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Saturday, 26 March 2011

the Sepik: Anniversary of the Chief


On March 26th 2007 I received an unusual and rare honour. I was made chief of a small traditional village just near the mouth of the Sepik River, the Village of Watam. In a strange coincidence I just happened to be there again this year, 2011, on March 26. Four years isn’t exactly a traditional anniversary number to celebrate, but hey since the likelihood of me being in the village on exactly March 26 is not that likely, may as well take the celebration when I can!

March 26 2007 InaugurationThe original inauguration back in 2007
In 2005 I was seeking out a traditional village in the Sepik River mouth vicinity to participate in a new tourism project. My father-in-law, living in Madang, had the nephew of a village chief staying with him right at that time, a guy that went by the name of “Cat” who I had meet previously. When he heard of my quest, “Cat” proposed I visit his uncle, Jimmy Kakos, elected councillor and clan chief of Watam Village. An associate of a work colleague, Professor William Foley, professor of Linguistics at Sydney University, also knew of this same village, having he himself lived in the village at one time studying and recording their language. It seemed Watam Village was most likely going to be perfect for the project I was working on. So in late 2005, I set out from Madang, in a small boat with a lot of fuel, Professor Foley, and two Watam locals August and Peter. Staying in the village was a great experience. I was able to gain unique insights into their culture and traditions, and was also able to participate in several men’s ceremonies, essentially the same animistic traditions with ancestor placating activities, that had been done for centuries, pretty much unchanged. During this first visit, I was initiated into one of the village clans, the clan of August and Peter who had brought me here, and were now my clan brothers. The ceremonies took place in the sacred men’s house, with only other initiated men present. No women or children were allowed to witness any of the sacred ceremonies.
August and Peter take me to Watam for the first Time August and Peter taking me to Watam for the first time late in 2005
Clan Chief Jimmy Kakos Elected councillor of Watam and my adopted-clan chief Jimmy Kakos, whose nephew Kat was the conduit to getting here originally
Sago and Fish Standard fare in Watam is glue-like Sago starch and fish
Watam Kids body surfing Body surfing is a favourite past time for Watam kids after school
Prof Bill Foley with August's Family Professor William Foley, the Linguist who had lived in Watam with August and his family
Secret Ceremony with Sacred FLutes I was fortunate enough on my first stay in the village to participate in several secret men’s ceremonies with the scared flutes as seen above, which are seen as the voice of the spirits when used in these ceremonies
Watam Men's House Men’s houses are covered in sago palm leaves to shroud the events taking place inside from women, children and uninitiated men
Watam was everything I was looing for, a traditional village, with villagers living as traditionally as just about anyone in the 21st century. The seven clans of the village and their chiefs, together with Paramount Chief Max, a former soldier, were keen and eager to work together to develop the project. The project was going to bring cash and further opportunity into the village in a way that this village had never experienced before. Local carvers and weavers were going to get a new market to sell their hand crafts in, villagers were going to be able to sell local produce, and their still-in-tact culture was going to be the draw card, giving further reason to embrace and promote their traditions to the younger generations in the village today. 2006, the first year of the project saw several hundred travellers visit the village for day visits via the luxury expedition ship Orion. However at the end if what I thought was a wonderful inaugural season, I was puzzled and somewhat worried by a summons for a full meeting before the council of chiefs in early 2007.
Boat loads of visitors arriving in Watam Village Boat loads of visitors arriving in Watam Village
Watam's sacred dragonWatam’s sacred dragon clears the evil spirits for outsiders to visit the village. When originally choosing which traditional activities could be performed for “tourists” the choices made had to be considered carefully. Dances done to kill your enemy, or make the females more fertile were not appropriate for this project in the eyes of the villagers. The dragon is an example of a visitor friendly activity, clearing evil spirits from the visitor's path.
fun and games?Watam and it’s villagers live a very traditional life still today. But even with traditional etiquette and cultural values, there’s always time for fun……
I arrived at the meeting somewhat confused. The council of chiefs were all very serious and I couldn’t for the life of me work out what had gone wrong. Everything had gone to plan if not better as far as I could see and we were looking at ongoing growth and development in the village through this project. One of the guests to visit had even arranged mosquito nets for every household in the village together with Pyrethrum for ongoing treatment of the nets. A big thing in an area rife with Malaria. After the initial small talk of the meeting, the Paramount Chief, Max stood to make his announcement. As a sign of respect for the success of the project and the opportunities and development it had brought this village, they were going to make me a chief.
adressing the Watam School Addressing the students of Watam School with Paramount Chief Max, on the benefits of the project

