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!
The 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 taking me to Watam for the first time late in 2005
Elected councillor of Watam and my adopted-clan chief Jimmy Kakos, whose nephew Kat was the conduit to getting here originally
Standard fare in Watam is glue-like Sago starch and fish
Body surfing is a favourite past time for Watam kids after school
Professor William Foley, the Linguist who had lived in Watam with August and his family
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
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
Watam’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.
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.
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 with 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).
The son of the Paramount Chief displays the traditional basket that identifies the clan of the paramount chief of Watam
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
Lin Sutherland of Travel Wild TV filming during her visit to Watam
My clan brother August with a member of the Travel Wild TV crew during filming in Watam this March 26th 2011
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 expedition ship with fresh supplies such as these mud crabs being purchased by the galley crew of MV Orion
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
Rest in peace Wali
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