Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Tolai

It's the Tolai 2pac!

OK, I’ve written about the pigs, I’ve written about the tourist attractions, I’ve written about Malaria. Now, it’s time to focus, more specifically, on a little ‘kulcha’. As the dominant group (in terms of numbers) in ENB is Tolai, let’s have a good look at these guys and the kinds of things they get up to. Please don’t take my word as gospel; I haven’t been conducting any kind of anthropological study. Everything you read here is true as far as I know and has been told to me by locals, but that certainly doesn't mean it’s water tight. Here’s what I know about the good people belonging to the Tolai ethnicity.

Had to include this pic and the one above as examples of how some kids have blonde afros. So cute!
OK, kinda off topic, but everyone loves a random cute baby photo. This baby was crying, until it spotted me, then it went into quiet shock mode. 

The Tolai are not really native to East New Britain (ohhh, I’m getting controversial already!). They originally came to ENB from what is now known as New Ireland Province. The beautiful mountains of New Ireland are visible from ENB although ocean separates the two large islands. A few hundred years ago (maybe....time lines are very iffy around here), some of the peeps on New Ireland decided to make a land grab on ENB and drove the Baining people inland, taking over the coastal regions. 
Kokopo is just south of Rabaul, about a 40 minute drive away.

Today, the Baining people are still hanging out inland, some of them living in very remote places and no doubt facing all kinds of problems relating to this (access to health and educational facilities being the big ones). Dedicated readers of my blog (hey, I’m feeling optimistic!) may remember that you met the Baining people, albeit briefly, in a previous entry – they are the dudes who run through flames in crazy big head dresses. Sadly, I know next to nothing about them other than their fire dancing ways. The Tolai have been very successful in inhabiting majority of the coastal region of ENB.

The language of the Tolai is Kuanua, though most people in PNG just refer to their mother tongue as ‘Tok Ples’ (the talk of their place) regardless of which language they speak. In fact, I’ve heard that the word ‘Kuanua’ actually means ‘over there’ in the dialect (language?) spoken in the Duke of York Islands. To me at least, Kuanua sounds really fabulous; they role their ‘r’ like the Italians and their intonation rises and falls in big mountains and valleys. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Kuanua, is that it’s one of the very few languages to have no ‘s’. Apparently they used to have the letter ‘s’ before they came over from New Ireland, but somewhere along the way they just lost it. As a child who suffered with a lisp and has painful memories of a well meaning but patronising speech therapist (I was too young and innocent to point out that there’s no ‘s’ in ‘f%#k you’) I like to think that the benevolent and wise chief of this tribe fell madly in love with a beautiful lisper and so forbade his people from ever uttering the troublesome sound again. But that’s just the romantic in me.

The Tolai are matrilineal. Not to be confused with matriarchal. As in, men still rule the roost and make the decisions, but land is owned by women - they have it and they pass it on to their daughters (which assures them some power no doubt). Women also ‘own’ the children, so if there is ever any dispute, kids go with mum. I’ve also been told that unlike in some parts of PNG, where couples are ashamed/disappointed to have only daughters, the Tolai have no such concerns. In fact, if you’ve got a few hot daughters on the market, you can, as a family, do pretty well with the whole bride price thing. Not every ethnic group in PNG makes the man’s family pay for their bride, but the Tolai certainly do. I’m yet to understand the criteria for being a truly expensive purchase but certainly, a Tolai woman does not come cheap. I’ve heard some people say (both local and expat) that the cultural practice of bride price encourages a man to think of himself as ‘owning’ his wife and this in turn helps him to justify beating the crap out of her when he feels inclined. I don’t think this is the kind of theory that can be easily verified or dispelled but for me, well, I paid for my pet (500 kina for a tick ravaged peeing machine) and yet that certainly hasn’t led me to think it would be OK for me to bash him about the head. Just my thoughts, I guess I’m not big into, ‘let’s blame a ceremony for the fact that I’m an arsehole who bashes women’. And yes, domestic violence is a big problem in ENB, and it seems to be so throughout the country, regardless of diverse cultural practices.

Before I get too bogged down in stuff that makes me angry, let me go back to Tolai specific things I have learnt. I have previously mentioned that Tolai shell money makes nice jewellery. I should also point out that in ENB, shell money is legitimate currency. You can use it to pay your school fees, to pay bride price, it’s given out to mourners at funerals (by the family of the deceased), and is used as payment for initiation into the so called secret men’s society. Now I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t I just pop down to the beach and scoop up some cash? I could start a scholarship fund! Unfortunately it doesn’t quite happen like that. The shells that are used are very specific and there aren’t too many to be found these days lying around on the beach, waiting for an eager shopper. There’s believed to be about 6 million Kina worth of shell money in the possession of people in ENB and that sort of circulates. To be used as legal tender, the shells are strung onto cane, a prescribed distance apart from each other so they can be made into ‘fathoms’, a unit of currency. It’s all rather complex and a bit beyond me but needless to say, other parts of PNG do not use shell money or ‘tabu/tambu’ as it’s called here.