So on March 26 2007, I lined up with the Paramount Chief Max, in the traditional attire of a chief and was presented wwith PAramount Chief Max on inaugurationith the basket of a chief. The local custom is to carry a basket woven from Pandanus, that with certain markings on the front, will not only identify which village you are from, but even who you are, such as being a chief. (Some time after this event I was wearing this basket in Madang when I was approached by a couple of people questioning why I was wearing the basket of a chief….little did they know I was a chief.) I was paraded through the village, where strangely the women of the village threw things like lemons and betel nut at me. Once in the centre of the village I was surrounded by women who danced and sang announcing to all that I was now indeed a chief of Watam Village (as seen in the top photo above).
basket of the PAramount Chief  The son of the Paramount Chief displays the traditional basket that identifies the clan of the paramount chief of Watam
n522021117_1580541_3584381 Mekkie and Lucy. As an elder in their clan, albeit an adopted one, they address me as either father or uncle.
Fittingly, in many ways, on this “4th Anniversary of Chiefdom” visit, I was accompanied by a documentary film crew from Travel Wild TV, producing for the Discovery Channel, under the banner of the EarthCheck organisation, supporting and promoting sustainable tourism. The whole concept of the operation in Watam fits in exactly with what the TV show is highlighting. The EarthCheck blog wrote about their visit to Watam and the Sepik >here< and >here<. To be originally honoured by the village, being made chief in 2007, and then the project being recognised by EarthCheck and Travel Wild TV in 2011
189677_10150137742971118_522021117_6731613_2600073_nLin Sutherland of Travel Wild TV filming during her visit to Watam
August with a member of the Travel Wild TV crewMy clan brother August with a member of the Travel Wild TV crew during filming in Watam this March 26th 2011

Giant Sepik River Prawn Watam sits just off the mighty Sepik River, which is home to these giant freshwater shellfish. Occasionally enough are caught to supply the visiting expedition ship with these delicacies
Part of the project, supplying the visiting cruise ship with fresh supplies such as these mud crabs being purchased by the  galley crew of MV Orion Part of the project, supplying the visiting expedition ship with fresh supplies such as these mud crabs being purchased by the  galley crew of MV Orion
200355_10150442489260627_91006840626_17844568_4853723_n The nearby mighty Sepik river gives visitors ample opportunity to spot birdlife, in particular various birds of prey that nest up and down the mouth of the river
So five years after the start of the project and 4 years after my inauguration as one of the chiefs of Watam Village the visitors continue to come, the villagers continue to sell their artefacts and their produce, and I am regularly called upon to advise the village as one does when one is chief……….


RIP Peter Wali of Watam Village
I briefly mentioned this in an earlier post primarily about the Tami Islands, here
The people of this area have an unusual custom, that is they rarely speak someone’s true name. So when I arrived on my previous visit to Watam in October 2010 and was greeted by my clan brothers with the serious message that Wali had just died a few days before my arrival I was a little confused. Who was Wali? I had never heard this name before.
It is said when you speak someone’s name you are inviting enemies and spirits, most likely the evil kind, to take their name or worse invade their person. Ones “true” village name is rarely used for this reason, and modern “Christian” names are happily substituted. In fact the tradition of calling your in-laws by the name ”Tambu”, which literally means forbidden, is because it is indeed forbidden for you to speak their name out loud, in public.
So Wali turned out to be Peter, as I had always known him by his “Christian” name, rather than his “village” name. Peter had, together with August, been the ones to first accompany me to Watam in 2005. Peter was of my adopted clan, I was his adopted chief. Peter had been the one with me in all the initial ceremonies I participated with in the men’s house on my first visit to the village, Peter had taught me of the secrets of our clan, the mysteries of the village, and all the spiritual things of village life that are important.
As the chief and a fellow clan member I visited the mourning house, shed a tear with his family, spoke at length with his father and made a contribution towards his funeral and accompanying feast.
He has left this Earth now, so we may now use his name feely, Rest in Peace Wali
n522021117_924128_9434Rest in peace Wali

untitled-truecolo r-08
So you want to go to Watam Village?
  • You would need to be a fairly adventurous traveller to get to Watam independently
  • Outside of Orion Expedition Cruises, there are no “real” services to get to Watam
  • Air Niugini will get you into PNG to begin with
  • From the town of Madang, you would need to go by road to Awar Village
  • At Awar Village there is no formal accommodation, only village houses
  • From Awar village you would need to negotiate a boat to drop you at Watam
  • There is no formal accommodation in Watam, only village houses
  • You would need to bring all food and bedding with you for the duration
  • You would also need to purchase fuel for the boat including your return leg
  • OR from the Town of Wewak you can get transport to the Sepik River
  • from there you can negotiate a boat to take you downstream to Watam
  • Alois Mateus of Sepik Adventure Tours may be able to assist you in such a quest

