I know little about the couple in Onkalai, but the contrast in the ceremonies could hardly be greater. And, to add a bit of spice to all that, one of the Bigmen of the groom’s clan has been suspended by the Schools Inspector for marrying one of his students at Boromil High School. Since he’s someone I know well - he has been a central and vocal if not productive member of the Simbu English Teachers’ Association from its beginning - I find myself looking at the cultural clashes and differences. I’ll try to explain what I mean:
Margaret and her Onkalai wantok women
Supposedly, marriage in Western Society is based on monogamous values. As far as I know, bigamy is still a crime in Britain, and adultery is as worthy of headlines as it is common. In most Papuan Tribes, Polygamy was possible. (Some, mostly Coastal and Island Tribes were matricentral, but even there, I think polygamy was normal.)
These days, the breakdown of traditional ways affects both the West, and traditional culture here. Sex seems to have become a spectator sport in the West, but what D.H.Lawrence would have referred to as the deep and central blood connection between man and woman seems even more distan to us than it was in his day - part perhaps, of our disconnection from ourselves. In Papua New Guinea, not long ago, the National Head of the Police published a full page newspaper statement outlining what he expected from his officers - lack of corruption, a public sense of duty, and definitely only one wife. (He didn’t address the fact that police officers here might be more conscientious if they were paid!) But it seems clear that traditional polygamy has been replaced by opportunistic use of women. Traditionally, only a Bigman could support several wives; now multiple wives are common, but many find themselves unsupported. Although, in this country, casual sex is not really recognised - have an affair, and you are considered, by the woman’s ‘brothers’, to be married - it is, of course, common. Talk to any of the AIDS groups!
So, all this is going through my head, while at the same time I’m thousands of miles away from my dear wife, and missing her like hell. But the deep, blood connection is there for us, I’m so grateful, and it connects us across even this distance.
Kim and Andrew will have their community of friends and family (minus us, unfortunately) around them for a weekend at Camp Pinecrest, in Torrence, Muskoka, in the beauties of Northern Ontario. There will be canoeing and, no doubt, other sports. There will be a campfire, perhaps, and the chill September night in Northern Canada will warn of the long winter to come. I don’t know what religious ceremony, if any, will take place, but looking at their website, I get a strong sense of spiritual connection being celebrated. And my spirit will certainly be there.
The brideprice celebrations featured mostly negotiations about how many pigs should be given to the bride’s clan, how many should be killed and cooked and eaten that day to celebrate the marriage, and how much money should be given for the bride. In the end we watched three pigs being bludgeoned to death with a large club - I won’t go into that! But, of course, the big thing from a Western view was that the bride, though she had chosen her husband freely herself, does not belong to herself. She belongs to the clan. In a way, theoretically, the groom belongs to his clan. And the whole ceremony was not about the individual love, but about exchange in order to keep peace between these neighbouring groups. When we walked from the bride’s clan to the boundary of the groom’s, we had to wait, and call. Then a man began what sounded like loud pained moaning, and a woman started crying - members of the groom’s clan. Finally we were allowed in, and sat for the negotiations and pig-killing. These are not primitive people; they are highly intelligent, some are well-educated. Matilda Dimo, who is my close colleague and who has achieved the selling,printing, and distribution of 26000 Grade 9 textbooks all over this country, is a major member of the bride’s clan. A Senior Inspector of Police from Mt. Hagen is a member of the groom’s clan, and spent a long and very thought-provoking time explaining the brideprice negotiations to us. No, this is as civilised as any Christian or Muslim or Buddhist ceremony; it’s just that, from an outsider’s point of view, it’s easy to see the ironies. Then again, our human nature means that ironies have to exist!
Matilda views the Waghi River from her place
I think back to mediaeval and renaissance Christian theologians; they might have spoken in terms of the earthly and the angelic sides of our nature; I think about the Buddhists who might speak of our owning, but then transcending our desire for earthly things; and I think about the thing I keep learning by being in this incredibly beautiful and complex country, with its 1000 tribes and its myriad cultural ways: we narrow our conception of what it means to be human at our cost. No one religious or cultural template can do justice to our flesh or our life force, our spirits or our energy, or call it what you will. To try to do without religious metaphors is to deny the way that symbolic thinking lifts and carries us in a way that could be described as “forward”, or “inward”, or “towards integrated being”. What ever one calls it, I think again about how human beings - indeed, apparently, all animals - have to dream. We cannot live without our inner spirit guiding us forward or inward or towards integration of our being and our potential.
So, to my wantoks Kim and Andrew I wish above all that they continue to explore their dream together, in the most natural and universally human way. And to the young couple here, I wish the same. In Canada the Cult of Conspicuous Consumerism may thus be transcended, and more meaningful spiritual being achieved. And here, “development” may come to mean so much more than “Adopting Western Ways”. Mind you, I’d feel good if the pigs had an easier time, but then again, at least they spend what life they have roaming free, cared for by human “mamas”. And Western pig-rearing? - let’s not even go there...!