Sunday, 17 March 2013

Spirit World - PNG

Johnson and Johnson in the remote islands of Vanuatu
When I was in Vanuatu on an AusAid project on   Pentecost I participated in a farewell celebration. The night began with a mock confrontation between the custodians of the village and the visitors done as a dance. This was enacting and reinforcing the Kastom protocols which all villages abide by. Outsiders can't just walk into a village and presume to be welcome. In previous times you risked death and perhaps became a main dish at the evening meal. The ceremony on Pentecost climaxed when the women of the village doused all of the visitors with white powder. I couldn't place what this familiar smelling powder was. I presumed it was a traditional scented concoction made from some secret ingredient from the jungle surrounding us. Turned out it was Johnson's baby powder no less. I never quite understood why this remte village would want to shower me with talcum powder. The significance escaped me. And I wondered what would have been used before the coming of Johnson & Johnson.

My recent interest in Papua New Guinea has shed light on this.
Malangan mask
  New Ireland has one of the most complex ceremonial traditions of all the PNG islands and regions. The Malagan festival is a multi-purpose ceremony where the dead are honoured and where many parallel traditional transactions take place and conflicts are resolved. Villages can only afford to stage the ceremony once every few years.
Coral ready for transformation
Masks, singing, fire, feasting and frenzied dancing all mix together over an extended period of ceremony. A century ago this might have continued for as long as a year. These days, work, school, government and the rising costs of all things dictate that a weekend is preferred.
In Vanuatu, Johnson & Johnson has replaced lime. Its another example of the encroachment of westernisation on these rich traditions.
Lime, mustard seed and betel nut
Lime is still used in PNG where it is a vital ingredient in the betel nut habit. Mustard seed, dipped in Lime and chewed with betel nut creates a mild 'high' and a mouth full of red saliva. The streets run red with spit. It's common in India and Malaysia and many other Asian countries.
The lime is produced from dead coral burnt and then crushed to powder.
Lime at the market
Betel nut enthusiast
In traditional ceremonies Lime has powerful symbolic qualities. Pigs, slaughtered as part of the ritual have their snout marked with a stripe of lime to indicate that they have entered a higher state. Dancers are sprayed with lime to drive away any evil spirits which may be around and guests are sprinkled with lime to indicate that they have been accepted into this sacred ceremony and to ensure they don't bring bad spirits with them.

Now I get it.

Source Michael Moran "Beyond the Coral Sea"


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I read White Tiger they were always chewing that stuff and spitting it out.

Thanks for this insight - a friend of mine travelled in PNG a long time ago and drew people in lieu of payment (he's now a very famous artist) but alot of the village elders were not impressed and refused to have their portraits drawn, believing that it was an infringemnet on their soul.

The trouble with J & J - it just doesn't taste very good.