I mentioned before about the secret men’s society. In general, when I want to know about something cultural, I just ask around, but I haven’t asked about this one as I figure me not knowing is kind of the point. So, I only know what I can sneakily sniff out. In fact the only thing I can be 100% sure about is that there are groups of men who do secret stuff. Those who aren’t initiated into the Tabuan society don’t even know who is in it (supposedly). The members do cultural things.  At funerals, for example, they dance around, wearing pointy hats and lots of leaves (they are then called ‘dukduk’) so that no one knows their identity. 
Example of a Dukduk, I saw one of these guys
walking down the street in my first week in the
I took the photos below recently at the welcome (this is surely not the right word) of the body of the recently deceased Member for Kokopo (he had to fly in from POM and in true PNG style, he was late for his own funeral). They’re not great photos as there was a big crowd and I didn’t want to get up in people’s faces. 

So until this event, I was pretty sure that ‘secret men’s business’ probably involved arm wrestling and peeing contests, but it seems there’s a bit more to it. There’s participation in rituals, the passing on of traditional knowledge, and intimidation. Allow me to explain.

The plane which carried the body, dukduks dancing on the tarmac.

Last Wednesday (just after the member for Kokopo passed away) the ENB provincial government suddenly announced that there would be a day and a half of public holiday. Starting the next day. First it seemed that the day off would be for everyone, then the government put the word out that it was just for government employees. Needless to say, many people just took the day off and I noticed that the Catholic schools all shut down. The supermarkets and the banks however, planned to stay open, which was actually what the government intended. In the morning, on the Thursday, the businesses opened as planned and this, it seemed, angered the family and friends of the recently deceased who thought that the shops should close out of respect (you may recall that most of these businesses are not owned by people who are ethnically Papua New Guinean). So they went around to the stores, with the Dukduks, to intimidate the owners into closing. It seems in PNG, when a group of men turn up to intimidate you this is usually a raging success – even if you wear a pointy hat and a leafy dress whilst doing so. All the stores, and the banks closed and Kokopo was like a ghost town for the two days. 

Dukduk at the airport, before visiting the stores for some stand over man tactics.

The truck which took the body into town. Along the way, people came out from neighbouring villages to throw flowers at the coffin. 
The last thing I’ll add about the secret men’s societies is that although I can’t really get a sense of their numbers, or their current importance, government health officials seem to think that one way of reaching men with messages about health and family planning, is through such organisations which leads me to think that they must still be considerably active and important. Also, when the year 11 students that I taught last year watched ‘Whalerider’ (they were studying film as text), and we came to the scene where the little girl is peering through a window to spy on the boys who are learning ‘secret men’s stuff’ from her grandfather, all the students gasped – some put their hands on their faces. When I watch this scene, I feel the tension, and I worry that she will get into trouble, but their reaction was something else. They seemed to sense danger, they were shocked by her recklessness. Watching that film with them (they LOVED it) made me see the story, and the perspective of the old man, quite differently. It also made me think that this idea of ‘secret men’s business’ and such things being taboo to women is still very strong even in the minds of mobile phone wielding, Chris Brown loving Tolai teenagers.

The last thing I’d like to write about for this entry, is kind of off the topic of the Tolai culture, but whilst I’m thinking about ethnicity in PNG and cultural groups, it seems a good opportunity to get this down. From what I can see around me, and from what I’ve read in the papers, people from the Highlands (on the mainland) have spread everywhere throughout the country. It seems that in general, the coastal regions of PNG are more prosperous and stable (greater opportunities for trade, tourism, transport by sea to other places, etc) than are the central, generally much more remote places. I’m guessing this is why so many ‘Highlanders’ as they are called, have settled all around PNG and especially in the coastal regions.

I haven’t been to the highlands, I’ve only met (briefly) people from the Highlands, so I don’t really know anything about the place or the people, but what I do know, is that it’s not at all uncommon to hear things like ‘oh, you shouldn’t go there, lots of Highlanders live there’, or ‘oh Lae’s a terrible place because of the Highlanders’. Some Australians I know have tried to hire a Highlander for a job, only to have their other local staff say that they don’t want to work with them. I even heard these sentiments about Highlanders, (and sometimes people from other mainland regions like Sepik) echoed by other expats who live here (and have never been to the Highlands). On hearing such things, my bullshit meter has of course, gone literally off the charts. It does seem true that ENB is much more peaceful and stable that many areas in the Highlands. It also seems to be true the world over that employment and educational opportunities lead to a stable society and the lack of these things breeds instability. In PNG, a lot of the problems seems to relate to geography, where the more remote you are, the harder it is to get on board in the cash economy. I don’t doubt that it’s true that people squatting in settlement areas on the outskirts of towns, without their own land or support groups are more likely to be involved in criminal activities but so far I'm strongly resisting the ‘Highlander Boogeyman’ theory. What’s said about the Highlanders in PNG is said the world over about so many different minorities, struggling to prosper when the odds seem against them. I guess it just seems sad that when people are looking to understand the causes of violence and unrest, ‘those marginalised and disadvantaged individuals who are motivated to commit illegal acts largely as a result of a lack of opportunity’ just doesn't seem as catchy as ‘Highlanders’.

So, I hope this blog entry has provided you with at least a brief overview of some of the things that I find interesting about the Tolai culture. I guess I also hoped to convey that whilst Kokopo is full of people from many different ethnic groups (there are 6 different ethnicities represented in Geoff’s small office alone) and that they do largely get along happily and harmoniously, underlying tensions and suspicions do occasionally surface. In that sense, it seems rather like home.  Funny how despite our vast differences, globally, all communities seem to have a sound capacity for name and blame and stereotyping. On that cheerful note I leave you, and may I ask, if anyone has a suggestion for a future blog topic, that would be most welcome. Lukim yu, or as they say in Kuanua, YORO! :D