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Whether it is "Redefining literary techniques and devices", "Justifying Papua New Guinea Literature", or "Translating the Bible into Anuki", these offer valuable reading for the paperless student of literature, and indeed the best sort of literary entertainment you can get out of Papua New Guinea. Check them out either on Soaba's Storyboard or The Anuki Country Press.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The origin of Malanggan

The woman Kenibu, returning to her village of Lawatbura from the gardens on a late afternoon, was caught unawares by a sudden downpour.

The storm was heavy and visibility to her was poor beyond a metre or so. She sought shelter from the darkening rain under a clump of banana trees. The wait for the rain to stop took a while and soon Kenibu grew tired and drowsy. Within moments she fell asleep.

What Kenibu saw in that involuntary but necessary slumber would affect the entire New Ireland and immediate island land masses for centuries on end. The spirit Wowora had appeared to Kenibu then and gave her all the instructions she would pass on to her people about the significance of what is now known as the sacred Malanggan feast.

These were the instructions given Kenibu by Wowora, the female spirit.

“You will give this information to the men of your village. The images you are going to see now are called malanggans. This image here is to be called tantanua and has to be painted brown from the ginger mix, black from charcoal, white from lime and yellow from the special ginger and fibres of coconut husk. For the eyes use a certain part of a shell. This other image is a malanggan sculpture. That one is the carving of a canoe of the dead. The others here are different types of carvings that are related to different occasions of the malanggan feast.”

And Wowora, the spirit woman, continued:

“Malanggan relates to the dead; to free the dead from your world in order to depart happily to live in another world, the world of the dead. The feast must be held in the following sequences: after the burial the first feast is to be held to farewell the deceased; twelve to eighteen months later another feast called fuguva will be held to burn the dead person’s personal belongings and gardens; and when the soil from his grave has flattened from its original mound observe the final feast of celebrations with songs and dances.”

Concluded Wowora, “The songs and their accompaniment on the bamboo slit gong should resemble the rain beating on the banana leaves sheltering the old woman.”

And then Kenibu woke up. The rain had ceased and the evening looked as pleasant as ever. But then she found herself asking why me, I’m only a woman. She went nevertheless and related all that she had learnt from Wowora the spirit woman to her minmin (sister or female mentor) after which she went on home and hanged herself.

The minmin, following her advice, carried out the first malanggan feast in Kenibu’s honour.

Noah Kagai is the one responsible for that tale on Wowora, the origin of the Malanggan feast. He had gathered together a collection of myths and legends from New Ireland and neighboring little islands and compiled these into a lovely little volume of 109 or so pages. A good number come from the informants he had interviewed or recorded over the years. Contributions are therefore various but collectively New Ireland in origin. The book covers a variety of subject matter, ranging from creation and origin stories a part of which we have glimpsed above to modern day fables of man’s desire to explain and know the environment that surrounds him.

This little booklet doesn’t just cover the mortuary feasts known as the malanggans, but other aspects of New Ireland culture and languages as well. In a way it poses as an ambitious looking literacy enterprise but an important one; important in the sense that its author and compiler/editor proposes to produce more for Papua New Guinea audiences. As storyboard writes this he is aware of five more volumes in the pipeline. And these we must look forward to.

Meantime, this little volume which Noah Kagai calls “Wowora, Origin of Malanggan – Series 1”, already contains a rich storehouse of oral literature with so many little stories. A couple working late in the gardens decides to spend the night at the garden house only to learn during the night that the taro plants can actually communicate with each other. That story should give us clues to why we must respect our flora and fauna. An inquisitive pest of a villager wanting to know how a neighbor does his fishing successfully learns that a good way to catch a lot of fish is to drink a whole lake up. A man who consistently continues to beat his wife up soon learns from the rest of the community what the word “shame” means. Then there are those mysterious women who cleverly cast spells on unsuspecting young men in order to lavish upon the joys of family adventure just to release them some years later in order to come to their own senses without any harm meant and so on.

Such lovely stories one and all. Storyboard’s favorite is the one about two little brothers who live with their grandparents who themselves have no children of their own. Every day the two brothers go out to work the gardens following their grandmother’s instruction. Their grandfather follows them but instead of working with them lazes away in the cool of the bamboo groves only to come home early, lie to his wife that he toiled while the boys loafed and that way gets the best evening meal while the two go without. The gardens mature, the family is blessed enormously. And still the old man lies, gets the best food. The grandmother eventually finds out the truth for herself but in the process of granting the boys retributive justice notices the boys have left never to be heard of again.

Wowora: Origin of Malanggan by Noah Kagai is an important publication thanks not only to Noah himself but to the New Ireland Provincial Government who had taken up the duty of meeting the print costs. For once the Government of Papua New Guinea, either at the national or provincial level, is recognizing the need there is to properly fund such important cultural programs. We expect the other provincial government authorities throughout the country to do the same. This is a long term exercise, it is good for us, and it must be supported at all costs.

In all, the important aspect of this New Ireland publication is the malanggan feast. All attributes to it go to women. Yet ironically and as Noah Kagai points out, “There are similarities with the myths of Wowora, Origin of Malanggan to the Origin of Tubuan: their origins, reasons and thoughts were discovered by women. Today, the Tantanua singsings, carvings, buai singsings and Tubuans are rituals observed by men as sole custodians and their complexities are completely sacred and are secluded from outsiders and women.”

The publication is available at the UPNG Bookshop.

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