Watam Village, East Sepik, PNG



Thursday, 10 March 2011

the Small Nambas of Malakula



small nambas header


Size doesn’t matter, or so we are told. On the island of Malakula (or Malekula depending on which way you swing) in the island archipelago nation of Vanuatu, in the south pacific, two tribal groupings dominate. These two main tribal groupings take the names “Big Nambas” and “Small Nambas”. Now in Vanuatu Bislama, the pidgin English-come-lingua franca of the area, namba is essentially translated as “number”. But in the context of the Big and Small Nambas of Malakula the “namba” is essentially the penis! Or at least the covering that covers the penis and gives the impression of “it’s” size. Malakula was named by Lt. James Cook, who in turn attributed the name to the French, which with some liberal translating, literally means “pain in the arse”! This name came about from the fact that the tribes of Malakula seemed to be permanently on a war like footing and  then throw in some active volcanoes, and neither the British nor the French were keen to hang around this place.


Small Nambas A chief of South West Malakula, quite proud of his Small Namba


Now on Malakula, the Big Nambas have the need to increase their “size” with clay and other products so that when wrapped in a banana leaf, the “namba” definitely gives any casual observer the impression it is larger than it really is. Whilst on the other side of the island, the Small Nambas are quite happy with their natural size and use no enhancements but a simple banana leaf to cover their “namba”. Anthropologists have been flocking to Malakula for decades to study these ancient yet living cultures as they are today. Lapita pottery dating back to early migrations can be found and fascinating legends and cultural practices abound. Yet I would love to see the results of a psychologists study of the region into why half the island finds the need to enhance there “namba” whilst the other half are quite happy being known to the world as the Small Nambas!


Small Nambas of Tsiri Lagoon Small Nambas of Lembinwen Village, Malakula with their Spirit figure


small nambas lembinwen Small Nambas of South West Bay, Malakula


Life today in Malakula has not changed much since Captain Cook first turned up. Christianity quelled the head hunting and cannibalism around a hundred years ago, but other wise life goes on similar to how it always has. Life revolves around a typical village subsistence existence which outside of gardening includes hunting. The Malakulan tradition of “hunting” fish is unusual, where men perch themselves amongst the branches of mangrove trees, and using their keen eye sight and a bow and arrow, hunt fish amongst the mangrove roots.


fish hunting tsiri lagoon Malakulan style fish “hunting” in Tsiri Lagoon


A source of protein hunted in a slightly more modern style, that is with a rifle, is the Flying Fox. Anyone who has been close to a Flying Fox colony would know the smell that is associated with these animals, so you can imagine the taste is not that far removed from that smell. The classic cliché “tastes like chicken” does not apply to the strong flavour of the Flying Fox I can assure you.


wintua hunting flying fox George Thompson of Wintua Village prepares for a Flying Fox hunt


wintua flying fox hunt A successful hunt


prepare flying fox Preparing the Flying Fox for dinner


flying fox curry Wintua Village Guest House’s famous Flying Fox Curry


The high ridge lines of the southern end of Malakula are the traditional lands of the Small Nambas. In the hills behind Lawa Village one can find evidence of this ancient culture in many forms. A giant funerary pile, filled with literally hundreds of bones marks the pre-Christian burial site for basically every Small Namba of the South West region. Once Christianity reached these shores people were buried in more “traditional western style” cemeteries. Not far from the giant funerary pile lies a sacred altar where animals were sacrificed prior to hunting, to ensure a bountiful hunt. Also nearby a giant tree emerging high above the canopy of the surrounding rainforest is known as the “keeper of souls”. It is believed the tree houses every soul not currently being used by an earthly body, and pregnant woman must visit the tree to be granted a soul for their yet unborn baby. Not visiting the tree will cause the baby to be born soul-less! Still nearby the traditional dancing ground, with a giant split log “tam” drum in the centre, in turn the centre of all cultural and spiritual events for the Small Nambas of this area. Despite the overwhelming success of Christianity many of the animistic traditions and beliefs remain in one form or another today.


lawa funerary pile The giant ancient funerary pile behind Lawa Village Malakula


lawa tam tam drum Decaying away in the rainforest is this giant split log “Tam” drum of Lawa Village


Yet amongst this ancient culture, this subsistence life, their animistic spirit figures and traditions, it is their Small Nambas that set them apart. How many other global tribal groups would proudly and happily identify themselves as the people with the small ones……..



Me and a Small Namba Me and a Small Namba……

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